Thursday, May 29, 2014

Landscape Locked in Time: Antietam National Battelfield

Since 2001 I've dedicated one day of the Memorial Day weekend to walk a place of remembrance.  I've walked the town of Carlisle, PA to remember the 10,000 native children taken from 140 tribes across the nation kept there at the (in)famous Indian Industrial School (1879s - 1918). I've walked the Arlington National Cemetery and watched as widows families decorated the graves of recent military dead from Iraq and Afghanistan. I hiked to the top of Old Rag in the Shenandoah to remember the hundreds of mountain families ousted from their farms, orchards, and small villages to make way for a new national park and the Skyline Drive in 1931. I walked over twelve miles of Lancaster County rural roads as a sort of walking prayer for the children and families of the Nickle Mines schoolhouse massacre.

Yellow for Remembrance. Tulip poplars are in bloom Memorial Day weekend.

It all sounds very sad, and it is - sometimes overwhelmingly so - but I am always interested in how landscapes are affected by human tragedy, how nature heals the land, and how people find forgiveness and re-grounding. This year's Remembrance Hike happened at Maryland's Antietam National Battlefield. Like all of my remembrance hikes I got there early and started walking as the sun rose. It gives me hope to start the day full of sunlight and birdsong. I was interested in why this memorial landscape, compared to Gettysburg to the north in Pennsylvania, looked so serene, natural, and uncluttered, almost free of  commemorative monuments - and was still being farmed.

Just outside the small town of Sharpsburg, MD, looking north toward South Mountain.

Maryland's place as a border state meant that it supplied both the Union and the Confederacy with soldiers, war material, supplies, and food. The state was conflicted both during and after the war. Its geography and social climate reflected both slave-holding plantations of the eastern and southern counties and the rugged frontier farmers, milling districts, and industry of the western counties. The landscape around this western Maryland battlefield was settled during the mid-1700s and by 1800 looked much as it did sixty-two years later as the battle commenced in the early morning hours of September 17, 1862. 

The Sunken Road is actually the farm lane to the Roulette Farm.

Even today, descendents will proudly tell you about generations of their families caring for stock, soil, orchards, and woodlots here. Tucked between the great wall of South Mountain to the north and the the broad reach of the Potomac to the south, the farms, orchards, and fields around Sharpsburg were and still are very productive. Even today the battle is still talked about and for many of the descendants of those battlefield farmers, it is still seen as an affront, the greatest insult and tragedy that could befall good farmland. Long after the immediate horror that soaked these soils in blood had subsided, this farm community struggled to reconstruct their lives and landscape.

Sunken Road a week after battle. Photograph by Alexander Gardner.

The battle that happened here, happened quickly. In just one day - in just a few hours, really - over 23,000 soldiers of the Union and Confederate forces lie dead, dying, wounded, or missing across the farmsteads of the Antietam Creek valley. Farmers with the names Miller, Mumma, Roulette, Piper, Sherrick, Parks, and Otto - many of them settler families from the German agricultural landscapes of Lancaster County, PA - had moved their families safely out of harms way to churches miles to the north. Violent skirmishes had been fought on South Mountain days before and on September 16, the creek valley began filling with soldiers, artillery, and wagons.  The people knew with some certainty that a fierce battle would soon ensue but none had any grasp of what violence was to come or how to process and come to grips with the aftermath. There are plenty of places to investigate the actual battle and here I'll include the link to the National Park for learning more:

The Visitor's Center is tucked into a rolling plain, unobtrusive and from a distance nearly invisible.

The day after the two armies collided in these fields, farmers began demanding reparations for all that was lost. Family storehouses were gone, leaving many without food for the winter ahead. Horses, moved to safe pastures far from battle were confiscated by the military to replace the dead and dying animals in the field. Standing corn that had two days before promised a bumper crop lay flattened, shredded, destroyed. Thousands of soldiers lay dead in rows of mangled corn, cut down as they emerged one behind the other to rout the Confederate stand at the West Woods. Lanes and paths used as breastworks were deep in human casualties making farm roads impassable.  Fences were shattered and heaved over. For these farmers the political and social battles continued for months, then decades, and even over generations. Angry with state and federal government, regimental associations, and war tourism groups heated altercations often resulted in more violence. I spoke to a janitor at the park that morning, a descendant of the Miller family and who, until he retired last year, still farmed parcels of his family's inholdings at Antietam. "I have mixed feelings about what people have done to this place," he said, "but I am damned proud to have continued farming on this land."

