Monday, September 26, 2016

Antietam: A little-known tragedy at David Reel's barn

                                     (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

      Top above: Interactive panorama of old Reel farm, barn. Above: Google Earth view.

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Thousands of tragedies played out during the Battle of Antietam. One that receives little attention occurred on David Reel's farm on a ridge behind Robert E. Lee's lines. Confederates used Reel's property as a staging area, and as wounded came streaming from the West Woods and elsewhere, the farmer's bank barn became a makeshift field hospital. One scene in particular stood out for a Sharpsburg man named John Philemon Smith:
"While staying at Mr. Reels I saw a number of wounded and dead Confederates brought into the yard; some were having their limbs amputated, others horribly mangled were dying. One man in particular I shall never forget. His entire abdomen had been torn and mangled with a piece of exploded shell. He uttered piercing and heart rendering cries and besought those who stood by for God's sake to kill him and thus end his sufferings. Death came to his relief in a short time and he was hastily buried in a shallow grave dug in the orchard nearby." 
But sometime during the battle, an even greater horror occurred. Federal artillery struck the barn, setting it afire and burning to death some of the wounded. When local boys went through the ruins of the barn, they found lumps of lead ... and bones of human beings in the ashes. It's not known how many Confederate soldiers died in the barn fire.

"The fire of the Federal Batteries on this point was terrific," H.W. Addison, a captain in the 7th South Carolina of Kershaw's Brigade recalled decades after the battle. "I finallly got off some hundred of yards toward the Town," added Addison, "I looked back, and saw that the Barn or building had been fired, and suppose some of our wounded were burned to death."

During a visit to the farm on the 154th anniversary of the battle, the scene was quite different. Chickens clucked in the barn, and cows nervously stirred in a nearby field. I stepped through muck to find the general area where Alexander Gardner set up his camera to record an image of the burned-out shell of the barn on Sept. 21 or 22, 1862.

There wasn't another soul in sight.

      Visit my Civil War Then & Now blog for a larger presentations for desktop.

An image of the Reel barn taken from a similar vantage point as Alexander Gardner's 1862 image.
Two outer stone walls appear to be all that remains of the war-time barn.
A close-up of an outer stone wall.
Lower level of the barn. Was this hell on Sept. 17, 1862?
A view of the length of the barn. The old Reel farm property is owned by the Civil War Trust.

-- Buchanan, Jim, Walking the West Woods blog. (Buchanan cites H.W. Addison's 1898 letter to Ezra Carman, who wrote a detailed study of the battle, as source for the description of the shelling of the Reel farm and barn. Accessed Sept. 25, 2016.)

--Nelson, John H, As Grain Falls Before The Reaper, The Federal Hospital Sites And Identified Federal Casualties at Antietam, Privately published CDHagerstown, Md., 2004. (Nelson's terrific work is the source for the quote from John Philemon Smith. He cites the source as the Smith file in the Antietam National Battlefield Visitor's Center Library.)

--Reilly, Oliver T., The Battlefield of Antietam, Hagerstown Bookbinding and Printing Co., Hagerstown, Md., 1906.


  1. Thanks John, as always appreciate your work, you seem to have that knack of coming out with the untold stories - a cry'n shame for those boys stuck inside.

  2. It would be worthwhile to restore the barn to the wartime design, in my opinion. It's worthy of a memorial, given the historic significance. I wonder if the dead buried in the orchard were later removed, or is this still a cemetery of Confederate dead. More research would be in order it seems. If the burned debris was deposited nearby, it could provide considerable forensic evidence.

  3. Thanks for making me stop to think and remember all those boys.

  4. The book you quote, "As Grain Falls Before the Reaper," -- I can't seem to find it available anywhere online. Do you have any suggestions? THANKS! -- Ray

    1. Hi, Ray: It's not a book;it's a CD-rom, hard to find.