Monday, September 17, 2012

150 years ago today...

About 2,500 people died on the field at Antietam. Another 20,000 were shot with minie balls and had limbs amputated, or took shrapnel from shells or splinters from fences, or fell and were trampled, or had their heads split open with a rifle butt.

Antietam is important in the story of the Civil War:

-It was the single bloodiest day in American history, and serves a reminder of the "cost" of war, as though war was something you want that you have to pay for.

-It was the "victory" Abraham Lincoln needed to make his Emancipation Proclamation viable politically.

-It was when, perhaps, any rational hope of Confederate victory fled.

I think there's a tendency to see history as a story that someone wrote a long time ago, which is already whole and complete. When the story of The American Civil War, or the War Between the States, or The War of Northern Aggression is told, Antietam is only another necessary scene in the middle, in which men die to help Lincoln provide the war's mature moral dimension. But Antietam never had to happen. The soldiers who died didn't have to die then. The war that brought those soldiers there to die didn't have to happen. Lincoln didn't have to write or issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

It's worth thinking about what the "cost" of not having a war would have been.

Dealing with that thought on a cosmic scale: 

-600,000 (more like 750,000 according to updated research) men (and an unknown, much smaller number of women) who died as soldiers would have lived.

-Four million slaves would have remained slaves for an indeterminate amount of time.

-There might have been an independent nation known as the Confederate States of America.

-If Lincoln is to be believed, democracy, the concept, would have been proved wrong.

Obviously, there are a lot of other things that would have been different if there hadn't been a war. 

I guess my question is: when Antietam is remembered, should it be celebrated? Is it good that so many people died or lost limbs? Does it make sense to discuss the "cost" of Antietam, because, really, it was something that we wanted, after all?

When I visited Appomattox last year the tour guide made a point to mention that the 150th anniversary was a "remembrance" and not a "celebration". But, why not? Wasn't the immediate outcome worth celebrating?

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