My First Trip to Antietam/Sharpsburg

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Cemetery at Antietam

By Colin Woodward

“A great and a terrible day.”

–From Glory, 1989

On Thursday, I traveled to Sharpsburg, Maryland, to see the Antietam battlefield, scene of the bloodiest day in American history, where Lee and McClellan tore each other’s armies apart for twelve gory hours. The savage fighting in the cornfield, the sunken road, and at Burnside’s Bridge, led to 23,000 killed wounded and captured. The 3,700 men killed at Antietam was more than the deaths on D-Day or 9-11. Other days during the Civil War were almost as horrendous. But the “great and terrible day” (as the actor playing Governor John Andrew says in the movie Glory) at Antietam was the worst.

For all its importance, it’s taken me 41 years to see the Antietam battlefield. When you ask those who have traveled to many Civil War battlefields which is the best to visit, they often say Antietam or Shiloh. One reason for citing Antietam, I suppose, is how well the battlefield has been preserved. Cars can pass through the area, but modern life doesn’t intrude very much.

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More important, it doesn’t seem like gas stations or discount stores will clutter the landscape anytime soon. Walk to the high ground by the visitor’s center and you can get a good view of most of the battlefield and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the south. The area seems not to have changed all that much since 1862. The area feels safe from the sprawl of 21st century urban living.

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Dunker Church

 

When I first arrived, I went inside the visitor’s center to get a map. To my surprise, I was told that admission to the park was $5. I had never been asked to pay at a battlefield site before. I had no problem paying the fee. Five dollars isn’t that much, and it was going to a good cause. However, if you have no desire to go into the visitor’s center, you can save yourself five dollars by just exploring the battlefield.

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The cornfield

 

I began my self-guided tour in the area of the Dunker/Dunkard Church (the church is not original; it was rebuilt in the 1960s). The area is where Lee’s left flank was, and where Stonewall Jackson’s corps fought off the vicious assaults from the Union right. It was where John Bell Hood’s division halted Joe Hooker’s men, but at a great cost. When asked where his division was after the fighting died down, Hood answered: “dead on the field.”

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The sunken road at Antietam. The Yankee attack came in the area to the right of the photo.

The battle then shifted toward the center of the line at what has become known as Bloody Lane. Wave after wave of Yankees were mowed down by the Confederates, whose ranks included Brigadier General John B. Gordon, who later commanded a division in Lee’s army. The Rebels made the Union troops pay a heavy price until some northern soldiers figured out how to dislodge the Confederates. The Yankees managed to pour an enfilading fire on the southern line. The Confederate pulled back from the sunken road in order to avoid disaster. For his trouble, General Gordon was wounded several times, including once in the face, and was carried unconscious from the fighting.

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General John B. Gordon

 

Visitors can get a nice view of the battlefield from the tower on Bloody Lane. The steps were steep, but the view was worth it.

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Walking through the cornfield and along the sunken road were fairly easy as far as battlefield hikes go. Doing so was much easier than during my travels to Manassas a few weeks before. As the afternoon wore on, I wanted to see the last major portion of the battlefield: Burnside’s Bridge. Turns out it took me almost as long to find the bridge as it did for Burnside to cross it.

To get to the bridge, I walked back to my car and drove along the main road into town. I had a map with me, and eventually found myself on Burnside’s Bridge Road. But I had a heck of a time finding here the bridge was. No signs were telling me how to get there. One road that led to the site was closed. Eventually, I had to park just off the road and walk along the Sherrick Farm Trail. The trail wounded for about a half mile along Antietam Creek, where I eventually found the bridge.

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Work being done on Burnside’s Bridge, 2016 September 15

I soon realized why the area was closed off. Workers were on the bridge, and no one was allowed onto it. On the heights above, I could see a tour group that had taken a different route to the bridge area. They were where the Confederates were on the day of the battle. I was where Burnside’s men were. As a New Englander, I’m proud that men such as Burnside, Hooker, and Butler are prominent names in the Civil War literature. None of them, however, were especially great generals.

At the bridge, a few hundred Confederates kept thousands of Yankees at bay, while inflicting horrendous casualties. Burnside kept ordering men over the bridge, even though Antietam Creek at that point was easily fordable. Eventually, northern troops dislodged the Rebels on the high ground and sent them fleeing back into town. But the attack at Burnside’s Bridge, like the attack at Marye’s Heights three months later, would epitomize Union bungling. As usual, a trip to the battlefield put many things in perspective. The lessons one can learn about terrain are important.

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General Burnside wasn’t drunk at Antietam, but he may as well have been

Robert E. Lee came close to wrecking his army in Maryland. McClellan attacked the Rebels piecemeal, and he held back tends of thousands of troops that might have used to overwhelm the Army of Northern Virginia. The slaughter at Antietam is unimaginable. And what’s more, it is even more astonishing given the fighting that had happened in the weeks leading up to it. In my previous post, I wrote about the battle of Second Manassas and its 25,000 casualties. Less than three weeks after the fighting at Second Bull Run, Lee fought any bloody battle at Antietam.

In addition to the 9,000 Confederate losses at Second Manassas and the more than 10,000 at Antietam, Lee’s army 2,685 casualties at South Mountain, fought a few days before Antietam. Jackson captured 12,600 men at Harper’s Ferry, but it was not bloodless, costing him 286 men. It is amazing that Lee had any men left when he recrossed the Potomac into Virginia on September 20. Lee inflicted great losses on the Union. But he, too, paid a high butcher’s bill in August and September.

