A Previous Ground Zero

The Seattle Times
September 8, 2002
By Alex Tizon

ANTIETAM CREEK, Maryland — There is no town here; only cornfields and pastures, sliced through by a winding ribbon of water that makes hardly any noise. The land rolls to the horizon. They appear first as dots, the carloads of people who want to see this place for themselves. There has been more interest since September 11, presumably to connect points of cataclysm in the nation’s history. There have been other Ground Zeros.

The people get out of their cars, wander around with their cameras, and you can tell by their tilted postures, their eyes following the curves of the terrain, that they’re trying to grasp the scope of what happened here. It was another September day, 140 years ago, in the deep of the Civil War. By day’s end, 23,000 men were dead, maimed or swallowed by the smoke and never seen again. It was the bloodiest single day in American history. A Union captain later wrote to his father and asked plaintively:

“Why did this happen?”

Antietam (pronounced an-TEE-tum), from an Algonquin word meaning crooked water, was a fitting last stop before our final stretch into New York City. It gave us a portal into the past, reminding that mass carnage is no stranger to America, and offered a vision of what lies ahead for New Yorkers at Ground Zero. Somehow they must find a way to package the incomprehensible.

Not for the sake of commerce, though that aspect is never ignored, but for posterity, for history. New Yorkers must take every last piece of the cataclysm, from the angle of the jets to the fabric of the socks worn by the very last man or woman to die, and somehow tell an everlasting story.

Purveyors of facts

It took the government nearly 30 years to name Antietam a national historic site. Today, federal park rangers spend their days pointing and explaining and leading tours. They know the smallest facts. They can tell the story.

One morning, at exactly 8:29, Bill Woodworth marches out of the ranger station to the flagpole at the edge of the parking lot. He attaches the U.S. flag and hoists it into the air. It is the start of another day, another shift.

Woodworth is 54, retired Air Force, with blue eyes under gray, bushy eyebrows. A walrus mustache covers his upper lip. His uniform is government-issue olive; his hat, just like Smokey Bear’s. He is amiable, talkative. If you ask him a question, be prepared for a comprehensive, annotated, cross-referenced, all-encompassing answer. Then he’ll hand you a brochure.

They have brochures for everything. There’s a brochure tracing the North African tribal origins of the Zouave uniforms worn by the 5th New York Infantry during the middle of the 19th century. In case you were wondering. The rangers can match the depth of all curiosities. It’s their job. Sometimes for Woodworth, it becomes just that, a job.

“You’re out there giving a tour,” he says, “and it’s hot and sweaty, and you wonder, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”

Then one day, amid a throng of glazed-over eyes, he’ll spy someone quietly weeping — weeping over what happened on this pretty spot of 12 square miles where so many souls departed with such ferocity. It is a day worthy of tears, even 140 years later, and Woodworth remembers the sense of calling that first brought him here. He straightens his hat and punches the clock for another shift.

Turning point of the war

Instead of building a single grand memorial for the site, the National Park Service decided to leave this battlefield almost exactly — to the last gully and fence post — as the Confederate army found it the morning of Sept. 17, 1862.

It was the Confederacy’s first attempt at invading the North. Gen. Robert E. Lee wanted a decisive victory on the Union’s own turf. But fate interfered. Days earlier, a copy of Lee’s plan of attack, titled Special Order 191, was lost. One afternoon, a Union private named Barton Mitchell stretched out on a field and found three cigars wrapped with a piece of paper. It was Lee’s lost order. The private, sensing the document’s importance, passed it up the chain of command, and the Union was able to attack the Confederate army before it was prepared.

Here in the rolling farm lands of Western Maryland, along each side of the muddy banks of Antietam Creek, the two armies met with rifles and cannons blazing.

Bodies fell like forests cut down in single swaths. The first 15 minutes saw more than 3,500 casualties. By the end of the day, an estimated 7,000 men were killed or mortally wounded. Total dead, wounded or missing surpassed 23,000. Corpses lay in heaps in the fields once so green.

A Union lieutenant later described the dead “in every state of mutilation, without arms, without legs, heads and intestines, and in greater number than on any field we have ever seen before.”

The battle, in casualty numbers, was a virtual draw, but the Confederates retreated, and the North saw it as a decisive moral victory. On the heels of such a powerful show of force, President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the 3.5 million slaves who were the backbone of the Confederate economy. England and France, both anti-slavery nations, reconsidered plans to help the South. The Confederacy was beaten, bedraggled and alone.

The Civil War dragged on almost three more dispirited years. But this battle was a major — some would argue the single most important — turning point. And to no small degree, the outcome was determined by the coincidence of a sleepy private coming upon a bundle of cigars in a field.

Fleeting knowledge

“You watch Leno?” asks park ranger Joe Nicodemus. He’s 46, wears a ponytail and moves around in a motorized wheelchair. “You know how he (Jay) goes out in the street asking questions about history and current events, and of course a lot of people don’t have a clue? There are people who’ve never heard of Antietam but can name every member of ‘N Sync.”

Time and prosperity can give a culture odd priorities. Only a year since September 11, many Americans have had enough of remembering the attacks, and some dread this week’s anniversary. Imagine 140 years from now.

The rangers, though, feel an affinity for those trying to figure out what to do, what kind of memorial to build at Ground Zero. The task is immense, with 8 million voices chiming in, and news reporters chronicling every minute development.

Woodworth and his band of olive-suited colleagues have their own plan for the one-year anniversary. The day before, on Sept. 10, in honor of the dead, they plan to erect 3,000 American flags in the open field behind the ranger station, a close-enough estimate of the number killed in those two hours in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

It will likely be a quiet ceremony. It’s a long drive to Antietam from a city of any size. And just as well for the rangers. They say the quiet is one of the best parts of working here. To the Union captain who, 140 years ago, asked his father in a letter, “Why did this happen?” the silence of Antietam is both answer and beholder of mystery.

Woodworth recalls one late afternoon, days after September 11, hearing the sound of a flute through the valley. A man had walked far out into a cornfield and started playing Amazing Grace. He played for what seemed a long time.

The ranger didn’t know whether the man was playing for the dead of Antietam or the dead of Ground Zero. It didn’t matter. They were all in the same place now, and maybe some of them were even listening.