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Remembering Antietam

September 12, 2012

These next few days mark the 150th anniversary of the seminal event in the history of Washington County and perhaps the nation. Had a few breaks gone this way instead of that during that blood-stained September so many years ago, North and South might well have remained divided and the greatness of America as we know it might never have been achieved.

Those soldiers who trod this ground in the days leading up to Sept. 17, 1862, remarked at the beauty and bounty of Washington County at harvest time. Perhaps it was not quite such a remarkable sight for those who lived here and were used to Western Maryland’s little sliver of paradise.

So too do we today tend to take our history for granted. We’ve been steeped in Civil War tradition, but because it is all around, because it is so obvious, we might not take the time to adequately reflect on what happened in the fields outside of Sharpsburg 150 years ago.

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First was the bravery on both sides, each equally convinced of the rightness of their cause. At Antietam, modern weaponry met antiquated tactics and the result was row after row of young men cut down with ruthless efficiency. Yet these soldiers stood resolute in the face of unthinkable terror.

Second, we recognize that growth sometimes comes at a terrible cost. But growth, painful as it may be, is necessary if mankind is to move forward and overcome old and habitual evils.

And finally, we might learn from the past, and further the cause of progress and human decency without resorting to, in the words of Lincoln, such total and final devotion as war by definition requires.

Antietam was critical to the North and crushing for the South. But the war in its entirety could have been avoided had both sides not become steeped with venom.  When we look at Antietam these next few days, we should see it with respect for its place in history and with the understanding that such horror is seldom possible without the catastrophic failure of our leaders to compromise and to listen, truly listen, to their adversaries.

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