Looking towards South Mountain, where violent skirmishes were fought days prior to the bloody battle in these fields.

Homes and outbuildings were significantly damaged by cannon and mortar fire and were used as field hospitals for months. At the north end of the battlefield on the Miller Farm, Clara Barton had entered into service of aid (later to establish the Red Cross) by assisting doctors, the dying, and identifying and preparing the dead for field burial. Farmers and their families rendered aid as best they could, helping Barton and her aid-givers in what had been stock pens, orchards, beeyards, and chicken runs - now converted to triage areas for sorting the wounded from the dead and dying. Some moved into town or other farms to live temporarily with friends or relatives, but many came home and stayed, despite their homes serving as hospitals and recovery centers.

Rocky bluff near the Miller Farm. Burial detail collecting bodies of soldiers who took position here.
Photograph by Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress.

Prior to the battle, the Sharpsburg area was an area of split loyalties. Many residents supported the Union as many supported the Confederacy. It was an uneasy existence, especially among the small slave-holding farms versus those farms that had granted manumission and employed former slaves as farm laborers. Often, free men of color would work alongside the enslaved. But as  farmers returned with their families, farm laborers, and neighbors to this valley there was one singular concern that occupied everyone no matter their loyalties - burying the bodies as quickly as possible to prevent the spread of disease. Burial details of soldiers and civilians worked day and night for weeks to dig long trenches for mass graves. Hoards of flies, clouds of vultures, and a flood of vermin spread rapidly across the landscape.Water wells, streams, and springs were contaminated. People got sick.

Looking at and past the rocky bluff to the rebuilt and renovated Mumma Farm.
Roulette Farm day after the battle. Beehives lay shattered in the orchard. James Gibson, photographer.

The big white barn, ice house, washing house, outbuildings, and sheds on the Roulette Farm were in use as triage areas, operating rooms (with mounds of amputated limbs outside), and morgues. William Roulette, enraged by the destruction, worked day and night to clean his fields of debris, bury dead livestock, burn ruined corn and wheat, and, most importantly, protect what clean water he could. Though no Sharpsburg or Antietam valley residents were killed or wounded in the battle itself, many succumbed to illnesses in the aftermath, including William Roulette's infant daughter. His spring and ice pond were heavily contaminated. He wrote five weeks after the battle, "Our youngest has died, a charming little girl of twelve months. She was just beginning to talk." (Walker 2010)

Spring house from the front porch steps of the Roulette farmhouse. A small but reliable spring fed both the cooling rooms and the ice pond just down the hill. Heavily contaminated, the water supply sickened residents and soldiers long after the battle, killing the youngest of the Roulette family, Carrie May, aged 12 months.

By the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam in 1891, Ben Roulette, who had been a young boy and witnessed much of the horrific aftermath, had inherited the farm from William. Ben welcomed veterans and their families to visit. The farmland had completely healed with little evidence left of that day. The spring ran fresh and clean and the veterans happily accepted cold dippers of water from it. It still bubbles up energetically from the hillside. A veteran of the 14th Connecticut wrote of his return: "All wanted to see the famous springhouse with its heavy walls that sheltered our badly wounded, where Lt. Crosby and others were operated on - also the rare spring, in its cavity, near." (Walker 2010)

Roulette Farm today. All original buildings still standing with some repair and modification and fields still farmed.

When the Civil War ended in 1865 the War Department offered to pay reparations to landowners for damages to fields, homes, and farm buildings incurred during the battles only if damages were caused by Union troops. William Roulette received no payments for the loss of his crops or the damage to his soils by the burial of 700 Confederate dead on his land. He received a small stipend of several hundred dollars for damages to his barn and springhouse for their use as hospitals. As regimental monuments were erected in the late 1800s and early 1900s few if any farmers received payment for the land on which they were built. To show their anger, farmers built pigpens around them, allowed cattle to use them as scratching posts, and did their best to block visitor roads with grazing cattle.

