There is a move these days to revisit our monuments and the names we choose to publicly honor. This movement is good and just. It is a sign of our mature democracy that we can choose to stop honoring things that do not reflect our American ideals and celebrate those that do. In this process, however, we must guard against the lazy choice of merely casting off the past, of portraying as evil or immoral anything that is historical.
Congress has directed the U.S. Department of Defense to create a commission to review the names of military installations and vessels after Confederate figures or victories. It’s called the Commission on the Naming of Items of the Department of Defense that Commemorate the Confederate States of America or Any Person Who Served Voluntarily with the Confederate States of America. The commission will brief the secretary of defense and Congress on its work by October 2021 and present a final report by October 1, 2022.
Incredibly, the name of a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer, the Antietam, may be included in the commission’s “broad review” of names, according to the retired admiral heading the commission. To include “Antietam” in a list of names that supposedly honor the Confederacy is to completely misunderstand history.
It is apparently a reflexive impetus to reject anything associated with the Civil War, rather than with the Confederacy. This is a grave mistake, as even the following brief description shows.
Although the Mason-Dixon Line is often called the upper boundary of the South, it is really the mighty Potomac and her tributaries that divide North and South. Antietam Creek in Washington County, Maryland, is one such tributary.
Antietam is the Union name for a battle fought on September 17, 1862, across that creek. Antietam is an Algonquian word, and it was the name of the creek long before Americans came there to kill one another in the autumn of 1862.
The Battle of Antietam is one of the few Civil War battles fought in the North. Among other things, Gen. Robert E. Lee thought the Marylanders of the agriculturally rich counties of western Maryland would rally to the Southern cause with men and supplies if he took his army into Northern territory. He was badly mistaken.
The small, sturdy farms and towns of mountainous Western Maryland were the domains of the scrappy direct descendants of the Revolutionary generation, and largely immigrants—Germans, Dutch, Scots, Irish—who, then, as now, shared far more in common with their Appalachian cousins in staunchly Union western Pennsylvania and the soon-to-be-formed West Virginia than they did with the residents of low-lying Baltimore, Alexandria, and Richmond.
They turned a cold shoulder to Lee’s army and stayed in their homes as it marched through their towns singing “Maryland, My Maryland.” Instead, they cheered the Union’s Army of the Potomac as it arrived to stop Lee’s advance.
In local folklore, a woman in Frederick, Maryland stood in the doorway of her home with her small daughter beside her and defiantly waved the Union flag at the Confederate Army marching by toward Hagerstown, the seat of Washington County (named for the father of the Nation). A passing Confederate officer saluted her, although he demurred: “To you, madam; not your flag.”
This incident was later embellished into an epic poem once taught to Maryland schoolchildren about Barbara Fritchie, a 90-year-old denizen of Frederick who defiantly waves a Revolutionary War-era American flag at the marching Confederates from her bedroom and shames them. The poem’s famous line resounds: “Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.”
In real life, the Battle of Antietam was bloody, the carnage considerable. They fought for a full day, face to face across a farmer’s cornfield, around a German Baptist church, and for control of a bridge spanning the Antietam. Matthew Brady’s famous photos show them lying side by side locked in death together where they fell.
More Americans died that day than on any single day in our entire history: 7,650 men total, more than 4,000 of them Union soldiers, a full 25 percent of the Union Army’s fighting strength that day. More than 12,000 more Union soldiers were wounded, and 10,000 for the Confederates.
But the Union army held; Lee’s was forced to retreat the following day. Thus, “Burnside Bridge,” “The Cornfield,” “Dunker Church,” and most famously, the sunken road forever-after known as “Bloody Lane,” passed into the province of history. The Antietam Battlefield was one of the first Civil War battlefields dedicated as a national site by the United States, in 1890.
Is now the name of this sanctified plot of land, a symbol of our hard-won union and its “new birth of freedom” for all, to be erased as a blight on the American nation and its fighting forces? No! For shame!
Some would argue Antietam is not a fit name for an American fighting ship because the battle was not a Union “victory.” Nonsense. Although the battle itself was a tactical stalemate, it was a resounding strategic and psychological victory for the North.
All of Lee’s strategic aims were defeated. He gathered neither men nor supplies; he suffered staggering losses instead. He failed to achieve a decisive victory in Northern territory that might have garnered international support for the South. His army was forced to retreat back across the Potomac. If defeating all your enemy’s objectives and sweeping him from your territory is not a “victory,” then the word has lost all meaning.
More importantly, the Battle of Antietam was a galvanizing event and a turning point for the war and the nation. The strategic and psychological power of the victory enabled President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He did so five days later.
The unprecedented photographs of the aftermath of the battle taken by Brady seared into the nation’s consciousness the immense human sacrifice her people were offering on the altars of union and universal freedom. Make no mistake, these Union soldiers died “to make men free,” as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” puts it, in addition to holding the Union together.
For it wasn’t in just high-falutin’ hymns that the sentiment of emancipation for black Americans was sounded as a rallying cry for Northerners and for which the men of the Union army fought. The most popular ballad of the day in the North was “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” whose third verse rings out:
The people of the Union in the 1860s knew well what Antietam stood for. They had poured out a tremendous measure of sacrifice onto that battlefield. It seems we, in 2021, have forgotten. But we must not. Keeping this name is one way to always remember.