Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Battlefield biscuits and ham: Meet an Antietam citizen-hero

Martin Henry Eakle and the buggy he is believed to have used to take aid to Union soldiers at Antietam.
(Eakle family pamphlet)
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Richard Clem's Civil War stories are often featured on my blog. In this post, Clem, a lifelong resident of Washington County in Maryland, tells the story of a citizen-hero of the Battle of Antietam.

By Richard E. Clem

Richard Clem
For decades after the Battle of Antietam, the identity of a good Samaritan who distributed ham and biscuits to the troops there while fighting still raged apparently was a mystery outside his family. Like any other major battle of the Civil War, Antietam (called Sharpsburg in the South) had its share of ordinary people who gave comfort and relief to the wounded and dying who were far from home. Unheralded residents of Washington County and far beyond played a part in healing soldiers in the “vast sea of misery.” One individual, however, deserves special recognition for going beyond the call of duty. If the Medal of Honor were awarded to a civilian for courage, Martin Henry Eakle would be at the top of the list.

Originally called Buena Vista, Eakles Mill is one of the oldest settlements in Washington County, Md. The earliest records indicate the first home built in this remote area was in 1775. The 2010 census for this rural village shows a population of 27. Consisting of a half-dozen homes and one church, it rests at the eastern base of Red Hill, just below Keedysville and a short distance west of South Mountain. Similar to other communities in the county, Eakles Mill was settled around a water-powered gristmill. A sawmill or lumber mill was also operated at most of these locations.

Around 1850, a decade before the Civil War, Martin Eakle purchased the gristmill from David Keedy -- thus giving the area its present-day name. The power for this mill was supplied by Little Antietam Creek, a tributary of the famed Antietam Creek at Sharpsburg. After marriage to Catharine Amelia Snively and the birth of five children, Mr. Eakle decided to expand the milling business. Records state the successful miller delivered by “horse and wagon, flour, feed, etc. as far away as Burkittsville,” on the opposite (east) side of South Mountain.

At left, Eakle's gristmill appears in a circa-1898 photo. (Richard Clem collection.)
Circa-1901 photo of the scene above. Note how large tree has grown near the church since 1898.
 (Richard Clem collection)
PRESENT DAY: Site of Eakle gristmill. A house (left) rests on the old foundation of the mill. (Clem photo)
Early on the misty morning of Sept. 17, 1862, the bloodiest single day of the Civil War began. The Battle of Antietam resulted in more than 23,000 casualties. At Eakles Mill, only a few miles east of Sharpsburg, where the battle had raged since 6 o’clock in the morning, residents awoke to thunder of cannon. Rising early, Eakle went straight to his stable and hitched up a team of horses to a four-wheel buggy. He gathered several containers filled with water and stone crocks stuffed with biscuits as well as ham from his meat house. Some nearby ladies also donated homemade pies and cakes for the battle-weary soldiers near Sharpsburg. Leaving the protection of Red Hill and with no regard for his own safety, the 46-year-old Eakle steered his horses toward the sound of battle.

1877 Washington County map shows Eakles Mill, Md.
On the same morning, an 11-year-old boy, Aaron Snyder, watched Martin Eakle’s journey from the crest of Red Hill. Young Snyder, who lived on Marble Quarry Road (just south of Eakles Mill), had climbed the heights that morning to observe the battle. The Snyder family purchased flour, feed and other supplies from Mr. Eakle, and Aaron knew him quite well. From the high elevation, Snyder saw Eakle’s buggy disappear into the smoke hanging thick over the battlefield. Evidently, Martin’s route took him north along Red Hill toward Keedysville, and at some point he turned west to the road leading to Sharpsburg (Md. 34 today), crossing Antietam Creek at the stone Middle Bridge. By the time the humanitarian arrived on the battlefield, fighting on the Union right at the Dunker Church, the Bloody Cornfield and West Woods had subsided.

Driving the buggy onto the William Roulette farm, approximately where the old War Department observation tower now stands, Martin came in contact with Captain William M. Graham, Battery K, 1st U.S. Artillery. In all probability, by this time the Rebels would have been driven out of “Bloody Lane” or else Eakle and his horses probably would have been cut down by Southern infantry fire. However, a deadly duel was still very active following the withdraw from the sunken road as the Confederates were being repelled through Henry Piper’s cornfield by Federal artillery. While distributing his food and water, one of Eakle’s horses was wounded, perhaps by an exploding Confederate cannon shell fragment commonly known as shrapnel. After the bloody engagement, Captain Graham reported the battery’s loss: “17 horses killed and 6 more wounded.” The battery also lost at Antietam four men killed and five badly wounded. Ending his report, Graham noted:
... I feel called up to mention the conduct of a Mr. ___ who resides near the battlefield. This gentleman drove his carriage to my battery while under severe artillery fire, and carried off my wounded who were suffering very much for the want of surgical attendance, and distributed ham and biscuits among the men of the battery. He also returned a second time to the battery. One of his horses was wounded while performing this service.
Shadow of  War Department tower at Bloody Lane covers approximate location of Graham’s Battery, 
where Martin Eakle delivered aid to Union soldiers. William Roulette farmhouse and barn appear in distance.
Aaron Snyder went on to become a well-known and respected school teacher in the Keedysville- Eakles Mill area. One of Mr. Snyder’s pupils was a grandson of Martin Eakle. (Unfortunately, Eakle passed away two years before his grandson was born.) The Eakle family remembered Aaron Snyder telling the story about Martin: “He came through the artillery barrage untouched, but one of his horses was badly wounded.” The school teacher also related to his students that Mr. Eakle while on his compassionate journey carried a “small amount of good rye whiskey” to the Federal troops.

