Thursday, October 28, 2010

Out and about

So because it was a beautiful day--fall colors, nice temperature in the 70's--I took the bike out for another ride. Today's venue: Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, Maryland.

On September 17, 1862, these hills and fields saw some of the most vicious fighting of the Civil War (or War of Northern Aggression for my Southern readers). In fact, on that day, more Americans were killed or wounded than on any day of that war or any other war before or since. The sun set on over 23,000 casualties on both sides. Many of the nearly 4,500 Union troops killed there that day are buried in a national cemetery in Sharpsburg. The Confederate dead were not allowed there, though--they are buried in cemeteries in Frederick and Hagerstown, MD and across the river in Shepherdstown, WV.

This battle followed right on the heels of the Confederate Army under General Robert E. Lee giving the north a serious shellacking at Harpers Ferry two days prior, resulting in the capture of 12,000 Union troops, a number not surpassed until 1942, when Bataan and Corregidor fell to the Japs during World War Two.

At Antietam, it all started out when Union Forces caught up with Lee's army and swept down across Miller's Cornfield, hitting them there and at the nearby Dunker's Church.
Now the Dunkers--a pacifist church opposed to the war--had the incredible bad luck to have put their church in a spot where it eventually turned out to be the most prominent landmark in the center of the Confederate lines. Predictably, it became a goal for one side and a rallying point for the other, and the fighting was heavy all around it as riflemen exchanged balls and cannon like this one of the 4th Battery, USA (below), raked the landscape with canister and solid shot from about 200 yards away.

During and after the battle, it was used as a field hospital for Confederate troops (translated: a place where the surgeons chopped off arms and legs) and when they finally withdrew, the Union army moved in and used it as an embalming station for their dead.

Mr. Miller's cornfield across the road didn't fare any better, what with thousands of soldiers battling in it and cannons and cavalry horses wiping out his crops as Union General Hooker's army moved through it to smash into Lee's forces repeatedly, being shoved back each time. Numerous monuments to the fallen from various states now adorn the area.

A bit further south, along a sunken road now referred to as "Bloody Lane", the Union troops advanced upon the Confederates who were positioned in the lane. The Yankees had about a two-to-one advantage over the Rebels but the Southerners had an excellent position in the lan , using it as it it were one long rifle pit. And from that lane they poured a murderous fire on the Union troops in the open, just mowing them down. Finally the Union troops sweeping across Mumma's Farm broke the Confederate center along that road and drove them back, but it cost them big. When the smoke cleared, 5,600 men lie dead or wounded and the Confederates were falling back, routed. A determined follow-up by the Union forces could probably have finished things right then and there, but it wasn't done. Overall commander McClellan wasn't exactly known for seizing the moment when opportunity presented itself; he allowed the Confederates to pull back across Antietam Creek where they regrouped on the south side.

Here's Mumma's Farm. Nice place for a battle, eh?Moving down to the creek, the day saw Union General Ambrose Burnside doing his best to dislodge a force of Georgian troops that were hastily dug in atop the southern creek bank. However his best wasn't very good and Burnside made three incredibly stupid attacks across this bridge, each one forcing his troops to advance in the open against entrenched riflemen and guns despite the fact that this shallow river could have been forded almost anywhere else.
Burnside's forces finally crossed about a mile upstream and outflanked the Georgians, and the Confederates fell back towards Sharpsburg itself with the Union troops in pursuit. But just when it looked as if it was all coming to a close, Confederate General Hill's troops from Harpers Ferry showed up and stopped the Union attackers cold, pushing them right back to the creek again.

At this point, night fell. Lee and his shattered army pulled out and headed south again, back into Virginia. Their attack into Northern territory was over. McClellan, true to his nature, refused to pursue and attack them and once again let a golden opportunity pass. The fight was declared a Union victory--something that was pretty rare in those days, and President Lincoln used it to give voice to his Emancipation Proclamation, which he'd been saving for just such a victory. Granted, this proclamation of his actually freed no one, since it only applied to slaves held in Confederate states over which he had no control. Slaves in the Union slave-holding states--Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware--were excluded so they just had to suck it up.

But anyway...That was a long time ago. Now we're talking about my ride. My ride basically revolved around fall colors, lots of cannon, and hills...lots of hills. This ride was only about eight and a half miles, but the hills killed me. I'd have much rather done twenty miles on the nice, flat C&O Canal towpath than the eight and a half miles on these hills.Stupid hills. Next time we have a Civil War (Are you listening, Democrats?), can we please have it someplace flat?

And as for cannon, here's a few gratuitous artillery piece shots:
The one in the foreground is a 12lb. howitzer.

One of several sitting to the west of the Sunken Road. The cows in the background apparently don't mind.


This bronze Howitzer sits below Burnside Bridge.

Here's a "gunner's view" of the Southern position.Regrettably I didn't see the SUV drive into the shot as I was lining it up. If only this gun could fire just one more time...

All in all, it was a great day for a ride. Still, I was about done in by the hills, so I came back to the Lair and Lagniappe and I took a well-deserved afternoon nap.


  1. Nice after-action report!

    Gosh -- that is some breathtaking countryside! I really miss having defined seasons. You should come ride in southeast Louisiana -- we have to build hills around here!

  2. Anonymous6:12 PM

    Thanks for sharing this bit of history.Great pictures.

  3. Thanks, good education and one more place to add to the must see list!