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The Many Legacies Of The Battle Of Antietam

The Emancipation Proclamation and Beyond

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The Maryland Historical Society houses a shadow box with many artifacts from the Battle of Antietam.
Maryland Historical Society
The Maryland Historical Society houses a shadow box with many artifacts from the Battle of Antietam.

Saturday is the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's issuance of the initial Emancipation Proclamation. It came five days after the Battle of Antietam, which resulted in the Union army stopping the Confederate invasion of Maryland during the Civil War. That came at quite a cost, as 23,000 men were killed or wounded in the battle, making it the single bloodiest day in United States history.

The unsung legacy of the Battle of Antietam

The Emancipation Proclamation, which eventually led to the freeing of more than 3 million people held in slavery, is the greatest legacy of the battle. But there are others — it also marked a turning point in battlefield medical care.

One of the many artifacts that hang on the walls at the Maryland Historical Society's headquarters in Baltimore is a shadowbox full of items from the Antietam battlefield. It contains several stars, fired bullets make up their five points with a mini-ball in the center. There are small cannon balls there too, and the maker of the box also wrote in pencil casualty numbers from the battle.

"In your hometown, your hometown newspaper is going to start publishing lists of names," says Keith Snider, a park ranger at the Antietam Battlefield. "Your neighbors and whole communities are wiped out, because Civil War armies are made out of regiments created in counties and hometowns. Everybody knows each other."

Snider says in the days after the battle, thousands of wounded needed medical treatment and sometimes waited days for help.

"Think about 19,000 in a day," says Snider. "Our modern hospitals in Washington D.C. couldn't handle that. They couldn't handle it here."

Two famous figures of battlefield medicine emerge

Necessity spurred changes in how they took care of the wounded. Two people were at the center of that, one famous, the other less so. Snider says Clara Barton began to make her name at the battle by bringing needed supplies.

"She brought primarily bandages and lanterns," says Snider. "At the end of the day here, especially on the north end, some of the surgeons were bandaging soldiers with the leaves from the cornstalks."

The woman who would eventually found the American Red Cross was very close to the battle — too close in fact.

"We do know she was on the north end of the field, north of the famous cornfield," says Snider. "She wrote in her diary how she was helping a soldier, giving him a drink of water, and a bullet passed through the sleeve of her dress and killed the man she was trying to help."

Barton is known to many, but the man who made a lasting mark on battlefield medical care at Antietam is not. He is, however, in the famous photo taken a few weeks after the battle of President Lincoln with General George McClellan and his staff.

"Standing looking out at the world, right between McClellan and Lincoln, is a guy who's lost to history," says Burt Kummerow, president of the Maryland Historical Society. "His name is Johnathan Letterman. He became the medical director of the Army of the Potomac after the disasters around Richmond in the summer of 1862. He spent a year from Antietam to Gettysburg completely reorganizing the whole medical approach to how you take soldiers off the battlefield."

Letterman started the use of a triage system and an ambulance corps.

"He developed a field hospital system," explains Kummerow. "They were able to bring them in to field hospital away from the battlefield and give them all the help they could. They were blindfolded because they didn't know what caused infection. All these things, these evacuation systems, are still in use in the American army."

But Kummerow adds the brevity of Letterman's career as medical director probably led to his being mostly forgotten by history.

"In the worst possible situation, he totally reinvented the whole medical system," says Kummerow. "Wore himself out and left the army after Gettysburg and went out and became the coroner of San Francisco."

And while the advances in battlefield medical care were incredibly important, both Snider and Kummerow agree that the Emancipation Proclamation is deservedly the chief legacy of the Battle of Antietam.

"It turned the war completely around," says Kummerow. "It became a war to free slaves and free the Union. That was the moment that Lincoln really became great."

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This is Part 3 of Matt Bush's three-part series about the Maryland campaign of the Civil War and its 150th anniversary. Part 1 focused on a seemingly small mistake that doomed the Confederate invasion of Maryland. Part 2 was an account of the Battle of Antietam.

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