Saturday, July 31, 2010

Time Travelers: Antietam

In my Time Travelers Series, I share some of my favorite historical sites from my travels with my fellow history adventurer, my husband Erin.

Destination: Antietam

I recently finished My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira, and as the story reached its conclusion amidst the carnage at Antietam, I was able to recall the images from my last visit as I read, really helping to enrich the "movie in my mind". I thought I'd share some of its history and the pictures I took last time I was there.

After a victory at the Second Manassas, Lee was eager to keep on the offensive, to invade the Union and move the war out of Virginia. After crossing the Potomac Lee divided his army and sent Jackson to capture the strategic Union garrison at Harper's Ferry. Lee took his division and headed for South Mountain where they were repulsed by a hastily prepared Union advance. After learning of Jackson's success in Harper's Ferry, Lee decided not to retreat back into Virginia, but to make a stand at Sharpsburg. Lee's men held the high ground west of Antietam Creek with Jackson and Longstreet flanking either side of him, and watched as the Union army, under George McClellan, gathered on the east side of Antietam Creek.

September 17, 1862. The battle begins before dawn. 100,000 men are engaged. By sunset 23,000 of them are dead, wounded or captured. This day remains the bloodiest day in American history. Although outnumbered two-to-one, Lee committed his entire force, while McClellan sent in less than three-quarters of his army, and thanks to the unexpected though most welcome appearance of A.P. Hill's Light Division, the Confederates were able to fight the Federals to a standstill. The fighting ended, both armies tended to their dead and wounded, and Lee withdrew back to Virginia. McClellan, despite having a sizeable reserve force that did not fight at Antietam, did not pursue him and the war dragged on for three more horrific years.

Antietam is one of the prettiest battlefields I've visited. It has a beautiful glass-walled visitor's center overlooking rolling farmland and hedgerows against the misty backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains. There's a public observation tower near the center of the park that offers even better views. We purchased a driving tour from Travel Brains that was excellent. It included a CD that guides you through the battlefield, stopping and explaining the significant sites along with a book of visual aids to follow along with. We've taken several of these tours and I only wish they made more of them.

Of course we walked a good deal as well. Antietam is so quiet and peaceful - the only sounds are those of the birds in the trees and the wind in the tall grasses. It was almost surreal to stand in the very spot Lee did and imagine what he must have felt seeing Hill's troops appear in the distance, riding to his rescue; to stand on Burnside's Bridge and imagine artillery blasts and sharpshooter bullets flying during the struggle to control it; to walk Miller's Cornfield and the Bloody Lane, to sit inside the whitewashed coolness of Dunker Church, all now so calm and beautiful, bearing silent, eternal tribute to those who fought that day in 1862.


NPS Trivia Tidbit:  Did you know?

The Maryland State Monument is the only monument at Antietam dedicated to both sides. Marylanders fought for both the Union and the Confederacy. 20,000 people attended the dedication on May 30, 1900. President William McKinley, a veteran of the Battle of Antietam, was the keynote speaker.

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