on the needles

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

My 4th of July Weekend

This Fourth of July we are still a country at war.

Lately it has been disturbing to me how blase everyone seems to be about this fact. At least here in my part of the country, we all seem to go about our lives as usual and the war has very little impact on our daily routines. Other than an occasional report on the news it barely even seems to register that over in Iraq and Afghanistan many people are dying everyday. I am not trying to condemm anyone for this attitude, I am guilty of this myself. Truth is, I don't even know anyone who knows anyone who is actively involved in the war(s). I know some bloggers who have loved ones in the military but that is it.

I may as well say it right off - I'm totally, 100% against the war in Iraq and our present government which got our country into this situation. But I believe that the men and women fighting there on behalf of our country deserve our full support (and I don't think they have gotten it!).

It also bothers me that I live in an area so rich with history but I have explored so very little of it. You probably know by now that I'm a mega Anglophile but still, it's pretty disgraceful IMHO not to know the history of your own country.

And, I want my kids to grow up smart - to know the shared history of their country and to understand the meaning of sacrifice and what war is really about.

So, over the weekend I went with my family to Antietam Battlefield. The battle there on September 17th, 1862 was the bloodiest day of the entire Civil War, resulting in 23,000 Confederate and Union (Federals) dead. Antietam is also notable in that it was the first battlefield to be photographed before the dead were buried. Alexander Gardner (working for Matthew Brady) took his historic photos only two days after the battle. The photographs were later shown at Brady's New York studio - to the shock and horror of the public.

I took several photographs of the Sunken Road, also known as Bloody Lane.

It was here, for a period of about four hours, that the Union army, advancing across the cornfield on the right of the photo, attempted to break through the lines of the Confederate army on the other side of the fence.

The history of the Sunken Road is really horrific. Standing in the road, you get an immediate sense of how absolutely terrifying that day must have been. The Union soldiers had to march across a field which rises gently until you are within about a hundred yards of the road. They could undoubtedly see the men on the other side, waiting to get a shot at them. Artillery fire would have been exploding all around. Suddenly, the field dips down sharply and the Union soldiers line of sight was cut off. Pressing forward, they had to scramble uphill, emerging right in front of the fence line - a clear and instant target for the Confederates. The Union soldiers then had to struggle over a fence, then back downhill into the Sunken Road. From there, it was uphill again and, if they were lucky, over the second fence and straight into Confederate lines. Five thousand men were killed in the Sunken Road. There were literally piles of bodies - even two days later when Gardner arrived to photograph the battlefield.

Today the site of the battle at Antietam is strangely peaceful. It is very well preserved, most of the site is still intact and there is little modern encroachment. It's green and quiet and covered in placid, unemotional stone monuments. It is hard to believe what really took place there so long ago.

Antietam is a bit of boring trip for younger kids like mine are. We started to listen to the audio tour but had to turn it off before we even left stop #1 (the Dunker Church) because it was just too gruesome! I want them to understand about this stuff but not have nightmares! We tried to liven the day up for them by doing the scavenger hunt the park has set up (you have to track down and photograph certain monuments) and we got them started on their National Park Passport Books which they thought was cool. Although the depth of meaning behind Antietam was probably lost on the kids, I know from the questions they asked that they understood the main points. And I know that they will remember what they saw and think about it later.

Today we watched the fireworks and I enjoyed them on a simple level. They were pretty. I like the different colors and shapes, the loud boom! and the ones that sizzle and leave long streaks of light in the air. I thought about how lucky I was, to be sitting on the grass, my kids dancing in front of me, with free entertainment and hardly a care in the world.

Two totally different days with my family that I will never forget.

If you want to learn more, here's a link to a good Washington Post article about Antietam.


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