‘Civil War Was For States Rights’ Debunked at Antietam Battlefield National Park

<em>From Antietam National Battlefield brochure.</em>
From Antietam National Battlefield brochure.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I learned the most mindboggling piece of American history on a brief visit to Antietam Battlefield National Park outside Hagerstown, Maryland last week Sunday. It was so huge it made me think that the other 180 other national parks I’ve visited over 22 years were just preparation for that moment.

“This is where the Civil War turned from a ‘states’ rights’ issue to a battle to end slavery,” a Park Ranger was saying as we joined his program, with a sweeping gesture to the battlefields spread over multiple acres. “Within days after this battle Pres Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and the British government decided not to intervene in support of the confederacy and support a war for slavery.”


Though a myriad historical facts establish that the Civil War was fought to end slavery, 155 years later supporters of the confederacy cling to the idea that their ancestors were fighting to protect “state’s rights.” The blood-soaked battlefields at Antietam put a dagger in the heart of that claim.

For years I’ve heard about Antietam as the site of the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War, with approximately 23,000 men killed or wounded on the battlefield. It wasn’t high on my list of parks to visit because I try to shield myself from feeling great sorrow or tragedy. So it was only because I was traveling to Hagerstown, approximately 12 miles away, that I couldn’t reject the opportunity. Little did I know that it would provide me with one of the most liberating experiences of my life.

When the Ranger finished his presentation and took questions from the audience, I asked him how the park was getting this vital information to the public. Why isn’t the park leadership on CNN and other news outlets telling the true story behind the Civil War, in the face of Charlottesville and other hate mongers spewing the state’s rights line?

He responded that they tell the story at the park, and also strive to get it out on social media. Seems to me this pivotal piece of history is much too important to our current national discourse to depend upon the happenstance of whether you stumble upon the park as I did.

One purpose of our National Park System is to preserve places where pivotal history happened. It doesn’t help us at all if the stories are hidden behind park boundaries instead of being brought out to help set the record straight.

Walking on the battlefields, looking at the artifacts including the crude bone saw that surgeons used; the actual shovel used to dig those graves, I felt the weight of the price that was paid for my freedom:

There was Bloody Lane, the sunken road where the dead piled up on top of each other “in rows like the ties of a railroad. . .”

There were the battlefields where “Comrades with wounds of all conceivable shapes were brought in and placed side by side as thick as they could lay, and the bloody work of amputation commenced,” according to Union Soldier George Allen, quoted in the park brochure.

Many artifacts and structures remaining on this park property enable the visitor to have a thorough appreciation of the events of September 17, 1862 that settled the purpose of the Civil War. Yet a fallacious interpretation is still being used 155 years later to defend racist and segregationist actions.

Is it conceivable that 155 years from now, our descendants will be trying to parse what is happening in our country at this moment? On this very day, for example, our president -- who is taking land out of protection in our national parks; who denies climate change as California burns, Puerto Ricans suffer from the effects of a hurricane supercharged by climate change, and polar bears starve as a result of declining ice –supports the election of a “state’s rights” advocate to the United States Senate.

So I’m sharing my newfound knowledge for the record, and in the hope that this is the day the arc bends all the way to justice. It is the very least I can do to honor the millions who suffered and died for our Republic and fulfillment of the values of equality, liberty and justice for all.

It’s not over folks! WE must lay down our marker like the patriots at Antietam, to secure a positive future for our country, our descendants and the world.

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