Antietam 150th prompts reflection on loss, freedom

Hundreds on Monday marked the 150th anniversary of the Civil War Battle of Antietam amid patriotic music and cannon fire, recalling the mind-boggling carnage and an ensuing Confederate retreat that Abraham Lincoln considered divine approval for abolishing slavery.

Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation five days after the 1862 battle in Maryland, "a decision that transformed and redefined the purpose of the Civil War and ignited the modern Civil Rights movement," National Park Service Associate Director Stephanie Toothman said at the commemoration.

More than 23,000 men were reported killed, wounded or missing in the dawn-to-dusk clash at Antietam, making the battle of Sept. 17, 1862, the bloodiest day of combat on U.S. soil.

"Although Antietam battlefield witnessed the deadliest single day in American history, it resulted in a significant step forward in eliminating a system by which human beings had been held in bondage in this country for more than two centuries," Toothman said.

She spoke before more than 500 visitors to the battlefield, which is set on rolling farmland along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, about 60 miles from Washington in western Maryland.

The battle was inconclusive but the Confederates retreated to Virginia the next day, ending Gen. Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North. The Battle of Gettysburg, Pa., the following July marked the high-water mark of the Confederacy.

The Army of Northern Virginia, emboldened by Confederate victories in Virginia in 1862, had crossed the Potomac River into the Union state of Maryland that September, aiming for a decisive victory in the North. England and France appeared poised to recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation and Lincoln was praying for guidance, said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson.

He said then-President Lincoln told his cabinet after the battle that as the Confederates moved toward Sharpsburg, "I made the promise to myself that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, I would consider it an indication of divine will in favor of emancipation."

Lincoln's preliminary proclamation warned the Confederate states that unless they returned to the Union by Jan. 1, 1863, their slaves would be considered free.

The crowd at the ceremony included Brian Gardner, 63, a retired Pennsylvania state forestry bureau worker from Williamsport, Pa., whose ancestor fought at Antietam. Gardner said it was important to pause and reflect on such momentous events.

"I think too many people in this fast-paced world we have now, everybody's wrapped up in their own little bubble with all their electronic toys," he said. "These people deserve to be remembered."