Sunday, September 16, 2012

O, Antietam!

Tomorrow, September 17th, marks the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam.  Historians view it as a pivotal moment in the Civil War and in U.S. history in general.  Along the Antietam creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, Union general McLellan stopped rebel general Lee's attempt to carry the war into the North.  The names associated with the battle became legendary: the Corn Field, Bloody Lane, Snavely's Ford, and especially Burnside's Bridge.  
Burnside Bridge

Widely believed to be a Union victory, the savage, all-day battle became the bloodiest day in the War of the Rebellion.  The official tally states that over two thousand Union soldiers fell, with nearly ten thousand wounded, while fifteen hundred rebels fell and almost eight thousand wounded.  These numbers are being revised upwards with new methods.  Antietam now stands equal with the Attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the September 11th Attacks as the costliest events on American soil.

The battle also gave President Lincoln the opportunity to present his Emancipation Proclamation.  His decree ordered the Army and Navy to free slaves in the rebellious states after January 1, 1863.  It protected those in loyal states, though it encouraged those areas, such as West Virginia, to free them by other means.  In effect, Lincoln tried to ransom the slaves to compel the rebels to quit fighting.  None ultimately took the bait.  The result became the largest slave uprising in history, creating a second front behind rebel lines.  They could not fight both the growing power of Union forces and maintain slavery at the same time.  By including even the partial abolition of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation also deterred Britain and France from intervening in the war - though if you ask me it was highly unlikely in any case.  It was a master stroke from a master politician.  The war would drag on for another three years and cost as much as a million lives, or three percent of the United States population.

I think that there is another international effect that receives almost no attention.  One Canadian-born soldier in the 4th Rhode Island Volunteers ranks among the ten thousand Union wounded at Antietam.  His name was Calixa Lavallee.  Born near Montreal, Quebec, he showed an early musical talent that led him to move to the U.S. as a teenager in the late 1850s.  Aged 18 in 1861, he joined that regiment at the outbreak of the war.  At Antietam, the 4th made the run around the southern flank of the battle at Snavely's Ford as part of General Burnside's IX Corps. [Fun fact: Burnside gave temporary command of his corps to Jacob D. Cox, who like Lavallee was born in Montreal!]  They then ran directly into rebel commander A. P. Hill's men moving along the southern part of the battlefield.  Lavallee would be wounded in the leg during this savage battle.  Later discharged, he returned to Rhode Island and spent the rest of his life moving between the U.S. and Canada.

Calixa Lavallee

Why is Lavallee important?  Many other Canadians fought and died or were wounded in the War of the Rebellion.  He stands out for a tune he composed in 1880.  The Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, Theodore Robataille, asked him to set a poem written by lawyer and orator Adolphe-Basile Routhier to music.  That poem was called O Canada.  This song became Canada's national anthem in the 20th Century.  Had he died facing A. P. Hill's troops on that hot September day in 1862 or afterwards of the leg wound he suffered, one important element of Canadian identity today would be radically different.  Imagine if Francis Scott Key had fallen overboard and drowned off HMS Tonnant in Baltimore harbor in 1814.  We probably wouldn't have The Star Spangled Banner.  Lavallee's example should tell us just how important the Civil War is beyond the borders of the United States.  As I said in an earlier blog entry, and other historians agree on this point, Canadian Confederation would not have occurred when it did without the Civil War.  So, when you sing O Canada with gusto at your next hockey game, remember that it links you with that major conflict.  I'm astonished that so few people know about this.


  1. Hello. I found your blog through a link on Kevin Levin's blog.

    Thanks for the great info on Canada. I had a French Canadian ancestor in the Union Army during the Civil War. He served in a Massachusetts regiment and reenlisted to serve through the entire war, despite being a widower with a young daughter.

    Geoff (the lesser half of Kelly & Geoff)

    1. Hey Geoff, thank you for your reply. Would you happen to know to which Massachusetts unit your ancestor belonged? As you probably know, communities across New England had French-speaking Quebecers in them. I always point to two of their most famous descendants as proof of their importance: Jack Kerouac and Rene Gagnon (one of the six Marines who raised the flag at Iwo Jima.)

    2. Why, yes I do. He was in Company A of the 11th Massachusetts Infantry - the Boston Volunteers. His name was Moise Beaulieu, although some of his military papers call him by his Anglicized name, Moses. He emigrated sometime in the mid 1850s and worked as a bootmaker in Weymouth before the war. Later in the war he was assigned by Daniel Sickles to the division headquarters as a saddler, but before then he went through a lot of battles, including both battles of Bull Run. I have a pair of repro period style boots with hobnails on the bottom in a Fleur-de-Lis pattern in his honor.



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