We really had an amazing speaker for Lakeside’s Civil War week Tuesday and Wednesday, Dennis Frye, the chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the author of seven books and scores of articles on a variety of Civil War topics. He did a presentation on John Brown on Tuesday that was excellent and then today talked about the Battle of Antietam and why it was more important than Gettysburg. He said President Lincoln was seen as a complete failure in September 1862 when everyone hated him and the Union was losing on five fronts, the 5th front being in Minnesota against the Indians who had decided to fight the U.S. troops. Even the abolitionists had turned against Lincoln because they believed he should move quickly to free the slaves.
People today complain about the treatment of Obama, but he read excerpts from the press of that day, and really, it was hateful and I don’t think today any newspaper would be allowed to say those things about a president. The election (House) was coming up in October 1862 and if the Democrats won they would have cut off appropriations for the war and it would have been over—and no “United” States. There was no election for Senate because in those days the states appointed senators.
(Background on Harpers Ferry) But the Union troops won the battle of Antietam (24,000 casualties in one day) and that stopped Lee’s march into Pennsylvania, so public opinion of the failed presidency turned around and the Republicans held on to Congress in the election. It also stopped England and France from stepping in. Then on Sept. 22 Lincoln took political advantage of this win and issued the Executive Order for the Emancipation Proclamation.
Frye works for the Park Service and lives in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He’s quite dramatic and speaks without notes--I suspect he’s given these presentations many times. He’s easy to find on YouTube. Early in the Antietam talk he noted that the farm land on which the battle happened was owned by Dunkers, but didn’t really explain the term. Of course, I knew what that was--German Baptist Brethren, or today’s Church of the Brethren. However, at the end of his talk he was dramatizing finding some bodies in an archeological dig when that battle field was still in private hands in 1987 (now a national park) with picking up bullets from the chest cavity of a long dead soldier., With a dramatic pause he said it was ironic that the worst battle in American history, a battle that changed the course of history, was fought on land owned by Dunkers who were pacifists. Then he said, “I am a Dunker, my ancestors were all Dunkers.” Quite an ending to a powerful talk.