It’s probably too late to say anything substantial about the sesquicentennial at this stage, but two recent events suggest that Americans remain interested in the Civil War and continue to travel to various destinations in impressive numbers. Fellow bloggers Robert Moore and Craig Swain both attended events commemorating the 150th of Antietam and were encouraged by what they saw. This past weekend John Hennessy attended and spoke at an event built around the famous August 19, 1862 photograph of slaves crossing the Rappahannock River to freedom. He estimates that anywhere between 300 and 350 people were in attendance. Finally, it will come as no surprise that Gettysburg is bracing for a large turnout next summer.
We continue to enjoy a steady stream of Civil War books from both academic and popular publishers. I also get the sense that public history programs related to the Civil War era have continued at a healthy pace. All in all, I remain very optimistic. What do you think?
Note: Later today I will be a guest on Civil War Talk Radio with Gerry Prokopowicz (3pm est). No doubt we will talk a great deal about my Crater book. I will post a link to interview once it is available on their website.
One of the features of American Experience’s documentary Death and the Civil War that I really like is its emphasis on the lingering bitterness over how to commemorate the Civil War dead. Although the film says nothing about the significance of Lincoln’s death it does explore the decision by the federal government to re-inter only Union dead in newly established national cemeteries. We would do well to remember this on the 150th anniversary of the battle of Antietam.
One of the most frequent questions that I use to get from my students at the national cemetery in Fredericksburg was why it only included Union dead. I suspect that this question is ultimately a reflection of the power of reunion and reconciliation as well as the loss of any sense that our civil war was a rebellion. Newspaper and radio coverage today is long on vivid descriptions of the violence at Antietam and how that a victory allowed Lincoln to finally issue his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. That decision is almost always coupled with the observation that the turn toward emancipation made it possible to shift wartime goals in the direction of something meaningful. Over the past few days we’ve been told how important it is to remember, but surely we’ve lost sight of something significant about our history.
No, I will not be spending the day re-fighting the Civil War, but as I’ve stated before on this blog I am not a disinterested observer. I am grateful that United States soldiers were successful in pushing back the Confederacy’s offensive into Maryland, not because it led to emancipation, but because it ultimately brought this country one step closer to winning the war. This is not meant to downplay the importance of emancipation, but as a reminder that the preservation of this nation mattered to these men, just as it matters to all of us today. It is a stance that reflects my identification not as a northerner or southerner, Republican or Democrat, but as a citizen of the United States.
There is a reason why the overwhelming number of monuments on the Antietam battlefield were placed to honor the sacrifice of this nation’s citizen soldiers. The same holds for the dead who rest on the battlefield’s national cemetery. It should be a reminder to each of us today that the deaths of these men is part of a much larger history of men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.
I know the feeling. It’s a beautiful morning here in Boston, but I would much rather be tramping along the Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg just about now. Here are a few options for those of you looking to feel more connected today and tomorrow. First, C-SPAN [Click here if you do not get C-SPAN 3 (10am EST)] will provide live coverage of events today at the battlefield, which include a series of talks and Q&A from James McPherson, Mark Neely, and Harold Holzer. They will also broadcast a tour of the battlefield led by Brooks Simpson and Mark Grimsley. I believe this is the tour they led as part of the most recent Civil War Institute back in June. I also highly recommend checking out the Civil War Trust’s Antietam 360. It puts you right on the battlefield and for you teachers it also makes for a great classroom application.
You might also want to check out Megan Kate Nelson’s CWI talk on the photographs of the Antietam dead. You can find plenty of video of the two Antietam reenactments that were held last week on YouTube. For those of you on twitter you can follow the hashtags #Antietam and #Antietam150 for additional links, pics, and commentary.
Finally, I suspect that most of you have read your fair share of Antietam books and essays. Richard Slotkin’s new book is out. I’ve read sections of it and it reads well, but like his recent study of the Crater, which I enjoyed , it is not built on extensive research in the archives or even the secondary literature. My recommendation is to pre-order Scott Hartwig’s forthcoming study, To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 (Johns Hopkins University Press). Many of us have been looking forward to this one for some time. Scott is a dynamite historian and at 800 pages it promises to be the most thorough analysis since Joseph Harsh’s 2-volume study. I should have an advanced copy in hand in the next few days.
That should get you started in creating your own personal Antietam 150 experience. Enjoy.
As always thanks for purchasing books and other products through my Amazon Associate account. My commissions come in the form of book credits, which allows me to purchase two or three books for free.
Frances M. Clarke, War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North, (University of Chicago Press, 2011).
William J. Cooper, We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861, (Knopf, 2012).
Rebecca (Becky!) Ann Goetz, The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).
D. Scott Hartwig, To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).
Stephen Kantrowitz, More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889, (Penguin, 2012).
Louis P. Masur, Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union, (Harvard University Press, 2012).
This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at http://adamarenson.com.
This is the third in a series.
Walking around the Antietam battlefield, envisioning the bloodiest day in U.S. history, one is hard-pressed for a moment of levity. There is Bloody Lane, the cornfield, and Burnside Bridge, a deceptively idyllic crossing of Antietam Creek. (If you don’t know why it looks familiar, glance at the cover of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom). Site after site is linked to death and suffering, carnage beyond belief.
Click to continue