[In honor of the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, I have augmented and am re-posting an article from 2012]
Various states that were involved in the Civil War, North and South, long ago placed their official monuments on various battlefields. Most chose to build their monuments at Gettysburg. It was, after all, the largest battle of the Civil War…in fact the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere…and one of crucial importance. So, Gettysburg was a logical choice.
There are more than a dozen state monuments on the Gettysburg Battlefield. These include the beautiful Virginia monument featuring bronze depictions of Virginian soldiers and a mounted Robert E. Lee sculpted by Frederick William Sievers, completed in 1913. And of course the colossal Pennsylvania monument, fittingly the largest of the monuments on the battlefield. Situated in the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, it is an imposing 110 feet tall, a building designed by architect W. Liance Cotrell with sculptures by Samuel A. Murray, completed in 1913.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts did not place a state monument at Gettysburg. The focus instead was on the Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Antietam was, as is often quoted, the bloodiest single day in American history. It seems likely that Antietam was selected for a monument rather than Gettysburg due to the fact that a larger number of Massachusetts casualties were suffered during Antietam. There were also a great many Massachusetts leaders and units which played a significant role in the battle. Major General Joseph Hooker, for instance, commanded the I Corps which commenced the battle with an assault at 5:30 a.m. on the Confederate left flank near the Dunker Church. Roughly 8,000 men under Hooker’s command struggled through hellish fire in the infamous Cornfield and the East Woods. Another key commander, Major General Edwin Sumner of Massachusetts, led the II Corps. Sadly, his divisions were cut to pieces in the East Woods and in front of the Bloody Lane.
Perhaps the harrowing experience of the 12th Massachusetts Infantry is all that was needed to justify a Massachusetts State Monument at Antietam. As Hooker’s early morning assault fell apart, General Stonewall Jackson launched a counterattack. The 12th Massachusetts was one of the units that stood in the way of this onslaught. Standing toe to toe with the Louisiana Tigers in the Cornfield for some time, the 12th Massachusetts soon had to retreat under terrific fire. The 12th Mass suffered the worst casualties of any Federal unit on the field that day. Of the 334 that went into battle, 224 were killed, wounded or missing…a casualty rate of 67%. Some accounts give even higher casualty rates. When the 12th Mass regrouped in the North Woods, only 32 men were standing to rally around the colors.
And then there was the advance of the 2nd Massachusetts through the Cornfield. The unit had suffered roughly 35% casualties just over a month prior at the Battle of Cedar Mountain. Second in command of the unit was Lt. Col. Wilder Dwight, a 29 year-old lawyer from Brookline–charismatic, much admired by his men, he seemed to have potential and Massachusetts newspapers paid attention to his actions. Pressing forward to within sight of the Dunker Church, the 2nd Massachusetts soon found that the units on either side of them had fallen back. They were isolated with a solid force of Confederates in their front behind stone walls and fences. This advance is depicted at the beginning of the film “Glory.” In this position, a quarter of the unit fell, including Lt. Col. Dwight, shot once in the hip and again in the wrist. He was mortally wounded. Soldiers tried to remove him from the field but he refused due to the pain. As the 2nd Massachusetts retreated, Dwight took out a letter he had been writing earlier that morning to his mother. At the foot, he added, “I am wounded so as to be helpless. Good by, if so it must be. I think I die in victory. God defend our country. I trust in God, and love you all to the last. Our troops have left the part of the field where I lay.” Dwight died two days later in a field hospital.
The Massachusetts monument at Antietam is located on the spot where Lt. Col. Wilder Dwight fell. The piece of ground, now part of Antietam National Battlefield Park, was bought by the Commonwealth for the express purpose of building a monument in the 1890s. The monument, designed by the Boston architectural firm of Winslow & Wetherell, was dedicated on September 17, 1898. A large delegation of Massachusetts dignitaries were present for the event. The key note address was given by Governor Roger Wolcott of Massachusetts.
The New York Times described the monument as “exceedingly simple and chaste in design.” Indeed, many have thought it was intended as an enormous pedestal for a statue that was never placed. It was, however, designed to be reminiscent of sarcophagus and, in my opinion, needs no further adornment.