One of the more interesting regiments at the Battle of Antietam was the 51st Pennsylvania. Their story is told on every battlefield tour, not only because of their role in carrying the Burnside Bridge, but also for the famous account of whiskey being promised to them for a successful outcome.
All Antietam accounts relate the extensive nature of the pollution of the landscape upon which the battle was fought. In that most of the Army of the Potomac did not move for many weeks after the battle, it was necessary for health reasons to spread out over a wide region. They established new camps, additionally for the purpose of observing any potential enemy movements – especially along the length of the Potomac River.
The historian of the 51st – Thomas Parker – wrote the following about their new location – set up about 10 days after the battle. I had to chuckle at the following paragraph:
This camp was beautifully located, and the white tents of McClellan’s vast army dotted hills and plains as far as the naked eye could discern. It became a wonder whence all the troops could have possibly come from, for not one-tenth of them had been seen at either South Mountain or Antietam, and it was always a source of wonder to the men while on a march that it was while moving there were always apparently enough troops in the column to swallow up the whole Confederate force, but when in a fight, two or three brigades would be about all that could ever be seen, and that after the battle would be over it should be found that every command had been engaged. (excerpt from “History of the 51st Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers and Veteran Volunteers”by Thomas H. Parker, p. 234)
Truthfully, not all of the 87,000 or so troops that McClellan had with him at Antietam were engaged. In fact, as many as 20,000 were held in reserve. Along with the smoke of battle and the hyper concentration upon the task immediately at hand, it is easy to imagine how isolated the common soldier must have oft felt in the midst of the fight.