Thursday, May 17, 2012

Seeing the Elephant

At Dunkard Church - Antietam
My wife has long been after me to read Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic (1998), and only before a planned visit to the Civil War battlefields at Sharpsburg (Antietam), in Maryland, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania last fall, did I finally accept her challenge.  I don’t know why it took me so long to read, but it did, and reading it caused me to reflect again on this lamentable chapter in American history.

So you may ask - what does the title of this posting have to do with the Civil War?  Actually, it is 19th century American slang for encountering the unknown with a sense of anxiety and desolation.  Civil War soldiers often “saw the elephant” upon entering combat for the very first time; their eyes opened wide to the very real horrors and blood lust on the field of battle.  I have visited many Civil War battlefields over the years, but two battles - Antietam, fought in and around Sharpsburg, in northern Maryland, and Gettysburg, not far away in southern Pennsylvania - stand out in my memory.  I have wandered both of these battlefields in different seasons and under different circumstances, and I am always struck by their bucolic serenity, which make the past horrors all the more inconceivable.  Yet it was during visits to these particular battlefields in particular, that in some small way, I was perhaps able to see the elephant for the first time.  My eyes were truly opened to the carnage that occurred there so long ago.

The Battle of Antietam, on September 17, 1862, finally spelled defeat for General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia during its Maryland Campaign of 1862, its  first major invasion of Union territory.   Following his victory at Second Manassas, in northern Virginia, in the closing days of August 1862, Lee and his army crossed the Potomac River with the hope that the Confederacy might convince Britain and France to grant it diplomatic recognition.  Lee also thought that by subduing Maryland, which still sanctioned slavery, and taking the war north and out of Virginia, Maryland might finally throw its support to the Confederacy.  During the first two weeks of September, Lee divided his army which advanced against Federal strongholds at Harpers Ferry, Hagerstown and in the gaps of South Mountain.  The Army of the Potomac chased after the invaders and caught up with them at South Mountain, west of Frederick.  Unable to hold off the Federal counteroffensive there, Lee and his army fell back to the small town of Sharpsburg to take a stand among the swales and valleys along the banks of Antietam Creek. The Army of the Potomac caught up with Lee there on September 15.  Both armies maneuvered into position, and on the morning of the 17th, the bloodshed began.  By the end of the day, both armies had suffered a total of 23,000 casualties, making this battle the bloodiest single day of combat in American history.  The Army of Northern Virginia was forced to retreat across the nearby Potomac River into the Shenandoah Valley of central Virginia to lick its wounds and regroup.  The war would continue to rage in Virginia for another eight months before Lee was able to bring the war once agin to the north.

In June 1863 Lee and his army crossed the Potomac River near Sharpsburg and Williamsport, in Maryland, and advanced north through Hagerstown to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.  Here Lee divided his army with the intention of destroying the key railroad bridge across the Susquehanna River, at Harrisburg, while combing southern Pennsylvania for much need supplies before turning his attention toward Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington.  The Army of the Potomac, now under the command of General George Meade, left Virginia and gave chase, catching up with Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.  Lee consolidated his forces here and took his stand.  These two great armies would do battle in and around the town for the next three days.  More men (over 172,000) fought here, and there were  more casualties (over 51,000) than in any other battle before or since on North American soil.  The Army of Northern Virginia was forced to abandon its second invasion of the north and it retreated south into Virginia.  Gettysburg would mark the high water mark of the Confederacy.  Still, the war would rage for another two years and countless men - Union and Confederate - would see the elephant before it was all over.  For far too many it was perhaps the last thing they ever saw on this good earth.

After reading Horwitz’s book, I decided it was time for me to revisit these two battlefields with eyes wide open . . . perhaps seeing the elephant for myself for the very first time.  What I know about these battles has been learned from reading history books.  Fact and figures.  It was time to have another look.  So how did I plan to look at the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Gettysburg with new eyes?.  It would help if I considered what others saw during and in the aftermath of these two great battles.  There are two iconic photographs, what Tony Horwitz properly characterizes as “still deaths,” one from each of these battles, which have come to represent, at least for me, the sad tragedy of the Civil War.  I returned to these battlefields last fall armed with these photographs in an attempt to understand what they show us, what they tell us.

