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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Antietam 150

After last week's shout-out to the bicentennial of the War of 1812, this week we return to the Civil War 150 with the anniversary of the battle of Antietam coming up on Monday, September 17.

The day after the battle, John Henry Brown, a painter living in Philadelphia wrote in his journal  "Desperate fighting at Sharpsburg, My. The exact result not yet known"
John Henry Brown, autograph journal/account book. Philadelphia, 1844-1890. AMs 573/14.1 Rosenbach Museum & Library

 By the next day he knew "Gen McClennan [sic] gained a Victory at Sharpsburg. Heavy loss on both sides."
John Henry Brown, autograph journal/account book. Philadelphia, 1844-1890. AMs 573/14.1 Rosenbach Museum & Library

The loss was very heavy--Antietam was the bloodiest single day battle of the war, with about 23,000 soldiers killed, wounded or missing on both sides. Of these men, over 3500 were dead. The unit with the highest casualty rate, the First Texas Infantry, which lost 82% of its men. To be honest, I find casualty numbers this large hard to wrap my mind around. Even having read eyewitness accounts, I can't imagine what it must have been like to have lived through it.

Alexander Biddle was a major in the 121st Pennsylvania; his regiment had just been organized in early September and was not involved with the battle, but they arrived at the site about a month later. Here is Biddle's description from October 19:

 "Ben Richards rode with us over the Antietam battle field and we saw the ground over which Ricketts division advanced He lost one in every three of his men as the reports show. I saw wheels broken 30 or 40 dead horses, quantities of cartridge box tins. Old haversacks, trees scored shattered and perforated by shot and in two instances large trees cut down. One tree had been twice nearly cut in half. A meeting house with 25 or 30 shot holes through it. Many unexploded shells still on the ground We passed over the part which Ricketts marched over and then went towards our Camp."

Alexander Biddle, autograph letter signed to Julia Williams Rush Biddle. 19 October 1862. Rush:IV:30:24
The bloody, destructive fighting at Antietam was especially important because it provided Abraham Lincoln with the Union victory he needed to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all slaves in areas still in rebellion on January 1, 1863 would be free. A military victory was necessary so that the Proclamation could appear as a strong move, not a desperate one.

Nonetheless, the Proclamation was not greeted with enthusiasm by all in the North. Back in Philadelphia, John Henry Brown, who was a Democrat wrote: 

"[September] 24  Proclamation by the president, suspending the writ of Habeas Corpus throughout the whole country. In heavens name, what means this. Is it to close the mouths of those who are opposed to making this an Abolition War. This Proclamation & the one declaring the slaves of all rebels free, after the 1st of Jan. next has terror stricken the people. The air is tremulous with emotion & full of revolution. All our fond hopes of Lincolns conservatism have melted into heart sickening disappointment. Our earnest prayers for the restoration of the Union as it was and the maintenance of the Constitution as it is, have been disregarded."

John Henry Brown, autograph journal/account book. Philadelphia, 1844-1890. AMs 573/14.1 Rosenbach Museum & Library

Just a reminder, these and many more documents by Alexander Biddle and John Henry Brown are part of the Today in The Civil War, a Rosenbach web project which posts Civil War documents 150 years after they were written. It's a fascinating way to watch the war unfold in the words of the people who lived it, so join us for the rest of the sesquicentennial.

Kathy Haas is the Assistant Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog

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