Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Walk at Antietam, Part 2: From the Sunken Road to Burnside Bridge

Photo-9 After completing my stroll around The Cornfield, I went back to the Visitor’s Center and started on the Bloody Lane Trail. Here, fighting began about the time it ceased in The Cornfield. The Union II Corps was moving towards the main line of battle in The Cornfield, but its divisions became separated as Sedgwick’s headed across the field towards the West Woods, while French and Richardson turned towards what was the Confederate center. The Southerners had made use of an old country lane called the Sunken Road because the roadbed was several feet below the level of the fields on either side. As a result, the roadbed made a natural trench line, running roughly west to east. When General French saw a line of Confederate troops there, he turned his division and began a series of assaults.

Photo-10 Given the strength of the Confederate position, these attacks were blunted time and again. The Confederate fire was described by one Union officer as “murderous.” Most of French’s attacks focused on the left of the Confederates in the road but, when Richardson’s Division arrived, they extended the Federal attack to the right. Richardson’s attack was led by the famous Irish Brigade, commanded by the legendary Irish patriot, Francis Meagher. The Irishmen pressed their attacks, but took heavy losses and still the Confederates held the road. After three hours of fighting, Union casualties were mounting and there was no sign of a breakthrough. Then, one Union brigade under General John Caldwell became disoriented as they approached the road and accidentally found themselves on the Confederate right flank. Caldwell immediately took advantage of this lucky mistake and ordered his men to attack down the road, pouring an enfilading fire into the Southern ranks, and rolling up their flank. Now, the Sunken Road’s natural advantage turned it into a death trap. Confederate soldiers fell by the dozens, many as they tried to climb out of the road bed to retreat.

The entire line collapsed and Union troops poured over the embankment, slaughtering the Confederates, both those who were desperately trying to hang on as well as those attempting to flee to safety. When the fighting was over, the road was choked with dead and dying men. So many Confederates had been cut down in the roadbed that one Federal noted it was impossible to walk down the road without stepping on a corpse. As a result, this once peaceful country road, which up to that day had seen nothing but the occasional farm wagon headed to market, became forever known as The Bloody Lane.

 Photo-11 From there, I drove to the Burnside Bridge. This old bridge, which was called the Rohrbach Bridge before the battle, is perhaps the most popularly recognizable feature from the Antietam battlefield. Before the battle, this area was a favorite with local children, who wiled away summer afternoons splashing and swimming in Antietam Creek. But, on this September afternoon, the quiet stillness of the creek was torn away by the sounds of battle as Burnside’s IX Corps attempted to force a crossing of the bridge in order to gain a position on the Confederate right flank.

Photo-12 The creek and the bridge sit at the foot of a high, steep bluff, from which 500 Georgians under Robert Toombs held back most of IX Corps. This natural advantage allowed Toombs men to pour a murderous volley into any column trying to force the narrow path over the bridge. For hours, one regiment after another tried and failed to gain the far side of the creek. Finally, General Edward Ferrero went to the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania Infantry Regiments and ordered them to make one more try. He shouted to the Pennsylvanians, “Will you take the bridge, boys!” Photo-13 However, he heard no “huzzahs” in response and his call was met with only a stony silence. The 51st Pennsylvania had recently been disciplined with the loss of their alcohol rations and they were not a happy group of soldiers. Finally, one of the Pennsylvanians shouted back, “If we do, will you give us back our whiskey?” Ferrero replied that, if they took the bridge, he would get them their whisky even if he had to order it from New York and pay for it himself. With that, the 51st Pennsylvania formed up, charged the bridge, and took it. The general was true to his word and a shipment of whiskey found its way to the 51st a few weeks later.

Photo-14One of the other interesting sights at Burnside Bridge is its Witness Tree. This tall Sycamore tree located at the northeast end of the bridge was here at the time of the battle, as can be seen in the photo below. It was only about 15 feet high in 1862 and its trunk was ripped by rifle fire. One can well imagine that, if you cut through it, you find more than a few lead slugs still buried there. Now, with over 140 years of peace and fed by the waters of Antietam Creek, the tree towers over the bridge. Whenever I visit this place, I always reach out and touch the tree, wanting to somehow connect with a still living thing that was here that day. Gazing up at it, you cannot help but wish it could tell its story and describe what it saw that September afternoon.

