150 years after Sharpsburg, Md., was the site of America's bloodiest battle, Civil War author and historian Nicholas Redding explains how its well-preserved farmsteads and rolling fields offer visitors an opportunity to view the terrain much as the Unio
In a second the air was full of the hiss of bullets and the hurtle of grape-shot… the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red… We heard all through the war that the army "was eager to be led against the enemy."… The truth is, when bullets are whacking against tree trunks and solid shot are cracking skulls like egg-shells, the consuming passion in the breast of the average man is to get out of the way.—David L. Thompson, Company G, Ninth New York Volunteer Infantry
One hundred and fifty years after the undulating landscape ran crimson, it has returned to a pastoral Eden, the stains of our great fratricidal war long faded. The irony is that the beauty of the Antietam battlefield often obscures a story of incalculable loss. How simple it is to visit the place and be overcome by the serenity, by the magnitude of the history, and, in doing so, forget the words of Private Thompson and the hell that inspired them. On my first visit to Antietam, I, too, fell for its tranquility.
Before I ever considered a career in battlefield preservation or knew much about the historic campaign that culminated at Sharpsburg, I was just one of many heritage tourists. As I visited Civil War battlefields with relatives and friends, I unwittingly began a slow march toward a lifelong fascination with these hallowed places. When I was a high school senior visiting colleges across the country, I kept finding ways to fit battlefield tramps into my trips. This recurring pattern made it clear: Wherever I ended up, I needed to be close to a battlefield, and after a visit to Antietam National Battlefield, the decision to enroll in nearby Shepherd University’s history program became inevitable.
Antietam offers a sweeping landscape. From the visitors center, the Harpers Ferry water gap, where John Brown launched his infamous raid in 1859, is visible to the south. Red Hill and South Mountain rise to the east and provided the Confederates a chance to slow their adversaries in the days leading up to Antietam. Stretching north, past the Mason-Dixon Line, the Blue Ridge Mountains cross into Pennsylvania and delineate the fertile fields of the Cumberland Valley.
Traversing Antietam, a visitor meets some of the most familiar names in American history. The Dunker Church. The Cornfield. Bloody Lane. Burnside’s Bridge. The battle at Antietam was brutal in a way that few modern imaginations can capture. Following the day’s terror, Union General Joseph Hooker—himself wounded in the ferocious fighting—remarked, “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 [Confederate] slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before.”
The carnage of September 17, 1862, was unlike anything else America has experienced. In just one day, 23,000 men were killed or wounded, missing or taken prisoner: Nearly one in five soldiers became a casualty of the day’s fighting.
The stories of the men who served at Antietam once brought veterans to tears and today draw thousands of Americans to this place year after year. The recollections of men like Private Thompson enthrall us. The actions of Johnny Cook—a 15-year-old bugler assigned to Battery B, Fourth U.S. Artillery, who under extreme fire manned the guns after his comrades had fallen, earning him the Medal of Honor—instill us with solemn pride. Alexander Gardner’s ghastly images of contorted Confederate dead changed a nation’s perception of the true “glory” of war. And we are inspired by the quiet courage of the civilians in Sharpsburg, Md., and nearby Shepherdstown, W.V., who endured weeks of military chaos and the wrenching aftermath, which caused one resident to wish it would somehow all pass away “like an awful dream.”
What makes this emotional resonance possible is the authenticity of a setting that has changed little since the bloodiest day in American history. From 1862 until the second half of the 20th century, the battlefield and the surrounding area remained a quiet backwater of small, tidy farms, many tilled by the descendants of those who plowed the land in 1862. The Church of the Brethren, successor to the Dunker Church, remains active. One encounters residents named Mumma or Poffenberger, surnames enshrined on the battlefield and the farmsteads where fighting occurred. Here, history is part of life, woven into the fabric of the tight-knit community.
All of that was threatened in the 1980s, when rural western Maryland found itself the target of developers hoping to build a bucolic exurb of Washington, D.C. Fortunately, the fledgling battlefield preservation community was able to mobilize quickly and thwart development before it was too late.
The development of the Chantilly Battlefield—the scene of desperate fighting prior to Antietam—in northern Virginia during the late 1980s awakened historians and preservationists. When a similar threat loomed at Antietam, passionate preservationists launched a full-fledged counterassault, beating back a proposed shopping center on the farm where President Abraham Lincoln met with General George B. McClellan and was captured in a photograph that has become one of the most iconic images in American history. These concerned local citizens went on to form the Save Historic Antietam Foundation.
Meanwhile, state leaders in Annapolis under the direction of O. James Lighthizer, then Maryland’s secretary of transportation and now president of the Civil War Trust, pioneered the use of transportation funding for historic land preservation. Another key actor was The Conservation Fund, which used Land and Water Conservation Fund appropriations for many of the land protection projects. The critical funding was used to improve the transportation experience in and around the battlefield by acquiring and preserving key tracts as well as the scenic and rolling western Maryland vistas that make Antietam unique. For every dollar provided by the Federal enhancement program, the State of Maryland matched it equally, allowing the program to preserve the area quickly—saving huge swaths of scenic, historic land all around Antietam Battlefield and the nearby battlefields of South Mountain and Monocacy.
Through the work of the battlefield preservation community and a blend of conservation easements, progressive local land-use policies, and targeted state and federal land acquisition, Antietam today is a case study for what can be accomplished when all levels of government and the private sector work together. The legacy of this work is an unparalleled experience for millions of visitors who, in turn, pump millions of dollars into the local economy.
This success story preserves for subsequent generations a place in which to ponder the significance and cost of the war. Here there is no din of commerce, no roar of the interstate. Here, the power of place reveals itself and captures the imagination.
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Not till we are lost … not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves.” Similarly, because the well-preserved environment of the Antietam battlefield allows visitors to lose the modern world, it becomes easier to imagine the extent of the suffering, the agony of the wounded, the grief of mothers and fathers whose children perished on the rolling field. The authenticity of the place takes us back 150 years to the field of battle, and we envision terrified civilians, bereft widows, orphaned children, and shell-shocked veterans.
Returning to this place, as I have hundreds of times since my first visit, I continue to experience the story in new ways. I no longer tally the slain in numbers alone, instead recognizing the humanity in each. And as I continue to find these stories and come to better understand the history, I in turn lose myself to the place we call Antietam.
Author, historian, and graduate of Shepherd University Nicholas Redding started his career in Civil War history as a park ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park and served as deputy director for advocacy with the Civil War Trust, America’s largest battlefield preservation organization. His first book, A History and Guide to Civil War Shepherdstown: Victory and Defeat in West Virginia’s Oldest Town, published in August.