The Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg) was fought in September of 1862 and was the culmination of Robert E. Lee’s Maryland Campaign. The park was one of the first battlefields to be preserved in the late 1890s and transferred to the Department of the Interior in the 1930s. While small in scope, the park is famous for the many locations made famous by the battle to include the Dunker Church, Miller’s Cornfield, the Bloody Lane, and Burnside’s Bridge. But in addition to the battle, Antietam also provides an opportunity to teach students about Civil War medicine (with a focus on Clara Barton) and President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
By the end of the summer of 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had defeated three separate Union Armies and was moving through western Maryland in an attempt to insight rebellion amongst the state’s residents and gain favor with the governments of Britain in France. Crossing at Cheek and White’s Ford, Lee split his army in two, sending one wing to Harper’s Ferry and the other to Frederick.
To reinvigorate the Union Army President Abraham Lincoln reinstated General George McClellan to command of the Union Army in the Eastern theater. Moving slowly, McClellan was able to catch up with Lee west of Frederick and fight a pitched battle at the three gaps (Fox’s, Turner’s and Crampton’s) of South Mountain. After being driven from the gaps, Lee arranged his army in a defensive perimeter around the the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. McClellan would cross a large portion of his army across Antietam Creek in anticipation of the battle to come the following day.
The action at Antietam started early on the north side of the battlefield at the Cornfield, where elements of Union General Joseph Hooker’s Corps assaulted the Confederate left. Attacks and counter-attacks raged in Miller’s Cornfield and the Dunker Church throughout the early morning as both sides committed troops to take advantage of the situation. By noon, the course of the battle shifted to a Sunken Road, where Union troops continually threw fresh troops against a strong position that would take on the name “Bloody Lane”. Eventually, Union forces were able to pierce the Confederate flank and drive the defenders off, only to be stymied by concentrated artillery. By the early afternoon, the battle shifted to the Confederate anchored by a few hundred men along Antietam Creek. For several hours, the Confederates prevented Burnside’s Corps from crossing the Creek via what would be later known as Burnside’s Bridge, until a pair of Union regiments successfully charged the position. Shortly after, the arrival of Confederate reinforcements from Harper’s Ferry halted the Union advance and allowed Lee to consolidate his army. The Battle of Antietam would eventually result in a stalemate with Lee returning to Virginia and McClellan being relieved of command. More importantly, the battle provided President Lincoln with the impetus to draft the Emancipation Proclamation which called for the end of slavery in those states currently in rebellion.
Visiting the Battlefield:
Antietam is actually quite a compact battlefield and can be toured either by car or on foot. The Visitor’s Center contains a small museum dedicated to the battle and a 30 minute video. Twenty minute Ranger led discussions occur in the Observation Room, which provides a enclosed space for visitors to observe the breadth of the park. Local re-enactors also provide a demonstration on the firing of Civil War cannon. Antietam also hosts a Junior Ranger Program for children aged 5 to 13. I would also recommend the park’s annual Illumination, which occurs the first weekend in December.
To see most of the battlefield by foot, I would recommend the following four trails:
- Antietam Remembered & West Woods Trails – The loop begins at the Antietam Visitor Center and loops down to the Dunker Church. From there, hikers can pickup the West Woods Trail. The Woods were the scene of bloody fighting by Sedgewick’s Union Division. You can then complete the loop and return to the Visitor’s Center or join the Cornfield Trail near Stop 5 (The Rock Ledge) to extend the loop.
- Cornfield Trail – The Cornfield Loop is 1.6 miles long and takes visitors through the early morning portion of the battlefield to include the North and East Woods, the Miller and Poffenberg Farms, and the Cornfield.
- Bloody Lane Trail – The Bloody Lane Trail starts and ends at the Visitor Center and takes hikers past the Mumma and Roulette Farms. Visitors will then scale the rolling hills up to the Bloody Lane and down the Sunken Road before returning.
- Final Attack Trail – Linked to the parking lot near Burnside’s Bridge, the trail takes visitors on the undulating terrain east of Sharpsburg where Burnside met the final line of Lee’s Defense. Visitors should also walk down to the bridge itself (when construction is over) to cross over the other side and observe the heights defended by the Confederates.
Civil War Trust Resources:
The Civil War Trust has a ton of resources on the Antietam Campaign. There is a battle app, which provides insight into the different phases of the battle beyond what the National Park Service provides. Prior to leaving for the battlefield, I would recommend that students watch the Trust’s Animated Map, which provides a visual of the battle combined with reenactment video.
There are a surprising number of books for young children about Antietam. To get young children into the battle, I would recommend The Battle of Antietam: The Bloodiest Day of Battle, by Larry Hama, which is a graphic novel of the Antietam Campaign. Because of Clara Barton’s connection to the battle, I would also recommend picking up one of the many young reader biographies for the Angle of the Battlefield. Magic Treehouse’s Civil War on Sunday also features Jack and Annie traveling back in time to meet Barton. Finally, Amazon.com also has a kid’s introduction to the Emancipation Proclamation from Ian D. Fraser.
For older students and adults, I would recommend the following texts:
- Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam by James M. McPherson – McPherson’s work focuses more on the stakes of the battle and the eventual diplomatic outcome, when Great Britain removed its tacit support to the Confederacy. At 215 pages, Crossroads of Freedom provides a great overview of the battle.
- Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears – Probably my favorite Antietam work. Landscape Turned Red provides a blow-by-blow account of the battle and is very representative of Sears’ style to engage the reader.
- The Maryland Campaign Volumes I to III by Thomas G. Clemens & Ezra A. Carman – This really is the definitive work on the Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam. For those wanting to dive into the width and breadth of the campaign and have the time to read over 1,500 pages. The volumes are available in both hardback and Kindle versions.
- The Maps of Antietam by Bradley M. Gottfried – My father in law and a great friend have both purchased this book and I am glad that I have been able to reference it on our visits. The book is filled with almost up to the minute maps showing the movements of the armies as back and forth of the battle took place.
Website: Antietam National Battlefield
Know Before You Go: The short trail from the Visitor’s Center to the Dunker Church is well maintained, while others are across uneven dirt paths. Bathrooms are located at the Visitor Center, but at no other locations around the battlefield. Food options at the Visitor’s Center are limited to a few small snacks and water. There are a number of taverns and small restaurants in town, but if your kids have been extra good, I would recommend Nutter’s Ice Cream at 100 East Main Street.
Location: Sharpsburg, Maryland.
Hours: The Visitor Center is open daily from 9AM to 5PM daily, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. The battlefield is op
Admission: Admission is $10 and covers one vehicle.