SHARPSBURG, Md. (WHTM) — It’s a warm and sunny day at the Antietam National Battlefield, just outside Sharpsburg, Maryland. Visitors are driving around, taking in the sights, stopping at places like the Dunker Church, the Bloody Lane, the Burnside Bridge, and…the Cornfield.
“The cornfield was the bloodiest section of the battlefield by most soldiers’ accounts,” Dr. Christian Keller said. He’s the Director of the Military History Program at the Army War College in Carlisle. On this day he is with three of his students, touring the battlefield of the single bloodiest day in the Civil War.
“It was definitely a bloodletting on the scale of which the United States had not yet seen,” explains Keller. “Overall, casualties exceeded 22,000 dead, wounded, and missing, which was just unprecedented.”
But Keller and his students aren’t here because of the body count; rather, they’re studying the decision-making by commanders before and during the battle. It’s part of Keller’s elective course “Strategy and Command in the civil war.” Part of the course is a field trip, or “staff ride” as the college calls it.
“At the army war college it’s not history for history sake, it’s history for practitioner’s sakes, and so we’re trying to draw insights and ideas that can be applied to current national security and strategic issues,” Keller said.
“At this particular point, I want them to understand how the cornfield plays into the overall history of the Battle of Antietam and its greater campaign, because it isn’t just a finite event here, right on this battlefield. It exists within a campaign of other fights and other smaller battles. So I want them to see how it fits into that greater scheme of events in the greater chronology.”
There are a lot of lessons to learn at Antietam. Keller spent a good deal of time explaining to his students how the fight in the Cornfield went from a sure win for the Union to a bloody stalemate, due to things from the timely arrival of Confederate re-enforcements, to Union muskets jamming up because they’d fired so many bullets, it was almost impossible to tamp a fresh round down the barrel through the gunpowder residue.
“The battle of the cornfield, which was a component of the overall Battle of Antietam or Sharpsburg, as it’s called in the south,” explains Keller, “turned out to be a draw within the greater tactical draw of the Battle of Antietam that did have later strategic ramifications.
One of those results makes “strategic ramification” sound like an understatement.
“Abraham Lincoln had in his pocket the Emancipation Proclamation, was waiting for a Union victory to proclaim it,” Keller says, “and he’s going to use the draw at Antietam, as it turned out tactically, to issue that critical piece of legislation changing course of war. There’s no way that the British and the French will recognize Confederate Independence once emancipation is on the table as a Union war aim.”
Keller also stresses how command teamwork (or lack thereof) can have a major impact on a battle. He published a book in 2019 titled The Great Partnership: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the Fate of the Confederacy. In it, he highlights part of the relationship that’s often overlooked.
“Lee and Jackson shared a friendship that was underpinned by common religious faith,” explains Keller. “They both approached their faith, the one was Episcopalian and one was a Presbyterian, with a common understanding of what we call divine providence. The idea that the Lord creates situations on this Earth for the betterment of his kingdom, and those that believe it see that all things are working for good and accept his will.”
The past few years have seen a lot of Confederate monuments being taken down across the country–a trend that’s been accelerating after the death of George Floyd.
But Keller stresses for his students to be effective leaders in the future, they must study the leaders of the past–no matter what cause they fought for.
“As educators at the Army War College,” says Keller, “I and my fellow faculty take it quite seriously, to use history and any other topic under study, as a means to achieve the end, if you will, of inculcating in these students better ways of thinking about how to win wars. And if that means studying the Confederates and their leaders, that’s fine. We don’t ignore the fact that slavery was the cause of the war, but we don’t concentrate on that, we focus on the decision-making of people. And therefore all history gives us an opportunity to think clearly about how and why people make decisions. Because they still make decisions today, as they did in the past.”