Burials on Antietam battlefield

By the time sunset closed the Battle of Antietam September 17, 1862, nearly 23,000 men were dead, wounded, captured, or missing, making the fight the bloodiest day in American military history. This grim statistic, nonetheless, tells only part of the story, for the small community of Sharpsburg, Md., was the epicenter of that deadly day. Families lived, worked, and worshipped there. It was their home—and the savage combat turned their lives upside down. Shot and shell terrified the inhabitants, destroyed houses and barns, obliterated crop fields, and transformed portions of farmsteads into vast graveyards. Yet this was only the beginning of Sharpsburg’s struggles. Although the fighting ended on September 17, the civilians’ hardships continued.

The Battle of Antietam differed from other engagements like Gettysburg and Monocacy, where the armies departed the battleground soon after fighting, leaving only their wounded and medical personnel behind. After Antietam, tens of thousands of men in the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, remained in the battlefield area for almost six weeks while suffering from supply shortages. The presence of so many soldiers for so long a time devastated the local community on multiple levels. Expressing concern shortly after the battle, Sharpsburg resident Augustin A. Biggs wrote, “We have nearly the whole of McClellan’s army quartered here…we are all in a destitute state, and if the government don’t relieve us, this neighborhood is ruined.”

75,000 Visitors

When General Robert E. Lee withdrew his Army of Northern Virginia from Sharpsburg on the evening of September 18, some residents may have wondered if McClellan’s army might immediately pursue Lee’s Confederates into Virginia. McClellan, however, had already met his Maryland Campaign objective, which was “to preserve the National Capital and Baltimore, to protect Pennsylvania from invasion, and to drive the enemy out of Maryland.” If he pondered rushing his army across the Potomac River to attack Lee, the clash at Shepherdstown (now West Virginia) on September 20 showed the Federal commander that the enemy was by no means demoralized. Ruling out an immediate advance, McClellan decided, “[T]he first thing to be done was to insure Maryland from a return of the enemy.” To prevent this possibility, he stretched his army along the Potomac River to defend the major crossing points from Williamsport to Harpers Ferry, basing most of his forces near Sharpsburg.

From a strategic standpoint, McClellan’s defensive web along the Potomac forced Lee to suspend his plans for reentering Maryland. Consequently, Lee withdrew his Confederate army farther south into Virginia. Satisfied with his defense of the river, McClellan planned to prepare his army “for a definite offensive movement, and to determine upon the line of operations for a further advance.” Such preparations would not happen anytime soon, though. Sharpsburg inhabitants hoping to see the Union army leave the area watched with concern as four army corps settled into nearby camps, lit campfires, and awaited further orders.

Burying soldiers on Antietam battlefieldA Union burial party takes a break from its work to pose for Alexander Gardner’s camera on September 19, 1862. The warm days following the battle caused the dead to quickly decompose and attract swarms of flies.

Federal troops came and went from Sharpsburg after the battle, but the military population near the small town remained colossal. On October 1, 1862, the Official Records listed more than 75,000 men and officers present for duty in the Antietam battlefield vicinity. At this time, one study argued, more people resided “within a five-mile radius of Sharpsburg than in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Milwaukee, Rochester, or Cleveland.” The bigger problem, the study noted, was that these larger cities were “established urban centers.” By contrast, rural Sharpsburg and its neighboring villages “lacked the commercial ties and transportation networks” to feed and supply the thousands of military guests.

Worse, Confederates sabotaged Army of the Potomac supply lines earlier in the Maryland Campaign, destroying the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad bridge over the Monocacy River, tapping sections of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, and wrecking bridges at Harpers Ferry. Until Federal engineers repaired the damages, McClellan’s army would have to draw supplies from depots at Frederick and Hagerstown. Still, rail shipments from Washington were slow and circuitous, and miscommunications caused delays. In the interim, the Army of the Potomac desperately needed provisions—and unofficially turned the Sharpsburg community into an emergency supply depot.

More than 150 civilian claimants, supported by the sworn testimonies of several hundred witnesses, alleged that Federal forces ravaged properties from September 15–October 30 to offset supply shortages in the medical, commissary, and quartermaster departments. War claims, congressional cases, and other primary sources shed light on the extent of these unpaid appropriations.

Makeshift Medical Supplies

The Army of the Potomac’s medical department faced tremendous challenges during and after the battle. First, the severed railroad at Monocacy Junction, southwest of Sharpsburg, jammed incoming train traffic, stranding boxcars of hospital supplies sent from Baltimore. In addition, regional military traffic delayed the forwarding of medical wagons staged at Frederick, 20 miles distant. Dr. Jonathan Letterman, medical director of the Army of the Potomac, admitted: “For the first few days the supplies of some articles became scanty, and in some instances very much so.”

