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The Bloodiest Day.

Click your fingers. Click them again.

Now click them every second for six hours. If you could manage to do this, and still feel your fingers and hands, you would have clicked 21,600 times.

That’s the number of soldiers who were killed or wounded in the same six-hour period on the battlefield of Antietam.

That’s one every second.

Antietam is a river, or as they say over here, a creek, snaking its way through the rolling countryside outside the little town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. This town was another one of those quiet, peaceful places caught up in the war that was raging around it. Peaceful that is until the army of Northern Virginia and the army of the Potomac found themselves drawn together for what was to be the single bloodiest day of the American Civil War.

You’ll have to forgive me; my trip is not in chronological order and to tell the story of the battle at Antietam we have to go back to September 1862, that’s almost a year before Gettysburg.

Bear in mind that while Gettysburg was fought over three days and inflicted more than 50,000 casualties, a mind-boggling number, Antietam was fought in just one day, one day with over 21,000 men dead or wounded.

As I made my way to Maryland from Pennsylvania, I tried to imagine the impact of this battle on the people who back home around their fireplaces in New York, Washington, Richmond and Charleston read about the battle and saw the casualties list printed in their local papers.

This type of warfare was totally unheard of here in America and it was not until the bloody battles of the First World War, 52 years later, that these numbers of dead and wounded would be surpassed.

When George W. and I arrived at Antietam’s visitor centre, what first struck me was how small the battlefield is. The numbers of dead and wounded had a lot to do with the clash of the two armies in such a small space but it was also the result of the sheer violence and determination with which both sides set about their grizzly work on that day in September, 1862.

Long after the battle, local farmers would find relics of the death and destruction wrought over their lands and their homes. One farmer found evidence of just how much of a storm of lead the two armies produced when he found two Minié balls (bullets) embedded together. These bullets had collided in mid-air. Imagine the numbers of bullets flying through the air to create this piece of Civil War memorabilia?

Anyway, my first stop, which was within walking distance of the visitor centre, is perhaps one of the unlikeliest buildings you’ll find on a battlefield anywhere in the world.

The Dunker Church at Antietam

The Dunker Church at Antietam

The Dunker Church, a simple, white, wooden cabin, that on the day of the battle stood directly in the path of the two armies as they deployed to face one another, was the place of worship for a German pacifist sect that had settled in the area many generations before. It is ironic that soon this pacifist church would bear witness to so much brutality.

I don’t want to get too deeply into the history of that day back in 1862. I think that I have become numb and desensitized to the sheer violence of the conflict in which I have set my story; I feel I have to ease up on the battlefield fact and figures.

Gettysburg has changed me.

Burnside's bridge across the Antietam river

Burnside’s Bridge across the Antietam river

Anyway, this battle, like all those before it and after, was supposed to end the war. On the Union side, they saw Antietam as an opportunity to deal the Rebel Confederates a knock-out blow and then capture Richmond and restore the Union. For the Confederates, Antietam was to be the battle that would force the Union to sue for peace and would also result in international recognition for the cause of southern freedom.

Neither side would achieve its goals.

Antietam should have been a great victory for the Yankees; after all, they had the complete plans and troop dispositions of the Rebel army. In an amazing stroke of luck, the Union general in charge, the 35 year-old boy general, General George B. McClellan obtained an order sent from General Lee to one of his field commanders. This order outlined his plans for the coming battle and explained where he wanted the troops deployed.

These plans were found by two Union soldiers on the roadside wrapped around three cigars.

The Wheat Field where the Irish marched towards the Sunken Lane.

The Wheat Field where the Irish marched towards the Sunken Lane.

But even with these battle plans, and with Union forces almost twice the size of his opponent’s, McClellan was unable to destroy General Lee and his Rebel army.

Nevertheless, Antietam was, in some ways, a Union victory. Lee did retreat back into Virginia but his army remainedl intact, badly bloodied, but still a dangerous force ready to come out and do battle again. McClellan was convinced that Lee had a much bigger army and he had to ensure that he was able to protect Washington. This was the excuse to his President when he tried to explain why he did not pursue and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lincoln didn’t believe him and soon after the battle McClellan was replaced as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

There is, however, one action during this battle that I have to mention. Once again, it involves the Union Irish Brigade and, once again, they march straight into the storm of metal that left many of them dead and wounded. And again, they, the now famous Irishmen of the Union army, waded knee-deep in the blood of the Confederates they met in the sunken lane.

The Sunken Lane was (and still is) a ready-made trench and the Rebels poured into the lane and began to take a terrible toll on the advancing Yankees. Then, the green flag appeared and the Irish marched out of a corn field and headed straight for the waiting Confederates.

The Sunken Lane or Bloody Lane as it was soon to be known

The Sunken Lane or Bloody Lane as it was soon to be known

As the Irish poured fire into the lane, the tightly-packed Rebels began to suffer terribly as men fell, causing the once perfect trench to become a lane-way filled with the dead and dying. Some of the Irish made it to the end of the lane and from this position began to fire into the flanks and the rear of the Rebels, who by now were trying to retreat out of the Sunken Lane and form a new battle line in a better position.

Over the fence line at Antietam

Over the fence line at Antietam

As the Irish crossed the fence line and looked down into the lane, the sight that met them was indeed horrifying.

Wicklow Granite for the Iris Brigade monument at Antietam

Wicklow granite for the Irish Brigade monument at Antietam

“The lane was full of blood, many of the wounded were buried under their dead comrades and were calling for mercy. I have never seen so much pain and suffering and I have no desire to see its likes again,” Private John McCarthy of the 69th New York Infantry wrote to his father after the battle.

But now, it’s time to move on; to move on to Richmond and the gateway to the south.

General Meagher.

General Meagher.

It’s time to bring the Confederate home.

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