Battle of Antietam Remembered 153 years later

Credit: NPS

Credit: NPS


Author: Steven Shaw
Date: 09.17.15

At dawn... 153 years ago... Musket fire pierced the air…  Cannons thundered... 12 long hours later...

More than 23,000 brave men lay littered across the red stained battlefield at Antietam...  as the sun set on the bloodiest single day in American history.  Today more than more than 200,000 people visit Antietam National Battlefield each year pay to homage to those who gave their lives fighting for a nation divided.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia entered Maryland in early September, singing loudly the tune "Maryland, My Maryland" emboldened by an impressive victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas). This marked the first time the Confederacy had invaded the North.  After a few minor skirmishes, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia consolidated on the high ground around Sharpsburg on September 16th.  He was greeted by the far numerically superior, Army of the Potomac lead by Union General George B. McClellan.  The stillness of the cool night air complimented an eerie calm before shots rang out.  Both armies knew the stakes were high, but no one knew 153 years later… It would still be bloodiest day in American history.

When the smoke settled and the dead were buried.  The battle was inconclusive, yet it did accomplish two things.  Lee's first invasion of the North was finished, his Army of Northern Virginia retreated south across the Potomac; and the battle gave President Abraham Lincoln the chance to announce the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, thereby giving the war dual purpose, politically, the preservation of the Union, and morally, the end of slavery.

Today when visiting Antietam National Battlefield there are plenty of options for activities.  The park features an 8.5 miles self-guided road tour.  Most choose to drive, but we recommend slowing down and walking or riding a bike.  The bookstore has audio programs, which will greatly enhance the tour.  Rangers do daily interpretive programs and the Pry House Field Hospital Museum is worth a stop.  The Pry House served as General George B. McClellan's headquarters during the battle.  Antietam also has more than twelve miles of hiking trails.

The ADA accessible Antietam Remembered Loop Trail is a short walk that leads visitors by the Maryland State Monument, which is the only one of Antietam's many monuments dedicated to both the Confederacy and the Union, as Maryland had sympathizers on both sides.  The loop also strolls by the historic Dunker Church, which is where waves of Union soldiers lead by General Hooker met the Rebel yells of General Stonewall Jackson's Confederates.

Two other must do trails include the 1.5 mile Cornfield Trail and the 1.6 mile Bloody Lane Trail.   The Cornfield Trail saw more casualties than anywhere else during the battle.  Union Officer Rufus Dawes described it as “indescribably horrible”  ”the most dreadful slaughter to which our regiment was subjected in the war" where “Men I cannot say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by dozens.”  A Confederate soldier simply put, “those corn acres of hell.” This trail is a short hike with a long violent history.

The next must do hike is the Bloody Lane Trail.  The trail follows the boot prints of Union Soldiers as they advanced towards the Sunken Road, when the fighting stopped it’s said that blood flowed like a river of red.  The Sunken Road would be forever remembered as the bloody lane. In a letter to his wife Union Officer James Fillebrown of Maine described the horror... “What a bloody place was that sunken road as we advanced and the Irish Brigade fell back; the fences were down on both sides, and the dead and wounded men were literally piled there in heaps.”  Other trails to consider include the West Woods Trail which is a great hike that leads through fierce morning battle sites. The Final Attack Trail and the Union Advance Trail take hikers through the afternoon stages of the Battle of Antietam.

Antietam National Battlefield is a truly sacred place. The opportunity to immerse yourself in history and follow the trails of Generals Jackson, Longstreet, McClellan, Hooker and Lee is a way to pay respect to the ghosts of the thousands who lost their lives following those same trails.

Leave a comment below, we would love to hear about experiences in the park.  Also, here is a link with more information on hiking in Antietam National Battlefield.