Wednesday, July 05, 2017

'Bloodstains' and earthworks: Living with history underfoot

Dave and Laura Rowland at the now-capped well where a Confederate soldier is believed to have 
been  killed by a Union artillery shell that crashed through their house, killing two other soldiers.
In a small front room in the Rowlands' house, the floorboards have dark stains. Is it blood? 
Laura Van Alstyne Rowland talks about the history of her house.

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Near Laura and Dave Rowland's cozy house on East Main Street in Sharpsburg, Md., Civil War history abounds.

The national cemetery -- the bucolic, eternal resting place for scores of Union soldiers killed in the fields and woodlots at Antietam -- is a five-minute walk away. Mount Calvary Lutheran Church once stood across the street -- its belfry was an observation point for Confederates and its sanctuary a makeshift hospital for the Federals’ V Corps. In the fall of 1862, 20 paces or so from the Rowlands' front door, Alexander Gardner captured that battle-scarred church and houses in the village of Sharpsburg beyond it in a well-known photograph. (See a Then & Now of the church on my Civil War photography blog here.)

A close-up of the dark stains on the floor.

But Laura and Dave – you can also call him  “Bear” -- don’t even have to leave the house they rent to step back into time.

During the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, a Union artillery shell crashed through their house, killing three Confederate soldiers, longtime battlefield chronicler O.T. Reilly wrote in 1906. One victim apparently was in the backyard, where he was drawing water from the well. The demise of the other victims came in the kitchen, where one of them was found clutching a bunch of onions.

That soldier was "literally torn to pieces," Reilly wrote in The Battlefield of Antietam. "There have been Union soldiers who visited the battlefield since the battle who remembered seeing the sight just mentioned."

On Saturday afternoon, Laura moved pieces of furniture and lifted a braided rug to reveal possible evidence of the long-ago tragedy: massive, dark stains on the polished, brown floorboards. Is it really blood? Perhaps we'll leave the definitive answer for a future episode of Forensic Files.

In the video above, Laura, who had an ancestor killed at Gettysburg, talks about the “bloodstains” and history of the beautiful house, used as a hospital at Antietam. The residence, built in the late 18th century, is known locally as the Mary Hill House.

        GOOGLE STREET VIEW: The Rowlands' house was built in the late-18th century.
                                         (Click at upper right to explore the area.)

Dan Goldstein talks about Union earthworks behind his house.

Remains of Union earthworks in Dan Goldstein's neighborhood.
War-time Mineral Springs Road winds through the Estates of Chancellorsville neighborhood.
Dan Goldstein, whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy, lives with Civil War history in his backyard – literally. When the Union army was flanked by Stonewall Jackson during the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, panicked Federals fell back toward Mineral Springs Road, where the Yankees dug in for an expected assault. The remains of the XI Corps’ long-ago earthworks may be found in the fringe of woods behind Goldstein’s two-year-old house, about 25 yards from the end of his driveway.

In a nod to the neighborhood's history, 
street names are Civil War-related.
On a sultry Monday afternoon, the former director of development for the Fredericksburg (Va.) Area Museum pointed out remains of earthworks as we walked on the war-time road that winds through woods behind houses in the recently developed Estates of Chancellorsville neighborhood. Goldstein also showed me where earthworks were recently destroyed, a victim of a developer who paved a street called Second Corps Drive right through them. A historic easement wasn't good enough to save a chunk of history.

Goldstein has mixed feelings about living in the Estates, where many of the streets have Civil War-related names (“Fifth Corps Lane,” “Irish Brigade Court,” “General Sykes Circle”). Adjacent to the Chancellorsville battlefield, the neighborhood of upscale houses with spacious lots is a nice place to raise a family. On the other hand, battlefield land -- once National Park Service property -- was carved up to create the community that, according to its web site, “greets you with a stone entry feature and dual carriageway entrance lined with distinctive, period split-rail fencing.”

As our walk in the woods neared an end, Goldstein and I wondered about the Union soldiers' state of mind as they hurriedly built the defenses in early May 1863. "They must have been terrified," said Goldstein, who talks about the remains of the earthworks in his backyard in the video above. (Note: The reference in the video to "late May" should be "early May." We blame the heat.)

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