Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Forgotten Ghosts in Blue and Gray

I came across an interesting item yesterday in - of all places - USA Today.  Who knew McPaper could actually masquerade as a source of....well, actual news?   The advantage of not being very bright is that fertile opportunity presents itself daily to learn something new.  Yesterday was just such a day.  Glancing through a story in the on-line edition of USA Today, I learned that yesterday was the Sesquicentennial of the Battle of Antietam.

The Battle of Antietam - fought in the area around Sharpsburg Maryland - holds the undeniably grizzly distinction of being not just the bloodiest battle of the War Between the States but the bloodiest single-day engagement involving American forces anywhere in any war on any single day.  There were over 22,000 casualties at Antietam on September 17, 1862, including 17,000 total wounded.  Slightly more than 2,100 Union soldiers died that day along with a bit more than 1,500 soldiers of the Confederate States of America.  

Although historians view the outcome of the battle as a draw, President Lincoln and the Union hailed it as a victory as it served to repel Robert E. Lee's invasion of Maryland (let that thought roll off your brain for a moment and think for a moment what us Garden Staters could do to those troublesome Delawarians).  Why was that important?  It provided President Lincoln the breathing room he needed to issue a Proclamation with which you might be familiar, which Proclamation he issued on January 1, 1863.  And the preliminary draft of which he released only five days after Antietam.

If you need a glimpse into just how upside down life was in these United States a century and a half ago, cast an eyeball on General Lee's written request to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy for permission to invade Maryland:  I therefore determined, while threatening the approaches to Washington, to draw the troops into Loudoun, where forage and some provisions can be obtained, menace their possession of the Shenandoah Valley, and, if found practicable, to cross into Maryland. The purpose, if discovered, will have the effect of carrying the enemy north of the Potomac, and, if prevented, will not result in much evil.   Understand of course as you read it (and read the whole document for it is not only fairly brief but it is also damned interesting) that it was written by an American - arguably one of the greatest military minds that the United States Military Academy as West Point has ever produced - to an American and the "enemy" to which he referred was an army comprised of chiefly - if not entirely - by other Americans.  Pretty heady stuff.

One of the fascinating things that came out of Antietam (well fascinating to me anyway) is that techniques first applied there by Jonathan Letterman, the Union Army's medical director, were the basis of modern battlefield medicine and a blueprint for today's civilian emergency response system.  According to the piece in USA Today, "At Antietam, Letterman first tried a coordinated, progressive system of trained first responders, triage stations, surgical field units and permanent hospitals. For civilians today, that's ambulances with EMTs, emergency rooms, operating rooms and hospital room convalescence."

For roughly the past ten years, doctors, nurses and medics from the United States Military have attended lectures given by the Letterman Institute of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and have studied how to apply what Dr. Letterman did on that deadly September day one hundred and fifty years ago to better treat American military personnel injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

It has been said often that those who ignore the errors of history are doomed to repeat.  It has also been often said that the best way to keep a firm eye on where one is going is to never lose sight of from whence one has come.  Two lessons taught to us with equal ferocity by the ghosts of those who fought and died one hundred and fifty years ago.

So don't sing me your songs about the good times
Those days are gone and you should just let them go
And God help the man who says
If you'd have known me when
Old haunts are for forgotten ghosts
Old haunts are for forgotten ghosts.

-AK

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