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Spent Bullets Tell a Story at Antietam

Originally published on Published Online: May 15, 2007 
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2007-05-14 | Buried beneath a sun-dappled corn field in western Maryland lies detritus from the millions of rounds fired during the battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day in American history.

 SHARPSBURG, MD. (AP) – Buried beneath a sun-dappled corn field in western Maryland lies detritus from the millions of rounds fired during the battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day in American history.

For an archaeology team from the National Park Service that surveyed a part of the field with metal detectors recently, every spent round they unearth tells a story _ a story of the men who died there and of the ebb and flow of the two vast armies that tore at each other on Sept. 17, 1862.

"I think about who was out here, that's what I think about _ and the proximity to each other. This wasn't (soldiers) shooting at each other at 250 yards. This was 70 yards. You could see the faces of your enemy," archaeologist Bob Sonderman said. "It must have been terrifying."

Team member Karen Orrence said the group found more than 400 objects _ mostly bullets and shrapnel. For each hour in the field, the archaeologists likely will spend about three hours in the lab analyzing the evidence they discovered, Orrence said.

The locations of shrapnel and spent and unfired bullets helps the team determine troop movements, such as the retreat line of the fleeing 7th Maine, which was ordered to attack a Confederate unit near Piper Farm in the late afternoon, said Stephen R. Potter, head of the team.

It was, he said, a stupid order. With the Union troops in their artillery sights, Confederate troops managed to drive back the assault.

"I don't think they would've been able to drive the Maine guys back if they wouldn't have had the artillery that they had, because what we're finding out here is pretty nasty stuff," Potter said.

For example, the group found one piece of shell that was about half the size of a human hand. Inside would have been lead shot about the size of pingpong balls. Any piece could have taken off a limb, Potter said.

"They're designed, to put it rather undiplomatically but graphically, they're designed to turn people into hamburger meat. It's a horrible, horrible thing," Potter said.

By looking at the marks on bullets, Potter determined whether bullets found on the field had been fired. Deformities at the bullets' tips indicate they hit something, although there's no way to know what they hit, Potter said.

"Millions and millions and millions of rounds," were fired at Antietam, Potter said

More than 20,000 Union and Confederate troops were killed, captured, injured or went missing during the 12-hour battle, which aborted Confederate General Robert E. Lee's attempt to invade the North.

The area will be planted with apple trees to recreate the appearance of the landscape.


Antietam National Battlefield:

Copyright 2007. The Associated Press.

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