Saturday, February 24, 2018

Antietam in 1907: 'Sacred' damage, mass grave in 'lot yondah'

"The spot that probably has more interest of New York State veterans is Burnside's Bridge,"
 the Buffalo newspaper correspondent wrote in 1907. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
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Even in the summer of 1907 -- nearly 45 years after Antietam -- battle damage was apparent in Sharpsburg, Md., and the immediate surrounding area. Assigned to write a feature about the battlefield that year, a Buffalo Evening News correspondent easily found effects of artillery strikes on the Dunker Church, bullet marks on Burnside Bridge, and "great gaping apertures made in the gables" of houses in town. 

A lengthy feature story about the Antietam battlefield appeared
 in the Buffalo Evening News on June 29, 1907. 
"It is not due to the shiftlessness on the part of the people that these have not been repaired. No, indeed!" the correspondent wrote about war damage in the village from the Sept. 17, 1862, battle. "With them those shot holes are well nigh sacred and they have no other reasons for preserving them but that you and I and our children and children's children may see them when we come."

The reporter's most astonishing moment came the morning of his second day on the battlefield, when he and farm laborers gazed at a grisly find: a mass grave for six Confederate soldiers. The bodies were uncovered by the farm workers while plowing on the old David Smith farm. "Most remarkable of all," the reporter wrote in his "exclusive" feature story about the discovery, "their clothing and accoutrements, even to their shoes, were in a perfect state of preservation when uncovered but crumbled to dust when exposed to the air."

Eager to serve a readership that included many Civil War veterans, the Evening News devoted nearly a full page to its Antietam account, which included seven photos and an illustration. The lengthy feature story didn't include a byline for the reporter, who made several errors. But before you declare it "fake news," read the story and decide for yourself:

(Written Exclusively for The News)

The inclination of the Federal and Confederate authorities to choose varying names to designate their great battles may have been justified at the time, but at this late date it is confusing, to say the least. Thus is that when a man from the South speaks of "Sharpsburg" it is apt to drive his Northern brother to a long session with his history, where he will find no mention of a battle of Sharpsburg. And when a Northerner asks a Southern native to "direct him to the battle of Antietam," said native is apt to put him on a long and tortuous highway leading in the opposite direction. Occasionally there is "reason and rhyme" for this variance, but at other times there seems there was a mischievous desire to confuse posterity. For instance, I can see why Southern people would change the name of the battle of Cedar Mountain to the battle of Slaughter Mountain and get some little satisfaction out of it, for there, they maintain, "we-all give you-all a right smaht drubbin'!"

Beyond this single instance I have never found any possible excuse for this selection of varying names, beyond that given me by Gen. [Edward Porter] Alexander, the last of the Confederate historians, an explanation that, by the way, sounds entirely logical.

"It was the result of the difference in the people who fought the battles," said Gen. Alexander. "The men who composed the Northern army were, for the most part, men from the cities and were naturally attracted by the natural things about the battlefields. On the other hand, the men of the Confederacy were largely from the rural districts and natural things did not impress them much."

PANORAMA: Iconic Burnside Bridge across Antietam Creek. 
 (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

Hence, the Federals were attracted by the little stream -- Antietam Creek -- that crosses the battlefield and named the great struggle the Battle of Antietam. But their opponents, men from a country where the natural scenery far excelled that along the Antietam in point of beauty, were attracted by the village -- the only artificial thing thereabouts -- and named it the Battle of Sharpsburg.

"Sharpsburg," or "Antietam," it gives the same impression to the visitor, a beautiful rolling expanse, dotted with fertile farms and cosy, white-washed homes of humble standing, that it is difficult to reconcile with even a thought of war. The people are simple and just now enjoying a considerable degree of prosperity. Many of them, the older ones, suffered terribly during the campaign that McClellan "fought with a halter around his neck," but today manifest a good-natured toleration of the scars that surround them -- scars reminding them of the bitter old days of the past -- and have figuratively "ploughed around" and preserved them for posterity. So it is that scarce a house in Sharpsburg -- for few have been built since the war -- but that shows its bullet holes and, many of them, great gaping apertures made in the gables by cannon balls. It is not due to the shiftlessness on the part of the people that these have not been repaired. No, indeed! With them those shot holes are well nigh sacred and they have no other reasons for preserving them but that you and I and our children and children's children may see them when we come.

And these natives are taciturn when it comes to the war. They seem to be as much divided in sentiment today as when the Rebellion rolled all about them and their sentiment changed with the change of the battletide, for it was obviously unsafe to be of one mind when their homes were within range of guns manned by those opposite sentiments. Once launched on their story, however, and they describe vividly the scenes to which they were a party or saw with their own eyes; the magnificent charge across the cornfield, the stand made by our own New York soldiers at Burnside's Bridge, the piles of Confederate dead that were packed solid almost to the height of a man behind the Hagerstown Pike fence and along Bloody Lane after the battle.

