Sunday, February 2, 2014

Save Burnside's Bridge!

Once historical artifacts, buildings and structures are gone, they are gone forever. Once land across which great battles were fought is bulldozed over ands covered with asphalt, it is lost to future generations. Unlike a broken cup, history can't be glued back together. It's imperative on all of us to protect these physical connections we have with the past, no matter how much it costs.

With that in mind, let us turn to the issue of Burnside's Bridge.

September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in American history. In western Maryland, just across the Potomac River from Virginia, the Battle of Sharpsburg (known in the North as the Battle of Antietam) was fought between the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee and the Army of the Potomac under George McClellan. All day, Union forces assaulted the Confederate positions, hoping to drive their opponents into the Potomac River. All day, the Southern forces managed to hold their ground, though at times they held on only by their fingernails. By mid-afternoon, the badly outnumbered Confederate forces finally cracked and the corps of Union General Ambrose Burnside began rolling up their right flank. At the last possible moment, however, Southern reinforcements under General A. P. Hill arrived and launched a counter attack, driving the Yankees back and saving the Confederate army.

The battle was one of the most important of the Civil War. Although a tactical Confederate victory, it also was a strategic Union triumph. The enormous losses Lee suffered in the battle persuaded him to retreat back into Virginia and marked an end to his invasion of Maryland. This perceived victory, in turn, gave President Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which not only deterred Britain and France from recognizing the Confederacy, but helped inspire Northern soldiers to see their war as a crusade to destroy the institution of slavery. Still, the battle was a missed opportunity for the Union cause, for had Confederate resistance on the battlefield been broken before Hill's reinforcements had time to arrive, Lee's army would have been completely destroyed. The war, in all likelihood, would have been over by Christmas.

The battlefield at Sharpsburg is one of the best preserved in the nation. The landmarks and fields are in almost pristine shape. On the left, the infamous Cornfield. In the center, the sunken road that became known simply as Bloody Lane.

And on the right, Burnside's Bridge.

The bridge was the scene of one of the most dramatic and consequential defensive stands in American military history. It was defended by only a few hundred men from the 2nd and 20th Georgia Infantry Regiments. They faced an onslaught of thousands of Union troops under Burnside's command. Like by the crotchety and frequently drunk General Robert Toombs, a prewar politician from Georgia, the Southerners repulsed attack after attack throughout the day.  Only after being swamped by vastly superior numbers did the Confederate troops give way, but they had successfully held up Burnside's attack long enough for Hill's reinforcements to arrive.

The bridge has stood ever since as a reminder of the bloody and historic events of that day. It is one of the most photographed sites on any Civil War battlefield and has become one of the iconic symbols for the war as a whole.

Last month, a large chunk of the stonework of Burnside's Bridge broke off and fell into the creek. It seems that the wet and freezing weather weakened the stone structure sufficiently to cause a partial collapse. The National Park Service has been assessing the extent of the damage (which may include portions of the interior of the bridge not visible from the outside) and have closed the bridge to foot traffic.

Civil War enthusiasts around the country have expressed alarm and dismay at the news of the damage to the bridge. As we all know, in this age of budgetary pressure, extra funds for the National Park Service are not exactly easy to come by. Indeed, it often seems that the federal government lacks money to cover the basic operating costs of the national parks, much less unexpected expenses such as repairs to Burnside's Bridge.

Some have expressed a desire to help finance the repairs to the bridge. I sent an email to the staff of Antietam National Battlefield and, a few days later, received the following response from Susan Trail, Superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield.

Hi Mr. Brooks:
Thank you very much for your offer of assistance with preserving this important bridge. You can make a donation directly to Antietam National Battlefield. Please send a check to the following address:
Antietam National Battlefield
P.O. Box 158
Sharpsburg, MD 21782
Please make a note that the donation is intended for Burnside Bridge repairs.
We will be making the repairs in the spring or early summer and will be documenting them on the park Facebook page, so I hope you follow our progress.
Thank you,
Susan Trail
So, anyone who wishes to help fund the repairs for this damaged but salvageable should follow Superintendent Trail's suggestion and send a check to the Antietam National Battlefield, noting that the money should be earmarked for repairs to Burnside's Bridge. This is a chance to help preserve a piece of American history. Step up and do your part!

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