Sunday, November 15: After having a wonderful breakfast at the Jacob Rohrbach Inn, we walk around inside and outside to take pictures before checking out and heading to Antietam National Battlefield.
When we get to Antietam, our first stop is the Dunker Church, possibly one of the most famous churches in American military history. This historic structure began as a humble country house of worship constructed by local Dunker farmers in 1852. During its early history the congregation consisted of about half a dozen farm families from the local area (National Park Service: Who were the Dunkers).
The Dunker movement began in Germany in the early eighteenth century; the name derives from its method of baptism by full immersion. However they were more commonly known as the German Baptist Brethren.
According to National Park Service: Who were the Dunkers: Dunkers practiced modesty in their dress and general lifestyle. Other Christian principles which the Dunker’s stress are: pacifism, members both North and South refused military service; the brotherhood of man, including opposition to slavery; and temperance, total abstinence from alcohol. A typical Dunker Church service supported their beliefs in simplicity. Hymns were sung with no musical accompaniment from organ, piano or other instruments. The congregation was divided with men seated on one side and women on the other. The churches were simple with no stained glass windows, steeple or crosses.
During the battle of Antietam the church was the focal point of a number of Union attacks against the Confederate left flank. At the battle’s end the Confederates used the church as a temporary medical aid station. At least one account states that after the battle the Union Army used the Dunker Church as an embalming station. One tradition persists that Lincoln may have visited the site during his visit to the Army of the Potomac in October 1862 (National Park Service: Dunker Church).
After our brief visit to the Dunker Church, we embark on the 1.6 mile Cornfield Trail, beginning at the North Woods. The trail covers most of the area where the first three hours of the battle took place. More than 25,000 men in blue and gray struggled mightily for control of this northern end of the field. There were more casualties in and around the Cornfield than anywhere else on the battlefield, with as many as 8,000 men killed or wounded from dawn until 9:00 a.m. during two major Union attacks and a Confederate counterattack. This is actually an agricultural area; the National Park Service issues permits to local farmers who plant crops and pasture animals that help the park maintain its rural landscape (National Park Service pamphlet: The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death).
We park near the J. Poffenberger farm and explore that for a bit. It’s beautiful with the bright blue sky as a backdrop.
We begin at what was then the North Woods. Over the years, local farmers used the wood for fences and firewood. The Park Service is trying to restore the land to how it looked the day of the battle and has planted trees in this and other areas of the park.
From this point, Major General Joseph Hooker’s Union forces moved out. After marching through the North Woods and into the open fields beyond, the Union soldiers were met with devastating artillery fire from Confederate guns (The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death).
For the next 100 yards, we walk along the edge of the East Woods. Part of this will be replanted by the Park Service. All of the wooded areas were important as staging and rallying areas for both sides.
Hooker ordered two artillery batteries to move to the high ground and fire point-blank at the Confederates in the Cornfield, clearing the way for Hooker’s infantry. Then three 1st Corps brigades moved through the area. One commander was wounded and another panicked and ran away, delaying two of the brigades. General Abraham Duryea’s Brigade of about 1,000 men advanced alone into the Cornfield at about 6:00 a.m. In the 30 minutes before the other two delayed units joined them, almost half of Durban’s men would be killed or wounded (The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death).
The 12th Massachusetts went through the Cornfield where they collided with Gen. Harry Hays’ Louisiana Brigade. During the struggle, the men from Massachusetts had 67% casualties (dead and wounded), the highest percentage of loss for any Union regiment that day (The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death).
There are two main types of historic fences – the five rail vertical and the stacked snake rail. Fences like these at Antietam represent fence lines that were here during the battle.
We traipse across the open cornfield, trying to imagine the mayhem and noise and the smell of death on that horrible day. It really is hard for us to imagine such devastation, especially on such a perfect and calm day.
Here, we’re walking in the footsteps of the Iron Brigade, who pushed through this field at about 6:30 a.m. These were all midwestern boys from Wisconsin and Indiana and Major Rufus Dawes describes the carnage: “Men I cannot say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by the dozens.”
Later that morning, Confederate soldiers under Gen. John Bell Hood’s command counterattacked back through the corn all the way to this northern edge. By 9:00 a.m. the Cornfield changed hands too many times to count.
After numerous battles and casualties on this spot, the 1st Texas Infantry charged through the Cornfield, losing 82% of their men (killed or wounded), the highest percentage for any Confederate unit in any battle of the Civil War.
Though the history tells of many attacks and counterattacks in this area, I won’t go into great depth here.
The battle not only killed soldiers but it devastated the community. The town of Sharpsburg’s population at that time was about 1,200. For every person in town, there were almost 100 soldiers present. The battle destroyed not only fences and crops, but houses, barns and the residents’ livelihoods. After the battle, the 80,000-man Union army remained for two months as uninvited guests, according to the National Park Service pamphlet: The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death.
David R. Miller owned the farm that included the Cornfield. Like other residents, he ran to escape the terror of war only to return to a farm that would never be the same. He submitted a damage claim of $1,237 to the federal government for damage, and the U.S. Quartermaster General reimbursed him $995 in 1872, ten years later (The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death).
Diseases also ravaged many of the local families. David’s brother Daniel died just after the battle. Another brother wrote “diarrhea was a very common complaint…” adding to the horrors of war (The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death).
Mike and I continue our hike today down the Hagerstown Turnpike past the Miller farm, where we encounter a very curious flock of sheep.
After leaving our sheep friends, we continue on the loop and head back toward the North Woods and the J. Poffenberger farm where we parked.
The landscape along this trail was the scene of some of the most terrible fighting in the history of the United States. General Joseph Hooker wrote, “In the time I am writing every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield.”
“Incredibly, the fighting in the Cornfield represented only one-third of the day’s action at Antietam. At the end of eleven hours of battle, more than 23,000 men were killed, wounded or missing. General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia held their ground on the 18th, then retreated that night across the Potomac River and back into Virginia. This battle ended the first Northern invasion by the Confederacy and provided Abraham Lincoln an opportunity to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation,” says the pamphlet: The Cornfield Trail: September Harvest of Death.
After we finish hiking the Cornfield Trail it’s only 11:40 a.m., too early to eat, so we decide we’ll hike the 1.7-mile Final Attack Trail before grabbing lunch back in Shepherdstown.