by Mary Ellen Mitchell
You might be surprised to learn that over two hundred thousand people each year head to a small country town situated in Washington County to commemorate a September day from Civil War times. The battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.
Travel guides list this mecca of history as both Sharpsburg and Antietam. The town is Sharpsburg and the creek that flows through this lazy countryside is named Antietam. The name of the creek is derived from the Algonquin language, which was the Indian tribe that once inhabited the area.
Your first stop is the large Visitors Center at the entrance of the park. Tourists will find helpful information, a driving map, and a great place to take in the view. The driving tour is what you make of it. A quick tour can take 15 minutes; a moderate one is up to two hours, and history buffs tours could take hours. Many visitors find themselves returning to this site, as they learn something new each time.
The tide of war had turned in favor of the Confederate Army by September of 1862. General Lee began to push out of the South and was aiming to replenish supplies in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. By September 6, his troops reached Frederick, Maryland. Lee divided his troops and sent some to Harper's Ferry under the command of Stonewall Jackson to subdue the Union forces. He sent another portion to Hagerstown in search of supplies. The third group held position at South Mountain between Frederick and Washington Counties to keep watch on the Union Army. The plan was to unite near Boonsboro in a few days and push into Pennsylvania.
Lee's Order 191 detailed this plan. Multiple copies were made of the order to deliver to the sections of his army. Along the way, someone carelessly dropped a copy of the order wrapped around three cigars in a cornfield outside of Frederick, which was found by a Union soldier. General McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, realized he held the secret to crushing his Confederate opponents and pressed his advantage.
Highlights of the driving tour include the sites of the three offensives the Northern Army launched against the Southern Army. The first skirmish found the troops fighting in a cornfield by Dunker's Church. The second encounter forced some of Lee's men into a sunken road forever dubbed "Bloody Lane" due to the dead bodies piled in it. The third and final push of the battle took place near a bridge over Antietam Creek. The Union forces under the direction of Ambrose Burnside pushed their way across the bridge, which today is known as Burnside Bridge. Lee's troops retreated to Virginia by way of Shepardstown the next day.
Over 5,000 dead were left on the field of battle in this the bloodiest day in American history. The fallen soldiers are buried in National Cemetery and of them 1,800 are unidentified. Eighteen thousand wounded men were treated in hospitals in Frederick and Hagerstown. Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross helped to provide care to these men.
For those interested in Civil War history, the area around Antietam abounds with museums, monuments, and markers dedicated to the brave souls who ventured into Western Maryland during the war between the states. Antietam National Battlefield Park is open every day with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. The Visitor's Center is open from 8:30am to 5pm and has extended summer hours. For more information, call 301-432-5124.