Charles J. Stille, a member of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, complained that the medical stores “did not reach the battle-field for many days.” On September 21—four days after the battle—Stille observed that the urgently needed items still had not arrived, and on-hand supplies at Antietam’s field hospitals “were not one tenth of what was absolutely needed.” The commission and other relief agencies partially remedied Dr. Letterman’s dilemma by delivering food, clothing, bandages, and medicines to the infirmaries. Nevertheless, according to Dr. Elisha Harris of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, these provisions did not arrive in sufficient quantity until “eight days from the occupancy of the field of Antietam by our force.”

Because thousands of patients needed immediate care, army surgeons and their staff could not afford to wait and thus appropriated makeshift supplies from the community. Troops confiscated entire wardrobes of clothing from homes, leaving nothing for the families. Farmhand Alex Davis recalled, “The soldiers had taken every stitch of mine and the old man’s clothing, and they’d torn up the old woman’s clothing and used it for bandages.” Hospital forces also seized quilts, blankets, and sheets from numerous households, along with window curtains and carpeting. Additionally, they gutted kitchens of cooking, eating, and drinking wares, and carried off buckets and basins and candles and lanterns.

Farmer Michael Miller listed “clothing, furniture Dishes &c.” among his hospital-related losses. Miller’s neighbor, Samuel Poffenberger, clarified in his claim for damages, “I know that the supplies were used in the hospitals…because Dr. Shadduck told me they used everything in the house as hospital supplies.”

Medical personnel were not solely responsible for taking private property. Straggling was a terrible problem at Antietam, and depredating soldiers from both armies ransacked countless homes. They stole jewelry, Bibles, clothing, photographs, and other personal possessions. Describing Confederate thefts, one Sharpsburg townsman complained, “They entered several poor people’s houses and robbed them of everything they had in this world….two thirds of the families in the place had nothing but the clothes on their backs.”

Dr. Anson Hurd at field hospitalDr. Anson Hurd of the 14th Indiana walks among his Confederate patients on the Otho Smith Farm, two miles northeast of Sharpsburg. At another hospital, a soldier in the 76th New York remembered that the number of “arms, legs, feet, and hands” he saw tossed into an amputation pit would weigh “several hundred pounds.”

Union troops also plundered homes, and the depredations became so widespread that McClellan issued General Order No. 159 on October 1, 1862, to address the “stragglers and pillagers” wreaking havoc on the region. Unfortunately, the order came too late, for many residents had already suffered heavy losses. When a journalist asked a Sharpsburg villager which army did most of the damage, she replied, “[T]hat I can’t say stranger. The Rebels took; but the Yankees took right smart.” Civilians felt a range of emotions upon finding their homes pillaged, but this particular woman was heartbroken. “When we came back,” she recalled, “all I could do was just to set right down and cry.”

Fits of Hunger

The Army of the Potomac also lacked subsistence in the battle’s aftermath. Since the onset of the Maryland Campaign in early September, many soldiers suffered without regular rations, given that commissary wagons remained miles behind the mobile army. Wagons, though, were not a long-term solution to feeding so large a force. Colonel Henry F. Clarke, the Army of the Potomac’s chief commissary of subsistence, thus depended on railroad shipments from Washington to feed McClellan’s army. To better serve commands in the Sharpsburg region, Clarke’s personnel on September 21 established a commissary depot in Hagerstown, 12 miles from the camps. Notwithstanding, Dr. Letterman recognized that such distance affected the supply network, for his medical department encountered challenges in feeding the wounded. “The difficulty of supplying the hospitals with food,” Letterman reported after the battle, “was a much greater one than that of providing articles belonging to the medical department, and was a matter of very great concern.” Letterman blamed much of the food shortage on “the distance of the depot of supplies.”

The remote depots and wagons, combined with inedible rations in some of the camps, forced many troops into fits of hunger. “How those men suffered!” recalled Abner Small of the 16th Maine. “Hunger, daily felt, was nothing compared with it.” A Massachusetts cavalryman recalled, “Rations for the men and horses were issued only once from September 4 until September 19.” During this time, the horseman explained, “Both men and horses had to be fed by a country nominally loyal to the Union.” Similarly, a member of the 9th New Hampshire confessed, “After the severe engagement at Antietam…the somewhat scanty rations made the surrounding country a tempting field for foraging.”

