Monday, April 23, 2018

Masterpiece: A visit to Widow Hoffman's farm at Antietam

Circa-1840 Susan Hoffman farmhouse. Her farm was a Union hospital site during and after Antietam. 
                PANORAMA: Panning from left, the barn, house, spring house and spring.
                                     (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

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On a spectacular spring morning, the old farmstead near the Antietam battlefield is a landscape painter’s dream. A circa-1840, red-brick farmhouse, magnificent inside and out, and an immaculate garden seem worthy subject matter for Claude Monet or any of the other great French impressionists.

Inside a small outbuilding, once quarters for the farm's slaves, guests gaze at the well-worn stone steps and wonder about long-ago occupants in the brick structure. At the 2 1/2-story spring house, probably the first residence of the farm’s original owner, ripples of water flow from underground while inside, a miniature Elvis — a misfit among great history— peers from his perch on a brown mantle in front of a wall painted light blue.

While two visitors admire the grounds, a graceful red hawk, buoyed by air currents and perhaps eyeing prey near an ancient corn crib below, circles high above them. On a narrow, winding country road nearby, the engine of a motorcycle, apparently muffled by the folds of land, is barely audible.

Spectacular view of countryside from the second-floor porch of the house.
Spring house, believed to be the first residence of the farm's original owner.
Elvis has not left the building: A mini-Presley stands guard on a mantle in the spring house.
Meanwhile, on a hillside overlooking the farmhouse, a massive barn, its original stone foundation intact, stands watch against a blue sky brushed with clouds. On its upper floor, huge bales of hay produce a distinctive, almost pungent, odor. A guest inspects the structure’s impressive, wooden beams marked by Roman numeral etchings, tell-tale evidence of 19th-century craftsmanship. Another visitor stoops to examine the old, handcrafted nails in the floorboards.

On the ground floor of the Pennsylvania-style bank barn, cows crowd into the dingy, confined space and nervously eye an unwelcome visitor, who admires the stonework and wonders about the tragic history of this special place.

Scores of Union wounded sheltered in this barn after the Battle of Antietam.
Cows occupy the ground floor of the barn, where hundreds of wounded were cared for in 1862.
Roman numerals etched in wooden barn beams, evidence of 19th-century craftsmanship.
Ancient wooden beams in the Hoffman farm barn.
Behind the farmhouse, the original corn crib.
On a short walk back to the farmhouse, an owner of the property tells the story of a piece of crafted metal he retrieved for his guests’ inspection. The boot scraper stirs imaginations: What soles/souls used this handiwork, probably created by a local blacksmith long ago? How many Federal soldiers scraped their boots on the ornate antique?

At least one of the guests briefly closes his eyes and imagines the scene in September and October 1862 at widow Susan Hoffman’s farm, used as a Union hospital during and after the Battle of Antietam:

Boot scraper: What Federal soldiers used it before entering
the Hoffman farmhouse?
Hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers, torn apart by chunks of metal. Blood-soaked surgeons. Amputated limbs in grotesque piles. The sickening smell of decaying flesh. Mounds of earth for freshly dug graves. A nurse, sweat pouring from her brow, tenderly consoling a grievously injured Yankee.

"On Sunday succeeding the battle," a member of the U.S. Christian Commission wrote, "we established ourselves permanently at the Hoffman House, thinking it better to concentrate our energies upon one point. In every spot here -- the barn, the stable, carriage-house, sheds, straw stacks, orchards, and indeed everywhere -- were to be seen wounded and dying men.

“For the first few days, of course, all was bustle and confusion. Nothing scarcely could be thought of but affording relief to the sufferers. Prayer only could be made at the side of one drawing near to his end, or words of Scripture whispered into the ear of the moaning patient as we dressed his wounds…"

Most of the wounded soldiers, the man recalled, were 16 to 21 years old.

After the visitors thank their gracious hosts, they drive off on the long, gravel lane. Comparing notes, they both quickly agree: It's a blessing to have the opportunity to walk among the ghosts ... and to view a  masterpiece.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


- Moss, Rev. Lemuel, Annals of the U.S. Christian Commission, Philadelphia, J.P. Lippincott & Co., 1868


  1. Thanks for the tour John. It's amazing that many of these old Civil War era structures still stand and are still in use. And the rolling countryside in northwestern Maryland is stunning. Antietam is, perhaps our most beautiful and authentic Civil War battlefield.

  2. Anonymous8:01 AM

    Have been looking for more information about this possible ancestor. Thanks for the vivid account.