Yesterday I visited the Antietam National Battlefield, and learned that my Civil War history knowledge is severely lacking. Since I am a northerner through and through, my vague impression of it is something along the lines of: Secession, boo! Emancipation, yay! Why are people still flying the flags of the losing side? (See? I’m all the Yankee. Confederate flags freak me out.)

But it’s different when you’re standing there, on ground where almost 23,000 people died. It’s different when you’re standing on ground that was contested before the battle and remains so, where friends and family members fought in opposing armies, where it is still a little uncertain whether you’re in the north or the south, and where you wonder if it should matter, but somehow it does.

I have a deep aversion to war in general – a sense that all that violence is not really necessary, even though war has been the constant in the world for millennia. It seems like we should have thought of better ways to solve problems. It seems like we should cause each other fewer problems, especially over things like power and ownership of resources, which always seems to be at the root of war. I’m an idealist, trying hard to be idealist enough to be a real pacifist (except in hockey).

On our tour of Antietam, we heard the story of John Cook, who enlisted in the Union Army at age fourteen as a bugler in the 4th U.S. Artillery Regiment. He was fifteen at the Battle of Antietam.


After Cook helped a wounded officer to the rear, he returned to his unit to find that most of the cannoneers had been killed. Seeing a dead artilleryman with a full pouch of ammunition, Cook took the pouch and began servicing the cannons. He continued to work as a cannoneer throughout the attack, despite intense fire from Confederate soldiers who came within fifteen feet of the guns. He earned the Medal of Honor for his service at Antietam and Gettysburg, where he ran messages across an active battlefield and helped destroy an ammunition wagon before Confederate soldiers could reach it.

John Cook’s story struck me first because of his age. My niece is fifteen. So are many of the youth with whom I work. I can’t imagine them having to choose to load a cannon and blow up other human beings. I hope they will never have to, regardless of the age they become.

The second wave of emotion hit me, however, when I wondered what this place would be like if Cook and his ilk had not fought, if soldiers of all ages hadn’t held the lines. Although Antietam is regarded as a tactical draw, it drove Confederate soldiers out of Maryland and ensured that Pennsylvania would not be invaded, which allowed for the release of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. If that hadn’t happened, would Maryland and Pennsylvania have been taken? More? Would there have been secession, two non-united segments of states of America? Would legalized slavery ever have ended? If slavery hadn’t ended, would black men ever have received the right to vote? Would women have received our right to vote without their steps to follow? Would freedom for all people have become a value we could herald in future decisions?

The Civil War was more complicated and in many ways less noble than a fight over slavery or freedom, but I do wonder if freedom would still only apply to white, land-owning men, if people had not been willing to fight.

I’m not advocating for artillery, but I do wonder to whom freedom will be limited now and in the future if we are not willing to fight.

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