Spilled American Blood: Jogging Our National Memory

Battlefield at Antietam (Sharpsburg)

September 17, 1862 — the bloodiest day in United States history

[try to remember]
Six days ago was the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Nearly 3000 people died that day when terrorists took over four jet airliners for the purpose of using them as ad hoc guided missiles.  Numerous media reports commemorated the anniversary; the two most popular phrases of the day were “We Remember” or “Never Forget”.

We Americans are a forgetful people.  Part of our national mythos is our ability to re-invent ourselves and throw off the past.  Active forgetting is a crucial part of the American experience and its blending of immigrant cultures.  So, perhaps, it is not surprising that we need reminders to remember.

And yet, if one assumes that active memories don’t form until about the age of 5, anyone under the age of 16 barely has a memory of the 9/11 event if at all.  That’s presently about 20% of the population — and it’s growing all the time. Like the tide eroding the shore, constantly reshaping it, time erodes the national conscience.

Will people, for example, take to Facebook on December 7th, and recall the previous foreign invasion on American soil?  Only those born prior to 1936 would have any direct memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  They are now 76 years old or older, about 6% of the population and shrinking all the time.  After all, life expectancy is presently at 78 years.

I doubt we will see the same activity on Facebook on 12/7 as we did on 9/11.  This despite 3800 casualties, with about 2500 killed, on that Sunday in 1941.

We are constantly being told to remember.  Remember the Maine!  Remember the Alamo!

So much to remember!  Yet, we forget.

Just as most people forget what today is.  Today is the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest day in US history:  the US Civil War Battle of Antietam.  (At least named that in the North, the South refers to it as the Battle of Sharpsburg.)  On September, 17 1862, a total of 3650 Americans died, with casualties at 22,700.

22,700 casualties.  3650 dead.

In a single day.

These absolute numbers exceed all the other numbers we’ve talked about so far.  They exceed the dead on 9/11.  They exceed both the American dead (2500) and casualties (6600) on D-Day.  In absolute terms, September 17, 1862 is the bloodiest day in American history.

But it’s worse than that.

America’s population in 1862 was about 1/10 the size of what it is presently.  So to truly wrap our heads around these numbers, we need to multiply them by 10.  Imagine a tragedy in present day US history where 36,500 Americans died, with 227,000 casualties.  Having that many Americans casualties in a single day would be something like dropping a neutron bomb on Reno, Nevada — the 90th largest city in the US.

How long would it take to forget such an event?

Apparently less than 150 years.

But this day is special in our nation’s history not just for death, but for life.  It is the day that the United States re-invented itself. Antietam was the first battle of the US Civil War which took place on Union soil.  The Confederacy’s idea was to use the battle as a political statement. By successfully waging war inside the Union, the Confederacy hoped to gain official recognition as an independent country by both Britain and France.  Had that happened, the United States, as we know it, would have been over.

By pure coincidence, the battle was politically important to the Union as well.  President Lincoln had already penned the Emancipation Proclamation and was looking for a Union victory to release it (so the statement wouldn’t be seen as an act of desperation).  The fact that the Union drove the Confederate Army out of the North was enough to convince people that the North had won, at least strategically, and Lincoln released the Proclamation within a week.  The Union victory also effectively ended any hope of the Confederacy finding European backing for a negotiated settlement of splitting off from the United States.

150 years ago, September 17, 1862, the US Civil War was elevated at Antietam from a political to a moral battle. The War became a thorough re-construction of what the American experiment in self-government meant.  Our national character today is not defined by its founding with the Revolutionary War but out of the horrific bloodbath at Antietam.  Today, 150 year ago, the United States — in the largest national tragedy ever — reinvented itself and gave itself over to “a new birth of freedom.”

We remember.  Let us always remember.

antietam confederate dead (sharpsburg)


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4 thoughts on “Spilled American Blood: Jogging Our National Memory

  1. If it’s about the Civil War I’m all over it. Good column.

  2. For the Civil War history lovers out there, PBS will air a documentary, “Death and the Civil War” on September 18. It’s written and directed by Ric Burns, brother of Ken Burns.

  3. Mother more than once

    Thank you for providing a way to put the casualties of Antietam in perspective. Shocking. And yet it’s been said that if we remembered all the painful moments of life we would go insane. It’s our ability to forget that gives us the ability to persevere, take risks and have hope. Ask any mother who has birthed one child only to do it all over again….or a soldier who takes to the field when history and the odds are against them.

    • How can we stop repeating our mistakes if we don’t remember them to learn from them? Perhaps it should hurt to remember — then people wouldn’t think of battle as a simple way out of complex problems. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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