I finished up my trip to Antietam by visiting the national cemetery. There, a tall, massive granite monument towers over the soldiers’ graves. The monument is topped with a statue of a soldier, known to the locals as “Old Simon,” standing in the “at rest” position, gazing north towards home. Around him, lie more than 4,000 Union soldiers plus the graves of a few more recent veterans. As I walked among the headstones, I was reminded of a recent conversation with an acquaintance of mine who told me about Photo-15 a friend of theirs who thought any interest in history was silly.  Her friend said that history was nothing but meaningless dates, numbers, and names, and that it had no relevance in the modern world. What an utterly shortsighted, self-involved, and almost criminally stupid point of view. I thought to myself, I would like that person to come here, to look at each grave, and tell the man lying there that they are just a meaningless date, number, and name, and that they had no value, that they did nothing, that their sacrifice meant nothing.

I always walk away from Antietam, and from any battlefield, feeling humble and more grounded. This place reminded me once again that the stress of work, of troubled relationships, and just living in the 21st century really does not amount to much, not when compared to what happened here. Here, ordinary people did the extraordinary and were willing to sacrifice, to give that last full measure of devotion, for something far greater than themselves. And, in doing so, they gave us and all the generations that have followed a wonderful gift in the freedom we enjoy and an even greater challenge to continue their work.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Walk at Antietam, Part 1: From the Dunker Church to The Cornfield

Yesterday, on a warm, humid June Saturday, I made my third visit to Antietam and I wanted to record my thoughts along with some photographs I took. A business trip had caused me to be in the Washington DC metro area over a weekend and, as I had not been to Antietam in over five years, I decided to make the journey across the Potomac to the Maryland countryside. I think that, in many ways, Antietam is my favorite battlefield. Unlike Gettysburg, it has not been commercialized and, even on a Saturday in the middle of the summer tourist season, it is quiet and serene. As a result, it is a place where it is easy to transport yourself back in time, to imagine, and to feel the tragic events of that September day in 1862.

Plus, all that is heightened by the fact that this battlefield is so immensely significant to history. Its gently rolling hills and meandering streams are the sight of the bloodiest single day in American history. Over 23,000 Americans would fall here, dead and wounded—three times the number of casualties on D-Day. But, more importantly, the outcome of the battle would forever change America and alter the course of the war. While the battle was really a bloody, costly draw, Lee’s retreat into Virginia made it a Federal victory and allowed President Lincoln to announce his Emancipation Proclamation. Therefore, Antietam became what James McPherson has called the “Crossroads of Freedom.”

On my previous two visits to Antietam, I used the National Park Service’s excellent auto tour system to see the battlefield, only dismounting my car to walk in the immediate vicinity of the various tour stops. This time, however, I decided to do what I had done at Gettysburg and some other battlefields: walk. I find that the perspective you get and the “feel” of a place like Antietam really changes when you actually walk the ground, and that was certainly true yesterday. It was, at times, inspiring, chilling, and also terribly sad.

Luckily, the National Park Service has put in a new series of extended trails with a guidebook available for each one. I picked up the guidebooks for The Cornfield and The Bloody Lane Trail at the Visitor’s Center and, between those trails and my own self-initiated walks; I ended up hiking over six miles--it was an amazing experience. I began, however, on the high ground between the Visitor’s Center and the Dunker Church, a small white building across the old Hagerstown Pike. The ground I stood upon had been held by a 19-gun Confederate battery commanded by Colonel Stephen D. Lee. Lee and his gunners fired furiously from this position for over three hours until Federal artillery finally swept them away. Lee would lose over a fourth of his men, many of whom still lay where they had fallen when photographer Alexander Gardner took the photo below.

Photo-1 Across from Lee’s battery was the Dunker Church. This humble place of worship, founded by a small German sect in 1852, was at the epicenter of much of the fighting that began on this portion of the battlefield at around 6:00 a.m., September 17, 1862. As the maelstrom of violence engulfed it from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., its white washed brick was scarred with rifle and artillery fire and its roof severely damaged. Worse, as can be seen in the photo below, the grounds around this quiet respite of peace and prayer would be covered with the dead and dying from both sides.

