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Antietam National Battlefield

Posted on Wednesday, August 26, 2020

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Guest Blogger: Andrew Terranova, Concierge, Sofitel Philadelphia

The Bloody Lane, Antietam National Battlefield

If you’re an American History buff like myself, you’d appreciate that Philadelphia is a Mecca for historical exploration. But not many of our Founding Fathers other than Benjamin Franklin called Philadelphia a permanent home. While George Washington lived at the President’s House (6th and Market Streets) and Thomas Jefferson lived at the Declaration House or Graff House (7th and Market Streets), they were transient guests who enjoyed the cosmopolitan Capital city of the new nation. For Jefferson and Washington, the Old Dominion State, Virginia, was the place where they called their true homes. It has been a long time coming that I finally traveled the short car ride from Philadelphia to their estates to connect the dots of their homes with their business in Philadelphia. I even took a pit stop at a Civil War battlefield, which I will talk about in this blog.

Traveling during the time of COVID-19 may seem like an iffy idea, but if you’re as safe as I tried to be, you can be cautious, enjoy yourself and still get good deals on hotels and attractions. I passed through Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and even a portion of the Washington, DC area -- I was pleased to see these states and their historic attractions incredibly health conscious.

View from the Antietam National Battlefield Visitor Center

Jumping ahead four-score and several years from the American Revolution, my first stop on my whirlwind, four-day tour was the Civil War Battlefield of Antietam. Located in the no-stoplight, 2-block-long town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, the Antietam Battlefield is the site of the single bloodiest day in our country’s history. It is a melancholy reminder of the wounds our young nation is still trying to repair.

About a 3+ hours drive from Independence Hall in Philadelphia is the sleepy, unassuming town of Sharpsburg. Never from driving down the desolate downtown streets would you believe that one of the most important and game-changing days of the Civil War took place in this countryside. I wouldn’t get there hungry, as it is not like the town of Gettysburg with shops and restaurants to enjoy after the sites.

The Battle of Antietam was one of the most pivotal moments of the Civil War. As Abraham Lincoln contemplated freeing the slaves, he realized that he needed a decisive Union victory to produce such a proclamation. Meanwhile, Europe eyed the Confederacy with much intrigue, since Europe’s main supply of cotton came from the American South. In September 1862, the Union and Confederate sides came to deathblows near the Antietam Creek. In one day, 23,000 would lay dead or dying on the battlefield. But Antietam was a Union victory, which changed Europe’s mind about intervention and gave Lincoln the momentum he needed to enact the Emancipation Proclamation.

Welcome to the Antietam Battlefield

Antietam National Battlefield Map

Your first stop to assimilate yourself with the battlefield is the Visitor’s Center. You can pick up an audio tour, or when the Pandemic passes, you can take a guided tour. The Visitor Center Museum was unfortunately closed, but Park Rangers were available to answer questions. Also, my favorite part, the gift shop, was still open for souvenirs. Allow yourself 3-4 hours to see everything, more time if you intend to hike through the many trails.

From the Visitor Center, it’s quite easy to navigate the small, intimate battlefield. Since this was a one-day battle, it’s much smaller than Gettysburg, which roared along for three bloody days.

Without giving too many details as there are 12 stops on the tour, I will hit the must-see highlights.

Battle 1: The Dunker Church and Cornfield

Across from the Visitor Center stands Dunker Church, one of the most important spots on the tour. The Battle of Antietam began at the crack of dawn on September 17, 1862. The first battle was to General Lee’s left. A clump of Federal soldiers had an objective, a plateau containing artillery. Dunker Church, a church belonging to a small, modest German Baptist pacifist sect, sat remotely and unassuming at the top of the plateau. The church was so simple with no steeple, that it was mistaken for a schoolhouse. This German Baptist group were celebrating service the morning of the attack. They were called Dunkers because of their full-immersion baptisms. The building standing today is a recreation, because the original building was destroyed in the war.

Dunker Church, Antietam National Battlefield

The Federals charged along Hagerstown Pike to attack Jackson’s men, who were hidden in tufts of forest beyond acres of cornfield. According to Stephen W. Sears in his book, "Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam," in this stage of the battle, “Fighting Joe” Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker led the Union troops. From both sides of the cornfield, batteries opened fire. Bullets lobbed off the corn stalks like a scythe. Hooker recalled that “every stalk of corn in the greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before.” Even Hooker didn’t leave unscathed. He was shot in the foot and carried off the field, but the Union army carried on toward Dunker Church. The rebels began fleeing into the woods. Here’s a tip: anywhere you see a statue of a cannon embedded in stone, a General was killed in battle on that spot.

Antietam National Battlefield

It was at this point that Jackson sent in his last reserves, the division of Texans. Normally prickly and hard fighting, they were interrupted from their breakfast – their first meal in days. The hunger brought out their animalistic instincts. This was the Confederate counterattack, and things would get worse for the advantageous Union army. Led by General John Bell Hood, the troops ran into the cornfield and attacked. The Union and Confederates volleyed across the cornfield 15 times. Union General John Sedgwick's division then succeeded in advancing into the Dunker West Woods, but Lafayette McLaws' and Walker's troops successfully advanced and killed or wounded more than half of his division.

Farmhouses at Antietam National Battlefield

The Union assault had been halted, but at a terrible price. Sixty percent of the men who went into the cornfield never left it. When an officer asked where the rest of his troops were after the battle, his only response was “dead on the field.” In a matter of three hours, 2,000 men were dead and another 12,000 were injured in the fiery exchange. 

Battle 2: "The Bloody Lane"

The Bloody Lane (Sunken Road), Antietam National Battlefield

Now we travel to the “Bloody Lane” and a cluster of bucolic farmhouses dating back to the Civil War. It was known as the Sunken Road to area residents prior to the battle. A dirt farm lane used by farmers to bypass Sharpsburg, worn down into the ground over the years by rain and wagon traffic.

One of the farmhouses became a hospital where Clara Barton worked tirelessly to save lives. “As bullets whizzed overhead and artillery boomed in the distance, Barton cradled the heads of suffering soldiers, prepared food, and brought water to the wounded men. As she knelt down to give a wounded man a drink, she felt her sleeve quiver. She noticed a bullet hole in her sleeve and discovered that the bullet killed the man for whom she was caring.”

Farmhouses at Antietam National Battlefield

Midday on the 17th, Confederates, led by Maj. Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill braced themselves for the advance of the Union army by pitting 2,600 men along the road. They piled fence rails on the embankment to fortify their station and waited. As Federal troops moved to reinforce the fighting in the West Woods, Union Maj. Gen. William H. French and his 5,500 men veered South, towards Hill's position along the Sunken Road. As French's men approached the Sunken Road, the Confederate troops staggered them with a powerful volley delivered at a range of less than one hundred yards.

Cannons Embedded in Stone Signify Where a General Died

This second phase of the battle raged on from 9:30AM to 1PM. Although the Confederates were outnumbered, they still had a well-defended position. The Sunken Road, now appropriately known as Bloody Lane, overflowed with the bodies of the dead and dying. Union and Confederate troops dug in. French and General Israel B. Richardson`s division, fought hard to chase back the Confederates. Outnumbered but with a well-defended position, the Confederates in the road stood their ground for most of the morning. After much abuse, the Federals were able to overwhelm Hill's men. They managed to successfully drive them from this strong position and pierced the center of the Confederacy's line. The Union held the Confederates back, but they didn’t continue attacking. Although continuing to fight may have broken through the enemy line, Union General George McClellan deemed the attempt to be not prudent. Confusion and sheer exhaustion was the only thing that could end this phase of the battle. In three hours of combat, 5,500 soldiers were killed or wounded. Neither side gained a decisive advantage.

There is an observation tower located at Sunken Lane which gives you a panoramic vista of the battlefield, but it is currently closed due to the pandemic.

Battle 3: Burnside Bridge

Burnside Bridge Antietam National Battlefield

The third battle of the day was located on the Confederate right. Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside tried to have his corps fight their way across a spectacularly fortified stone bridge across Antietam Creek.

Burnside had command of 12,500 troops in four divisions East of the creek The force opposite him had been greatly depleted by Lee's movement of units to bolster the Confederate left flank. A thorny task lay ahead for the troops attempting to cross the bridge. The road leading to the bridge ran parallel to the creek, which exposed troops to enemy shooting. To make matters worse, a 100 foot high wooded bluff overlooked the bridge on the west bank. Boulders from an old quarry were scattered around the creek, making it a breeze for infantry and sharpshooters to fire from heavily covered positions.

Four times the bridge was sieged under the command of Burnside. The Confederates held up Burnside for three hours before the Union Army managed to cross the creek and begin pressing the last Confederate line in front of Sharpsburg. Union victory seemed certain as the Southern line of retreat to the Potomac was quite severed. General Lee watched in despair from a hilltop. Suddenly, peering through a telescope, Lee noticed the dusty colors of gray and the Confederate flag from far to the South. It was the Confederate Light Division arriving from Harper’s Ferry, led by General Ambrose Hill in rapid, 17 mile journey.

As this new group of soldiers appeared on the horizon, Burnside asked McClellan to send up the reinforcements he had been promised. Yet again, McClellan stated it wouldn’t be prudent. Prudency, it seems, would not take this general very often into battle.

Also noteworthy -- visit the beautiful memorial to President William McKinley at this stop, as he fought at Burnside Bridge. I asked a Park Ranger why they felt the need to cross a bridge of a creek that was less than a foot deep. He playfully rolled his eyes and said “they couldn’t swim back then.” Imagine dodging rapid bullets whizzing past your skull while crossing a bridge over a creek you could have waded through…

By 5:30PM, the long day of carnage came to a close. An estimated 22,000 men died at Antietam, more than the Mexican American War, War of 1812 and D-Day combined. The South suffered fewer casualties, but their numbers were smaller to begin with and this bloody battle completely dented the Confederate Army’s head count.

Even with all the carnage, the Union could lay claim to a victory at Antietam. Had McClellan acted with more bravado, the war could have ended that day. Plenty of reserves were awaiting the signal outside Sharpsburg. Lee was now outnumbered three-to-one. He braced himself and his troops for what surely would be a second day of attack. On September 18, a wire came to McClellan from Abraham Lincoln, wishing him God’s blessings and to “destroy the rebel army if possible.” But there was no attack. Lee’s army was halted. Temporarily.

McClellan vs. Lincoln

On October 1, Lincoln traveled to Sharpsburg to meet General McClellan. The President instructed his commander to follow Lee’s army. But McClellan continued faltering and asking for more reinforcements.

According to Geoffrey Ward, Ken Burns, and Ric Burns in "The Civil War: An Illustrated History", “I have just read your dispatch about sore-tongued and fatigued horses,” said Lincoln to McClellan in a telegraph on October 25. “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the Battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?” Lincoln, frankly, was fed up with General McClellan.

General McClelland

I hear the distant thunder-hum,
Maryland!
The Old Line's bugle, fife, and drum,
Maryland!
She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb-
Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum!
She breathes! she burns! she'll come! she'll come!
Maryland! My Maryland

On September 3, 1862, 55,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia entered the border state of Maryland triumphantly, egos still swollen with the victory at Second Bull Run on August 30. The invasion of Maryland was meant to coincide with invasions of Kentucky on two fronts. It was believed that the Confederacy would be welcomed in Maryland, as Marylanders had been weary of Abraham Lincoln and as evidenced by the Baltimore riots of 1861 (when Massachusetts militia entered Baltimore en route to Washington for federal service, confederate sympathizers mobbed and attacked the soldiers, causing the first official bloodshed of the Civil War). When the Confederates entered Maryland, they sang the patriotic fight song, “Maryland, my Maryland,” in the hopes of inspiring anti-Union sentiment among Marylanders. The tone in Maryland had changed however, as citizens watched in cold silence or hid in their houses. A bystander wrote as she watched from her doorstep that “This body of men moving along with no order, their guns carried in every fashion, no two dressed alike, their officers hardly distinguishable from the privates…Were these the men that had driven back again and again our splendid legions?” Confederate field commanders were no better off than their troops. General Robert E. Lee carried two bandaged and splinted hands, injured in a fall. General “Stonewall” Jackson had a badly injured back. Meanwhile, the Army of the Potomac was cheered and revered in Maryland.

McClellan made the assumption that Lee was preparing to march on either Washington or Baltimore, but Lee’s true target was a Federal rail center in Harrisburg, PA. Before Lee could make it there, Jackson wanted to ensure that his supply line remained open, and sent half his command under Jackson to capture the 1,200 man Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry, while he concentrated the rest of his army at Hagerstown, twenty miles to the North. In his customarily cautious manner, McClellan pursued them.

On September 9, 1862, General Lee drafted a document detailing the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia into an invasion of Maryland. Lee had divided his army into pieces which he planned to regroup later. There were four commands according to this order

  • Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson was to move his command to Martinsburg.
  • Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaw was sent to capture Harper’s Ferry.
  • Maj. Gen. James Longstreet was to march his command north to Boonsborough.
  • Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill was to act as a rear guard on the march from Frederick.

Several copies of the command were penned and distributed to various Confederate generals. One copy didn’t make it. On September 13, 1862, Corporal Barton W. Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Volunteers discovered in the grass while lying against a tree in a campground that Hill had just vacated, an envelope with three cigars wrapped in the paper. Seeing the grave importance of this letter, it was then forwarded to the commander of the Army of the Potomac, General McClellan. “Now I know what to do! Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home!” exclaimed McClellan.

Excited as McClellan seemed to be, he waited 18 hours to make a move, decidedly squandering his advantage. He was convinced, even with this intelligence, that he was outnumbered by an army that was actually only half the size of his. Historians also theorize his delay because of the risk of entrapment, but common knowledge says that McClellan had already proven a record of striking long after the iron had gone lukewarm. As beloved as he was by his troops, McClellan’s hesitance caused a rift between the President and himself that would ultimately tear the two apart after Antietam.

On the morning of September 15, Lee and his 18,000 Confederates made a base along the crest of the three mile ridge just east of a small town named Sharpsburg, wedged between Potomac to their back and the Antietam Creek to their front. The Confederates watched in sheer amazement as an army of 95,000 men in blue soon began arriving across Antietam Creek.

If McClellan had given the command and thrust his great army forward to the vastly outnumbered Confederates that day or the next, the war may have been over right then and there at Sharpsburg. But in customary dalliance fashion, McClellan studiously made plans to get everything in order, all the while believing they opposed a formidable foe of 100,000. The longer the wait, the more the Confederates regrouped. Meanwhile, Jackson’s forces rejoined Lee and the competition steadily increased. It would not be an easy victory at this point for the Union. An aide to Lee recalled “There was a single item in our advantage, but it was an important one.” He was referring, of course, to General McClellan, whose reputation preceded him.

Insider Information

General George B. McClellan was relieved of his command on November 5, 1862. As a side note, George B. McClellan was born in Philadelphia and lived on Walnut Street between 9th and 10th Streets (where the Wawa now stands) and attended the University of Pennsylvania.

McClennan House Pennsylvania Historical Marker, Walnut Street between 9th and 10th Streets, Philadelphia

Conclusion: Antietam National Cemetery

Antietam National Battlefield Cemetery

The last stop on our tour was the last stop for many soldiers. The Antietam National Cemetery is the final resting place of nearly 5,000 soldiers who died at Antietam.

On September 17, 1867, on the fifth anniversary of the battle, the Cemetery was ready for the dedication ceremonies. The ceremony was important enough to bring President Andrew Johnson and other dignitaries. President Johnson proclaimed, "When we look on yon battlefield, I think of the brave men who fell in the fierce struggle of battle, and who sleep silent in their graves. Yes, many of them sleep in silence and peace within this beautiful enclosure after the earnest conflict has ceased."

Only five days after Antietam, the bodies of the battlefield just barely cold, Abraham Lincoln made a sweeping gesture that would forever personify him as an American Moses.  And it was through this bloodshed that Lincoln had been given the opportunity for which he had been waiting. Lincoln freed the slaves.
“On the first day of January, in the year of our Lord on thousand eight hundred and sixty three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforth, and forever free.”
– The Emancipation Proclamation.

Although the Proclamation promised freedom to slaves in unoccupied territories, border states of Maryland, Missouri and Tennessee remained under the galling yoke of slavery. The war would rage on, killing thousands more, for almost another three years.  Still, this incredible move by the President was a revolutionary charter, much like how the Declaration of Independence gave America a meaning to the Revolution. In a way, this was a step forward in completing the mission of 1776. Finally, all men would be free. The men who laid down their lives at Antietam died to make men free.

Moving On!

Antietam truly is an adventure for Civil War buffs. It’s remarkable to think about how much happened in one day, and the rippling effects it would have for the rest of the war.

Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park

I was sad to leave, but onwards to Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson country! A fun detour to take from Antietam to Charlottesville is down thrilling Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park. You do have to pay to get in the park, so be prepared for a hefty fee. Once you’re on Skyline Drive, you’re on it for at least 60 miles, 3,300 feet in the air, along the side of a mountain, driving 35mph. The views are stunning, but do NOT drive down Skyline Drive on a rainy, thick foggy day (like we did). My mother, from Buffalo, made me feel safer because she spent her whole life driving through famous Western New York blizzards. I felt comfortable with her at the wheel.

Check out my next blog, when I get to visit Monticello, the home of a personal hero of mine, Thomas Jefferson. After that, onwards to Washington’s Mount Vernon!

Driving Route from Philadelphia to Antietam National Battlefield

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