Confederates had already plundered food from many Sharpsburg properties. Now, Union forces seized what remained. According to sworn statements in several dozen civilian claims, Federals in September and October 1862 took subsistence from nearly every family in the area. Soldiers ravaged gardens, orchards, and potato patches and butchered thousands of chickens, hogs, sheep, and cattle. They emptied smokehouses of cured meats and cleared homes of flour, preserves, and other foods. Describing her parents’ losses, Mary Ellen Piper wrote shortly after the battle: “[I]f you would have gone from cellar to garret, not a mouthful could have been found to eat. Our cattle had been killed; the sheep, hogs, chickens, and everything were gone.”

Ruined interior of St. Paul’s Episcopal
ChurchAfter the battle, occupying Union soldiers gutted the interior of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on the west side of Sharpsburg for campfire fuel.

McClellan’s troops also plundered the home of farmer Joseph Poffenberger, carrying off all things edible. “[W]hen I returned to my house,” Poffenberger stated in his claim, “it was completely empty. I had nothing left. I lived on army crackers that I found on the battle field for five days.” The scarcity of subsistence impacted hundreds of other residents. One week after the battle, the Hagerstown Herald of Freedom and Torch Light summarized the direful circumstances:

"[T]he region of the country between Sharpsburg and Boonsboro has been eaten out of food of every description…what our people in that section of the county will do to obtain food for man and beasts during the approaching winter, God alone knows."

Supply Crisis

Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Ingalls, chief quartermaster of the Army of the Potomac, encountered similar supply challenges that plagued the medical and commissary departments. For instance, the fighting at Antietam destroyed several hundred army horses, and hoof and mouth diseases sickened thousands of Federal equines during the battle’s aftermath . Ingalls noted that the epidemic “put nearly 4,000 animals out of service. Horses reported perfectly well one day would be dead or lame the next.” To offset the shortage, U.S. troops seized an untold number of horses from Sharpsburg’s citizens, offering no payment in exchange. Combined with Confederate thefts from September 15–18, the collective loss prompted one civilian to vent in a September 1862 letter, “Nearly all the horses are taken away.”

Q&A with the author

Appropriations aside, the Official Records listed nearly 18,000 equines assigned to Union army corps based near the Antietam battlefield on October 1, and these animals needed copious amounts of forage to survive. Although the war department shipped equine feed to McClellan’s depots, the insufficient quantities failed to meet the army’s demands. Consequently, Federals turned thousands of army horses and mules loose into Sharpsburg’s cornfields, hay mows, and wheat stacks, destroying what remained of the 1862 fall harvest.

Based on losses filed in war claims, Sharpsburg-area petitioners alleged that the Army of the Potomac’s animals devoured more than 4,200 tons of hay, corn, wheat, oats, and rye during the six-week encampment from September 15–October 30, 1862. For example, widow Eliza Davis attested that Union forces confiscated “her entire crop of growing corn” because “the troops being without forage for some days after the battle were compelled to subsist their horses off the farmers in the neighborhood.” Another resident, Eli Wade, testified that all the products on his farm “disappeared like frost before a burning sun.”

"No Fencing at All"

In September 1862, omnipresent fence lines covered Sharpsburg’s landscape, bordering farm lanes and turnpikes while enclosing farmsteads and nonresidential agricultural tracts. Because landowners subdivided their properties into multiple fenced fields for growing various crops, each farm typically contained thousands of rails. Worm, post and rail, and paling fencing stood on most properties in 1862, although some farmers divided their fields with post and board, cap, or stone barriers. While the types of fences varied, nearly all suffered damage in the fall of 1862.

During the Battle of Antietam, Northern and Southern soldiers knocked down worm panels for passage, stacked rails as breastworks, and burned the wood in campfires. Shot and shell also splintered some of the partitions. These damages, though, paled in comparison to the McClellan’s subsequent encampment, during which time thousands of soldiers used a mind-boggling amount of wood for warmth and cooking fuel. After burning the community’s seasoned cordwood, troops dismantled worm fences and post and rail panels, pulled hundreds of locust posts from the ground, and carried off scores of gates. The widespread devastation stripped away miles of fencing, leaving farmers little to contain new livestock or protect future crops from foraging animals.

To locals, the barren landscape was unrecognizable. “The battle made quite a change in the look of the country,” remembered Alex Davis. “The fences and other familiar landmarks was gone, and you couldn’t hardly tell one man’s farm from another.” On the 329-acre farm of the Samuel Grove heirs, witnesses estimated that Federals destroyed more than eight miles of fences. Robert Leakins, a farmhand employed by the Groves, testified, “After the Union troops left, it looked like a prairie—no fencing at all; the soldiers burnt it up.”

