Today, September 17, is the anniversary of the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. It was not fought not against a foreign foe seeking to invade our great nation, but rather Americans fighting each other.
This is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, a day that saw some 23,000 United States citizens dead or wounded — at the hands of each other — and in several ways changed the course of history.
Perhaps because of the distance in time from it, we tend to gloss over the Civil War today. The names and places of battles fought long ago feel distant, not relevant. Sure, there are the small bands of re-enactors who relive the battles from a safe remove. But for most of us, current concerns both at home and abroad take precedence, as they must.
But the anniversary of the Antietam battle is a good time to pause and reflect on the war and its consequences. How many of us realize that the Civil War was the deadliest war to date in our nation’s history? Approximately 750,000 soldiers, both Union and Confederate, gave their lives on fields of battle we know too often only as names from history books — Antietam, Gettysburg, Bull Run, Vicksburg, Shiloh.
The Battle of Antietam was technically a Union victory, with Confederate troops forced back across the Potomac to Virginia. It may have helped persuade the British not to intervene in the war. It gave President Lincoln the confidence to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
And make no mistake. There were men of honor on both sides of the battlefield. Both sides were fighting for a cause they believed in. For Union soldiers, that cause was keeping the nation together. For Confederate soldiers, it was to preserve the only way of life they had ever known.
The nation could not stand divided and the moral abomination of slavery could not continue, of course. But we must never forget the high human costs of the war.