Visit Antietam National Battlefield and at its geographic heart you’ll discover a picturesque and splendidly preserved farm owned for generations by a family named Roulette. But though it is marked by an old War Department sign, so few tourists pay a visit that you’ll likely have the place all to yourself—just you and the dim presence of the explosive events that happened here nearly a century and a half ago.
On the morning of September 17, 1862, the old veteran Union Second Corps commander, Edwin Vose Sumner, had been so eager to get into the morning’s fight that he personally led Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s division into battle, advancing so rapidly that he literally left his following divisions in the dust. Separated from leading elements of the Second Corps, which at that moment were being shot to pieces in what would become known as “the disaster in the west woods,” Maj. Gen. Israel B. Richardson and Brig. Gen. William H. French halted their troops to determine their location.
Approaching the “Bloody Cornfield,” with the torched Mumma farmstead on their left, they saw ahead a knot of Union soldiers—Brig. Gen. George S. Greene’s men—hunkered down on the heights, in the area of today’s Visitor Center. Farther to the south, on their left, they spotted Confederates on the ridge forward of the sunken road just beyond the Roulette farm. There, they determined, was the battle. Changing front from west to south, these two divisional commanders, who missed out on the bloodbath of the west woods, were about to march to their own appointment with carnage.
French’s division poured through the hollow toward the sunken road under intense Confederate artillery fire. As they surged through the Roulette buildings, two enduring legends were born. The first is very probably true: A spent Rebel shell bounded into the yard and knocked over one of William Roulette’s beehives just as soldiers from the rookie 132nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry entered the yard. The unexpected and painful attack by swarms of angry bees prompted the men from Pennsylvania to advance toward the Confederate lines with increased vigor: better the enemy you know.
The second legend, repeated nearly as often as the bee tale, centers on William Roulette, who, having sent away his family to safety, burst from his sheltering cellar to cheer on the Union troops. One account has him shouting: “Give it to ‘em! Drive ‘em! Take anything on my place, only drive ‘em!” Whether this anecdote is true is open to question. What is certain, however, is that the Union troops did “drive ‘em”—and they also took just about everything the Roulette family owned.
As the battle shifted farther south toward lower bridge and Sharpsburg the Roulette farm was left in the battle’s wake. Where earlier that morning fields had lain ripe for harvest, now lay only wounded, dying and dead men and horses. Livestock had run off. Smokehouses and root cellars were left looted. Stone walls were shot to pieces, and fences had been consumed in countless campfires. The peaceful and abundant Antietam Creek Valley had been transformed into the Valley of Death.
In the weeks and months to follow, families returned only to find their homes and barns confiscated and transformed into gruesome field hospitals. Heaps of amputated limbs mounded up outside of windows. Barns strained under the weight of the misery contained within.
Roulette’s returning family found an upset beehive to be the least of their problems. With winter approaching there would be no harvest, and with more 700 bodies buried in the despoiled fields, planting was out of the question. Although the armies moved on, the wounded would remain for up to a year, and disease would descend on the valley, carrying off many Sharpsburg civilians. For the Roulette family the devastation would be complete when, on October 26, their toddler, Carrie May, died from the typhoid fever the armies had brought with them.
Like many other residents of the valley, William Roulette submitted a damage claim to the Federal Government detailing items confiscated, damaged, destroyed or stolen by the Federal troops. His claim—a litany of devastation—totaled $2,400. Save for his buildings, all else was lost. And yet despite the destruction, the resilient Roulette, along with neighbors named Mumma, Poffenberger, Newcomer, and Piper, would gradually recover and rebuild his battered family’s livelihood.