Sunday, November 15: Finally, we embark on our last hike at Antietam, the Final Attack Trail. This afternoon is gorgeous, cool but not too cold or windy, with the sun shining in full force. This is my favorite hike at Antietam with its rolling hills and grand vistas.
After capturing the Burnside Bridge, over 8,000 Union soldiers crossed Antietam Creek. They marched across the fields where the trail is located for the final advance to drive the Confederate Army from Maryland, only to be turned back by A. P. Hill’s final Confederate counterattack. It’s disturbing to realize how many lives were lost in this place with no decisive victory in the end.
This part of the battle lasted from 3:00-5:30 p.m. and saw five times as many casualties than there were in the action at the Burnside Bridge. These final 2 1/2 hours of combat concluded the 12-hour struggle of the bloodiest day in American history.
As we proceed along the trail, we find exceptional views of the Antietam Valley and the series of ridges and farms that the Union 9th Corps advanced across. Across the valley is the Sherrick Farm, built in the 1830s by Joseph Sherrick Jr. and leased to Leonard Emmert at the time of the battle.
Next we head toward Otto Lane and make a stop at the 11th Ohio Monument, where we stop to admire the views. This entire trail traverses the Otto farm. After the battle, the Otto and Sherrick Farms served as field hospitals.
The gully next to Otto Lane was used as a respite from the terror of war by the Union soldiers.
Next we head down the trail to the 40-acre cornfield.
In the head-high corn of the 40-acre cornfield, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Powell (A.P.) Hill made the Confederate’s final attack. Hill’s approximately 3,500 men, who had been tending to the surrender of the Union garrison at nearby Harpers Ferry, left Harpers Ferry at 7:00 a.m., marched 15 grueling miles, waded across the Potomac River and arrived about 4:00 p.m. Three of Hill’s five brigades, about 2,500 men, would arrive in time to attack, according to a National Park Service pamphlet: The Final Attack Trail.
The huge hackberry tree below marks the extreme southern end of the battlefield. It was at this end of the field that A.P. Hill’s Confederates made their counterattack to support D.R. Jones’ division that was being pushed back to Sharpsburg.
At the top of the ridge, we can see one of the best battle panoramas at Antietam. From this spot, we can see most of the ground covered in the Union 9th Corps advance and A.P. Hill’s counterattack. The Union army stretched for close to 3 miles to the north, slowed by the difficult terrain and the corn. In the end, the entire 9th Corps collapsed from left to right and fell backwards toward the bridge.
Artillery Ridge was used by the artillery of both sides. Union soldier Charles Cuffel remembered that “the cannonading was very heavy, each side appearing to employ all the guns at their command, and to use them with utmost vigor. The air seemed to be filled with shrieking missiles, and there was ocular evidence on every hand that somebody was getting hurt.” (National Park Service: The Final Attack Trail).
We continue walking across Artillery Ridge and return to where we started the hike.
Burnside’s advance and A.P. Hill’s counterattack concluded the twelve hours of fighting on September 17, 1862. On this end of the battlefield, the Union men fell back to where we started our walk. The difficult terrain, the confusion of battle, and a timely Confederate arrival all combined to stop the Union army and led to a tactical draw.
General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia held their ground on the 18th, then withdrew back across the Potomac River to Virginia. The battle ended the first Confederate invasion of the North and provided Abraham Lincoln an opportunity to issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
After leaving Antietam shortly after 1:00 today, we go to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (the C&O Canal) built originally from 1828-1850 to create a navigable waterway from tidewater at Georgetown (Washington, D.C.) to the Ohio River. By the time 1850 rolled around, progress had left the C&O Canal behind and canals were obsolete. Cost overruns, labor problems, and rocky terrain delayed building the canal, but new railroad technology had made great strides. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad completed the link to the west, while the canal stopped far short or reaching the Ohio River (National Park service pamphlet: Chesapeake and Ohio Canal).
After closing in 1924, the canal sat abandoned for 30 years. Now bypassed by freight and commerce, the canal was soon discovered by people with different goals. The canal’s nearly level towpath ran 184.5 miles along the Potomac River. In 1971, Congress established the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park. Today, hikers, campers, bicyclists and others can explore the Potomac River valley’s rich history, wildlife and geology.
I’ve been on different parts of the C&O Canal during my many years living in northern Virginia. You can read about some of the other places of interest here: https://catbirdinamerica.wordpress.com/2014/03/16/great-falls-park-the-patomack-canal/ and https://catbirdinamerica.wordpress.com/2015/11/08/a-november-rock-scramble-on-billy-goat-trail/.
Today, we go to the C&O Canal to visit Antietam Creek and the Antietam Creek Aqueduct, begun in 1832 and completed in April 1835. The C&O Canal used 11 navigable aqueducts to carry the canal over rivers and streams that were too wide for a culvert to contain (Wikipedia: Aqueducts on the C&O Canal).
By the time we arrive for lunch at 2:15 back in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, we’re famished. We decide to try out the Mexican restaurant at Mi Degollado II.
Mi Degollado II was built in the old Yellow Brick Bank in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. It even has the old bank vault in it.
After lunch, it’s sadly time for our anniversary weekend to come to a close.
We drive back a couple of hours home to northern Virginia, happy to have celebrated our 27th, or 20th (whichever you want to call it), anniversary on such a beautiful weekend. 🙂