The battlefield at Antietam is spread out over a dozen square miles, and at irregular intervals there are markers where men from different parts of the United States, north and south, fought and died. There are markers and monuments where Robert E. Lee pitched his tent and where men from both sides struggled at the place now called “Bloody Lane.”
There is also a monument on the field where Clara Barton (left) served, noting that she “brought supplies and nursing to the wounded.” The inscription also reads, “This act of love and mercy led to the birth of the present American National Red Cross.”
Clara Barton was not the only one who served the troops that day, September 17, 1862. Future American president William McKinley was a commissary officer during the battle of Antietam. McKinley was tasked with providing meals and drink to the federal forces under fire at the site which would eventually become known as Burnside’s Bridge.
This bridge over Antietam Creek was at the center of fire between Confederate defenders on the west and Major General Ambrose Burnside’s (below) troops on the east; early in the afternoon, the bridge fell to Union control.
Though the battle concluded with no distinguishable victor, Antietam would assume even greater resonance in later years; the horror of Antietam gave Abraham Lincoln the impetus to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which subsequently linked the war directly to the plight of the slaves. The preliminary Emancipation was issued on September 22, 1862, just five days after the battle.
As Civil War historian and Antietam park ranger John David Hoptak notes, no less than eight American presidents are connected to the battlefield. Both McKinley and Lincoln were serving the nation as, respectively, soldier and president during their time on the field, while the remaining six visited the site in tribute. John F. Kennedy toured the site in the spring of 1963, viewed Burnside’s bridge, and re-dedicated the American purpose of freedom there on the battlefield. Jimmy Carter was the last president to see Antietam on an official visit in 1978.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Clara Barton / John Sartain, / Engraving on paper, 1882 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Ambrose Everett Burnside,/ Unidentified Artist / Hand-colored steel engraving (proof), undated / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution