Visitors Make Their Stand in Battle for Antietam
“It’s just yonder, down the street at the Sunoco station,” the man at the Shell station said in a pleasant Maryland drawl. “You can’t miss it.”
And there it was, at the base of a post supporting the oval Sunoco sign: a small, squared-off chunk of stone with a step cut into it.
A brass plaque told the story: “From 1800 to 1865 human beings stood on this stone to be sold at auction.”
For a traveler interested in politics, history and old wars, the reminder is evocative.
In this western Maryland farm town, a bloody battle on Sept. 17, 1862 ultimately rendered the stone obsolete. The conflict, named after nearby Antietam Creek, stopped an invasion of the North, led to a presidential proclamation freeing the slaves and kept Europe out of the Civil War.
Despite these complex results, the battle is a simple one to understand, partly because a careful plan to coordinate three Union attacks on the Confederate lines was botched. As a result, the battle took place in three easily traceable stages in the morning, midday and afternoon.
Still Small and Quiet
The battlefield is different from the better-known one near Gettysburg, Pa. Sharpsburg is almost as small and quiet a place in 1989 as it was in 1862, and much of the field is still farmland. Elaborate Victorian monuments are at a minimum, and no motels or wax museums elbow the site. Cattle graze near cannons.
Visitors to Antietam tend to be “more truly interested in the Civil War” than those who visit Gettysburg, said Richard Rambur, superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield Park.
Most of the fighting took place on a hillside sloping gently down to Antietam Creek. Beyond the creek, fields recede to blue hills, which on an early spring day show wisps of cloud in the gaps, remnants of a morning rainstorm that look like battle smoke. In 1862, that smoke was real.
The Union troops under Gen. George B. McClellan attacked from the east, over the creek. The Confederate troops he was chasing, led by Gen. Robert E. Lee, turned and made their stand on the hillside between the creek and the town.
The details can be learned in an hour’s drive along battlefield roads with a tape cassette rented from National Park Service headquarters.
Focus of Early Fighting
The cassette commentary directs the traveler first to an area around Dunker Church, the focus of much of the fighting early in the day. There Union Gen. Joseph Hooker started the battle with artillery fire on Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s men and then attacked through a cornfield.
Gen. Hooker wrote later that the corn “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.”
Today, as the driver hears the story, he passes through fields that still are being farmed. Monuments and markers are set along the roads to keep them out of the plow’s way.
Patches of woods that the cassette describes as significant to the battle have been cleared, although quaint metal Victorian markers designate their outlines. Here and there is the odd sight of a cannon embedded in a brick monument, muzzle down.
Peering into the remaining patch of woods, the driver is surprised to see people staring back at him: The presence of a small, suburban-style house, with a car, pickup and Big Wheels in the driveway, makes it clear that people consider the former battlefield their home.
Rambur described how the park service has dealt with the problem of preserving a battlefield in an area where people live, farm and watch cable television. One local controversy has been the construction of a cable antenna and dishes on a hill that McClellan used as a lookout.
The park service has benefited from help such as that of the Arlington, Va.-based Conservation Fund, which is buying $1.1 million worth of the former battlefield, including the cornfield Gen. Hooker described.
The auto tour next passes the spot where the West Woods once stood and where Union Gen. John Sedgwick’s division lost more than 2,200 men in less than a half hour, then moves into the “midday” phase of the battle.
It passes a small, neat farmhouse, rebuilt after being burned down during the battle to prevent it from being a shelter for Union sharpshooters, and goes on to the Sunken Road.
There, for nearly four hours, the two sides fought over a country road since known as Bloody Lane. Pictures taken by photographers who flocked to the field after the battle show the trench-like road full of bodies and broken fence rails.
“Before the sunlight faded I walked over the narrow field,” a New York City private, David L. Thompson, wrote in “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” published by the Century Co. in 1884.
“All around lay the Confederate dead. . . . All enmity died out. There was no ‘secession’ in those rigid forms nor in those fixed eyes staring at the sky. Clearly it was not their war.”
The last part of the battle took place at the southern end of the field 1 1/2 miles from the earlier action. Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside had hesitated all day on the east side of the creek near a bridge, apparently unaware that his men could wade across.
Occasionally he would send troops across a narrow bridge, only for them to be shot down by a few hundred Georgia riflemen on a hill overlooking it. Finally, in the late afternoon, he began a large-scale charge that took the bridge and moved over the hills toward Sharpsburg.
But at that moment Gen. Lee’s army received reinforcements: Gen. A. P. Hill’s division, which had marched the 15 miles from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., that day. Like the cavalry in a Western movie, Hill and his men swooped down to beat back Burnside.
Today’s driver can park his car at the top of the hill where the Confederates stood, and walk down to the bridge. Here and there are monuments to Connecticut regiments, most of which were in this part of the field. It is a quiet place; the river swirls under the old stone bridge as it has for years before and since the battle.
Neither side had changed position much by sunset of the bloodiest day of the Civil War. In 12 hours, 3,654 men on both sides had been killed, 17,303 wounded and 1,771 captured or missing.
A film shown to Antietam visitors is honest about what happened there. “People come out crying,” Rambur says.
Others come out angry. In some ways, the war isn’t over. The film’s juxtaposition of a portrait of Gen. Lee and a photograph of the scars on a slave’s back has infuriated some Southern viewers.
On summer weekends, groups of volunteers dress up as soldiers or field doctors or nurses--Clara Barton made her name on this battlefield--and act out the story.
These are not weekend soldiers, living out fantasies in uniform, Rambur said. “Those tend to stay away. The ones we get are college professors, retired officers, real doctors, people with something to say. They don’t just shoot off cannon; they describe how artillery was used at Antietam.”
Deflected From Their Goal
If the battle hadn’t been fought, Abraham Lincoln might not have freed the slaves and the Civil War might have ended in a stalemate, with European countries calling the shots.
After Antietam, the Confederates were unable to continue to Harrisburg, Pa., their goal. Although the Union’s Gen. McClellan dawdled while Gen. Lee’s army escaped, Lincoln decided to call the battle a victory.
On Sept. 22 he proclaimed that as of Jan. 1, 1863, “All persons held as slaves within any state, or any designated part of a state, the people thereof being in rebellion against the government of the United States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.”
Britain derided the proclamation. How could Lincoln free the slaves in states he didn’t control? And why leave the slaves in bondage in states such as Maryland that hadn’t seceded?
But the then British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, backed off from recognizing the South, now that Lincoln had made the war a moral crusade and not just an organizational one. Without European support, the Southerners were on the defensive until the inevitable end.
And for three more years, until the real end to slavery by constitutional amendment, human beings were still bought and sold on the stone in Sharpsburg, within sight of the battlefield of Antietam.
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For more information, write to the Maryland Office of Tourist Development, 45 Calvert St., Annapolis 21401, or call (301) 269-3517.