Friday, December 06, 2013

Antietam: A small piece of history returns to Sharpsburg

Private Horace Lay lay wounded in the German Reformed Church after the
Battle of Antietam. This envelope, part of my collection, was addressed to Lay in November 1862.
The wood floors beneath the carpeting creaked and groaned as I walked alone into the sanctuary of the Christ Reformed Church on a raw, rainy December afternoon. I have visited this small brick building on Main Street in Sharpsburg, Md., several times over the past three years, each time struggling to imagine the pain and suffering that took place here after the Battle of Antietam 151 years ago.

In October 1862, Irish-born surgeon Edward McDonnell cared for many of the horribly wounded men in this building, then known as the German Reformed Church. Later, he detailed in a casebook the treatment of 16 wounded men, including Horace Lay, a married father of an 11-year-old son named Horace Jr. A private in the 16th Connecticut, Lay suffered from wounds in both legs and his left femur was fractured. "Patient declining and must die unless … saved by an amputation,” McDonnell wrote in the casebook about Lay on Oct. 11, 1862. “His thigh being quite small, would seem to invite the knife, but I am sick today myself and cannot pursue active treatment."

Later, Lay presumably had his left leg amputated, but he died on Nov. 16, 1862, with his wife Charlotte by his side. Recently, I acquired an envelope, postmarked Nov. 2, 1862, that was addressed to Lay, perhaps by Charlotte before she ventured on an agonizing journey from Connecticut to Sharpsburg. Today, probably for the first time in 151 years, that envelope returned to the church where the 36-year-old shoemaker from Hartford breathed his last.

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