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Lloyd Waters: The drums still echo in the valley

September 16, 2012|By LLOYD WATERS

“Reveille sounded early on Sept. 17, at Antietam. The troops were up and stirring.  The drummer boys excitedly beat their drums calling the men to action, to battle and death.”

Those are the words of John W. Schildt as he described the scene 150 years ago at the onset of the Battle of Antietam.

Drums have been used in wars dating back to 1500 BC.  Their sounds and beats were signals to motivate troops, announce the assembly of officers and for communications.

During the Civil war, young lads of 16 and under were often assigned to the combat units as drummers. 

Some reports suggest there was a light rain the night before the battle. At 6 a.m., the young men beat their drums to announce the onset of the battle as a light fog hovered over the cornfields.

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The early part of the battle raged on David Miller’s 30-acre farm and that area surrounding the Dunkard church.

As I sometimes walk the one-mile circuit beginning and ending at the old Dunkard church, I try to envision the sheer number of troops that occupied the surrounding fields and trees on both sides of the Antietam.  The Army of the Potomac totaled almost 76,000 soldiers and was led by George McClellan.

Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces numbered 38,000.

This 12-hour battle resulted in a devastating loss of lives for both the North and the South.

Antietam has been described as the bloodiest day of battle by Civil War historians. Over 23,000 killed or wounded remained on those fields for hours and days waiting on either a helping hand or a burial detail.    

There were 75 makeshift hospitals established to assist the wounded. Those diseases of typhoid, dysentery and diarrhea added to the deaths at Antietam.

In her book “This Republic of Suffering — Death and the American Civil War,” Drew Gilpin Faust provides a descriptive picture of the Civil War carnage.

The dead and decaying bodies of soldiers from both sides along with horse carcasses were strewn across the Antietam and Sharpsburg countryside. At Antietam, Ephraim Brown from a New York regiment was assigned to a burial detail and wrote that he discovered 264 bodies along a 50-yard section of the battlefield.  Some others remarked that you could not cross the cornfields without touching the bodies of the dead.

Burial duty was so abhorrent that whiskey was often issued to the detail to lessen their misery. Some 54 Confederate dead were even tossed into a farmer’s well so as to avoid digging graves.

Long, shallow trenches would receive the war dead. Many of these soldiers were unidentified as they were placed quickly into the ground. There would be no closure for the soldier’s families.  

The grotesque scene of the crawling maggots on the rotting and bloated bodies of the dead was only surpassed by the stench and smells that embraced the battlefield.

Sleep did not come easy for the living.

Alexander Gardner captured many of these horrific scenes in his photographs.

When I visit Snavely’s trail near the Burnside Bridge and look upward at the knoll where 500 Georgia riflemen stymied the Union troops from crossing, I am amazed at the number of soldiers who must have occupied this very place.

The Battle of Antietam has left a lasting memory on our community and nation as we remember those 23,000 casualties. Before the Civil War would end, some 620,000 lives would be taken.

Author Drew Faust shares a South Carolina woman’s lingering grief as she asks this question in 1863: “How many mothers and sisters and wives have been made to mourn since this war has been sent upon us?

As we remember Antietam 150 years later, just maybe there is a lesson or two to be learned. I hope we learn it soon

Lloyd “Pete” Waters is a Sharpsburg resident who writes columns for The Herald-Mail.

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