The Battle of Antietam

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Beautiful mountains and lush forests surround the quiet town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The tranquility of nature is inviting, like a sublime melody on constant repeat. It is hard for me juxtapose the peacefulness of today with the tragedy of bloodshed and carnage 153 years ago at the Battle of Antietam. It was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history with approximately 23,000 men dead, wounded, or missing.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee had a string of successes in the Summer of 1862 culminating in the spectacular Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Manassas in late August. Lee now had the initiative to march his Army of Northern Virginia into Northern territory. In a letter to Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, in early September, Lee wrote: “…the present seems to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate Army to enter Maryland…”

Lee began his Maryland Campaign on September 4. However, in a twist of fate, a lost copy of his military plans, known as Special Order 191, was discovered by a Union soldier on September 13. When the intelligence was relayed to Union General McClellan, he declared: “Now I know what to do…here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”

The Union attack began at dawn on September 17 and the fighting lasted about 12 hours. There is an excellent Visitor Center at the Antietam Battlefield with a short film I highly recommend for orientation. Compared to other battlefields, Antietam is very easy to visualize because it happened in 3 distinct phases at equally distinct locations.

Exiting the Visitor Center and we are cattycorner from Dunker Church. The first fighting broke out around here and across Miller’s Cornfield in the same vicinity. The Union’s Army of the Potomac assaulted the Confederate’s left flank, but Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s army was able to stand firm.

A short drive away and we are at the Sunken Road, also known as Bloody Lane. It is the second location where Confederate and Union soldiers clashed later that morning. The Confederates were entrenched along the depressed road frequented by farmers. As the Union army approached, fighting ensued for almost 4 hours. The famous Irish Brigade fought here and lost approximately 60% of its men in this fight, but their sacrifice helped the Union pierce the Confederate center.

Driving once more, we reach the final engagement that happened in the afternoon at a stone bridge now known as Burnside Bridge. The heroism of about 500 Georgia Confederate soldiers were able to hold off roughly 14,000 Union soldiers for several hours! Though, eventually, the Union, under Ambrose Burnside, captured the bridge to advance against the Confederate’s right flank.

The battle ended when Confederate reinforcements arrived. The outcome was a tactical draw because the Union did not follow up on their advances. The Confederates retreated back into Virginia leaving the town of Sharpsburg forever scarred with an undesired notoriety.

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I am enjoying an afternoon sans heels on an artillery limber. 🙂 The pics that follow are a mix of my first visit in 2011 and my most recent visit in November.


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Artillery at Antietam. Beyond the artillery is Dunker Church, location of the first phase of battle. It was there that the Federals attacked the Confederates at first light.

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This picture, from the Antietam Visitor Center, depicts the somber reality of battle.

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Dunker Church today. Dunkers were German Baptist Brethren.

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If these walls could talk! Inside Dunker Church. Very simple and plain. Their name is derived from performing full immersion baptism.

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Across from Dunker Church is this monument to Ohio Infantry.

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Beyond Dunker Church and the Ohio Monument is the Maryland Monument. Maryland was a border state, meaning men fought for the Confederacy and the Union. This monument is dedicated to both sides, the only monument at Antietam to have this honor.

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The Cornfield – This battle was part of the first phase when fighting began at dawn.

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The second phase of battle occurred here at Bloody Lane (aka the Sunken Road). Combat was so fierce, blood flowed “like a river.”

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This stone structure is the Observation Tower built by the War Dept. in 1897. It is located next to Bloody Lane and gives visitors a thorough view of the battlefield.

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Memorial to the Irish Brigade right next to the Observation Tower.

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The same memorial to the Irish Brigade – different side of monument.

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The same memorial to the Irish Brigade – different side of monument.

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Observing Bloody Lane walking from the Observation Tower.

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Walking towards Burnside Bridge – Third and final phase of battle.

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Burnside Bridge. The battle ended with no clear victor when Confederate officer A.P. Hill arrived with reinforcements. He was able to repulse the Union back to the bridge, but not back across it.

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Typical scene driving through Antietam.

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Monument to Indiana (Union).

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Monument to the Georgia Confederates

The origins of the Red Cross began at Antietam when nurse Clara Barton and other nurses cared for the wounded and dying soldiers. The red cross symbol at the bottom of the monument comes from a brick chimney located at the house Clara Barton was born.