Private Barton W. Mitchell and Sergeant John M. Bloss of the 27th Indiana volunteer regiment were resting near camp outside of Federicksburg, Maryland in September 1862 when they saw some cigars, rolled together in a paper cover, lying on the ground. The Confederates had been camped in the same spot a few days earlier, so Mitchell and Bloss figured that some officer had left them behind. Private Mitchell picked them up and unwrapped the paper around them.
The paper wrapping, it turned out, was a bigger boon than the cigars. It was orders to Confederate General D. H. Hill from Robert E. Lee, laying out Lee’s strategy to capture the supply depot at Harpers Ferry, then march into Maryland to cut off the railroad lines that ran to Baltimore and Washington D.C. Exactly who, when and where Lee was sending the Confederate army was laid out in full detail. Mitchell and Bloss rushed the document up the chain of command. It gave Union General George McClellen exactly the information he needed to stop the Confederate’s first foray into northern territory. He would do it on September 17, 1862, at the Battle of Antietam.
I was at Antietam on Saturday. If I were a masochist, I’d have gone a couple of weeks earlier, when thousands of reenactors and tourists converged on the small Maryland town of Sharpsburg for two separate reenactments of the Battle of Antietam. I’m not a masochist, however, so I opted to wait until the hoopla died down. There were still reenactors at the battlefield: the Battery B 4th U.S. Artillery gave demonstrations on firing a cannon, and an unidentified (at least to me) group of Confederate infantrymen gave musket firing demonstrations. Also, every Boy Scout in the greater mid-Atlantic region was there.
You’d think that Confederates would drink Coke. It is, after all, headquartered in Atlanta.
Maybe it was because people still had the Battle’s anniversary in mind, or maybe because it was National Parks Day, when the entry fee to all national parks is waived, but the main parking area at the Antietam Visitor Center was already full by the time we got there 9:30ish (they opened at 8:30) and we had to park in overflow.
There’s a 26-minute introductory movie shown on the hour and half-hour, and a longer, one-hour version shown once a day at noon. We didn’t see either. I didn’t even go into what looked like a very nice gift shop. Too crowded.
The Union was giving a cannon demonstration at 11:00 next to the New York Monument, near the Visitor Center. We have a dog that hates loud noises, so we decided to do that area first, and be on the other side of the battlefield before the shooting started. The National Park Service website provides a list of recommended hiking trails and trail maps and guides for each one. They also providing a driving map and a list of all of the monuments.
We started at the Dunker Church, where the Confederate reenactors were camped. The Dunkers, more formally known as the German Baptist Brethren, were a pacifist Quaker-like group (as you’ll be able to tell from the interior of the church) who found themselves in the middle of the battle. The building was damaged but standing at the end of the war. It was destroyed by a storm in 1921 but someone saved the building pieces and the local historical society, the state and the National Park Service used the materials to rebuild the church. The monument in front of the Dunker Church honors the 5th, 7th, and 66th Ohio Infantry Regiments. They were engaged during the morning of the battle, pushing the Confederates into the woods behind the Dunker Church.
We thought we’d have time to do the 1.6 mile Bloody Lane Trail before shooting started. About 2600 Confederates were holding a line along a sunken road when they exchanged fire with 5500 Union troops. The Union finally pushed the Confederates out, but not before 5600 soldiers lay dead or wounded along the 800 yard lane.
Stop 1 on the Bloody Lane Trail is the Mumma Farm. The farm was burnt down by the Confederates, so that the Union couldn’t use it, but the Mumma family rebuilt it soon after the battle. It isn’t open to tourists but I peeked in the windows, and what furniture there is, is modern. Both the Dunker Church and the Mumma Farm can be rented from the NPS for weddings, receptions and other events.
We only got as far as the Mumma Farm when the cannon went off and Ralph the dog — all 100 lbs of him — tried to leap into my arms.
We high-tailed it to the car and with the windows up to stiffle some of the boom, did the battlefield driving tour. You can download a hardcopy from the NPS website, or you can buy a CD that you can play as you drive.
There are several more farm houses, none of which are open to the public.
Then there’s Burnside’s Bridge. A small group of Georgia soldiers held it again the Union for several hours, blocking their way across Antietam Creek. The Union eventually broke through, but the delay didn’t help the Union cause. The Bridge is named after Ambrose Burnside, the Union general who commanded the troops who eventually took the bridge, in memory, it seems, of a job not very well done.
No one knows who lost the Lost Orders. Some conspiracy theorists say that it was left on purpose, to steer McClellen to Antietam where the Confederates would have an advantage. Because despite the Union outnumbering the Confederates by two to one, the Confederates did very well. And although the Union claimed victory, it really was a draw. The Confederates got away and moved back into Virginia.
Antietam was the bloodiest single-day battle in the Civil War. Each December (on December 1 this year), the park hosts an Annual Memorial Illumination. Volunteers place over 23,000 candles on the battlefield, each representing a casuality, and visitors are allowed to take a driving tour through the park, starting at 6:00 p.m.