Saturday, May 14, 2011

Battle of Antietam memories: The Roulettes

Union soldiers formed on the Roulette Farm before attacking the Rebels
in Bloody Lane during the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.
Like this blog on Facebook

A spry old man with a wisp of white hair and an absolutely wicked sense of humor, Earl Roulette was a treasure.

I visited Earl and his wife, Annabelle, three times during my visits to Sharpsburg, Md., over the years. Their house was just across the street from a grove of trees and a monument that marked Robert E. Lee's headquarters during the Battle of Antietam. The Roulettes farmed around Sharpsburg for more than 40 years, and Earl had an encyclopedic knowledge of the area and the battlefield.  He even recalled old Civil War veterans returning to the great field for one last look when he was a youngster.

I took this picture of Earl and his wife, Annabelle, in 2005.
Three of Earl's great-grandfathers had farms on the battlefield at Antietam. One of them, William Roulette, had the misfortune to own a farm in the middle of the field, bordering the infamous Bloody Lane. Afterward, 700 soldiers were buried on his great-grandfather's property.

Imagine having 700 soldiers buried in your back yard.

Although his farming days were over, Earl still kept a farmer's hours. Up around 4 a.m. and to bed a little after sundown. Even during the summer, the Roulette house was heated to about 80 degrees, so it was important to dress properly for the visit. I usually expected to stay a half-hour, but once Earl got going, each sitdown typically lasted a couple hours or more. Yes, ol' Earl could definitely talk.

Passed down through Earl Roulette's family, 
this wedding ring  was pulled from a 
dead soldier at Antietam.
"Lookie here, John," he would say in a slightly high-pitched voice. As Annabelle slowly rocked in her chair in the living room, Earl would pull out a piece from the past from a box or a folder. A chewed pain bullet. A daguerreotype of freed slave Nancy Campbell, who was treated like family by the Roulettes. An old sword and scabbard. It was a collection any Civil War museum would envy.

During one visit, Earl reached into a plastic bag and pulled out a thin, gold band. Passed down from his Great-grandpa Snavely, the wedding ring  was pulled from a dead soldier, his name lost to history, who was found in Antietam Creek after the battle. In a small shed out back, Earl kept a collection of relics he recovered while farming his property over the years. A cannonball or two, a bent bayonet, fired bullets.

I remembered getting a little squeamish when Earl picked up an old artillery shell.

Artillery shells, a cannonball, a bayonet and other relics recovered from the Antietam battlefield
by Earl Roulette. The ammunition box pictured was found by his ancestors there.

"Was that thing deactivated, Earl?" I asked.

Soldiers from the 14th Connecticut captured Rebel skirmishers
 at this  spring house on the Roulette Farm 
by slamming the door shut.
"Oh, no," he would cackle. "I've been handling it for years."

Quick with a quip, Earl typically had a message for me when I left. "Better be back soon, John," he said once with a laugh. "The old buzzards may be circling me soon."

I thought of Earl as I was walked down the old gravel road from Bloody Lane at Antietam to his Great-granddaddy William Roulette's farm last week. The property is maintained by the National Park Service, but save for a couple park signs, I'd bet any of the soldiers who fought here 149 years ago would recognize it.

Several ground hogs have invaded the cellar, but the farmhouse, used as a hospital during and after the battle, still looks its did in the famous Alexander Gardner photo taken days after the fighting. The cellar entrance from which William popped out and urged Union troops to rout the Rebels from his property is still there. So is the spring house where soldiers from the 14th Connecticut, bayonets at the ready, captured Confederate skirmishers in the small outbuilding simply by slamming the door shut.

"Give it to 'em! Drive 'em!" William Roulette yelled to
soldiers after he left his farmhouse cellar. (1)

And the field where Union soldiers gathered to receive absolution from a priest before making the awful march into history is just a short distance from the house.

Sadly, Earl Roulette is gone. Shortly after having his leg amputated, Earl died in October 2008. He was 88. Annabelle is gone now, too.

Good people.

Great memories.

Famed Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner captured this stereo image of
 the Roulette Farm days after the battle. (Library of Congress collection)


  1. What a great story, John. It adds yet another layer to the field's history. Many thanks!

  2. Marty Schmidt10:26 AM

    Just to let all the readers know that the Torrington Conn. CW Round Table has and is going to do a Work Project again for the 6th year this coming April on the Antietam Battlefield which includes the Roulette Farm. The first picture on the top, the roof of the Ice house on the left of the pic, was paid for and replaced by their hands. There is not one part of the park that the CCWRT has not worked on now. Some places, even the public does not see. The 2nd CHA, 8th CVI, 11th CVI, & 14th CVI reenacting groups have donated money and many man hours to this effort. And this year on Sat April 21st there will be a Day designated by the National Park as Connecticut Day. Hope every reader could make that day as it will be a day in History by itself. As usual. Great Job John!

  3. Thank you for helping to keep this history and these memories alive.