Historic America

Antietam National Battlefield

The Battle of Antietam was fought on September 17, 1862 near Sharpsburg, Maryland, between Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War. The battle ended inconclusively and resulted in approximately 22,717 total casualties.

Established August 30, 1890, Antietam National Battlefield preserves 3,230 acres of the original battlefield east of Sharpsburg. A self-guided driving tour of the park is 8.5 miles long with 11 stops. They also offer several smaller walking tours at principal battle sites, with accompanying full-color booklets. The booklets are available in the Visitor Center for $1 and offer detailed maps, photos, and a narrative of events. It’s a great way to experience the battlefield outside your car, and really understand the battle in relation to the fields, forests, and landmarks.

The Battle of Antietam unfolded in three stages: morning (north), mid-day (center), and afternoon (south), with three uncoordinated Union attacks. The much smaller Confederate army was able to shift forces to meet each attack individually. The fighting was desperate and deadly, some of the bloodiest of the war. Lee’s army was at a low point in terms of manpower because many Confederate soldiers had gone home to harvest their fields. General Lee believed Marylanders would join his ranks as he moved north, but with a few exceptions, they stayed home.

Some of the worst fighting took place in the cornfield north of Dunker Church. The field exchanged hands several times, resulting in 8,000 men killed or wounded. The 10th Massachusetts suffered 67% casualties. The intensity of the fighting completely destroyed the cornfield, and ten years after the battle the U.S. government compensated the farmer, David R. Miller, $995 for the damages.

The “Bloody Lane,” or Sunken Road, is another infamous feature on the battlefield. Five thousand and five hundred men were killed or wounded here in just three hours. The Bloody Lane Trail is 1.5 miles and starts and ends at the Visitor Center. An observation tower at the south end of the trail offers not only a clear, bird’s eye view of the Sunken Road, but also of the entire battlefield.

“Burnside’s Bridge,” where Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps forced an ill-fated crossing of a stone bridge over Antietam Creek, is a popular battlefield landmark, but it was closed for restoration when I visited. Just as it seemed Burnside’s attack was finally succeeding, Confederate Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Light Division arrived from Harpers Ferry and drove Burnside’s forces back to the creek, ending the day’s fighting.

Antietam National Battlefield is open year-round during daylight hours, for a fee of $5.00 per person and $10.00 per family. The Visitor Center, located at 5831 Dunker Church Road, is also open year-round, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., but is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

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