150 years since America's bloodiest day
Confederate infantry re-enactors re-create the Battle of Bloody Lane on Saturday in Sharpsburg, Maryland.
September 17th, 2012
08:34 AM ET

150 years since America's bloodiest day

Monday marks 150 years since the bloodiest day in U.S. history, the Civil War Battle of Antietam in Maryland, which left almost 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers dead, wounded, missing or captured.

While Union forces suffered a heavier casualty toll - 12, 400 Union to 10, 300 Confederate casualties - and military historians consider the battle a draw, President Abraham Lincoln called it a Union victory and said it showed that the Union army could enforce orders coming out of Washington. Five days later, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. When it went into effect on January 1, 1863, it freed slaves in the rebellious Confederate states and made the abolition of slavery an official U.S. policy.  Read the original Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation from the National Archives here.

"Antietam enabled Lincoln to identify the nation's cause with the cause of liberty for men and women everywhere and at all times, and had it not occurred, it is quite possible that America never would have become the beacon of freedom the world now recognizes," The Baltimore Sun writes in an editorial Monday.

The Battle of Antietam was brutal and up close for the 131,000 troops engaged, 87,000 on the Union side and 45,000 for the Confederacy. In the part of the battlefield known as the Sunken Road, so much blood was spilled that dirt turned to mud, so much so that the road was later given the name Bloody Lane.

The horrific fighting and thousands of dead littering the battlefield also led to some of America's first photographs showing the carnage of war. The images, taken by Alexander Gardner, an assistant of famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, were exhibited at Brady's New York City studio. In its Lightbox blog, TIME.com shows those images and writes about how Americans reacted to them in 1863.

To see how much or how little the battlefield has changed in 150 years, check out NPR's "Then and Now" photo project. The network sent photographer Todd Harrington to the battlefield, where he used a Civil War-era camera to take images from the same spots that Gardner shot from shortly after the battle.

Re-enactments commemorated the battle over the weekend, including the fighting, as described in The Washington Post, and the retreat of the thousands of wounded, as reported by the Journal-News of Martinsburg, West Virginia.

USA Today's Chuck Raasch reports that the lessons of Antietam extend to the battlefields of today and even into the emergency medical treatment we often take for granted.

"Every time you see an ambulance run down the road as a result of a 911 call, that is the Battle of Antietam going down the road in front of you," Raasch quotes George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, as saying.

Monday, the National Park Service will honor the dead from Antietam with a reading of all their names in a ceremony at Antietam National Cemetery. The 3 p.m. event will include the names of those buried in the national cemetery and three nearby Confederate cemeteries. The Park Service is also asking for help identifying casualties of the battle who may be buried elsewhere.

The National Endowment for the Humanities on Monday will live-stream an Emancipation Proclamation event, as Civil War historians and scholars assume they're living in 1962 and discuss the national scene Lincoln faced as he issued the Preliminary Proclamation. The event will take place at the Smithsonian Museum of American History beginning at 1:30 p.m. ET.

Antietam history from the National Park Service

Learn more about the Battle of Antietam from the Civil War Trust.

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Filed under: Civil War • History
soundoff (256 Responses)
  1. Tim

    At least this Civil War reunited America–the Chinese Civil War and Korean War still are not resolved; many claim Taiwan as independent and South Korea has not officially ended the war with North Korea. We have the U.S. to thank for that. The Brits didn't interfere with the American Civil War and support the CSA to be independent, so what's with the U.S. standing in between the split Asian countries?

    September 17, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Bayousara

    Back then they would like up in rows, each side facing each other. If you were in the front row, you were dead. Once row one fell, row two become row one, etc. etc. What a stupid way to fight a war! Well, fighting a war is stupid, anyway. One thing for sure, the casualty counts for both sides were so high over the course of the Civil War that it helped keep the population down in the U.S. Imagine if all those guys had each fathered the usual 10 kids, how many people we would have in this country today.

