Every Civil War battlefield is poignant, preserving within itself a base, murderous vibe. Each speaks to us in its own way of American folly. Nowhere is the vibe more toxic than at Antietam.
What led Americans to murder one another there in record numbers? They had lost patience over a complex problem that they failed to solve politically, and each set of murderers would be damned before they would see their opponents prevail. And so they were.
In a quiet corner of rural Maryland just off the Potomac River, legions of Union and Confederate soldiers—Americans all—converged in cornfields and country lanes outside Sharpsburg, shooting, bombing, and bayoneting one another in a merciless bloodbath. It was just one day in a civil war that lasted four years and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men, scarring their families and traumatizing a proud, optimistic nation. There in the vicinity of Antietam Creek, on September 17, 1862, some 23,000 Americans were wounded or killed.
They were the victims of party politics. The lofty language Lincoln and others used to give meaning to the Civil War tends to obscure the truth that the war was a travesty, a rebuke to the pretensions of republican government. The Civil War was the nasty afterbirth of a colossal political deadlock that upended the political system and plunged the nation into catastrophe. We rarely acknowledge the deeply shameful character of this domestic rumble. The nation’s leadership class so failed the people that at last they and their states lost patience, gave up negotiating, and gambled on settling their differences by force.
When the Civil War broke out, the United States was a young, forward-looking nation. Its people were migratory and accustomed to risk. They were experimental, improvisational, adept at breaking with established ways. Yet, when it came to slavery, their leaders were blinkered. They were irresponsible and cowardly. (Historian James G. Randall once dubbed them “the blundering generation.”) In the first half of the 19th century, when other countries were advancing toward the gradual abolition of slavery (often in their colonial possessions), a generation of American leaders proved incapable of finding a peaceful way past white Southerners’ longstanding reliance on negro slaves.
An enormous literature catalogs the reasons these “antebellum” statesmen failed. Slavery was deeply rooted in the South’s colonial past. The slaveholding class perceived owning “property” in slaves as vital to Southern prosperity, which was based on export commodities (chiefly tobacco and cotton). White Southerners also enjoyed more than their fair share of representation in Congress, thanks to the three-fifths clause of the Constitution.
Northern politicians meanwhile turned a blind eye to slavery (the “peculiar” institution), in part because of the North’s own variety of anti-black feeling, but also because agitating for change with respect to slavery threatened the solidarity of the political class across the North-South divide. No one in power could envision the US with a large free black population.
Northern Democrats, whose party was pro-slavery, were keen to steer clear of the slavery issue because they wanted to remain in power. They wanted their party to remain dominant and keep control of the White House. They were committed to preventing the federal government from infringing on the rights of slave-holding states or individual slaveholders.
In short, until the rise of the Republican Party in the late 1850s, slavery was an uncomfortable issue that no mainstream politician wanted to face. Slavery, that “fire bell in the night,” as Jefferson memorably described it circa 1820, was so potentially divisive a matter that, for many decades, American statesmen conspired to keep it from interfering in national life.
Politically, this strategy of avoidance allowed northern and southern states to enjoy a balance of power. As territories were settled and new states admitted to the Union, Congress passed various measures in an attempt to ensure that the number of free and slave states would remain equal. The Missouri Compromise (1820), the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 were all constructed along these lines.
When an initially tiny group of antislavery politicians succeeded in organizing the new Republican Party and putting their candidate Abraham Lincoln in the White House in 1860, Southern legislators were certain they knew what the future held. They were convinced that the Republicans’ success (though attained solely with the support of Northern states) presaged slavery’s doom—and their own. Southern leaders who might have stayed in power to mitigate the effects of this untoward political development, recoiled against their minority status. Fearful and defiant, they withdrew from national politics. Then they went home and convinced their states to withdraw from the Union. In doing so, they placed themselves on the wrong side of history, failing their states and fellow-citizens, and spinning a narrative of bitterness and alienation that some Southerners continue to lean on today.
Suddenly, because of all that, the residents who had heretofore ferried back and forth across the Potomac on their daily errands became mortal enemies. Confederates blew up the bridge at Shepherdstown, Virginia, that was normally used to get to the Maryland side. Then, after the bridge was gone, tens of thousands of troops who were part of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia waded across the river at night to wage war in what was called the Maryland Campaign.
Lee sought to attack and defeat the Union Army on northern soil, but, even at this early point in the war, his soldiers and he may well have sensed the terrible futility and shamefulness of their resort to violence—the civic degeneration that “freed” them to attack their erstwhile compatriots, whose ancestors had fought with theirs to attain independence in the American Revolution. Having disavowed their faith in federal politics and the Constitution, Southern “rebels” now poured their energies into slaughtering whomever they encountered in the “bloody cornfield.”
After both sides sickened from their atrocious duties, Lee’s forces retreated back across the river into rebel territory, an admission that their aggressive foray against the defenders of federalism had failed.
In retrospect, we can see how the visceral drama and valor of the Civil War took the heat off “the blundering generation.” We do not excoriate the political establishment of that time for failing to hang together, for their cowardly abandonment of the federal system.
Because the Civil War at last secured the great goal of emancipation, we can easily be fooled into thinking of it as a noble, progressive event. It’s blasphemy to admit the war was a terrible disservice to the nation, which would have been better off abolishing slavery by consensual means. The partisan and sectional conflict leading up to the Civil War exposed frightening vulnerabilities in our Constitutional system, vulnerabilities that are still there, waiting for a freak combination of circumstances to exploit them again.
Sadly, the resort to force did not “settle our differences.” A vast change in our internal relations occurred when slavery ended, but, as for the necessary change of heart, we’re waiting for it still. Southern slaveholders never assented to slavery’s end. Northerners never got serious about the concessions that might have induced the South to give up an immoral labor practice at odds with the nation’s ideals. Ultimately, enslaved blacks attained freedom despite violent Southern opposition, engendering animosities that confound Americans still. Still, America lacks consensus on racial equality as a fact and a blessing; still retrograde elements valorize their resistance to modern popular will.