Human Nature on the Rack~Aftermath of the Battle of Antietam

“I put my arm around him, and got him into the first vacant house (that is, not occupied by soldiers) I came to, and told the woman of the house to bring down the softest bed she had, as there was no bed on the lower floor, and I thought it better for him to be on the ground floor; and when she objected to bringing down any of her feather beds, I told her I would take the place for a hospital, and turn the family out; this threat was sufficient, and the good feather bed was made ready on the floor, and I washed and bandaged the wound, and gave the pill, and left him in care of the family. While fixing him up, and washing the wound, I noticed that the ball had struck the middle seam of his coat squarely, and was amazed at his escape from instant death, but as he seemed cheerful, and amused himself with jokes, saying: ‘Shot in the neck (Army slang for being drunk)–disgraceful for a temperance man!’ and: ‘I’m glad it’s not a case for amputation, for I don’t think you’d be equal to it, Le Duc,’ and: ‘Say, Le Duc, do you think it will be good for a ninety-day leave?’ I thought possibly the surgeon was wrong, and that the boy’s vitality might carry him through. So, in making up my telegram to send to his father, Doctor Holmes–lecturer on anatomy in Harvard Medical School–I ran it over mentally in several ways, and finally decided on: ‘Captain wounded, shot though the neck, thought to be not mortal’ and sent it to Doctor Holmes, Boston.”– William LeDuc, brigade quartermaster recounting his care of the wounded Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.


after the battle


Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., having traveled to Antietam battlefield and elsewhere, finally watched the train slide into the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, railroad station. Climbing aboard, “in the first car, on the fourth seat to the right, I saw my Captain . . . even my first-born, whom I had sought through many cities.”The simple exchange “How are you, Boy?” was met with “How are you, Dad?” On Monday evening, September 29, eleven days after the start of his journey, Dr. Holmes was able to shelter his son once more. “I lay him in his own bed, and let him sleep off his aches and weariness. So comes down another night over this household, unbroken by any messenger of evil tidings,– a night of peaceful rest and grateful thoughts; for this our son and brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.”


Confederate dead

“Not only were the wounded of our own army supplied, but all the Confederate wounded which fell into our hands were furnished all the medicines, hospital stores, and dressings that were required for their use.The difficulty of supplying the hospitals with food was a much greater one than that of providing articles belonging to the medical department, and was a matter of very great concern. This, a matter in all battles of moment, was in this particularly so on account of the distance of the depot of supplies.”– Dr Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director, United States Army


“The commanding general having decided to recross the Potomac, the delicate and difficult duty of covering this movement was assigned to Brig. Gen. Fitz. Lee, while I was directed to ford the river that afternoon with Hampton’s brigade at an obscure ford, and, proceeding to Williamsport, cross the river again at that point, so as to create a diversion in favor of the movement of the army. Hampton’s brigade did not reach the ford until dark, and, as the ford was very obscure and rough, many got over their depth and had to swim the river. The duty assigned to Brig. Gen. Fitz. Lee was accomplished with entire success, and he withdrew his command safely to the south side of the Potomac on the morning of the 19th.”– Confederate General Jeb Stuart


dead in “the Sunken Road” after the battle

“To account for the smallness of number of those present after the engagement, it is but proper to state that many were occupied in taking from the field of battle their wounded comrades, and a few who were scarcely able to march with the regiment were completely exhausted by the labor of a severe contest of more than two hours.”– Confederate Captain Edward J Willis


Union soldiers on burial detail

“The total loss of the division is as follows: Killed– 355; Wounded– 1,577; Missing– 321. The men of this division, already standing high as veteran soldiers, having endured hard marches, excessive fatigue and privation, receive from me my most hearty expressions of gratitude. The above list stands for itself a record of almost unparalleled loss during a single battle. They have poured out their blood like water, and we must look to God and our country for a just reward.”– Union General O O Howard


“On the evening of the 20th the command moved from Shepherdstown and encamped near the Opequon, in the vicinity of Martinsburg. We remained near Martinsburg until the 27th , when we moved to Bunker Hill, in the county of Berkeley. The official lists of casualties of my command during the period embraced in this report will show that we sustained a loss of 38 officers killed, 171 wounded; of 313 non-commissioned officers and privates killed, 1,859 wounded, and 57 missing, making a total loss of 2,438 killed, wounded, and missing.”– Confederate General T J [“Stonewall”] Jackson.

“The day had been a long one, but the evening seemed longer; the sun seemed almost to go backwards, and it appeared as if night would never come.”– Confederate Lieutenant James A. Graham

dead in a rifle pit where they died shooting


“I have heard of ‘the dead lying in heaps’, but never saw it till this battle. Whole ranks fell together.”– Union Captain Emory Upton


“Late last night and early this morning I visited the scene of the most deadly conflicts during the battle yesterday, and examined particularly the plowed field . . . . The dead and wounded were strewn upon the places indicated, in hideous confusion. Here was a perfect winnow of Butternuts and Graybacks, interlanded with Uncle Sam’s blue coats; at another point the dead and wounded rebel and Union troops were in heaps, as if designedly placed so for a funeral pyre or an auto de fe, without the combustible material; and everywhere could be seen stern, unmistakable evidence of the desperate struggle which always characterizes civil war among the whole human family, be it between a savage or civilized people. . . . Mingled with the dead came up to the ear the groans of those in whose breasts there yet remained a spark of vitality, but whose lamp had nearly expired; the hopeful cases, so far as possible, were removed for medical assistance before midnight of Wednesday; the hopeless cases were allowed to remain upon the field. Some in a perfectly conscious, others in a half conscious state, while more were insensible to all worldly affairs.”– New York Times, September 21, 1862


Antietam graveyard

“The troops Lee lost were the best he had– the best he could ever hope to have in the long war that lay ahead, now that his try for an early ending by invasion had been turned back.”– Historian Shelby Foote


“He [President Lincoln] came to suspect that the leaders of the Army of the Potomac had only a halfhearted commitment to crushing the Confederacy.”– Historian David H Donald

“Antietam was a sorely needed victory for the demoralized North. . . . The victory, incomplete as it was, was the long-awaited event that provided Lincoln the occasion to announce his plans to issue an Emancipation Proclamation the following January.”– Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin


American cartoon of “John Bull”

“Unknown to both the American embassy and the highest governing circles in Washington, Lee’s defeat at Antietam and rumors of Lincoln’s decision for emancipation had already combined with the growing horror of the war to intensify British interest in mediation.”– Historian Howard Jones

graves at Antietam


“History can at least record Antietam as a strategic Union success. Lee’s invasion of Maryland recoiled . . . quickly . . . . It frustrated Confederate hopes for British recognition and precipitated the Emancipation Proclamation. The slaughter . . . therefore proved to have been one of the war’s great turning points.”– Historian James McPherson




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