Visiting Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, Maryland
The September 17th, 1862 Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day in U.S. history, with approximately 23,000 total casualties on both sides including about 3600 killed in action. At the end of the day, very little ground had been gained by either side. Lee withdrew his army the next day and Union General George B. McClellan did not attempt to pursue and attack. Lee safely got his army across the Potomac River, ending the Confederate Invasion of Maryland.
With Lee’s withdrawal, the battle was a strategic victory for the Union. President Abraham Lincoln was not happy that McClellan did not follow up and destroy Lee’s damaged army for a decisive victory. Nonetheless, Lincoln had been waiting for a battlefield victory before he announced his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and the narrow victory at Antietam was enough. Lincoln announced the proclamation to the public on September 22nd. Besides preserving the Union, from that point on the war would also be fought to end slavery.
Antietam National Battlefield is located about 70 miles west of Baltimore on the edge of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Sharpsburg was, and is, a small town in an agricultural area, and the battlefield is surrounded by working farms as it was in 1862.
Start your visit at the Visitor Center, which has museum exhibits, artwork, films about the battle, and a gift shop, along with knowledgeable Park Rangers to answer your questions. The artwork includes paintings by the 2nd Vermont Infantry’s James Hope, a veteran of the battle.
One of the more recognizable landmarks of the Antietam Battlefield is located near the Visitor Center. The Dunker Church, a small white building similar to a Cape Cod style house, was located on the Confederate left flank and was damaged by artillery and musket fire. It was repaired and continued to function as a church until a new church was built in town early in the 20th century. The building on the battlefield is a restoration; the original was blown down in a storm in 1921.
The battle was fought in three locations on the battlefield, and most of the important sites can be seen on the 8 1/2 mile, 11 stop park auto tour. About a half mile or so north of the Dunker Church is the Miller Cornfield, named after the farmer who owned the land. Mr. Miller’s cornfield was the scene of some of the most intense, and costliest, fighting of the day, between the U.S. First Corps (including the Iron Brigade) and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates.
South of the Cornfield, in roughly the center of the battlefield is a sunken farm road that became known as Bloody Lane. The road was used by Confederates for cover, and they held off a much larger force of attacking Federals for about three hours before being driven out of the position, leaving piles of dead covering the road. There is an observation tower at the end of Bloody Lane with a nice view of this part of the battlefield.
On the southern end of the battlefield is another iconic landmark of the battle, a bridge across Antietam Creek. Before the battle, it was known as the Lower Bridge or the Rohrbach Bridge, named for a nearby resident. After the battle, it would be known as Burnside Bridge. Major General Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps attempted to take the bridge but was held off by about 500 Confederates for approximately three hours before finally succeeding. It would seem that Burnside should have overwhelmed the comparatively small force opposing his crossing, but the Rebels had an excellent defensive position in the bluffs overlooking the bridge, as one can see at this stop on the tour.
Note the large sycamore tree next to the bridge on the east bank of Antietam Creek. This tree was here on the day of the battle. It can be seen in photos of the bridge taken at the time as well as in sketches and artwork illustrating the battle.
Also located at this stop is a rather large monument to William McKinley, future president of the United States, and Commissary Sergeant of the 23rd Ohio Infantry at the Battle of Antietam. The 19 year old McKinley delivered food to the 23rd’s men while under fire, and was promoted to second lieutenant as a reward for his action.
For more information about visiting Antietam National Battlefield visit the National Park Service’s Antietam Website.