The Middle of History

Sometimes I forget that I live in the middle of history. When I look out my front door, past neighborhood rooftops, I can see the top of South Mountain, the site of a Civil War battle. Just a little further west lays Antietam Creek and the town of Sharpsburg, site of the bloodiest single day battle in American history. Between 5:30 am and 5:30 pm on September 17, 1862 the Battle of Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg) claimed 23,000 casualties (3600 killed, the rest injured, captured or missing).

That was the first major Civil War battle fought on Union soil and many historians consider it a turning point in the war. The North won, sort of, and Lee’s Southern forces retreated, sort of. Union forces failed to pursue Confederate troops, which disappointed many in the North, including President Lincoln, but the battle did stop Lee’s advances.

Another ‘turning point’ aspect of that battle is this: it was the first time an American battlefield was photographed before the dead had been buried. Up to that point, citizens who did not actually fight in wars really didn’t realize the full impact of the fighting. Some Civil War battles were even spectator events, with finely dressed men and women setting up picnic lunches on hillsides to watch the battles from a distance. Photographer Andrew Gardner’s published photographs of the bloody, mangled bodies of dead soldiers in the roads, ditches and fields near Sharpsburg changed forever the public image of warfare.

This battle and photography are an interesting connection for me, partly because of my interest in photography and partly because the first pictures I shot with my first high quality digital camera were taken at the Antietam National Battlefield. A few days after buying my Nikon in April 2008, I decided to find a nearby outdoor landscape site to field test it. I saw the Antietam site on a map and decided to visit. Prior to that day I knew little of the battle and nothing of its role in photographic history.

Here is one of my shots from that day. Click here to see more on the first page of the photo blog I started soon after that day.

Another connection in this story is nearby Middletown, the central theme of another photo blog I started around that time. As I wandered around town over the next few years reading historic markers I learned that the churches in Middletown served as hospitals for wounded on both sides of the battle. During Middletown Heritage Day each September, one of the churches sets up a simulation of those activities.

I’ll be moving away from Middletown soon and I will miss the proximity to this history. Fortunately I’ll only be an hour away.