Did ‘1883’ Antietam Flashback do the Real Battle Justice?

by Jon D. B.

The Civil War‘s Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest one-day battle in American military history. Did 1883 go far enough in illustrating its impact? But first, a warning as major 1883 spoilers are ahead.

‘1883’s Representation of Antietam

In Episode 2, “Behind Us, A Cliff,” 1883 shows Confederate soldier James Dutton (Tim McGraw) in the fallout of Antietam. He’s wounded, shell-shocked, beyond exhaustion, and the only man of his regiment left standing. As he stumbles through the carnage, Union troops march through the battlefield. It’s here that we meet Tom Hank’s George Meade, a Union general of the understanding sort as he sits by a sobbing James. “I know,” he offers this enemy survivor slowly. “I know…”

While the flashback sequence powerfully illustrates the toll Antietam took on James Dutton, it falls short of portraying the catastrophic casualties of this battle. In total, an estimated 23,000 soldiers were either dead, severely wounded, or missing after a 12-hour period – the bloodiest single day in American military history.

That day was September 17, 1862. Location: Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Antietam would end the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s first invasion into the North. And it’s what led to President Abraham Lincoln issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

The Carnage of September 17, 1862

As the American Battlefield Trust describes, 22,000 casualties came in those mere 12 hours. Military physicians are completely overwhelmed during and after the battle. Bodies are piled or thrown into ditches to make way for mass burials.

12,401 Union soldiers die in this single locale, with 10,316 Confederate soldiers falling alongside. The “Angel of the Battlefield,” Nurse Clara Barton, scrambles to save as many remaining lives as she can. Survivors recall the pungent smell of flesh as rivers of blood running beneath the bodies of their fallen brothers. It is Hell on Earth.

Bodies await burial in front of Dunker Church Antietam, Maryland, during the American Civil War. The battle was the bloodiest day in American history with over 20,000 casualties. (Photo by Alexander Gardner/Getty Images)

Visually, however, 1883‘s Antietam matches up perfectly with historic photographs (above). Painstaking care was taken to recreate this historic Civil War battle as the episode clearly shows.

The result is haunting. But no amount of Hollywood magic could ever conjure the pure horror that was September 17, 1862.

Still, landmarks (such as the iconic white cottage above) factor in to 1883‘s depiction. In fact, it appears the show filmed on location in order to feature this landmark. But that cottage is, in fact, a church; one of the most prominent in American military history.

Slaughter Before the Dunker Church

This is the Dunker Church, a national historic monument that stands to this day. A historical photograph is used for 1883, similar to the one seen above. Other famous photos and paintings of Dunker Church also survive, including the prominent Antietam illustration below:

Battle of Antietam. (Photo by: HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

As shocking as these images are, they speak volumes for the carnage that was Antietam.

Eventually, Confederate General Robert E. Lee would withdrawal from the battlefield, slipping back across the Potomac into Virginia. Union General George B. McClellan orders a pursuit, which fails, and The Battle of Antietam ends a tactical draw.

President Abraham Lincoln, however, would claim a strategic victory. He would visit the headquarters set up on the site of battle mere weeks later on October 3, 1862 (below).

President Abraham Lincoln, also General George B. McClellan at his headquarters at Antietam, October 3, 1862. (Getty Images Archives)

While 1883 may not have shown the full horrors of this historic battle, the Yellowstone prequel may do so soon. According to show creator Taylor Sheridan, more Civil War flashbacks will appear. And we can’t wait to see how they unfold.