With the upcoming Illumination program on December 6, my thoughts return to the 146th Battle Anniversary Commemoration at Antietam National Battlefield. The anniversary program offered opportunities to explore lesser known areas of the battlefield and to develop new perspectives on famous aspects of the battle such as the fighting in the Cornfield or at Bloody Lane. The park’s historians guided a series of two hour hikes during the weekend of September 13-14, and the entire team conducted an all day hike of the battlefield (with a break for lunch) on the actual anniversary of the battle, September 17. I participated in a number of these hikes, and I am grateful to rangers Brian Baracz , Mike Gamble, and Keith Snyder for making this one of my most memorable and rewarding experiences since I first began touring battlefields so many years ago.
I arrived early on September 13 packing bottled water and my usual assortment of maps – Trailhead Graphics contour map with monument locations, a selection of views from the Carmen-Cope maps detailing troop movements, and the Bowlby map, which identifies crops planted in the area at the time of the battle. The weather was perfect – cool and clear with an early morning fog blanketing the valley along Antietam Creek, much as it would have been in September, 1862.
Keith Snyder led the first hike of the morning, focusing on artillery at Antietam with an emphasis on the morning action in the Cornfield – an appropriate introduction for the battle known as “Artillery Hell.” Keith reviewed the role of artillery in general and the specific tasks of members of the gun crews as an introduction. As we stood on the ground occupied by S.D. Lee’s battalion, Keith noted the field of fire of Lee’s guns, and their exposure to the big Federal twenty pounders lining the ridge across the Antietam. On our way to the Cornfield, we stopped at an unlikely place, or so I thought – the junction of the Mumma Farm Lane and Smoketown Road. No fewer than a dozen batteries of both sides occupied this area during the course of the battle. While this ground appears unimposing from a distance, it commands a clear view of the Cornfield area, much of the Bloody Lane, and parts of the West Woods.
Moving on to the Cornfield, Keith discussed the positions taken by several Federal batteries in and north of the Cornfield itself. From here, these batteries dueled with Lee’s guns and swept the corn with canister and shell as infantry of both sides struggled for an advantage. Standing where commanders fought their batteries in one of the most desperate battles of the war conveys the advantages of observation and clear fields of fire that even slight elevations provide on the battlefield. Antietam requires direct experience of the ground for a full understanding of the battle. Maps often represent the area bound by the East, West, and North woods as gently sloping farmland, but there are numerous examples of subtle changes in the terrain that offer significant military advantages (and disadvantages).
Keith’s last stop was the position of Campbell’s Battery near the Hagerstown Road, represented by a single gun surrounded by corn in summer and almost invisible. Here General Gibbon stopped to adjust the fire of his old Regular Army battery. And here Sergeant Herzog, with a mortal wound in his abdomen, dispatched himself with his pistol when told he could not survive more than a few hours. Keith has a particular talent for bringing the human dimension of the conflict to life with gripping stories like this, and also demonstrates a tremendous respect for the men who fought at Antietam and the sacrifices they made.
(Next Up: The Irish Brigade at Bloody Lane with Ranger Mike Gamble and the Middle Bridge with Ranger Brian Baracz)
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