Many Rebels simply chose to fall out of the ranks. Lee complained of stragglers during the Antietam campaign. And some historians have noted the high absentee rate as evidence of loss of will or poor southerners’ rejection of a “rich man’s (planter’s) war.” But Lee drove his men (many of whom lacked shoes) hard after taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia in late June. Gary Gallagher has rightly called Robert E. Lee the bloodiest general in American history. In his first three months as commander, Lee suffered 50,000 casualties. Lee believed he must win the war quickly, regardless of cost to his own army.

Lee won two major and bloody battles at the Seven Days and Second Manassas, then fought a larger Union force to a bloody draw at a third. He had marched his men hundreds of miles and invaded the Union. It is no wonder that many weary men broke down or refused to go further. Even Lee himself had been wounded after suffering a fall from his horse.

The Battle at Antietam, while not decisive, was a turning point. Five days after the guns fell silent, Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Photographs of the bloody aftermath of September 17 were featured in an exhibit called the “Dead of Antietam.” The war was brought home to Americans in grisly photographs of dead men and horses.

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One of the famous Alexander Gardner Antietam photos

As much as a battlefield visit can put us in the 19th century, 21st century life inevitably intercedes. My GPS thought it would be a good idea to take me through downtown Washington, D.C., during rush hour rather than deal with I-95. The result: it took me five hours to get back to Colonial Beach, Virginia, where I live. Still, it took Lee’s men much longer to return to the safety of central Virginia. And while in Maryland, no one ever shot at me.

Alexander Gardner’s Antietam photos don’t have the impact that they had on Victorian Americans in 1862. Since then, the battle has been depicted, albeit briefly, in the film Glory. But that was 27 years ago. What brought the battle home to me was my visit to Antietam last week.

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My Visit to the Bull Run Battlefields

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Stone house, which marks where First Bull Run becomes Second and vice versa. The First Bull Run visitors center is behind it, up the hill.

By Colin Woodward

Manassas was the scene of two major battles during the Civil War. The first was fought on 1861 July 21. The second was bigger, bloodier, and longer, lasting from 1862 August 28-30. Both were Confederate victories. Robert E. Lee (whose battle report of Second Manassas you can read here) was not at the first battle of Bull Run, but he was in command at the second, and it was one of his greatest victories. Despite the importance of these battles, and my long-standing interest in the Civil War, I had not had a chance to visit either battlefield until last week.

The battlefields are an example in contrast. The First Bull Run battlefield is maybe how you would expect it to look. It has a “Ken Burns-like” feel. By that, I mean it is photogenic, with cannon sprinkled about and tall grass blowing in the wind. Bull Run is the kind of battlefield that you could take someone who has little or no interest in the Civil War.

An imposing statue of Stonewall Jackson on horseback looms over the First Bull Run battlefield, and the visitors center is not far from the Stonewall statue. I assume that the first battle of Bull Run gets many more visitors than the second, though the two are separated only by a narrow road. From certain vantage points, you can see pretty much the entire first Bull Run battlefield.

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Jackson statue at Bull Run battlefield.

The battlefield at Second Manassas, in contrast, is more sprawling. It doesn’t have the First Bull Run’s vistas. It is more for the hardcore Civil War student. I am not the kind of person to dress up and camp at a national park battlefield, but I am more willing than most people to see as much of the battlefield as possible, even if that means dealing with the elements.

The Second Manassas battlefield is more heavily wooded and overgrown than I had expected. At times, I was walking through forest in the area where Jackson made his stand behind the railroad embankment. It was easy to get confused. At one point, I took a hiking trail rather than the parallel battlefield trail (I prefer to think that I was flanking the other trail, Stonewall style). The result was that I found myself on a rugged trail in the middle of an overgrown field. Luckily, I saw a marker in the distance, which brought me to the more user-friendly portion of the battlefield. I walked through some high grass to get next to the monument, which was dedicated to northern soldiers who attacked the rail embankment.

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Monument dedicated to Pennsylvania troops

I’ve always known that Stonewall’s men defended the embankment, which provided not protection and elevation. I had never thought just how high the embankment was. To give you an idea, there is a set of stairs that lead to the top. It’s no wonder the northern attack failed. Not only did the Confederates have the advantage of shooting from the embankment,  the Yankees had to go uphill to overtake it.

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Stairs leading up to the top of the embankment. Second Bull Run battlefield.

At the embankment is a panel showing the famous incident whereby some Rebels, who had run out of ammunition, threw rocks down at the Yankees. For some reason, I had always thought the Confederates were throwing small rocks, like the kind you would toss across a pond. The artist who did the panel, Don Troiani, depicted the Rebels as tossing down large stones. His painting gives you a good idea of how desperate the fighting was there. Anybody can shoot somebody. But it seems a true measure of ferocity when you’re trying to kill an opponent with a rock.

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Walking the battlefields was not easy. The day was hot. True, I was probably more comfortable than Civil War soldiers were–being as I was in shorts, a t-shirt, and sneakers. But most of the men fighting were in their mid-20s. I just turned 41. So, when it came to marching around, the men in blue and gray had younger knees by which to do it. Of course, I wasn’t trying to move around while people were shooting at me. Let’s call it a draw, shall we?

Despite having walked miles of the Second Bull Run battlefield, there was much I did not see. Hopefully, I’ll be back again before too long.