    September 17, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Big Bob

      At least we wouldn't have to import our work force...

      September 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jay

    "America never would have become the beacon of freedom the world now recognizes" SELF PROCLAIMED WORLD RECOGNIZED! Important Disclaimer here!

    September 17, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  4. rrmon

    Nobody wants change in their house, but everyone wants change outside their house. How civil is that?

    September 17, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Johnny 5

    There's nothing civil about war. Battle after battle all for a patch of dirt on a floating grain of sand in a vast universe. Doesn't make much sense. I miss the days of a fist fight and a handshake.

    September 17, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
  6. GhostHunter

    I'll bet you there's some cool ghost stories around there.

    September 17, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • k

      Grow up. Don't diminish the deaths of good men with your childish belief in magic.

      September 17, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yankee in VA

      Ghosthunter's critics have obviously NOT been to either Antietam or Gettysburg or other major Civil War battlefields. If they had, they would know that ghost stories are not only discussed but embraced in these historic towns. It is not childish at all.

      September 17, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • assorted body parts

      There's been a lot of docu mented evidence supporting ghostly activity. It's real.

      September 17, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • H Hinson

      Ask any reenactor. We've all got a story. I didn't believe in soldier ghosts, either...until I saw one.

      September 18, 2012 at 9:33 am | Report abuse |
  7. Nettie

    I hate when victors write history. It's always wrong.

    September 17, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Walt

      not wrong, just skewed

      September 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jay

      Its not always necessarily wrong, Just in some cases biased.

      September 17, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dave Walker

    "The National Endowment for the Humanities on Monday will live-stream an Emancipation Proclamation event, as Civil War historians and scholars assume they're living in 1962 and discuss the national scene Lincoln faced as he issued the Preliminary Proclamation"....uh, about a hundred years too late?

    September 17, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Me

    Geez...you can always tell the quality of a reenactment by the ratio of confederate flags to confederate reenactors. This photo would qualify this event as a farb fest.

    September 17, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  10. amazing

    It's hard for me to fathom that this was only 150 years ago. How far we have come and yet how far away we still are.

    September 17, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Captain Freedom

    People can try and excuse the history of the CSA and the people who fought for it all they want, but the fact of the matter is their cause was one of the most repugnant causes men have ever fought and died for.

    You only show your own ignorance when you try and argue otherwise.

    September 17, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • tumor

      yeah states rights is a really "repugnant".

      September 17, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • H Hinson

      So how about my great-uncle in the Cherokee Rifles (although he was actually Choctaw) under General Stand Watie? He didn't own any slaves. He was fighting the feds who force-marched his family out of Mississippi on the Trail of Tears. How about the many blacks (such as Dick Poplar and Sgt James Washington – yes an officer) who fought for the south?

      September 18, 2012 at 9:35 am | Report abuse |
  12. Robot Monster

    Just dream about the course of history if the North and the South had concluded some sort of armistice. Think about a three thousand mile border between the two nations. We surely would not have played any role in WW1 or WW2 and Germany would have won WW2 and there would be no A-bombs until Germany or (more likely) Russia built them.

    September 17, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • H Hinson

      That's a stretch. The U.S. and the C.S. would have opposed Germany. Same war, same number of men.

      September 18, 2012 at 9:36 am | Report abuse |
  13. Carbon

    Awesome!

    September 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  14. jay

    "Gone With the Wind" was written by a Southerner based loosely on stories she had heard in her childhood from Confederate soldiers. It is almost an oral history, filtered through a fictional focal point, Scarlett O'Hara. Read Ms. Mitchell's book to help you understand the South of the 1860's era. The book will help you understand the realities of the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression as experienced by that war's descendents. The side that looses always feels bitterness and shuffles the 'what-if' deck to see what might have been. Historical re-enactions help the 21st century understand the realities of the 19th century. At least, that is the goal.

    September 17, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  15. dasf

    lol dejavu?

    September 17, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
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