Sunday, October 16, 2016

Hidden Antietam: Seldom-seen Alfred Poffenberger farm

In early 1960s,  Rt. 65 bypass construction cut through a major section of the Antietam battlefield.
(Antietam Library and Research Center | Click on image to enlarge.)

       Google Street View of Rt. 65. 15th Massachusetts monument in far distance at right.
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Every time I drive down this road, especially in the eerie, inky blackness of a western Maryland night, I feel like I am trampling on hallowed ground. This is Rt. 65, which cuts through a section of the Antietam battlefield probably unknown except to diehards. Imagine a busy highway slicing through Devil's Den at Gettysburg or cutting across the slope at Malvern Hill or, as my friend Jim Buchanan of Walking the West Woods blog notes, through Bloody Lane at Antietam.

Pan to the right in the Google Street View to see the West Woods, scene of savage fighting on the morning of Sept. 17, 1862. Just beyond the woods is the iconic Dunker Church. To the left, behind the trees, is site of the seldom-visited Alfred Poffenberger farm, also scene of bitter fighting; a staging area for Confederate troops funneled into the West Woods and beyond; and a Rebel aid station. On Hauser's Ridge, beyond the farm, Confederate artillery fire rained on the Federals.

In the early 1960s, construction of the Rt. 65 bypass cut through the heart of this area of the battlefield, leaving the original terrain largely to our imagination. The road is roughly a dividing line between Confederate and Union troops.

For an excellent, detailed account of the fighting here, read The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 Vol. II, Antietam by Civil War veteran and battle participant Ezra Carman and edited by the foremost Antietam expert, Tom Clemens. Or for a good overview of the fighting here, check out the recently published A Field Guide to Antietam by Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler. Or find Buchanan, an Antietam battlefield guide, at the Antietam visitor's center or sitting in a chair on weekends near the Philadelphia Brigade monument in the West Woods. (See Jim's posts on the Poffenberger farm here, here, here and here.)

On the 154th anniversary of the battle, I walked through the West Woods and over to the old Poffenberger farm. Here's a look at a part of the battlefield you may not have realized existed.

PLEASE NOTE: Consult with park rangers before visiting this site.

        PANORAMA: 15th Massachusetts dead were buried (foreground) near the cabin.
Protected by a canopy, the Mary Locher cabin is an ongoing restoration project.
A section of the cabin may date to the 1760s.
This rare sketch entitled "Antietam: The Fight at Poffinberger's [sic} Farm" shows the barn 
and house (enlargement below)  in the right background on Sept. 17, 1862.  Schell was a 
sketch artist during  the Civil War.  (Francis Schell | The Becker collection, used with permission)
An enlargement of the sketch above. (The Becker collection, used with permission)
This sketch is believed to show Rebels firing toward the West Woods  from behind a rock ledge 
on the Alfred Poffenberger farm. (Alfred Waud | Library of Congress collection)
In 1862, Alfred Poffenberger, who leased this farmstead from Mary Locher, lived here with his wife and two young children. He and his family fled once it was clear a battle would be fought.

Justus Wellington: 
15th Massachusetts
private was killed
 in the 
West Woods.
(Read more here.)
The 15th Massachusetts, which suffered 75 killed and 255 wounded in about 20 minutes in the West Woods, advanced to Poffenberger's farm, where it was attacked by regiments from Georgia and Virginia. After the battle, 15th Massachusetts dead were buried on the northwest side of the Mary Locher cabin in a trench that was "25 feet long, 6 feet wide and 3 feet deep," according to a Roland E. Bowen, a private in the regiment.

"The corpes [corpses]," he noted, "were buried by Co., that is the members of each Co. Are put together. Co. H was buried first in the uper [sic] end of the trench next [to] the woods. They are laid in two tiers, one [on] top of the other. The bottom tier was laid in, then straw laid over the head and feet, then the top tier laid on them and covered with dirt about 18 inches deep."

15th Massachusetts Private Justus Wellington, a 23-year-old shoemaker from West Brookfield, Mass., was killed in the West Woods and probably buried here.  The bodies were later re-interred, many in Antietam National Cemetery.

The cabin, a section of which is believed to have been built in the 1760s, is an ongoing restoration project and protected by a canopy..

The cabin is beyond this old root cellar, which dates to the battle.
The foundation is all that remains from the old Poffenberger barn, where wounded huddled during 
and after the battle. Confederate artillery was stationed on Hauser's Ridge, beyond the barn.
             Google Earth: Barn foundation and cabin to left of Rt.-65 (Sharpsburg Pike) .

PLEASE NOTE: Consult with park rangers before visiting this site.


From Ball’s Bluff to Gettysburg…And Beyond: The Civil War Letters of Private Roland E. Bowen, 15th Massachusetts Infantry, 1861-1864. Gregory A. Coco, editor, Gettysburg, Pa: Thomas Publications, 1994.


  1. I want to go back to Antietam! Thank you, Mr. Banks, for bringing it to me in my home... I look forward to visiting the 16th Connecticut monument, which was inaccessible the last time I was there.

  2. Thanks smooch for this overview here. My great-grandfather was in the 15th Massachusetts fighting in the West Woods where he was wounded. One of the lucky ones he went on to fight at Gettysburg and survived the war despite being wounded a total of 4 times. He was mentioned in Bowen's book-Nelson V Stanton. Hope to see the 15th memorial in person sometime. Nelson was 19 when he enlisted and in his late 50s when my grandfather was born. Nelson died in 1899-I have often wondered as to the cause. I hope to read some of the books you recommend. Thanks Linda (Stanton) Willette

  3. We were just here a week ago. Unfortunately, we had rain so we were unable to leave the car very much. I got a couple books from the visitor center that I have been reading and plan to revisit this site (probably) next year. With your information and the books, I will have greater knowledge of this area. Thank you for sharing this