BLOODY LANE: It was "invariably associated the world over" with Antietam, the reporter noted in 1907.
Early in the morning of my second visit day on the Antietam field I was aroused by my host knocking at my door.

""Sorry, sah, to disturb you," said my host apologetically, "but the boys ah plowin' this mawnin' and they've just tunned up somethin' I reckon you-all will be interested in!"

Hurriedly dressing I met my host at the door and together we went down into "the lot yondah," where three strapping boys were doing the belated spring plowing. The plow lay turned in the furrow and the boys and the negroes on the place were gathered around a spot in the center of the field, the later more or less terrified by the sight before them. The plow point had uncovered a burial trench and the help had cleared away the dirt to the depth of a foot or more. There lay the remains of six soldiers just as they were placed, probably that rainy night after Antietam. Most remarkable of all, their clothing and accoutrements, even to their shoes, were in a perfect state of preservation when uncovered, but crumbled to dust when exposed to the air. One, a major, had been buried with his shoulder straps, sword and revolver across his breast. Later, after my return, I received a letter saying that the bodies have been identified as six members of an Alabama command. The identification was made by a man who belonged to the burial party and to whose attention the discovery of the bodies came. The officer was identified by his sword and his body was claimed by a brother now living in Savannah. It was impossible, of course, to identify the other five and their bones were sent to the Frederick Confederate Cemetery for burial in one grave. (See Postscript for more details.)

But from this incident it may be seen that the scars of Antietam, rather than diminishing, are increasing and for many, many years the ground will show its association with war in various ways.

THE 40-ACRE CORNFIELD: "It seems to be the popular conception that a battle is fought in a 10-acre lot," 
the Buffalo Evening News correspondent wrote.
You -- I am speaking to you men who helped fight Antietam -- probably have grim recollections of that march to Sharpsburg; vivid recollections of the tramp over narrow roads already congested with miles and miles of heavy army wagons. Today, if you were to revisit it, I fancy you would approach from the Frederick side, over a smooth running trolley line that might or might not have contributed to the success or failure had it been operating when Antietam was fought. Instead of thousands of comrades, silent before the impending storm, you would have for company a jolly old market woman with a basket of eggs and two live geese, as I had. But do not pass her lightly -- she is a rather remarkable character. She lives -- and has always lived -- in Hagerstown, and if you can engage her in conversation she can tell you a wonderful story of that terrible September day.

"I remember just as well, suh," she will continue. "I was sittin' in the kitchen an' all day we had heard the cannons 'tother side of the mountain an' knowed McClellan an' Lee was at it again! Late in the afternoon 'Liza -- she was our colored woman, suh -- come runnin' into the house shoutin', 'Fo de Lawd, missy, deys a-comin' up de road! Deys wagons an' wagons fill up to de top wif de sojers what's hurt! De blood am runnin' knee-high 'long de road I reckon!' Then we went into town to take care of the wounded. I remembah -- I was a gal, suh -- but I remembah of workin' ovah the wounded in the old warehouse and remembah bein' faint at the smell and sight of so much blood and sufferin' Finally, suh, I just shut my teeth hard an' said: 'If I faint I just hope somebody kicks me int' a corner an' leaves me stay there. After that I got along well enough with my work. I staid there two days helpin' t' dress the soldiers' wounds an' then I had t' give up. It was awful, suh. Tell yoush ladies up No'th I'm glad none o' them evah had t' do it!"

At Beaver Junction you must leave the trolley and the old lady with the live geese and the reminiscences for at that point the spur leading to Sharpsburg and Antietam leaves the Hagerstown trolley. In a ride of a half hour or an hour and a half, depending much on the activity of the fireman at the power house -- we reach the battlefield. There is always something ridiculously pathetic in the person, who, shunted off a train on a battlefield, says: "Well, where's the battlefield?" It seems to be the popular conception that a battle is fought in a 10-acre lot and that a snake fence marks the line where historic ground ceases and commonplace farm land begins. As a matter of fact, most of our battlefields cover more ground than one can see from a single point. So it is with the battlefield of Antietam -- a great rolling expanse which wanders beyond our vision for many miles.

BURNSIDE BRIDGE: In 1907, it was still scarred by war,  the Buffalo newspaper correspondent wrote.
Of the landmarks which veterans will remember, few have been obliterated. Thus far they have not formed any material barrier to the simple progress of these farming folk. The houses that stood there when the battle was fought are good enough now; the land that was put to corn then is still good enough for corn; the same old spring houses, the same bridges, the same lanes and pathways that were there when McClellan fought Lee, would be there for their use if McClellan should fight Lee again.

The soldier who fought at Antietam, should he revisit the scene today, would find little change in the village of Sharpsburg. Entering on the pike he would see to the right the Grove House where Lee made his headquarters when "Sharpsburg was in the Confederacy for a few minutes." It is still in its natural state, no remodeling has been done and only enough repairing performed to preserve it. In the accompanying picture it may be seen on the extreme right. On the left and not discernible in this picture is the Lutheran Church that figured so much in covering the sharpshooters.