Ruins of Reel family barn, SharpsburgThe Reel family lived on this farm just north of Sharpsburg. Union artillery fire set their barn ablaze when it was being used as a Confederate hospital and Federal troops camped here post-battle.

Replacing fences put great demands on the inhabitants. Landowners labored to fell trees, haul and split logs, reset posts, and rebuild panels. Those without timber growing on their tracts needed to purchase wood, and others paid out of pocket to hire laborers. Due to the expense, some farmers did not re-fence their lands until after the war. Others found the physical task of rebuilding too much to bear. “It killed my old father,” a Sharpsburg woman lamented. “He overworked getting the fences up again, and it wore on him so he died within a year.”

In a sample of claims and congressional cases reviewed at the National Archives, civilians accused McClellan’s troops of destroying 615,885 rails during and after the battle. This number primarily reflects worm and post fences. Factoring in cap, board, and paling rails, the total fencing destroyed in the Sharpsburg environs possibly measured 100 miles or more. Nonetheless, this staggering amount of wood did not satisfy the needs of McClellan’s army, as encamped soldiers and hospital staff required additional fuel. After confiscating fence rails, McClellan’s forces reportedly demolished several tenant houses and outbuildings to use the lumber as firewood. They also stripped floorboards from churches, weatherboards from barns, and planks from canal boats for the same purpose.

Afterward, the troops set their sights on local timber, which grew on privately owned lands. Out came the axes, and down went the trees—hundreds of them. As temperatures dropped throughout October, soldiers built dozens of log quarters on farms along the Potomac River. Compared to shelter tents, these crude huts provided better protection from the elements but required a significant amount of timber to build. Private Robert Goldthwaite Carter of the 22nd Massachusetts wrote from Sharpsburg on October 24, “[A]t headquarters they are building log huts and seem as contented and happy as possible … they are cutting down everything here in the shape of trees.” Another Massachusetts soldier described the construction of log cabins at Sharpsburg, recalling, “[T]he men made themselves as comfortable as they could, and ‘built a city.’”

List of damagesWidow Margaret Shackelford, a resident of Sharpsburg, had already lost her husband. Then the Battle of Antietam brought her more suffering. From house to furniture to crops and animals. All her meager possessions, even her kitchen stove, were taken from her, as this list attests.

Based on the civilians’ allegations, Army of the Potomac forces camped near Sharpsburg felled more than 5,000 trees. Quartermaster agents, civilian appraisers, and professional surveyors later verified this destruction by walking through the ravaged woodlots to count the stumps and estimate the damages. As a case in point, William F. Hebb testified that, on his property alone, men from General George Meade’s and John Reynolds’s divisions chopped down more than 1,000 hardwoods. Another Sharpsburg claimant, William M. Blackford, described his woodland as “a very fine and heavy piece of timber which had been saved up for years by my father and myself, and was very valuable.” Of this prized forest, Blackford noted, “Not less than thirty-three acres were cut in the fall and winter of 1862 for fuel and winter quarters.”

Lasting Devastation

When the Army of the Potomac finally departed the region in late October 1862, large sections of Sharpsburg’s formerly picturesque landscape resembled a fenceless wasteland, blemished with acres of tree stumps, stripped crop fields, and shallow graves. Countless families struggled to make ends meet, prompting a local newspaper to complain, “We have been invaded—our fences burned—our wheat crops obliterated from the face of the earth—our stock driven off—our farms and houses pillaged…cannot the Government make some provision for us?” Congress eventually passed legislation to consider war claims, prompting scores of residents to pursue compensation for their Antietam- related losses. However, the slow and frustrating process dragged into the 1900s and, for most claimants, ultimately paid very little.

The sacrifice of serving McClellan’s army cast many Sharpsburg-area families into troubled circumstances. Among them was the wife of a tenant farmer, who testified that, after the Antietam battle, “[T]he Union troops came on the farm and took everything we had and ruined us—I know we lost all we had.” Phillip and Elizabeth Pry, thrown into debt by the Army’s appropriations, sold their land and relocated to Tennessee. Samuel I. Piper’s losses “were so numerous … including valuables, timber and hardwood rail fences,” that the financial burden “brought him to bankruptcy and the farm was lost.” He was left “nearly heart-broken.”

The Herald of Freedom and Torch Light summarized the widespread devastation in October 1862, estimating that “a million of dollars will not more than cover the total loss inflicted upon our county.” And because “the necessary and unnecessary destruction of property has been enormous,” the newspaper correctly predicted, “the county will not recover from the effects of this heart-rending disaster for years to come—probably not in our day and generation.”

this article first appeared in civil war times magazine

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