Photo-2 While still near the Visitor’s Center, I came upon the memorial to the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, and I would see many more memorials like it during the day. I have a special place in my heart for these unit memorials and it is sad that they seem so unappreciated by many visitors. What these visitors do not realize is that, unlike the often large and even gaudy state memorials on the battlefield which were funded by the state legislatures, these memorials were often paid for by the surviving veterans themselves, with some supplements from private donations. It took decades in many cases to gather the money, design and complete the memorial, and then place it where the regiment fought. When the memorial was finally in place, a dedication ceremony would be held and attended by those veterans still living. These ceremonies and the memorials themselves meant a very great deal to these former soldiers, many of whom were now farmers, merchants, husbands, fathers, and even grandfathers. They would bring their wives, their children, and their grandchildren to see where they had fought, and listen to their stories. But, most of all, they would remember their friends, their dear comrades, who died on this ground and who never came home to live their lives in peace. I wish everyone who gazes up at these monuments would understand the depth of feeling they represent and take a minute to remember that the statue or the bronze plaque they are looking at symbolizes so very much.


I moved on from there to my first walking tour at The Cornfield. The path around this area is nearly 1.6 miles long, circles a 30-acre area, and took me over an hour to walk. It encompasses an area that saw some of the most desperate and bloody fighting in this nation’s history. It was from The North Woods on the northern edge of the area that the Union I Corps emerged in the dim light of dawn to begin its assault south, through Mr. David Miller’s cornfield, toward Stonewall Jackson’s corps, who aligned themselves behind a fence at the southern end of the field. As the Union troops advanced, they marched through corn that towered over them. As a result, they could not see what lay ahead. At first, artillery shells burst among them and rounds of solid shot would come rumbling through the rows Photo-4of corn, cutting men down. Then, suddenly, the deep rattle of musketry could be heard and waves of bullets ripped through the corn. Men went down by the dozens, but they kept advancing. When at last they cleared the corn, they could see Jackson’s men crouched behind the fence ahead. They let loose with volleys of their own and then charged at the double quick, only to be met with even a more intense fire from the Confederates. Over the course of three hours, I Corps would make two attacks and, with the second, Jackson’s line began to break.  The Confederate general called up his reserves, Hood’s Texas Brigade, and ordered them to counterattack. By now, the artillery and rifle fire was so intense that the tall, ripe corn was cut down to the ground, looking as if a giant scythe had swept through it.

Photo-5My path took me from The North Woods around the eastern side of the Union approach to The East Woods. From there, I turned to walk west across the field from a point known as The Corner of Death. It was given that name because, later in the morning, as Union troops from the XII Corps emerged from the woods to begin their own attack, they found the ground littered with dead and wounded men. One soldier from Ohio wrote, “The sight at the fence where the enemy was standing when we gave our first fire was awful beyond description, dead men were literally piled upon and across each other.”

I crossed The Cornfield, finally arriving at the southern end, where men from Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina stood, defending the fence until they no longer could hold back the Federal tide. As Hood and his Texans went forward from their reserve position, they drove the I Corps back. However, once the Texans had gained the far side of the field, it was their turn to be cut down by the score. They would break and retreat back beyond The Cornfield to The West Woods.


As I made the turn back north towards my car and walked along the old Hagerstown Pike, I noticed a lone artillery piece sitting amongst the corn across the road. Alone and barely noticeable, this gun marks a most unique event from the battle. Here, Battery B of the 4th U.S. Artillery was positioned to attempt to stop Hood and his men as they advanced. Under intense fire, Federal cannoneers began to fall, including the battery commander, Captain Campbell. Photo-7 As Campbell went down, the battery’s bugler, Johnny Cook, a 15-year old boy from Cincinnati, came forward and helped the wounded officer to safety. Once he had gotten the captain to the rear, however, he ran back to the battery and began to load the guns himself under fire from an enemy that was now coming perilously close. Suddenly, he looked up to find that the guns were being sighted and aimed by an unlikely assistant, Photo-8General John Gibbon, commander of the Union’s Iron Brigade. A most unusual pairing, the general from West Point aimed and the former paper boy turned bugler reloaded, blasting holes in Hood’s line until the Confederates fell back. For his actions, Johnny Cook would be awarded the Medal of Honor, the youngest American to be so honored for bravery.

At last, I reached my car and looked back at the ground I had just walked. Inside those 30 acres of Mr. Miller’s cornfield, over 8,000 men fell in 3 horrific hours of fighting. Now, it is as quiet and as peaceful as it might have been before the battle. But, it is still forever changed, forever transformed into something else. Now, it is The Cornfield, as though there is no other in the world.