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Reliving the bloodiest battle

photo
[Photo: Maryland Office of Tourism]

Many of the lives lost at Antietam were in battles over this bridge, which was later named for Union commander Ambrose Burnside.


A military re-enactment by 15,000 near the Maryland site will mark the 140th anniversary of the battle of Antietam, where more than 22,000 soldiers of the North and South died in one day.

By KAREN M. LASKI
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 8, 2002


The bloodiest one-day battle in U.S. history occurred on Sept. 17, 1862, at Antietam, Md. Between dawn and dusk, 23,110 men were killed, wounded or reported missing. Now, more than 15,000 participants are expected to stage this year's largest Civil War re-enactment.

The 2002 version of Gen. Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North will take place on land about 10 miles north of the actual Antietam National Battlefield, Sept. 13-15. The rolling hills and rock outcroppings that characterize the 100-plus acres set aside for the three-day event resemble the actual battlefield in many ways.

Highlighting this event are re-enactments of the battles fought in the Cornfield, on a sunken road later dubbed "Bloody Lane," and Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnsides' attack against Sharpsburg Heights.

photo A sunken road near the Cornfield at Antietam National Battlefield is now called Bloody Lane.

[Photo: Maryland Office of Tourism]

(The battle of Fox's Gap, which occurred at South Mountain three days before Antietam, will be re-enacted on Sept. 13.)

Other activities include living-history encampments; food and cooking demonstrations; cavalry, infantry and artillery demonstrations; programs emphasizing the war's effect on civilians and medical practice programs.

The Maryland battlefield is called Antietam in the North, after the closest stream. It is often called the Battle of Sharpsburg in the South, after the nearest town.

The fighting was divided into morning, midday and afternoon phases. It pitted Lee's 40,000 Southerners against the 87,000-man Army of the Potomac, commanded by Gen. George B. McClellan.

Lee, encouraged by his victory at the Second Battle of Manassas, thought a second victory over the Federals might entice Great Britain to recognize the Confederacy and thus pressure the North to negotiate a peace. He marched his army of tired, shoeless, ill-supplied men north toward Maryland.

Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln wired McClellan to "destroy the rebel Army if possible."

The Confederate cause got off to a bad start when an extra copy of Lee's Special Order 191 was found by a Union soldier wrapped around three cigars. In the order, Lee detailed how he had divided his army into four parts.

If McClellan had not delayed in deploying his troops, he probably could have destroyed Lee's much smaller force at the onset.

Instead, the day's casualties totaled 12,410 Northerners and 10,700 Southerners.

Visitors should first check out the visitor center, with its exhibits and two films that will explain what happened along Antietam Creek in 1862.

The films explain the battle, necessary before visitors tour the 12-mile-square battlefield. One 26-minute film is shown on the hour; the second, a 60-minute film, is shown at noon daily.

During summer months, daily battlefield orientations also begin at the visitor center. Visitors then proceed in their personal vehicles to the Cornfield, Bloody Lane and Burnside Bridge. At each stop, a ranger provides a scenario of events for the three phases of the battle.

Park Ranger Keith Snyder told our recent group of visitors that terrain -- draws, hills, outcroppings -- dictated the battle. "There were hundreds of battles within battles," he said.

The battle of Antietam unfolded in the North Woods, then advanced to the Cornfield. Today, visitors can stand at the edge of the 30-acre site and perhaps envision that infamous day when the dead replaced the corn stalks.

Wrote Union Gen. Joseph Hooker: "In the time I am writing, every stalk of corn in the northern and 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."

The monuments lining Cornfield Avenue are just a few of the 103 found at Antietam, many erected along the 81/2 miles of battlefield roads. Still, this is a fraction of the monuments in place at Gettysburg.

The Union troops made three piecemeal attacks on Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's line. The Confederates were driven back, but the line did not break.

In the afternoon, two Union divisions broke the Confederate line closer to Sharpsburg, but McClellan failed to follow up. The advantage that the Union troops had gained was lost.

An observation tower now gives visitors an overview of the sunken road, where four hours of carnage in the middle of the day resulted in 5,000 casualties. Dead Confederates filled the trench; Federal bodies covered the approaches to the ridge. Today, sculptured marble figures commemorate the Union dead.

Dunker Church, a tiny whitewashed building located between the Cornfield and Bloody Lane, served as an embalming station after the battle. Visitors now fill the pews on the park's annual Civil War Medical Weekend.

John Hare, a volunteer playing the role of chief surgeon during our visit, told the audience that amputation was commonplace. Surgical instruments were not sterilized. Lead, mercury and arsenic were commonly used as treatment for various illnesses. Not surprisingly, for every soldier killed in battle, two died of disease.

Southeast of nearby Sharpsburg, a handsome stone bridge crosses Antietam Creek. Here the afternoon phase of Antietam took place.

Each time Burnside's Federals attempted to cross the bridge, they were driven back by about 400 Georgians. The Union forces could have forded the river a few hundred yards above the bridge, but faulty reconnaissance missed this opportunity.

While Burnside reorganized his troops, Lee relocated his artillery. In the meantime, Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill's Light Division rapidly marched 17 miles from Harpers Ferry to Sharpsburg in seven hours. Almost half of his weary men fell by the wayside; the other half charged Burnside's Federals.

The battle ended in a stalemate: Neither side could claim victory. Neither side would admit defeat.

The South's failure to win the the battle led Great Britain to delay recognizing the Confederacy. And it allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation that, on Jan. 1, 1863, freed the slaves still held in the South.

Sharpsburg Heritage Festival

Sharpsburg will hold its annual Heritage Festival on Sept. 14 and 15. The festival includes band concerts, living history demonstrations, plays, walking tours, displays of heirloom quilts and artifacts, a craft fair and lectures on historical subjects. All events are free.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Antietam lies north and east of sleepy Sharpsburg, along State Roads 34 and 65. Those routes intersect with Interstate 70 and U.S. 40 or U.S. 40A.

The visitor center is at State Road 65, about one mile north of Sharpsburg.

The battlefield is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

Admission is $3 for individuals and $5 for families.

You can see the battlefield in two hours or so, but be warned that traffic moves very slowly along the one-lane, one-way, battlefield tour road. Visitors are encouraged to walk or bike the route, but more than 90 percent of the visitors drive their cars or ride on tour buses.

Visitors can also purchase or rent audiotapes that will guide them through the battlefield.

STAYING THERE: There are no hotels in Sharpsburg, but there are a few bed and breakfasts in the private homes located within the battlefield's borders.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact Antietam National Battlefield and Cemetery, P.O. Box 158, Sharpsburg, MD 21782; call (301) 432-5124 (visitor center) or (301) 432-7648 (headquarters). Its Internet site is www.nps.gov/anti.

Or contact the Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Elizabeth Hager Center, Hagerstown, MD 21740; (301) 791-3246 or toll-free 1-888-257-2600; www.marylandmemories.org on the Web.

To order tickets or for additional information on the re-enactment, call toll-free 1-888-248-4597 or go to www.antietamreenactment.org.

- Karen M. Laski is a freelance writer living in Marshall, Va. Information from the Akron Beacon Journal was used in this report.

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