September 17, 1862. For most millennials and even many of my fellow Gen Xers, this past anniversary date is meaningless. Yet the seemingly endless conversation over race relations in this nation—one that even somehow found its way into a Supreme Court hearing where neither of the parties were black—can be traced back to this most significant of days. At the height of the American Civil War (a conflict far more terrible than any unrest we’ve experienced in this nation since) the great Battle of Antietam was fought between 87,000 Union and 40,000 Confederate troops. At stake was the very survival, and even soul, of our Republic. When the hot September sun finally set upon the devastated battlefield in western Maryland, over 23,000 Americans had fallen. It remains the bloodiest single day in U.S. history, inflicting more losses than 9/11, D-Day, or Pearl Harbor.
One must ask whether the eruptions of racial brush-fires across our nation, five-and-a-half decades after the passing of the landmark Civil Rights Act, might be viewed through more tempered lenses on both sides if they understood just how much we Americans, white and black, suffered together through four agonizing years of wholesale fratricide to end the atrocity of slavery in North America and create a new nation … a nation where a black man, who in antebellum times would have been considered property, was elected by a 72% white nation to the highest office in the land. Two million Union troops fought to end slavery (whether they knew it or not) including 180,000 black soldiers, and recent studies estimate that over 400,000 may have died in the process. Perhaps we could appreciate how much we’ve struggled and fought together to advance civil rights in this country if we were more knowledgeable of battles like Antietam, which gave Lincoln the victory he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The march to equality in the United States began not on the football sidelines or even a Montgomery bus, but rather on the killing fields along Antietam creek.
And yet, many young activists, so vocal in their righteousness, couldn’t tell you what the Battle of Antietam even was, or for that matter, much if anything about the Civil War, so much have our schools failed them. The nihilist children who defiantly tear down statues in contempt of the rule of law or call for the abolition of core institutions and even our federal republic itself know nothing about the nation they wish to remake. This would require knowledge that one only acquires through the serious examination of history. And that often means military history.
Unfortunately, the study of military history — a real dissection of warfare and battles from ancient Plataea to modern-day Fallujah — has been lost in our education system. But the story of us doesn’t exist apart from warfare and its origins. As Stanford classicist Victor Davis Hanson has pointed out, name an historian from antiquity: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, etc. … They felt that history was war. “It wasn’t because they liked war any more than a brain surgeon likes brain tumors, but they studied these pathologies and they felt that there were certain moments in the human experience that, for good or evil, were more important than other moments.”
He’s right. Antietam, whose victorious Union troops provided Lincoln the first key to unlocking the shackles of millions of Americans, born and unborn, is exponentially more important, each second by second, than whether NFL players take a knee. Not every moment in history is equal.
Military history and lessons of terrible suffering so many have endured to make this nation what we are, reminds us of this and gives us perspective. At last count there are four recognized military history programs in the U.S. where you can get a major … there are roughly 230 “peace studies” programs, which often tend to be an amalgam of Marxism (Purdue’s program director also co-edits Marxism Today magazine) and utopian new age-ism. We’re teaching a generation that we can stop war by telling people not to go to war.
Yet the sad truth of the human condition is, as Plato reminds us, only the dead have seen the end of war. Perhaps instead of avoiding the matter, we might teach the next generation of students why wars start, how they proceed, in what manner and by whom they are waged most successfully, and how we can end them in a way that prevents them from reoccurring. Maybe an understanding of the horrors of the Civil War, for example, might temper red-lined emotions in our own uncivil discourse and help us step back from the rage and consider that the names Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Shiloh, and, of course, Antietam have been written into our once-collective conscience with the blood of those who found compromise and civility less palatable to open conflict. In 1861 a generation chose to destroy their fellow Americans and plunge into the abyss of a war that cost the lives of a newly-revised figure of some 750,000 before the guns fell silent at Appomattox.
We should try to understand why we chronically destroy each other in the first place and what leads up to this in order to better help us learn how to live together in the here and now. And yet, I feel like our middle and high school curricula fail our kids in this regard.
Gen. George Patton famously said, “compared to war all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” As painful a subject as it is, it is worthy of more rigorous study in our classrooms. Otherwise it an attempt to shield an already overly-protected generation from a reality that will reach out and find them in the end, in one form or another, whether they like it or not. Education should educate … fully. Neglecting lesson plans covering battles like Antietam leaves a gaping hole in that essential mission. Without it, we cannot truly understand who we are, and what we stand for.
Whenever someone vilifies rather than tries to understand those on the opposite political spectrum, whenever a college facility is invaded by chanting students, speakers are denied a voice regardless of the repugnant visions they may espouse, congressional hearings and Supreme Court votes are grandstanded and disrupted, ignorant mobs replace discourse, private citizens harassed, threatened, and assaulted, or when congressmen are shot merely for their party affiliation, we are seeing this hole in the curricula being filled by the worst — and most tragically ignorant — angels of our nature.
Brad Schaeffer is an author, historian, and commodities trader. His eclectic body of articles and commentary have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and has appeared on Fox Business and CNBC. His World War 2 novel “Of Another Time And Place” (Post Hill/Simon & Schuster) will be available in bookstores on Nov. 6. You can pre-order his book on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, and other outlets.