A Civil War battle contains lessons for today
BY CHRIS MAHIN
It was the bloodiest single day of fighting ever to take place in North America. On that day, more than 2,000 men gave their lives to halt a slaveholders’ army. Within days of their sacrifice, the first step was taken to abolish slavery in the United States. The Civil
War’s Battle of Antietam deserves to be commemorated by all those fighting to transform society today.
In a sense, the process of abolishing unjust property relations in this country began on September 17, 1862 on a battlefield near Antietam Creek in western Maryland. Twelve hours of hard fighting by brave soldiers that day gave the Union Army a victory of sorts. That gave Abraham Lincoln the political protection he needed to begin steps that would transform the Civil War from a defensive war to save the Union into a revolutionary war to abolish slavery.
Five days after Antietam, Lincoln convened his Cabinet and announced that, if the Confederate states were still in rebellion on January 1, 1863, he would free all their slaves. Lincoln was true to his word and, on New Year’s Day in 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This executive order freed only the slaves in those states or parts of states that were in rebellion. It did not abolish slavery throughout the United States. However, it transformed the nature of the war, and unleashed a process that led inexorably to the
Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which did abolish slavery throughout the United States.
By the time of the Civil War, slavery in the United States was dominated by wealthy capitalists, most of whom owned thousands of slaves. This tiny elite represented about one percent of the population of the United States. They sold their cotton and other commodities on the world market and were an important part of the world capitalist system. Since the average price of a slave was $1,000 and there were 4 million slaves in the United States, emancipation removed $4 billion in value from the hands of capitalists.
At its time, the abolition of slavery in the United States was the greatest blow to a form of capitalist private property which had ever taken place in history. (That remained true until the Soviet Revolution of 1917.)
So, in a sense, the process of abolishing unjust property relations in this country began on the Antietam battlefield. The stage for the battle was set in early September 1862. Emboldened by several recent victories, General Robert E. Lee moved the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland, a slave state that had remained in the Union. A major Confederate victory inside Union territory would strengthen pro-Confederate sentiment in the North right before the fall 1862 Congressional elections. It might also convince some European powers to intervene in the war on the side of the Confederacy.
Lee believed that the commander of the Union’s Army of the Potomac – General George B. McClellan – was cautious to the point of cowardice. Lee also thought that McClellan’s army would be demoralized from recent defeats. As historian Stephen W. Sears has pointed out, these assessments were “only half right.”
McClellan was a supporter of slavery who constantly made excuses for why he would not
fight the Confederate Army. At the Battle of Antietam, McClellan’s conduct fully justified Lee’s contempt for him. McClellan had learned Lee’s plans and had more troops at his disposal than Lee did. Still, he refused to move decisively against Lee, and allowed Lee’s army to escape after the battle.
But if McClellan violated all the principles of warfare at Antietam, the same cannot be said for his soldiers. Forced to attack in “driblets” (as one Union general put it), the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac fought bravely.
The courage of the Union troops was vividly demonstrated in the struggle to take “The Sunken Road” – a small depression at the edge of a farm. After several attacks against this strategic position failed, the task of capturing it fell to one of the Union Army’s most celebrated units – the Irish Brigade. This unit was known for marching into combat behind emerald green battle flags bearing gold shamrocks and harps. Shouting its battle cry (“Clear the way!”) in Irish, the Irish Brigade advanced across an open field. Intense enemy cannon and rifle fire “cut lanes” into its ranks. Within minutes, hundreds of its soldiers were killed or wounded. Ever since, the Sunken Road has been known as the “Bloody Lane.”
In all, 2,108 Union soldiers were killed at Antietam; 9,549 were wounded; and 753 ended up missing. The carnage that day was so terrible that – as one Union soldier put it – “the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red.” This sacrifice saved the day for the Union; Lee was forced to retreat back into Virginia.
There are moments in history when the future of humanity rests on what a relatively
few people are willing to endure. September 17, 1862 was such a moment. The bravery of the Union soldiers that day did not end the Civil War. Lee’s army would invade Union territory again, and the war would drag on for two more long years.
The Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, the fruit of Antietam, did not guarantee equality for African Americans or a just society. Eventually, the post-Civil War Reconstruction governments would be overthrown and the South plunged into a reign of terror which rivaled slavery. But acknowledging those grim facts should not blind us to the reality that, in a sense, the fight for a new America began at Antietam. The Union victory there transformed the Civil War into a revolutionary war to abolish one specific form of capitalist private property: chattel slavery.
The finest tribute we can pay to those who died at Antietam is to finish their work. At Antietam, every soldier knew he risked his life if he drew enemy fire upon himself by picking up a flag dropped by a slain flag bearer. But battle flags in motion were absolutely necessary to signal the motion of troops, and so, time after time, a Union soldier picked up the fallen standard and raised it high again. In the Irish Brigade’s attempt to take the “Bloody Lane,” 16 of its flag bearers were shot dead, one after another. Today, “picking up the flag” means fighting to end the rule of all capitalists, just as those who served in the Union Army helped end the rule of one kind of capitalist, the slave-owning capitalist. When we fight that good fight, we pay our best homage to those who bled for freedom’s cause years ago beside a winding creek, on a day when the very landscape itself seemed to turn red.
This article originally appeared in the September 1999 edition of the People’s Tribune. For more information about the People’s Tribune, go to: