Sept. 11's Place In History

civil war confederate general robert e. lee
Though many Americans believe that Sept. 11 was the bloodiest day in the United States' history, the sad distinction belongs to a battle fought 140 years ago and hundreds of miles from "ground zero" in New York.

The Western Maryland fields now stand deserted but the tranquil spot was once soaked in blood. On this land, thousands died at the Civil War battle of Antietam in 1862.

"About 4,000 soldiers were killed immediately on that particular day and another 2,000 to 5,000 were mortally wounded," said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson. "Their wounds were so serious that within a few hours — in some cases, a few weeks — they died of their wounds."

McPherson just wrote a new book on the battle called "Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam." He says that through grisly photographs — some of the most explicit battlefield pictures ever taken up to that time — the American public was soon aware of the devastation of Antietam. Still, it was seen as a tragic but comprehensible result of an ongoing war.

"It didn't come as a shock out of nowhere in the way that Sept. 11, 2001, came as a shock," said McPherson. "So, while there was a great deal of horror, the impact of American society in terms of this kind of horror — the kind of ghastly impact that it made — was not as great as Sept. 11 was."

But, the Battle of Antietam was a turning point for America. Abraham Lincoln used the news of the Union victory to issue the Emancipation Proclamation — freeing the slaves.

Now, the struggle to understand the historical significance of Sept. 11 has begun. Artifacts of that day and its aftermath have already become the stuff of history and museum exhibits. The Library of Congress has just put on display a few of Sept. 11 artifacts: Haunting photographs, screaming headlines and heartbreaking drawings by children. But was this day of trauma and terror a true turning point that will change everything?

"Sept. 11 is an event that's still so recent and raw that achieving some kind of historical perspective on this is really difficult," said Joseph Ellis, author of the bestseller "Founding Brothers."

He says events need time and distance to reveal their ultimate meaning.

"We won't know where Sept. 11 will rate in history," said Ellis. "In history written 50 years from now, it might be a mere blip on the radar screen."

But, Ellis says there are some things that we do know. For example, the events of Sept. 11 do not threaten the survival of America as did the Revolutionary War or the Civil War or even the Cuban Missile crisis.

"I think that Sept. 11 certainly threatens our psyches and it threatens the lives of individual Americans and it threatened all our lifestyles," explained Ellis. "But I don't think it's a crisis that is on the same level as several earlier crises in American history."

However, Ellis says that like other crises, Sept. 11 has already produced some results we may come to regret. The Justice Department's imprisonment of suspected terrorists without disclosing any evidence could come to be as despised as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which limited freedom of speech in 1798, or the internment of Japanese citizens after Pearl Harbor.

He believes America may have overreacted and created institutions that significantly reduced the private freedoms of citizens because they felt threatened — essentially making the terrorist act a success.

Yet, Ellis also understands there are reasons why we feel vulnerable.

"I think that for a lot of Americans the depth of hatred that exists in many parts of the world – especially the Middle East – was known," said Ellis. "But not known as fully and clearly is that the U.S. has more political, economic and cultural power that any nation state ever enjoyed in recorded history. As a result, we become the natural target."

And that unpleasant sensation of being a target has just begun to dawn on a generation that never had to dive under desks during Cold War air raid exercises. For young Americans, Sept. 11 meant — for the first time — living with fear.

To deal with that new reality, teacher Sonja Stejkskal started the school year with a new curriculum called "Responding to Terrorism" at Millard West High School in suburban Omaha.

The students held a mock senate hearing to consider what the U.S. policy should be. They considered everything from an attack on terrorists and those who harbor them to trying to root out the underlying causes of terrorism.

Listening to Stejkskal's students, one has to wonder what the future holds for them. McPherson said the future is uncertain since the event of Sept. 11 and that isn't truer than for these children.

"Here we are in September of 2002, and we aren't quite sure who's going to prevail in the war against terrorism," said McPherson. "We don't know what the final outcome is going to be and one can hope it will be a better world — free from the fear of terrorism. But we just don't know yet."