More than 100,000 people will gather in Sharpsburg, Maryland, this weekend to commemorate a clash of arms that still stands as "the bloodiest day in American history." The anticipated turnout is a record number for a reenactment of the Battle of Antietam, which occurred on September 17, 1862.
Many historians regard the one-day struggle along the Potomac River about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northwest of Washington, D.C., the pivotal battle of the Civil War. It is known as the Battle of Sharpsburg in the South.
Although the battle was a technical standoff, it was considered a Union victory because it compelled General Robert E. Lee of the South to retreat from his first invasion of the North, and also dissuaded England and France from recognizing the Confederacy.
But all this came at a ghastly cost, with more than 6,300 Americans killed and another 17,000 wounded or missing in the fighting. The numbers stand as the highest U.S. military casualty toll for a single day. Many thousands of the wounded died within days of the battle.
The carnage left by the terrorist attacks on September 11 a year ago, with more than 3,000 killed, made that day the second bloodiest day in American history. Because of the nearly coinciding dates and their huge casualty levels, some people have linked the Antietam and September 11 anniversaries, adding special meaning to this year's commemoration of the battle.
"Forever we'll be inherently tied to it," said Superintendent John Howard of the 3,300-acre (1,300-hectare) Antietam National Battlefield. "I don't think there's any way not to be."
Howard said the connection between the two events has been made by many of the 300,000 visitors to the battlefield over the past year.
"We're finding the visitors don't care about a comparison in casualty figures," he said. "They're looking to come to a place where the nation has gone through a horrible experience and survived it. They've been looking for an anchorsomething to show them that bad things had happened before and we recovered from it. That has been the prevailing theme with our visitors all year."
According to Maryland Tourism Director Hannah Byron, the 100,000 or more spectators expected to attend this year's 140th anniversary reenactment of the Antietam battle are more than double the 50,000 or so that were in the field for the 135th anniversary in 1997.
"The overall interest in the Civil War is really amazing," Byron said. "For the 135th, there were about 10,000 reenactors of the battle. This year, we'll have at least 12,000, from nine countries. This is not just a national phenomenon. It's international." Germany and Britain have many Civil War groups, she noted.