ANTIETAM NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD, Md. — The 125th anniversary of the bloodiest day in American history is being commemorated here with two weeks of special events.
"Every 25 years, we mark the anniversary of Antietam with major commemorative events. This is one of those special years," explained Betty Otto, 58, head of public affairs for the battlefield, which is administered by the National Park Service.
Last Thursday, the anniversary day of the battle, 23,100 red, white and blue memorial balloons representing the dead and wounded of the Battle of Antietam were released by schoolchildren on the hallowed cemetery grounds. Special commemorative services followed. Lectures and other events, such as evening torchlight tours of the battle sites, are scheduled throughout the observance.
Today, 300 volunteers dressed as soldiers of the Blue and Gray will be scattered throughout the battlefield, simulating the firing of rifles and cannons and demonstrating Union and Confederate infantry artillery and cavalry tactics of the Battle of Antietam.
And next Sunday, 2,000 Civil War buffs from 41 states will re-enact the fierce fighting that took place in the cornfield at sunup and the action in Old Sunken Road (also known as Bloody Lane).
From dawn to dusk, Sept. 17, 1862, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army and Gen. George B. McClellan's Union Forces fired at one another at close range on farmlands between Antietam Creek, the town of Sharpsburg and the Potomac River.
More Americans were killed and wounded in the one-day battle than on any day before or since.
Union Gen. Joseph Hooker's artillery opened fire on Stonewall Jackson's men in the cornfield north of Sharpsburg at dawn. The 30-acre field became a human holocaust as it was captured by Jackson's forces, regained by the North, taken again by the South and finally recaptured by Hooker's troops.
On a narrow trail through a gully called the Old Sunken Road, renamed Bloody Lane by the soldiers who managed to survive, fighting resulted in 5,000 casualties between 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.
"The dead and wounded were laying in heaps around us," according to the account of Sgt. Jacob Fryberger, Company K, 51st Pennsylvania Infantry.
"The shells struck and killed my horse, blew him to pieces, knocked me down and tore off my right arm," related Pvt. Ezra E. Stickley of Company A, 5th Virginia Infantry, in a field hospital.
When Lee's forces finally retreated and the gunfire ceased, more than 23,000 lay dead and wounded--12,410 Union soldiers, 10,700 Confederate soldiers.
It took several days to find and care for the wounded and dying after the fighting stopped. Clara Barton, who later founded the American Red Cross, had come up from Washington with five wagon loads of bandages, stimulants and medical supplies and was in the thick of the battle. Her recollections included:
"A man lying upon the ground asked for a drink. I stopped to give it, and having raised him with my right hand, was holding the cup to his lips with my left, when I felt a sudden twitch of the loose sleeve of my dress.
"The poor fellow sprang from my hands and fell back quivering in the agonies of death. A (cannon) ball had passed between my body and my right arm, which supported him, cutting through the sleeve, and passing through his chest from shoulder to shoulder."
Union and Confederate surgeons and assistants set up field hospitals on the battleground in tents, barns, churches and homes. After the wounded were brought to the field hospitals, teams began collecting the dead, digging long narrow trenches and burying their remains after attempting to ascertain identity from personal effects on the bodies.
Rows of Dead
"The slain lay in rows precisely as they stood in their ranks a few moments before," wrote Union Gen. Joseph Hooker, describing the fighting in the cornfield phase of the battle.
It was only after the war ended that Antietam National Cemetery was established at Sharpsburg--through the relentless efforts of Dr. Agustus A. Biggs--and the remains of the Union soldiers were reinterred in coffins and their graves marked with tombstones.
Today, in the midst of faded headstones for 4,776 soldiers (1,836 unknown) is the bigger-than-life statue of a Union soldier at parade rest, dedicated on Sept. 17, 1880, with the inscription, "Not for themselves but for their country."
The Confederate states rejected having their soldiers buried in the same graveyard with Union soldiers. So, for several years, Confederate soldiers remained buried in ditches on the farmland that was the battlefield until they, too, were reinterred in a Confederate cemetery in nearby Hagerstown.
Union soldiers at Antietam came from 20 states and Confederate soldiers from 11 states. Descendants of these soldiers phone, write and visit the battlefield daily seeking information about their relatives.