Twenty three thousand dead and dying lay across eight farms in the Antietam Valley on September 18, 1862.

The battlefield was declared a government-owned memorial park and installed a series of Civil War veterans assumed the position of superintendent. The battle between farmers and the War Department amplified as superintendents tried aggressively to enforce rules about cattle and plowing. There were shootings, a murder (Superintendent Charles Adams), a suicide (the murderer), government spraying of weed killer on crop fields by park employees,  and angry confrontations.

Towhee calls loudly in the West Woods.
The 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam was a fragmented affair, attended mostly by regimental survivors and their families, and looked nothing like the grand commemorative events north at Gettysburg. By the 1930s, because of the farmer's resistance to selling their land to the government and their defiance in continuing to farm despite War Department rules, the landscape looked much as it had the day before the battle, though tractors replaced horses in the fields. In 1933 the small government holdings were transferred to the National Park Service. Also in that year Congress approved funding to replace fencing, repair roads, and restore damage to lands marred by farmer-monument builder feuds. By the 1940s community interest in the national park and farmer relations had improved considerably. Did the healing landscape also help to heal relations?

The Dunker Church, considered at the heart of the battle, was maintained ironically by a pacifist German Christian sect.

In the years leading up to the 75th anniversary, community groups and farmers continued to improve their relations with the National Park Service, but it seemed every new monument proposal was denied. Lengthy discussions and debates included civic groups, farm cooperatives, even schools and churches, and seemed to discourage the placement of large monuments. "This would be no Gettysburg," the janitor told me, "My own father stood up at a meeting and said what a loss to the good people of Gettysburg to no longer have their farms and homes." The landscape was further protected by the National Park Service itself, realizing what had happened to Gettysburg had been avoided at Antietam by this vocal conservation community. As tourism entrepreneurs threatened to transform the working land with festivals, pageants, reenactments, and extravagant celebrations, the Park Service and  community associations formed alliances to prevent such showmanship, though some events were permitted with strict provisions.

Eastern meadowlark on a red cedar at Roulette's Farm.

Park Service fencing now contains land leased by area farmers.

The social, political, and environmental histories of Antietam are tightly bound here. Many farmers were financially ruined by the battle, unable to retire or remove to new land. Families were severed by the emotional strain, illness, and financial collapse. And in some ways, the battle to save farmland and farmers continues.  The region fights new battles against suburban sprawl and highway industrial corridors. Housing developments swoop in too close for comfort and people unaccustomed and unappreciative of farming culture make it hard to continue to farm in some places. Antietam, however, stands as its own monument to the battle that happened after the war - to preserve a landscape and livelihoods that matter to this place and these people. The serenity and peace that is this landscape is a testament to the stewardship and fierce protectiveness farmers had and have over their land.

Grasshopper sparrow calls from a snake-rail fence on the Mumma Farm.

Starling whistles from a cannon barrel along the Hagerstown Pike.

There is so much of this story I've left out in the interest of time and space. For a great read on the political and social battle after the war, check out Susan Trail's doctoral dissertation "Remembering Antietam: Commemoration and Preservation of a Civil War Battlefield" (2005) archived online at

A well-written booklet on the farms of the battlefield is Antietam Farmsteads by Kevin Walker (2010). Kevin is a brilliant park historian and he treats these farm families' stories  with compassion and care. Wonderfully illustrated and detailed accounts of those farmers most affected by the battle. Published by the Western Maryland Interpretive Association, available at the Antietam National Park bookstore. 

The park brochures indicate several trails but be mindful that these are often seldom mowed paths along grassy road edges inside rail fences or cut-across paths through recovering woodlands (more grass).  Most people hiking the battlefield find it necessary to hop out into the roads for easier walking. Cycling this area is a dream though! A road ride to the Potomac River along Miller's Sawmill Road can add a beautiful cruise to visit the C&O Canal National Historic Park south of the battlefield. There were many cyclists visiting when I was there who were both cycling and walking the battlefield.

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