Terry Sanders’ new documentary Fighting For Life follows military doctors, nurses and medics on the front lines of the Iraq War. Mostly shot in Iraqi battlefield hospitals and American rehab centres, the film contains many harrowing images. Some of its worst images are almost 150 years old. These photos are from Mathew Brady’s studio of the Battle of Antietam during the US Civil War, the conflict that gave birth to battlefield surgery.
The Battle of Antietam on 17 September 1862 was the bloodiest day in US history. It had over twice as many casualties as 9/11 on another September day 139 years later. Almost 6,500 soldiers lost their lives between Antietam Creek and the Potomac River during the Confederate invasion of Maryland. The immediate result of the battle was indecisive but it had two major outcomes: it denied Confederate hopes of British intervention and prompted President Abraham Lincoln to deliver the Emancipation Proclamation to end slavery.
In 1861 the Confederate States broke free from the North. In the words of Confederate President Jefferson Davis it took up arms to vindicate the political rights, freedom, equality and state sovereignty “which were the heritage purchased by the blood of our revolutionary sires”. President Lincoln said the Confederacy would destroy the nation. Neither side wanted the freedom of slaves, although the South seceded from the Union in fear of the abolition threat posed by Lincoln’s election in 1860.
The first year of the war saw a succession of Northern military and naval victories that promised an early end to the war. Southern counter-offensives in the summer of 1862 tipped the balance in their favour and brought them to the brink of international recognition. In September 1862, General Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland seeking to defeat General George B McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. The two great forces collided at Antietam Creek near the village of Sharpsburg (to this date, the South still refers to the day as the “Battle of Sharpsburg”).
More people died at Sharpsburg than in all the other American wars of the nineteenth century combined. In the centre of Confederate lines, a sunken farm road would become known as Bloody Lane. The carnage was greatest here. According to a Union lieutenant colonel “in the space of less than ten acres, lay the bodies of a thousand dead men and as many more wounded”. Another soldier at Bloody Lane saw “hundreds of horses too, all mangled and putrefying, scattered everywhere”.
Bodies were strewn across six square kilometres and a week afterwards a local newspaper reported the wounded and the dying were to be found in nearly every house in every neighbourhood. Two days after the battle, Northern photographers Alexander Gardner and James Gibson arrived to take pictures. It was the first time the battlefield sight of grisly corpses was captured on camera. Both men worked for Mathew Brady who exhibited Gardner and Gibson’s photos in a New York exhibition called “The Dead of Antietam” one month after the battle.
Though casualties were almost evenly split, the photos of the dead were almost entirely of Confederate soldiers. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, because the Confederates fled the field, only the Northern soldiers could bury their dead. Secondly, while Brady was anxious to show the battlefield in all its gory horror, his embedded photographers were mindful of effect of Union dead on morale in the North.
A New York Times reporter who visited the exhibition was sympathetic to the litany of Southern victims on display. He wrote Brady “has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war” but also noted what else was missing from the pictures - the background of widows and orphans. “Homes have been made desolate, and the light of life in thousands of hearts has been quenched forever,” he wrote. “All of this desolation imagination must paint – broken hearts cannot be photographed”.
A New Hampshire regimental surgeon who treated victims at Sharpsburg for a month afterwards could find no rationale for the carnage. The “great victory”, he wrote, was not worth the thousands of poor, suffering dying men. His views were shared by Massachusetts captain Robert Gould Shaw who believed nothing could justify a battle like Antietam and the horrors that came from it. He wrote “every battle makes me wish more and more that the war was over”.
Antietam proved to a decisive battle. Although the war dragged on for another two years and no single battle decided the outcome, Antietam shattered Southern momentum. Just 15km from Washington, they would never again come so close to winning an independent Confederacy. Twenty years after the war, former Confederate corps commander James Longstreet (who served at Antietam) wrote “at Sharpsburg was sprung the keystone of the arch upon which the Confederate cause rested”. When the arch collapsed, the Confederacy collapsed with it.