The first of these photographs was taken in the aftermath of the  confrontation in the forest and farmland along the banks of Antietam Creek, in the immediate vicinity of the small German Baptist Brethren, or Dunkard church, on the Hagerstown Pike.  It shows the bloated corpses of the battle dead scattered across a stubbled cornfield near the church. The eve of the battle found Confederate infantry and artillery positioned here.  The next morning  the church served as the focal point of several Federal assaults against Lee’s left flank by General Joe Hooker’s troops.  During the battle, the Dunkard church was used as a Confederate field hospital, and later as a Federal embalming station when the armies gathered to bury their dead.   It is ironic that a church belonging to a congregation that opposed all wars, would become a symbol of the slaughter on this killing field in northern Maryland.

Glass plate photography, which was first introduced in the United States in 1856, quickly replaced the older tintype and daguerreotype silvered copper plate methods.
One of the first American photographers to employ this process was Alexander Gardner, a protégée of Mathew Brady, who operated a studio in Washington, DC and who became well-known for documenting wartime life in and around the capital.  Gardner and his assistant hurried to Sharpsburg with their equipment and arrived in time to make a photographic documentary of the battlefield.  It was this photograph taken near the Dunkard church, and others like it taken in the days immediately after the battle, that brought home to the general public, both North and South, the graphic realities and horrors of the war.  They are the ghost images of the battle, reminding us that battlegrounds are not scenic landscapes scattered with monuments to the units that fought there, that the sole purpose of the weapons on display in museums was to kill and maim.  Casualties were no longer a toting up of nameless numbers in newspaper reports, figures often fudged downward by commanders.  Antietam was the first battlefield to be photographed before the dead could be buried.    

The second photograph, also taken by Alexander Gardner, is perhaps one of the best known images from the Battle of Gettysburg . . and one that has been steeped in controversy since the day it was taken over 148 years ago. My introduction to this image was during my first visit to the Gettysburg battlefield in the summer of 1965, when I became fascinated with Devil’s Den, an aggregation of huge granite boulders at the base of Little Round Top which marked the southernmost extension of the battle lines during the second and third days of the battle, on July 2-3, 1863.  While climbing around these boulders, as a young energetic boy is wont to do, I came across a stone wall erected in a crevice between two boulders.  Nearby was a plaque describing how Devil’s Den had been a Confederate redoubt during the battle and from where Southern sharpshooters picked off Federal soldiers ensconced along the summit of Little Round Top.  And there was the photograph of a dead young sharpshooter crumbled behind that very same wall.  It haunts me to this very day; amidst the wholesale slaughter of that battle, here a single soldier fought and died alone.

After the battle, a Federal artillery commander on Little Round Top rode through Devil’s Den and reported a dead Confederate soldier lying on his back behind a makeshift stone wall.  The story goes that the young lad did not have any visible wounds having probably been killed by the concussion of an artillery shell landing near his position.  Around this time Alexander Gardner and his assistant arrived in Gettysburg to photograph the aftermath of the battle much as he had done some months before at Fredericksburg and at Antietam.  Gardner later claimed in his Sketch Book (1866) that while accompanying a burial party scouting the southern end of the battlefield, he chanced across that dead Confederate soldier who became the subject of "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter," one of his most famous and enduring images.

Returning to Gettysburg in November 1863 to record the dedication of the national cemetery, Gardner recalled his subsequent visit to Devil’s Den only to discover the bleaching skeleton of the dead sharpshooter.  Some historians have taken Gardner to task for allegedly staging the photograph for dramatic effect, claiming that he had taken another photograph of the same body in a different location before dragging the corpse to the stone wall in Devil’s Den to create a better composition. If true, Gardner was not the first or last photographer to do this.  Still, the image, staged or not, is a haunting one of a young soldier who died alone and ostensibly forgotten. 

Strange how today we are spared the images of death and destruction in Afghanistan, and Iraq where brave young soldiers are seeing their own elephants.  Yet there are very few ghost images of the battles fought in these distant lands; nothing to really show and tell us about the men and women who are fighting and dying there.  They are faceless wars; we have returned to the day when casualties are once again simple statistics.  How easy it is to lose sight of the horror of war.

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