2nd Manassas - Aug. 1862
Aftermath of Antietam - June 1863
The Battle's Grim Wake

Burying the dead at Antietam

Along with the killed and wounded, the battle took its toll on those fortunate enough to avoid physical harm. Private Daniel Swisher, Company A of the 7th West Virginia, wrote home to his family with the visions of battle still clinging to his thoughts. Spared physical harm, his emotional anguish spilled onto the pages he would send home.

"I could not express my feelings while walking over the Battle field to see Ever My Dearest friends and fellow soldiers lying on the field Butchered in That kind of a way." Of one friend in particular, Private John Foglesong also from Company A, he added that he "...was shot through the Head. he never suffered no misery." [P]

Charles Coffin, a war correspondent for the Boston Journal, would write of what he saw walking near the Bloody Lane of Antietam.

"With the falling back of the Confederates I went up past Roulette's house to the sunken road. The hillside was dotted with prostrate forms of men in blue, but in the sunken road, what a ghastly spectacle! The Confederates had gone down as the grass falls before the scythe. Words are inadequate to portray the scene. Resolution and energy still lingered in the pallid cheeks, in the set teeth, in the gripping hand. I recall a soldier with the cartridge between his thumb and finger, the end of the cartridge bitten off, and the paper between his teeth when the bullet had pierced his heart, and the machinery of life ---all the muscles and nerves--- had come to a standstill. A young lieutenant had fallen while trying to rally his men; his hand was still firmly grasping his sword, and determination was visible in every line of his face. I counted fourteen bodies lying together, literally in a heap, amid the corn rows on the hillside. The broad, green leaves were sprinkled and stained with blood."

Mr. Coffin would continue concerning the sounds of the battlefield after dark.

"While thus visiting the lines, I heard a song rising on the night air sweet and plaintive: Do they miss me at home, do they miss me? 'Twould be an assurance most dear To know that this moment some lov'd one were saying, 'I wish he were here'; To feel that the group at the fireside were thinking of me..." [59]

Nine months after the battle in June of 1863, Southern soldiers again found themselves walking upon the old battlefield near Sharpsburg as they marched north into Pennsylvania. One soldier, a Confederate private, took the time to write to his family and describe what he saw.

A lone Soldier's Grave
"June 15, 1863

Dear Father, Mother, and Family,

I have been this morning over the old Sharpsburg Battlefield and have witnessed the most horrible sights that my eyes ever beheld. I saw the dead in any number just lying on top of the ground, their bones bleaching and they by the many hundreds. Oh what a horrible sight for human beings to look upon. God grant that the time may speedily come that the peace may return to our once happy country and our lives be spared to meet each other again on earth."

George Harlow, Private,
Company D, 23rd Virginia [O] **

Confederate dead in burial trenchTwo men would ensure that, for the first time in history, what the soldiers saw so would the nation. Matthew Brady, renowned Civil War photographer, sent his assistant, Alexander Gardner, to the Antietam battlefield. What he brought back forever altered the nation's views of the glory of war. Throughout the tragic episodes of hostile human history, soldiers knew well the realities of warfare. Poets, barbs, political figures, and artists painted pictures of orderly, glorious war. These raw, uncensored photographs would speak to the world of the unrepentant, brutality.

Gardner would eventually venture out independent of Brady as would other photographers. Matthew Brady's focus on Civil War photography, especially for a war weary nation, would play a role in Brady's eventual financial downfall. But initially, his images created a sensation. The photographs from Antietam mostly showed bloated, mangled bodies in the early stages of decomposition. Not until later in the war would photographers consistently be able to capture images of the newly killed that more resembled the essence of humanity and not the discolored bloated shadows of the former person who had once inhabited the now festering shell.


** Web site author's note: There are several slightly different versions of this letter in print with the above, I believe, an abridged version which does not include the entire text of the original letter. The version above was transcribed from the video shown by the National Park Service at the Battlefield's Visitor's Center (an excellent video which can be purchased on-line or at the park). If anyone knows of a source for the complete letter, I would be grateful if you would contact me. Thank you.