What happened here?
The Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862) was fought near Sharpsburg, Md., and Antietam Creek, as part of Lee’s Maryland Campaign. It was the first major battle in the war to take place on Northern soil and the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. The Union suffered more than 12,000 casualties with over 2,000 dead. The Confederates had more than 10,000 casualties with approximately 1,500 dead.
Legacy and Aftermath
Although the Battle of Antietam had no clear-cut winner, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan claimed it as a Northern victory. President Lincoln, although disappointed in McClellan’s failure to pursue Lee’s army more vigorously and possibly end the war, seized the opportunity to announce his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which would free all slaves in the Confederacy as of Jan. 1, 1863. As a result, the battle ended the South’s hope of gaining official recognition from the British and French.
Leaving our hotel in Hagerstown, we drove south along the Sharpsburg Pike (Rt. 65) towards the Antietam National Battlefield, with the lush, rolling Maryland landscape spread out before us. Dotted with farms, cattle, and split-rail fences, it looked like nothing more than a beautiful, tranquil rural scene. Then I spotted a Civil War monument off in the distance at the top of a narrow gravel road. Immediately, I felt as if the ghosts of the War were all around us.
We arrived at the visitor center around 9:30 a.m, where we were greeted again by Bill Sagle, our guide from Harpers Ferry. It was bright, sunny day with a merciful cool breeze. As we stood in the grass just outside the center and looked out over the battlefield, hardly a sign of the 21st century could be found, except for the occasional whoosh of a car passing down the pike nearby. It wasn’t hard to imagine that it was the late summer of 1862.
Just then, it struck me how the battlefield, with all the rolling, green hills; stone walls, paved pathways, etc., sort of resembled a modern golf course country club. The visitor center even looked like your average clubhouse. Bill smiled when I told him. “Yeah,” he said. “We hear that a lot.”
Then he turned to the students and got right down to business. “I’d like to know what your impression of this guy is,” he said, holding up an 8 x 10 of Maj. Gen. George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac at Antietam. The responses were less than complimentary.
“He’s an idiot.”
Bill took in these comments and then said that he’s actually in the other camp, the side that sees the much-criticized commander as a brilliant military strategist. This took the students somewhat by surprise, as I could read from their expressions. Then he went on to explain why he felt this way. It was the first of many times throughout the morning that he would challenge the students to see things from a different perspective.
Antietam being a rather expansive battlefield, we climbed aboard the bus to travel to our first spot on the tour: Dunker Church. During the battle, this humble house of worship marked the point where a number of Union attacks against the Confederate left flank would occur.
Next we stopped at the infamous Cornfield, which saw some of the heaviest fighting of the battle, as Union and Confederate troops see-sawed back and forth in a bloody clash among the stalks. Here, Bill talked a little about the tedious process of firing a gun, which soldiers on both sides had to master while under heavy fire. He even pulled out an example of a minie ball, which became the ammunition of choice in the War, and which made rifles much more accurate and deadly.
He also wanted to strip away any misconceptions the students might have about the battle or the Civil War in general. Talking of directing soldiers during battle, he described how loud and incredibly chaotic the average fighting scene was for the common soldier. “Forget all that John Wayne, sword over the head, leading the way stuff,” he said. “That’s for the movies.”
I followed up with him a little later about the subject of battlefield noise, and he told us that number one claim of veterans following the War was deafness. “It must have been incredible trying to be heard here,” he said of Antietam. “We’re talking 500 artillery pieces all firing at the same time.” These cannon blasts would reverberate off the sides of the surrounding hills, which must have created a deafening roar. Bill had even read accounts of one particular battery of men claiming to have blood coming out of their ears during the fight.
Bill kept sharing stories that really helped bring the War into the modern day. Like the story of the Mumma family, whose farm home was intentionally burned by Confederates, and a member of which who today works with the National Park Service (NPS). Or the one about the cannonball his neighbor unearthed in his backyard, just four weeks before our visit.
Then we walked down the Sunken Road (i.e., the Bloody Lane), where, for three hours, 2,200 Confederates held off wave after wave of attacks from 10,000 Union soldiers, and where the dead were piled high following the fight. Here, Bill told us about the four skeletons the NPS found nearby in 1998, belonging to members of the 88th New York Infantry Irish Brigade, which was decimated in a failed attack on the lane.
Next, we made our way down to Burnside’s Bridge, the legendary stone span where Gen. Burnside’s men tried to cross Antietam creek for several hours in the face of deadly fire from around 500 Confederate soldiers from Georgia on the other side.
Once again, back to the golf/country club analogy, I couldn’t help but think that the bridge resembled the famous one on the 18th hole of Augusta. Bill had no response.
The students walked across the bridge and stood on the other side, where Bill shared intricate details of that part of the battle. He then pointed out an immense Sycamore next to the bridge that is one Antietam’s “witness trees” – trees that were actually alive at the time of the battle.
Walking back to the bus, Bill spoke of the difficulty of separating myth from fact in the Civil War. “Being from around here,” he said, “you really have to un-learn a lot of what you hear.”
A short time later, having lunch at the Hagerstown Cracker Barrel, I asked some of the students for their opinion of Antietam and the tour.
“Definitely my favorite so far,” said Matt, a junior secondary social studies education major from Center Township, Pa. Matt was happy to see that Antietam, much like Gettysburg, is fortunate to have a lot of the battlefield protected and preserved for future generations. “I need to be able to step inside the battle in order to really understand it and get a feel for what really happened.”
Elise, a junior business management major from the North Hills, echoed Matt’s sentiments. “Antietam has been the most interesting day so far,” she said. “I felt like I could almost see the Union and Confederate soldiers on the battlefield.
“I also think it’s interesting how each general had a different way of commanding,” she added. “For example, how one was considered a ‘lion’ because of how violently and quickly he attacked, while another actually fired the artillery himself.”
After lunch, we piled back onto the bus to head to our final destination on the Civil War tour – Gettysburg – where tonight we’ll be going on a ghost hunt in the 1810 Farnsworth House Inn.
And I'll try not to make any golf-related comments.
--Valentine J. Brkich