To commemorate the heavy toll of this battle, every year since 1988 hundreds of volunteers spend a day in December carefully laying out 23,000 paper bag lanterns — one for each of the killed, missing, and wounded between the two armies — onto a vast grid that completely envelops the gentle hills of the Antietam farmland. The sprawling nature of this memorial, like the thousands of bodies left astray on this battlefield years ago, starkly illustrates the physical cost of the conflict. The speed with which it is set up, just half a day, like the length of the battle itself, reminds onlookers of its high intensity.
Using this intelligence, Gen. McClellan sent Union Army regiments west toward Sharpsburg to confront the divided Confederate Army. Lee, however, after receiving intelligence of the new Union movements, positioned his troops by Antietam Creek to meet the incoming army. And just like that, extreme carelessness on the Confederate side, and plain old luck on that of the Union converged into battle on Sept. 17, 1862 — the single bloodiest day in United States history.
Yet it must be remembered that the Battle of Antietam wasn’t just another military confrontation but a major turning point in a clash of political ideologies. As noted by the eminent Civil War historian James McPherson in his masterful book Crossroads of Freedom, the Civil War was as much of a competition to decide between three different concepts of “freedom” as it was a struggle for military victory.
On one side, the Confederacy fought for what Lincoln aptly described as “the perfect liberty ... of making slaves of other people,” couched within benign terms like “state sovereignty” and “political rights.” On the other side, the Union fought to settle the question of, again stated by Lincoln, “whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose” by forcing the rebelling states back into the Union. The victory of Antietam, however, gave Lincoln the long-awaited opportunity to reorient the war’s aims to another, higher, purpose that he long desired — that of emancipating the enslaved.
Lincoln had actually written a draft of his Emancipation Proclamation a couple of months earlierin June and proposed it to his cabinet in mid-July. However, they advised him to wait for a military victory before issuing it, especially as the Union had then been suffering months of military defeat. By issuing it too early, it may be seen as politically desperate, especially if it were unenforceable.
That victory did not come easy. All the Confederates had to do to win the war was repel Union attacks until they begrudgingly accepted their independence. The Union, however, had to bring 770,000 square miles of rebellious territory back under its control through constant invasions and campaigns to be victorious. Additionally, European powers such as France and England, who were both dependent on southern cotton and bleak about the viability of the Union’s cause, were just about ready to intervene and mediate an end of the war at the Union’s expense.
But the Battle of Antietam, with all of its immense death and despair, finally gave Lincoln the victory he needed after long months of hopelessness. On Sept. 22, just a few days after the Confederate retreat, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, setting the date on which all the enslaved in the Confederacy “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
Thus, as volunteers set out 23,000 lanterns this weekend, and visitors including Georgia Weekly Post pass through among them, it's worth reflecting not just on the immense physical cost the thousands of lights represent, but how a humble but morally upright individual like Lincoln could turn such heavy bloodshed towards a noble end.