Sunday, March 30, 2014

Antietam up close: A study in contrasts

O.J. Smith's farm, near Keedysville, Md., was used for a Union hospital after the Battle of Antietam.
(Library of Congress collection)
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At first glance, this image from Alexander Gardner's series of glass-plate photographs taken days after the Battle of Antietam seems uninteresting. In the pastoral scene, men gather in the foreground while in the background appear tents and the barn of a 52-year-old farmer named O.J. Smith, whose property two miles northeast of Sharpsburg was used as a Union hospital...

... But enlargements of the image show compelling detail. In this blow-up, six or seven men, two of them apparently staring at Gardner's camera, congregate a short distance from Smith's barn. Perhaps they are surgeons taking a break from their arduous duties ...

... and this enlargement shows the crude, hay-covered shelters undoubtedly used for the wounded. In the right background, just outside the barn, soldiers gather -- one appears to be reading a letter -- as three horses rest near a fence, a cornfield and possibly shelters for other wounded soldiers in the far background  ...

...while in this enlargement, men appear outside the entrance to the barn. Judging from their attire, at least two of the men may be civilians. We can only speculate about the scene inside the barn, where surgeons likely performed the horrible tasks of amputating arms and legs. A nurse named Eliza Harris described the scene on the farm days after the battle:
 "The first night we slept in our ambulance. No room in the small house, the only dwelling near, could be procured. The next day was the Sabbath. The sun shone brightly; the bees and the birds were joyous and busy; a beautiful landscape spread out before us, and we knew the Lord of the Sabbath looked down upon us. But, with all these above and around us, we could see only see our suffering, uncomplaining soldiers, mutilated, bleeding, dying."
... this bare-chested man, probably a wounded soldier, peers at Gardner's camera from a makeshift shelter in this enlargement of the right background of the image. Could that be another wounded man at left? 

Two woman and two men gather for a picnic at Antietam Creek in this image shot by 
Alexander Gardner five days after the Battle of Antietam  The Middle Bridge, also known as
Antietam Bridge,  appears  in the background. (Library of Congress collection)
... As wounded soldiers suffered in barns, houses and field hospitals such as the one on O.J. Smith's farm, Gardner took this image entitled "Picnic Party at Antietam Bridge, September 22, 1862."  This incongruous scene was photographed less than two miles from Smith's farm near Keedysville, Md. A week earlier, more than 10,000 Rebel soldiers crossed the bridge in the background on the Boonsboro Pike as they made their way toward Sharpsburg ...

... detail in this enlargement of the picnic image is so impressive that even pieces of hardtack can be seen in the hands of the women on the boat. The woman at left may have even taken a bite of hers. A man, perhaps a soldier, stirs something in a container held by the woman on the right. Were they aware of the pain and suffering nearby? Did they care? Who were they? Their names and their stories are lost to history.

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


--  Moore, Frank. Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice, S.S. Scranton & Co., Hartford, Conn., 1866.

-- Frassanito, William. Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day, 1978.


  1. These are wonderful images. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Anonymous9:25 PM

    The ladies are plainly eating hardtac!

  3. I am looking for information on the Spong Farm. Specifically who owned Or sold it to the spongs

  4. Anonymous9:06 AM

    I live in Keedysville and am trying to find out the location of the Smith Farm. I don't expect to see it...surely it is long gone...but would like to try and pinpoint it's former location on a map or with coordinates. Can anyone help?