JFK at Antietam

One of the things I love about revisiting a battlefield is to see what jumps out at me this time. Each visit has the opportunity to bring something new if I remain open to it. Such was the case during a recent trip to Antietam.

The museum in the downstairs of the visitor center has some cool stuff on display, but of particular note to me this time was a large photograph of President John F. Kennedy taken during a visit to the park on April 7, 1963. Historian Robert Lagemann is standing with JFK on Burnside’s Bridge. The image itself was cool to see, especially so large, but what really made an impression on me was the quote, reproduced in large letters, that accompanied the photo. 

Antietam symbolizes something even more important than combat heroism and military strategy. It marks a diplomatic turning point of world-wide consequence. From this point onward, our Civil War had a new dimension which was important to the whole course of human liberty.

A veteran himself, Kennedy knew something about combat heroism. Wounded in action during WWII, he was decorated for bravery. And as president of the United States, he knew a little something about diplomacy of world-wide consequence, too, as demonstrated by his deft handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It struck me as no small thing for JFK to make note of Antietam as a turning point not just of the war but of “the whole course of human liberty.”

I can hear him, in his thick Yankee accent, saying those words aloud in that clear, forceful voice of his. His sentiment echoed the brave optimism of his inaugural address, where he vowed to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

JFK at Antietam

image courtesy NPS from a display in the Antietam NB visitor center

What must Kennedy have thought as he stood on that bridge, with his sunglasses on, looking off toward the high western bank of Antietam creek? What impression did the story of America’s bloodiest day make on him? How did he see that “turning point,” with its impact on “the whole course of human liberty”? I wonder about this last question a lot, knowing as I do that America stood on the brink of huge Civil Rights advances, but only after tumultuous, tumultuous times.

I wonder, too, about Kennedy, standing on that bridge where so many Union soldiers were shot down by long-range rifle fire. Knowing that Kennedy would likewise be shot down by long-range rifle fire just over seven months after this photo was taken—a monumental turning point in its own right—I have reason to pause. I think of that “whole course of human liberty” again. JFK’s assassination—55 years ago today—opened the way for LBJ’s ascension to the presidency and, eventually, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Would a Civil Rights Act have happened anyway, without LBJ?

What must Kennedy have thought as he stood there? Could he hear that “whole course of human liberty” flowing around him, like the quiet waters of Antietam Creek passing beneath him between the arches of Burnside Bridge?