The Bloody Lane Segment of Captain James Hope’s painting “A Fateful Turn”
Battlefield Memorials can be a boring visit unless you are a history buff or a descendent of one of the dead. The Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history where 23,000 men lost their lives, where six generals died, and where brothers killed brothers in the clash between the Union and the Confederacy exhibits both what can be engaging and at the same time undecipherable and predictable about war sites.
Unlike the memorials of World War I, Antietam, which for all the ferocity and massive lives lost, (the numbers lost for England, and Germany were well beyond 23,000 soldier killed at Antietam), has many advantages for the making of an enticing story. The battles of the Somme, Passhendhalle, and Amiens were fought on relatively flat landscape of Flanders and Northern France. Other than the grand memorials to the fallen, there is not much to see. Looking out from the memorial structure at Trieval, commemorating the British sacrifice during the Battle of the Somme, a gently rolling perspective of farmland now hundred years after the battle is all that can be seen.
The Landscape from Trieval Memorial at the Somme Battlefield WWI
Antietam is different. The geography is much more varied and intimate. The initial engagement took place in the confines of a cornfield. The Hooker’s Union soldiers penetrating a stockade of vertical shafts on a fall morning stumbled through corn plants at the full height of their growth. They could not see their enemy and their enemy enfiladed the troops from the woods to the west and open ground to the south. Heavy Union casaulities resulted. A second assault a short ways further south French and Richardson’s Union troops pressed toward a sunken farm road between fields on either side. The Confederacy rained artillery fire on the advancing Union army from its higher ground beyond the lower road. Barricaded inside the sunken road Confederate infantry waited until the last minute before commencing to unleash their response. Confederate Commander Gordon wrote: “My rifles flamed and roared in the Federals’ faces like a blinding blaze of lightning…the entire line, with few exceptions, went down in the consuming blast.” Five thousand men died in the assault and defense of this lane. The Union with vastly greater numbers finally took the Bloody Lane, which was described as “floored” with dead bodies.
The Bloody Lane, Antietam, Today
In an afternoon assault the Union forces under Burnside advanced upon a small stone bridge crossing Antietam Creek sustaining heavy losses. 500 Confederates, hidden along the high ground west of the bridge and above the lane that turned almost ninety degrees after the bridge to parallel the creek shot down onto the un-flanked troops marching over the bridge and along the creek side road. The geography provides explanation of vulnerability of the Union forces and protection of the Confederates.
Antietam has an interesting visual story that begins with the topography, however the documentation of the story is generally woeful. Each of the battles engagements is marked on the site by large metal plaques, and in some cases multiple plaques mounted on short piers that describe in lengthy paragraphs who fought at the location. The plaques are hard to read. The story is told from the point of view of whom the commanding officers were and what states the troops were from. Nothing animates the story. The plaques provide statistical and positional information. They are boring to read and detract from the visitation experience.
Confederate General Longstreet’s position defending Sharpsburg, near the Burnside Bridge
If maps were added to the descriptions like the maps published on the website of Antietam National Battlefield, understanding the story would be improved, but the maps are also deficient. Since they provide no topographical information, an essential part of each chapter in the battle can’t be understood. The maps become dull representations of who did what, their positions, directions of their actions. This is map-making at its simplest, the kind of map-making that hides as much as it reveals.
Map of the Battle for Burnside’s Bridge
The Battle of Antietam has other aspects, which make it a compelling story. Although the contest was a draw, like many of the confrontations in Belgium and France during the First World War that lead to mass death, but no change in tide of battle between the allies and Germany, the historical significance of Antietam is compelling on two levels. Antietam was General Lee’s first incursion into the North to attempt to win the war. His strategy failed and the confederacy withdrew into Virginia, and was not attempted again until the decisive campaign in Gettysburg in 1864 that turned the civil war toward the South’s ultimate defeat. Even more importantly Antietam created the opportunity for Lincoln to declare the Emancipation Proclamation, which fundamentally altered the circumstances of African-Americans. These two features are well understood, adequately described, and presented in the exhibits and visitors guides. Particularly the Emancipation Proclamation underscores and deepens the meaning of visiting the national battlefield, but it doesn’t bolster the actual experience of being there. Nonetheless there are two other visual components that enhance the feel created by place. They make Antietam very special.
The Civil War was the first major conflict where photography played a part in recording the results of what took place. The impact of scenes of dead bodies spread out over the landscape was immense. War could be seen in the human devastation it causes for the first time. At Antietam, each event in the conflict and the subsequent mass burials of the victims was chronicled. The dead spread along the Bloody Lane inspired an incipient anti-war movement that culminates after the First World War. The new technologies of rail transportation moving large numbers of troops from location to location, better and more explosive artillery, and rifling for guns increasing their deadly effectiveness, made war more destructive, but photography provided a realism that aroused alternate feelings for the counter-expression of war as a useless activity.
Captain James Hope, a professional artist and member of the 2nd Vermont Infantry created a unique record of Antietam. Assigned as a mapmaker and scout during the ongoing battle, Hope, made in his sketchbook the battle scenes he saw before his eyes. Later he converted his sketches into a series of five large paintings that were displayed in his gallery in Watkins Glen, New York. After his death in 1892, the gallery fell into disrepair, and a subsequent flood damaged the panoramas. The five paintings were purchased by an art collector and in the eaves of a church where they became further neglected, and damaged by rodents. In 1979 the National Park Service rescued the paintings, restored them, put them on display in the Antietam visitors center. The five paintings are not great works, but the primitive immediacy of the eyewitness account forms a visual knowledge of the battle that can’t be found many other places. The burning farm, the lines of infantry standing in the hail of gunfire, the officers on horseback racing across the land toward their lined up troops, the smoke puffs indicating the thousands of shots fired, and the dead bodies sprinkled over the fields with farms and villages in the distance establish for the visitor a sense what it was like to be at Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862, over 150 years ago. These paintings made a trip to Antietam very memorable.
The full panorama of Captain Hope’s “A Fateful Turn,” in the Antietam Visitors’ Center