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Visitors Make Their Stand in Battle for Antietam

August 06, 1989|STEVE COURTNEY | Courtney is a staff writer for the Hartford Courant

SHARPSBURG, Md. — "It's just yonder, down the street at the Sunoco station," the man at the Shell station said in a pleasant Maryland drawl. "You can't miss it."

And there it was, at the base of a post supporting the oval Sunoco sign: a small, squared-off chunk of stone with a step cut into it.

A brass plaque told the story: "From 1800 to 1865 human beings stood on this stone to be sold at auction."

For a traveler interested in politics, history and old wars, the reminder is evocative.

In this western Maryland farm town, a bloody battle on Sept. 17, 1862 ultimately rendered the stone obsolete. The conflict, named after nearby Antietam Creek, stopped an invasion of the North, led to a presidential proclamation freeing the slaves and kept Europe out of the Civil War.

Despite these complex results, the battle is a simple one to understand, partly because a careful plan to coordinate three Union attacks on the Confederate lines was botched. As a result, the battle took place in three easily traceable stages in the morning, midday and afternoon.

Still Small and Quiet

The battlefield is different from the better-known one near Gettysburg, Pa. Sharpsburg is almost as small and quiet a place in 1989 as it was in 1862, and much of the field is still farmland. Elaborate Victorian monuments are at a minimum, and no motels or wax museums elbow the site. Cattle graze near cannons.

Visitors to Antietam tend to be "more truly interested in the Civil War" than those who visit Gettysburg, said Richard Rambur, superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield Park.

Most of the fighting took place on a hillside sloping gently down to Antietam Creek. Beyond the creek, fields recede to blue hills, which on an early spring day show wisps of cloud in the gaps, remnants of a morning rainstorm that look like battle smoke. In 1862, that smoke was real.

The Union troops under Gen. George B. McClellan attacked from the east, over the creek. The Confederate troops he was chasing, led by Gen. Robert E. Lee, turned and made their stand on the hillside between the creek and the town.

The details can be learned in an hour's drive along battlefield roads with a tape cassette rented from National Park Service headquarters.

Focus of Early Fighting

The cassette commentary directs the traveler first to an area around Dunker Church, the focus of much of the fighting early in the day. There Union Gen. Joseph Hooker started the battle with artillery fire on Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's men and then attacked through a cornfield.

Gen. Hooker wrote later that the corn "was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before."

Today, as the driver hears the story, he passes through fields that still are being farmed. Monuments and markers are set along the roads to keep them out of the plow's way.

Patches of woods that the cassette describes as significant to the battle have been cleared, although quaint metal Victorian markers designate their outlines. Here and there is the odd sight of a cannon embedded in a brick monument, muzzle down.

Peering into the remaining patch of woods, the driver is surprised to see people staring back at him: The presence of a small, suburban-style house, with a car, pickup and Big Wheels in the driveway, makes it clear that people consider the former battlefield their home.

Rambur described how the park service has dealt with the problem of preserving a battlefield in an area where people live, farm and watch cable television. One local controversy has been the construction of a cable antenna and dishes on a hill that McClellan used as a lookout.

Purchasing Land

The park service has benefited from help such as that of the Arlington, Va.-based Conservation Fund, which is buying $1.1 million worth of the former battlefield, including the cornfield Gen. Hooker described.

The auto tour next passes the spot where the West Woods once stood and where Union Gen. John Sedgwick's division lost more than 2,200 men in less than a half hour, then moves into the "midday" phase of the battle.

It passes a small, neat farmhouse, rebuilt after being burned down during the battle to prevent it from being a shelter for Union sharpshooters, and goes on to the Sunken Road.

There, for nearly four hours, the two sides fought over a country road since known as Bloody Lane. Pictures taken by photographers who flocked to the field after the battle show the trench-like road full of bodies and broken fence rails.

"Before the sunlight faded I walked over the narrow field," a New York City private, David L. Thompson, wrote in "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War," published by the Century Co. in 1884.

"All around lay the Confederate dead. . . . All enmity died out. There was no 'secession' in those rigid forms nor in those fixed eyes staring at the sky. Clearly it was not their war."

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