Sunday, August 31, 2014

Antietam: Relics, skeletons and a 'long lost fabled well'

In this 1937 newspaper photo, Maryland state senator Ernest Miller holds two Civil War artillery shells
 that he discovered while plowing a field  in Sharpsburg, Md., where grew up.

Days after a July 1933 rainstorm "almost amounting to a cloudburst," George Alexander had his hands full.

With lead.

Astonishingly, the Antietam battlefield superintendent picked up 250 bullets that had washed up in farm fields and woodlots where soldiers had killed and maimed each other nearly 70 years earlier. (Tourists also carried away relics that summer day.) Alexander also discovered on the Henry Piper Farm a much more sobering reminder of the carnage at Antietam: bones of three soldiers, including two skulls.

In the decades immediately after the war, it was not uncommon for area farmers and others to recover remains of soldiers from makeshift battlefield graves. While searching for relics in the East Woods in 1913, longtime battlefield guide O.T. Reilly, who claimed to have witnessed the battle when he was 5, unearthed a nearly complete skeleton. Only the skull was missing, prompting the Frederick (Md.) News to report that Reilly "thinks the soldier's head was shot off by a shell in the battle."  The latest discovery of soldier remains at Antietam occurred in 2008, when a hiker found bones of a New York soldier near the Bloody Cornfield.

O.T. Reilly: Longtime Antietam battlefield guide 
sold battlefield relics from his shop on
Main Street in Sharpsburg.
(Photo courtesy Stephen Recker)
Almost immediately after Antietam, souvenir hunters descended on the battlefield for other pieces of the action. A local man named Cyrus Mondell recovered a drum that belonged to a soldier in the 29th Massachusetts, an Irish Brigade regiment that saw heavy fighting near Bloody Lane. (See my interactive panorama of Bloody Lane here.) Nearly 33 years later, in May 1895, he donated it to Sharpsburg's Lutheran Church, which apparently sold it and used the proceeds to pay off its debt.

In 1877, a Sharpsburg man described as "something of an amateur antiquarian" was given a pocket mirror that a local had recovered from a soldier's temporary grave. Inside the case made of laurel was the name of the owner: 19-year-old Private Francis B. Reynolds of the 8th Ohio, who had been reported missing after the battle. The relic's owner contacted the postmaster in the soldier's hometown and sent the mirror back to the private's friends in Ohio "accompanied by a very feeling letter."

In 1895,  Reilly, who for years sold battlefield relics from his shop on Main Street in Sharpsburg, purchased a sword that was found embedded in the bank of the nearby Potomac River. Rusty but complete, it may have been left there three days after Antietam by a sergeant in the 118th Pennsylvania, the Corn Exchange Regiment, after the Battle of Shepherdstown.

Born six years after the Civil War ended, Ernest Miller often found war debris such as bullets, bayonets and belt plates while growing up in Sharpsburg. In 1937, Miller, then a Maryland state senator, showed off  to a Hagerstown newspaper two artillery shells that he had found while plowing a field there. "One of the shells is still loaded," the Morning Herald reported, proving that politicians of that era were just as brilliant as they are today.

As late as the mid-1940s, hundreds of relics, from bullets to artillery shells and buckles, were reportedly found after heavy rains. In 1947, a Maryland man found 125 bullets, four pieces of large artillery shells, two uniform buttons (one Confederate, one Union) and a human tooth just by eyeballing the ground after rainstorms. When he was only 7, the relic hunter's 92-year-old father picked up relics after the battle. (The old man even recalled witnessing President Lincoln's visit to Sharpsburg in October 1862.)

With minie balls from the battle apparently in short supply by the late 1940s, Sharpsburg residents may have turned to deceptive means to replenish the prized souvenirs. In 1948,  locals reportedly cast bullets in old Civil War molds and buried them in the ground to give them an authentic patina. After jamming bullets into holes bored into trees, creative souvenir dealers waited weeks or more and then sliced open the trunks to recover prized paperweights.

In January 1952, the Hagerstown Morning Herald reported about a mysterious relic-filled well at Antietam.
But the whopper of all Antietam relic tales may be the story of the "long lost fabled well." In 1952, the Hagerstown Daily Mail reported that a deep well filled with relics was being hunted somewhere near the battlefield. Who was searching and what did they know? Apparently, no one was talking much about this murky tale.

 "... no one knows exactly where the well is located," the newspaper reported, "and many historians doubt whether it exists." As the story goes, soldiers, eager to be done with battlefield clean-up, filled a well with the dead as well as debris that included ammunition and then covered the hole with dirt.

"It was overlooked when the reburial work was done," the newspaper reported, "and in the course of years, it was covered with crops or grass so completely that the eye cannot detect the place where the well existed." The most likely site for the trash/treasure/burial ground reportedly was the Nicodemus Farm, near the Hagerstown Pike, or somewhere close to Burnside Bridge. But no major discovery apparently was made.

Seven years later, in October 1959, two brothers from Pennsylvania, two Baltimore youths and a Sharpsburg-area man named Fred Remsburg conducted separate, and apparently unsuccessful, searches for the relic-filled glory hole. The brothers used a divining rod while the boys, hunting on Sundays, relied on a mysterious map found in a Baltimore library.  Remsburg gave up the hunt because he feared the 4- to 5-foot hole he had dug during his search would collapse.

It sounds like this relic-filled well story simply doesn't hold water.

In October 1959, the Hagerstown Daily Mail reported that Pennsylvania brothers may have found the relic-filled well.

SOURCES:
Cumberland (Md.) Evening Times, Nov. 14, 1947
Cumberland (Md.) Sunday Times, July 23, 1933
Frederick (Md.) News, Sept. 29, 1913
Hagerstown (Md.) Daily Mail, Oct. 2, 1948
Hagerstown (Md.) Morning Herald, June 18, 1937
Hagerstown (Md.) Morning Herald, Jan. 22, 1952
Hagerstown (Md.) Daily Mail, Oct. 1, 1959
The Herald and Torch Light, Hagerstown, Md., May 11, 1895
The Herald and Torch Light, Hagerstown, Md., Sept 12, 1877

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