For years the Eakle family (living in Keedysville) proudly showed the buggy Martin Eakle used on the mission of mercy. The historic carriage was once displayed in a Sharpsburg museum, but neither the carriage nor the museum no longer exists.

Known as a strong Southern sympathizer, Martin Eakle saw no wrong aiding members of a Northern artillery unit. The year 1863, however, offered Eakle good reason to reconsider allegiance to the Confederacy. On the road to Gettysburg in June 1863, Confederate General Edward Johnson commanded one of Stonewall Jackson’s old divisions. He sent what is believed a small mounted force to Eakles Mill with the following orders:

HQ Johnson’s Division
Near Sharpsburg Md.
June 21, 1863

Mr. Martin Eakle will at once proceed to grind flour for the Confederate States Army or his Mill will be impressed for that purpose.

Ed Johnson
Maj. Genl. Commanding

A copy of General Johnson’s dispatch remained for years in possession of the Eakle family.

Original orders  issued on June 21, 1863, by Confederate General Edward Johnson to grind flour
 for the Rebel army at Eakles' mill.  (Eakles family pamphlet)
Washington County land records reveal Martin Eakle sold property to the Washington County Railroad Company in 1866, one year after the Civil War. When the railroad (now a branch of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad) was put through in 1867, it cut off the millrace and water supply to the mill, shutting down operations. At an unknown date, a steam engine was installed at the site, and as late as 1890, the mill was used to saw and plane lumber. When the present road went through Eakles Mill, Md., the deteriorating limestone structure is believed to have been destroyed. Today, a private residence rest on the old mill’s original foundation.

On May 7, 1878, Martin Eakle passed away just two months shy of his 62nd birthday. The body was interred in Fairview Cemetery at Keedysville. In 1899, Catharine Eakle was placed at her husband’s side in Fairview. After Martin’s death, the U.S. War Department tried to find the man “who came on the field of Antietam when bullets were flying fast!” Eager to honor this brave individual, the Federal government placed an ad in county newspapers. The effort proved unsuccessful.

Gravestone of Martin Eakle in
Fairview Cemetery in Keedysville, Md
"A kind husband and an affectionate 
father. How desolate our home bereft of
 thee,” read words on the tombstone.
And then on March 23, 1962, nearly 100 years after the Battle of Antietam, an article published in a Hagerstown newspaper reported the mysterious hero at Sharpsburg was Martin Eakle. A distant relative of the Eakles came forward and explained how the story was handed down. The family knew since the battle who the biscuit and ham distributor was on that bloody day.

The author is grateful for the privilege to have talked 24 years ago to several members of the Eakle family, who shared a small pamphlet describing Mr. Eakle’s heroic deed. It was said each family member received a copy. Compiled and printed by an unknown source, this 5- x 8-inch pamphlet included photographs and some material used for this article. The author would also like to mention his mother as a child lived in Eakles Mill for several years. As fate would have it, mom’s vegetable garden boarded on the mill property once owned by none other than Martin Eakle.

Hopefully, someday a marker will be erected on the Antietam battlefield near the old War Department tower to honor Martin Eakle, who was willing to sacrifice his own life there to help others -- even the enemy. Perhaps this article will serve as a beginning to launch such a project. As it was said at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863, by Abraham Lincoln, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

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


-- Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day, Alexandria, Virginia, Time-Life Books, 1984.
-- The Boonsboro  (Md.) News, Boonsboro, Md., March 24, 1955.
-- Hagerstown (Md.) Daily Mail, March 23, 1962.
-- Ernst, Kathleen A., Too Afraid to Cry, Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign, Stackpole Books, 1999.
-- Murfin, James V., The Gleam of Bayonets, Cranbury, N.J., 1965.
-- Official Records, Series 1, Vol 19, Part 1 (Antietam - Serial 27) , Pages 343-344.
-- Reilly, Oliver, T., The Battle of Antietam, Sharpsburg, Md., 1906.
-- Schildt, John W., Drums Along the Antietam, Parsons, West Virginia, 1972.
-- Sears, Stephen W., Landscape Turned Red, New Haven,  Conn,; New York, 1983.
-- Williams, Thomas J. C., A History of Washington County, Maryland, Hagerstown, Md., 1906.
-- Illustrated Atlas of Washington County, Maryland – 1877, Unigraphic Inc., Evansville, Ind., 1975.

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