Exploring the Parks: Antietam National Battlefield

Maryland monument at AntietamJ. Poffenberger farm

The Maryland monument is to the left of the visitor center, as you're facing the building. The Poffenberger farm is managed close to what it would have looked like in the 1860s. Photographs by Danny Bernstein.

Antietam means “Swift River” in a Native American language, but to many Americans it is synonymous with the bloodiest one-day battle in the Civil War.

On September 17, 1862, more than 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing on the battlefield. Not even D-Day had as many casualties.

Antietam National Battlefield in western Maryland, just minutes from the Potomac River, is in an area that saw a lot of fighting during the Civil War. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is close by, worth a visit on another day. Many visitors zip by both on the same day, but I wouldn't recommend it. Antietam deserves a full day.

Preparing Yourself for the Battlefield

* Start with a 26-minute film narrated by James Earl Jones. It will orient you to the issues surrounding the battle.

* Attend a talk by an interpretive ranger. If the film and talk conflict in your time slot, go to the talk.

When I visited, Ranger Keith Snyder gave a dramatic, inspiring talk about the battle. In a room with expansive glass walls that offer great views across the landscape, Ranger Snyder reminded the audience that families lived and farmed here. Most were pro-Union, though the state of Maryland was divided on the Civil War. The battle of Antietam occurred between the second battle in Manassas, Virginia, (Aug. 29, 1862) and almost a year before the battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3 1863).

Outside the visitor center lies the rolling landscape on which the two armies met on September 17, 1862. Confederate General Robert E. Lee decided to fight a battle here for a couple of reasons. After the second battle of Manassas, it looked like the South was winning the war. General Lee thought that it was the right time to attack the North. He also wanted to give Virginia a break. At that point, two-thirds of the Civil War battles had occurred in Virginia and he wanted to draw the battle away from Washington. This was the first invasion of the North by the Confederate army.

Lee divided his army and sent some to Harpers Ferry to liberate it from Union hands. In recounting this strategy, Ranger Snyder gets more dramatic as he talks about the minute-by-minute tactics of the two sides. In fact, the battlefield tour and pamphlets are divided into morning, mid-day and afternoon.

After all those losses on both sides -- 10,700 for the South, 12,410 for the North -- the outcome was indecisive. General Lee crossed the Potomac back to Virginia. The Union Army under General George McClellan held the field. President Lincoln decided that the North had won and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Ranger Snyder ends the story here.

Seeing the Battlefield

The park offers an 8.5-mile-drive with 11 stops. At almost each stop you'll find a trailhead for a short (less than two-mile) walk, many through fields to memorials inaccessible by road. All together, the park offers almost 13 miles of trail.

The roads are lined with monuments from every regiment that participated in the battle. All the stops are worthy of your time but here were my highlights.

#1 - The tour starts at the Dunker Church, originally built by pacifist German Baptist Brethrens. The church was the site of repeated clashes as both sides tried to occupy the high ground. The building was leveled in a storm in 1921and rebuilt in the original style in 1962. You can walk inside to see the plain interior.

#2 - J. Poffenberger Farm and barn. The farmhouse is as plain as it was at the time of the Civil War. Joseph and Mary Ann Poffenberger were living on the farm in the summer of 1862. As the conflict approached the area, they took their horses, locked up the farm buildings and moved to a safer place. The farm served as an encampment for Federal soldiers and the southernmost part of the property was the scene of heavy fighting. A few years ago, the farm was restored and the buildings stabilized. The farm and surrounding land was bought from a private owner in 2000.

And if you're lucky, you might meet Bud, a lively, talkative farmer who's proud to tell you he's 80 years old. He brings a modern face to the historic battlefield. Bud leases land on the Poffenberger farm from the National Park Service under a special use permit. He has his own farm nearby but grazes a few cows here.

"The park is managed mostly like it was in the 1860s," Ed Wenschhof, head of natural resources for Antietam National Battlefield, explains. Still, they let farmers grow alfalfa in rotation even though it was not an 1860s crop. "Right now, we have nine farmers working the land. We allow farmers to graze cows, sheep, and horses."

As you continue your drive, stop at the Clara Barton Monument, located on modern Mansfield Ave. Barton is best known for founding the American Red Cross. Although she became known as "the angel of the battlefield," she fought to get the chance to help the war effort. For nearly a year, Barton lobbied the Army bureaucracy to bring her own medical supplies to the battlefields and care for the wounded. She worked at the site of the most brutal battlefields including Antietam.

#4 - Miller Farmhouse and cornfield. If you follow the battlefield route, you'll pass this farmhouse before the J. Poffenberger Farm. The Miller farmhouse, built in 1800 and added onto in 1830, was a private residence until the 1980s. The park obtained the house in 1992. For three hours, the Miller cornfield saw horrific fighting. The battle lines went back and forth several times.

#6 - Mumma Farm and Cemetery. You reach this spot on a one-way road. During the battle, the Mumma property was burned. Confederate soldiers destroyed the structures to prevent Union sharpshooters from using the buildings. The Mumma family had fled to safety before the battle and came back later to rebuild the house. Now the farmhouse is reserved for overnight school programs.

#9 - Burnside Bridge. This claims to be the best-known landmark. Confederate soldiers held the bridge for several hours. Ambrose Burnside's men captured the bridge, which allowed them to cross Antietam Creek.

Close to the bridge, you'll find a memorial to President William McKinley. The 25th president served at Antietam in the 23rd Ohio Infantry. The monument was dedicated in his memory in 1903, two years after he was assassinated.

Most visitors seem to drive through the battlefield without a break. They slow down just long enough to read a few signs. If you find yourself following a car, which never stops, it'll feel like going around Cades Cove in the Smokies, but with Northerners. In Cades Cove, many people never get out of their cars but at least they pull over when someone wants to pass.

Alexander Gardner took pictures of the casualties just two days after the battle. At the time, Gardner worked for Matthew Brady, the famous Civil War photographer who owned a gallery in Washington DC. Gardner's photographs of Antietam were the first ever images to show dead soldiers on the field of battle. You can see some of his heart wrenching photos on the web.

After the Battle

In 1890, the War Department saved five battlefields to train soldiers. As a museum sign says about Antietam, “The most significant artifact is the landscape.”

In 1896, the War Department built an Observation Tower to create an open-air classroom to practice war maneuvers. They also built roads and fences and placed the cannons. Climb the tower to survey the whole battlefield.

In 1933, all battlefields were transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service to preserve and protect our nation’s history. At that time, Antietam battlefield was only 65 acres. Over the years, the protected land grew to 3,000 acres, thanks in part to groups like the Civil War Trust.

Other Activities

You can bike or jog on the loop road. Group camping by organized groups like church and school parties is allowed at the Rohrbach Campground with a permit. Get a Maryland fishing license and fish on Antietam Creek.

And if you have cows, you can apply for a special permit to have them graze at Antietam National Battlefield.

Comments

I went to Antietam as part of a much longer trip in 1999. It sounds like things have changed significantly since then. I really would like to get back to that part of the country someday...