A Savage Thunder; Antietam and the Bloody Road to Freedom

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2009-07-07
  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
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By the flow of the inland river, Whence the fleets of iron have fled, Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver, Asleep are the ranks of the dead: Under the sod and the dew, Waiting the Judgment Day: Under the one, the Blue, Under the other, the Gray.-- "The Blue and the Gray" by Francis Miles Finch

Author Biography

Jim Murphy is the author of more than thirty books about American history, including An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 and The Great Fire, both Newbery Honor Books. He lives with his wife and their two sons in Maplewood, New Jersey. For more information visit his website at jimmurphybooks.com.



"The present seems to be the [best] time since the commencement of
the war for the Confederate Army to enter Maryland."

-- A message from General Robert E. Lee, commander, Army of Northern Virginia,
to Jefferson Davis, president, the Confederate States of America, September 3, 1862

"There is every probability that the enemy, baffled in his intended
capture of Washington, will cross the Potomac, and make a raid into
Maryland or Pennsylvania. A movable army must be immediately
organized to meet him again in the field."

-- Orders from Henry W. Halleck, general-in-chief of Union Armies, to General
George B. McClellan, commander, Army of the Potomac, September 3, 1862

With these simple messages two great armies were set on a collision course that would end fourteen days later at Antietam Creek, just outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland. If we could ask any of the 140,000 soldiers composing these armies why they were willing to fight and possibly die, the overwhelming response from the men of both sides would have been remarkably similar: They were fighting for their freedom.

Jefferson Davis spoke for the Confederate side when he insisted the Civil War was declared to maintain "the political rights, the freedom, equality, and State sovereignty" won by our Revolutionary War forefathers. By "State sovereignty" Davis meant the right of every state to enact any laws it wanted. And if the federal government objected, the state could decide not to be a part of the United States.

"We all declare for liberty," the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, replied, "but in using the same word we do not mean the same thing." He then made clear that the conflict was necessary to "settle this question now...Whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose."

Whether to preserve the Union or not was certainly an important reason to fight. Our lives -- indeed the lives of people around the world -- would be quite different now had the South succeeded in separating itself from the United States. But nowhere during the first year and a half of the war did this talk about fighting for freedom and liberty include mention of the real reason for the war: the enslavement of four and a half million African-American men, women, and children.

It was, at best, hypocritical for both sides to send soldiers into combat without addressing this issue honestly. Lincoln, for instance, came under heavy criticism, both from those opposed to slavery and from political opponents, for his lack of candor. One prominent African-American leader, Frederick Douglass, pointed out the obvious: "To fight against slaveholders, without fighting against slavery, is but a half-hearted business....War for the destruction of liberty must be met with war for the destruction of slavery." Yet even as casualties mounted and the criticism heated up, Lincoln refused to make the conflict a war against slavery.

All of this changed when a series of surprising Confederate victories in 1862 left the Union armies dazed and demoralized and put the very existence of the United States in doubt. By July, Lincoln had come to realize that the emancipation of the slaves was "absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union...."

As the Confederate and Union armies marched toward each other, very few of the men realized that the idea of freedom -- and with it the nature of the war -- was about to change. Nor did they know they were going to take part in an epic battle that would prove to be the bloodiest single day in American history.

Copyright © 2009 by Jim Murphy

The first Confederate troops began crossing the Potomac before sunrise on the morning of September 5.
Union soldiers in the foreground would fire a few shots, then head back to camp to report what they had seen.

Copyright © 2009 by Jim Murphy


Cheer, boys, cheer, we'll march away to battle,
Cheer, boys, cheer, for our sweethearts and our wives,
Cheer, boys, cheer, we'll nobly do our duty.
-- "The Southern Boys" by Henry Russell, 1861

On Friday, September 5, 1862, the rattle of drums accompanied by sharp, insistent bugle notes summoned the Confederate army to march. The heavy tramp of boots and clomping of horse's hooves on the dry dirt road soon had clouds of dust swirling in the warm air. An hour later the lead brigade of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia reached the banks of the Potomac River.

The 10th Virginia was the first to enter the water at White's Ford. In places, the water was waist-high, and many men removed their boots and trousers to keep them dry during the half mile journey. "Never did I behold so many naked legs in my life," recalled Private Draughton Stith Haynes.

Crossing with the troops were hundreds and hundreds of wagons carrying food, equipment, and ammunition, most driven by African-American slaves. Several wagons became stuck in the mud and had to be pushed free by grumbling drivers. Mules refused to leave the cool water and were "cussed" onto the opposite shore of Maryland.

When the lead brigade's musicians finally scrambled ashore, they formed up into a neat line and played "Maryland! My Maryland!" Soldiers cheered loudly when they heard the melody and could be heard singing above the teamsters' curses and officers' shouted orders:

"The despot's heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,

Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!"

As he approached the ford, Sergeant James Shinn was amazed by what he saw. The golden autumn sun "caused the rippled surface [of the water] to sparkle with the brilliancy of a sea of silver studded with diamonds set in dancing beds of burnished gold....The scene was one of grand & magnificent interest."

Copyright © 2009 by Jim Murphy

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