The spot that probably has more interest of New York State veterans is Burnside's Bridge, or Sharpsburg Bridge as it was known at the time of the battle, for it was here they most distinguished themselves. During the progress of the fighting orders were received from Burnside to hold the bridge at all hazards -- this after the disastrous attempt of the 2nd Maryland and 6th New Hampshire regiments to cross it. Receiving Burnside's order General Sturgis selected the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania and directed them to not only hold the bridge, but cross it in the face of the enemy's fire. This was done and afforded one of the most magnificent spectacles war has ever shown. It is said two regiments started with a cheer and though under terrible fire crossed the bridge with a rush, planting the flag on the opposite ban amid the cheers of not only our own army but those of the enemy who could not but admire gallant impetuous dash. The same bridge is in use today and shows its scars in the shape of bullet marks.

               PANORAMA: Bloody Lane, where Confederate dead were "piled high."
                                      (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

A spot of greater historical interest because it is invariably associated the world over with the story of the battle is Bloody Lane. We have evidence of the terrible slaughter there -- photographs that show the dead piled high and far too horrible to print. Its appearance at the time of the battle and its appearance now forms and interesting contrast and is shown in pictures accompanying this article. The Government has spent considerable money macadamizing it and otherwise improving it. The picture showing Bloody Lane as it was when it became historic was secured by your correspondent from an old gentleman, a photographer of Hagerstown, who took the picture but a few days after the battle.

DUNKER CHURCH: In 1907, it too bore the marks of  the 1862 battle.
Another center of hard fighting during Antietam was the Dunker Church which stands out sharply in white outline against the green Westwood. A commendable effort has been made by the people to preserve it in its original form. Close inspection, however, will show traces of great holes in its sides torn by cannon balls, and innumerable chips taken out of the walls by the old-fashioned "minnies." The church is still in use, services being held, I believe, every other Sunday.

The "Little Mill" and its environments are practically the same today as in that September when thousands of blue and grey-coated men crowded into the natural "pocket" where it is located and fought practically a "battle royal" that had but few survivors. The bridge has been rebuilt upon the abutments of the old, wire fences replaced the old ones, but the same buildings stand today that gave cover to the sharpshooters then and the sharpshooters' presence is attested by thousands of scars in the old walls.

Everywhere the story is transcribed. One might walk through the Smoketown Hospital woods and there uncover dozens of interesting little relics of the day; from the position of the Union camp can still be seen the ruins of Antietam furnance; if you care to walk you may go past the toll house and the North Woods on the Hagerstown Pike, then cross Bridge No. 1 over the Antietam where Hooker took his men across and into action. All are in a good state of preservation.

   PANORAMA: The National Cemetery. (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

The sight which impresses one most with the horror of it all is the National Cemetery situated there. We speak of "thousands of men" and have but a vague understanding. When, however, we see them stretched out, row after row, all marked with little white stones, we more clearly comprehend the awful cost of war! In the Antietam Cemetery the burials number about 5000, soldiers from nineteen states. The greatest sacrifice was made by our State, burials of New York State men numbering 869 as against 644 from Pennsylvania, the State that furnished the next largest number for the sacrifice. Fully one half of the burials are of unknown men, only their regimental and corps affiliation being obtainable.

The Government has taken a most commendable part in improving the grounds, preserving the historic spots and in other ways saving the battlefield for posterity. Also division, regimental and company organizations and individuals have materially assisted by marking positions and erecting monuments to their dead. Notable among these monuments is that erected to the memory of the late lamented McKinley by his native State. Major McKinley fought at Antietam with the 23d Ohio. Others are the monuments to the 11th Ohio, 50th and 51st Pennsylvania Infantry, 9th New York Infantry, Confederate Artillery, the Roundheads, the National Soldiers' Monument erected by the Government; Maryland State Monument and beautiful shafts to General Mansfield and General Reno.

POSTSCRIPT: Although the bodies of six Confederate soldiers were indeed recovered near the Antietam battlefield in the spring of 1907, an Alabama soldier apparently was not among them.

According to a story published in the Frederick (Md.) News on May 23, 1907,  Frank Otto and Arthur Day discovered the bodies while plowing in an orchard on the old David Smith farm. (Click on report at right to enlarge.) The body identified by the Buffalo Evening News correspondent as an Alabama officer apparently was Colonel William T. Millican of the 15th Georgia, who was wounded and captured at Antietam. A lawyer, he  died on Smith's farm, where he was buried.

On Oct. 15, 1862, the Southern Watchman of Athens, Ga., published a eulogy for the 37-year-old officer. "While we offer to his memory the tribute required by a becoming custom,"  the report concluded, "our interest in the duty is deepened by our recollection of him as an honorable and useful man and a valued friend."

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  1. Wow,thanks! This is very interesting.

  2. Anonymous4:35 PM

    This is great! I haven't been there for over 20 yrs

  3. Another great read

  4. How many more MIAs lay buried on that battlefield! Thanks, John.