It isn’t easy to unravel the multilayered complexity of the Battle of Antietam, a fight on September 17, 1862, that left 23,000 dead and wounded soldiers in its wake and that some historians consider to be the turning point of the war. One’s thing for sure, however: A visit to the battlefield is essential.
Antietam National Battlefield is located 12 miles south of Hagerstown, Md., on Md. 65, just northeast of Sharpsburg. An excellent place to start your tour is the park’s visitor center. Besides a book store and other visitor amenities, the facility has several exhibits and an award-winning documentary film about the battle. In warm weather, various demonstrations take place outside. On the ground adjoining the visitor center are several monuments, including ones for the Maryland and New York units that fought there (some of the many Antietam monuments will be identified in this column, but all are worth examining if time permits). Four field cannons representing different wartime models are located on a plateau that served as a key Confederate artillery position during the battle.
This tour can be completed in a day, although a more complete examination of the battle’s rich history usually requires an overnight stay. There are various bed-and-breakfast establishments in Sharpsburg and camping facilities outside the park. The Hagerstown area and Frederick (about a half-hour away) offer more choices for overnight accommodations. This region is also rich in colonial and early American history and is well known for its antique shops, flea markets and farm-fresh produce.
From the visitor center proceed north on Hagerstown Pike (make sure you are on the park road and not Md. 65) toward the North Woods. To your left as you drive, just across the road from the visitor center exit, is a solitary white building known as the Dunker Church, which was a landmark for advancing Federal troops during the battle and for photographers such as Alexander Gardner afterward. The current structure was built in 1962 using some authentic pieces. It replaced the original building, which was destroyed in 1921. Farther north, on the right side of the road, is the Miller farmhouse. The interior of the house, like other historic farm buildings within the park, is closed to the public. Miller’s cornfield was the site of intense early morning fighting between Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Corps and the Union I Corps under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker that resulted in devastating casualty counts for both sides.
Before dawn on September 17, Federal soldiers formed near the Joseph Poffenberger farm and advanced out of the North Woods, which lie just beyond the park road. Immediate and heavy Confederate artillery and small-arms fire devastated the Federal ranks as they pushed forward. In the North Woods and elsewhere in the park, large metal tablets detail the events as they occurred. A 1.6-mile trail through the Cornfield begins and ends here. The Union advance was halted in the Cornfield, at a spot that can also be visited later in the tour.
Proceed east along Mansfield Avenue to the East Woods. A 1.5-mile side trip east on Mansfield Monument Road leads to the Upper Bridge, where many Union soldiers had crossed Antietam Creek on the 16th.
The East Woods was the site of a heavy skirmish the evening before the battle, and also of a portion of the Federals’ early morning advance on the 17th. At the corner of Mansfield Monument and Smoketown roads are two monuments to Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Mansfield, who was killed during the morning fighting. The upturned cannon barrel monument is one of six memorial cannons commemorating the six generals killed or mortally wounded in the battle, three from each side. To visit the Cornfield from here, proceed south a short distance on Smoketown Road and then two-tenths of a mile west on Cornfield Avenue, where there is parking.
Continue a short distance west on Cornfield Avenue and turn left on the Hagerstown Pike park road. After a quarter-mile, turn right to the West Woods turnoff. The West Woods was a staging area for Jackson’s men as they attacked and counterattacked through the morning and early afternoon. From the turnoff, return to Hagerstown Pike, turn right and then left on Smoketown Road. This approach will lead to the area of the battle’s second phase.
A division of the Federal XII Corps veered off to the south past the Mumma farm, which had been burned by the Rebels as they withdrew as a deterrent to Yankee sharpshooters. The division pushed south toward an old wagon road that linked the Mumma and Roulette farms with the Boonsboro Pike. Here the Federals encountered Rebels positioned behind stacked fence posts in the Sunken Road (designated as such on military maps because continual use by the town’s residents had furrowed it below the adjacent fields). Successive Federal charges failed to dislodge the defenders. Both sides set up artillery positions, and the fighting intensified. Like the Cornfield to the north, the Sunken Road was the source of heavy yet futile fighting. It soon received a new moniker: Bloody Lane.
After passing the Mumma and Roulette farms, turn left and continue east on Richardson Avenue to the Sunken Road. There is parking here and the park’s only observation tower. Walk the path to Bloody Lane and try to imagine what the defenders experienced that day as waves of bluecoats charged down the broad rise to the east.
From Bloody Lane, continue south, cross Boonsboro Pike (Md. 34) and drive on the park road (Rodman Avenue) to the site of the Sherrick farm. Turn left on the loop that leads to the bridge, which was known at the time of the battle as either the Lower or Rohrbach Bridge.
The third phase of the battle actually began in the morning as the fighting raged to the north. The Union IX Corps under Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside was assigned the task of creating a diversionary attack at the Lower Bridge. Opposing this crossing was a unit of roughly 400 Georgian sharpshooters posted on high bluffs west of Antietam Creek. It was not until 1 p.m. that two Federal regiments—the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania—were finally able to storm across the bridge and force the Georgians to abandon their position. Burnisde’s attack represented the best opportunity for the Federals to encirle General Robert E. Lee’s army and cut off any potential retreat to the Potomac, but the Union troops stalled and Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Division arrived after a 17-mile march from Harpers Ferry to stop the Federal threat cold.
Besides Burnside Bridge, there are other compelling points of interest in this part of the battlefield, such as the high ground the Georgian sharpshooters occupied for those critical few hours and a walking trail that leads to Snavely’s Ford, where Brig. Gen. Isaac Rodman’s division finally found an alternative to crossing the bridge—albeit a little too late.
At this part of the battlefield there is a new trail with wayside exhibits titled “The Final Attack Trail,” which leads visitors to a cornfield on the Otto farm. Late-day fighting occurred here.
Return northwest on the loop past the Otto farm and turn left on Branch Avenue, the continuation of the park road. Along Branch Avenue are monuments and tablets describing Hill’s afternoon attack that stopped the IX Corps’ advance. Turn right on Harpers Ferry Road. A trail leads to the Hawkins’ Zouaves Monument, where the Federals achieved their so-called “high water mark”—the closest they came to Sharpsburg and their best opportunity to annihilate Lee’s army. Proceed a short distance north to Sharpsburg.
The Antietam National Cemetery is just east of the town on Md. 34. The cemetery contains the graves of Federal soldiers killed during the battle. Confederate dead are buried in private and church cemeteries in Sharpsburg and throughout the region. One small Confederate cemetery is located on Hagerstown Pike about 10 miles north of the visitor center. Park rangers can assist with locating it. About a mile east of the national cemetery on Md. 34 is a statue of Robert E. Lee.
The Pry house, where General McClellan maintained his headquarters during the battle, is on a short park road north of Md. 34, about a mile east of Antietam Creek. The house is now the National Museum of Civil War Medicine’s Pry House Field Hospital Museum. Demonstrations of Civil War surgery are given here during the summer and fall. Return to Sharpsburg for a rest, or continue west on Md. 34 toward the Potomac River.
Lee’s headquarters site is indicated by a marker just north of Md. 34 and west of Sharpsburg. Continue west on Md. 34 to the Potomac. There is an entrance to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal NHP towpath at Boteler’s Ford. Between miles 75.5 and 76.5 on the towpath is a series of caves in which many Sharpsburg residents supposedly sought shelter during the battle. The caves can be seen through the thick vegetation, but entering them is dangerous—it is best to observe them from the towpath.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.