Monday, September 17, 2012

The Very Worst Day

This day. This bloody day. One hundred and fifty years ago, today. Near the obscure Maryland village of Sharpsburg 26,000 Americans dead, wounded or missing. This time the pools of blood dried and caked on Union soil. Body parts were stacked in piles outside of the German Baptist church. By nightfall, Miller's cornfield was mowed down, clean shaven by the artillery fire. The bloody lane was paved with the dead and dying. Mothers and Grandmothers from Louisiana to New York felt a horrified chill, a cold premonition that interrupted their work. Fathers and Grandfathers would soon descend into a lifetime of silence about this day, September 17, 1862.

This death, this carnage, would be the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. Still, no one celebrates. It's all just too much. The numbers are too daunting, the savagery too unthinkable. We did this to each other up close, hand to hand. The artillery pieces were hauled into place by horses and mules, communication accomplished by couriers, intelligence gathered from mostly unreliable informants. There were no drone attacks, no ground assets conveying coordinates to killing machines in the air, no machine guns to facilitate the destruction. This was no second hand slaughter, this was one on one brutality. These were teenagers choking the last breath out of other teenagers with their bare hands. These were grown men slashing throats with glistening bayonets. Abraham Lincoln would come to inspect the field and not long after issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He had been waiting for a Union victory so as not to appear desperate. His generals told him that Antietam was a victory. He would have to take their word for it.

One hundred and fifty summers have baked those fields since that awful day. The snows of one hundred winters have  washed away the stains of war. We don't think about it much anymore. It was so long ago, before electric lights, before Gershwin tunes and television. We would move on to new wars with more awesome weaponry. But we would never manage to experience so great a day's loss as that September day. It trumps 9/11, Pearl Harbor, and D-Day. We've forgotten most of the names...Hooker, Burnside, Hill. Lincoln didn't give the Antietam Address, so it has fallen from our national memory. But today, one hundred and fifty years later I marvel at man's inhumanity to man, and my heart trembles when I consider how high a price God asked us to pay for the sin of slavery.