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.
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.
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 of 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.
My 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. 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, General 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.