Monthly Archives: September 2009

HMDB Civil War Updates – Week of September 28

A larger batch of entries this week for the Civil War category.  Forty-three entries this week.   These entries cover a lot of ground – Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.  Here’s the highlights:

– Four markers in Cahaba, Alabama, south of Selma, tell the story of a prison camp located there  during the war.  The camp was also known as Castle Morgan and described in detail by prisoner Jesse Hawes.  Ruins of a chimney at the site likely date to the post war era.  Another marker tells the tragic story of Major Hiram S. Hanchett, of the 16th Illinois Cavalry.

– From Yuma, Arizona, a memorial with rather detailed panels relates the story of the Mormon Battalion, of the Army of the West, and their exploits during the Mexican-American War.  Of note to us who study the Civil War, the Butterfield Overland State Route which featured prominently in the Union efforts to retain control of the West, was first blazed by the Army of the West.

– Another handsome memorial from Connecticut this week, this one from Danbury.  The figure at the top is depicted holding the colors.

– A new plaque at the Soldiers’ Home in the District of Columbia points our way to a statue of Lincoln about to, or just dismounting from, a horse.  The statue stands in front of the cottage which the President often used to escape the heat and humidity of downtown Washington.

– A state marker in Columbus, Georgia relates the story of Col. W.L. Salisbury, “soldier, editor, banker, and distinguished citizen.”  Salisbury served with the 5th Georgia Infantry during the war.

– Three new wayside markers from Antietam entered this week.  One is the “overview” marker at the park’s visitor center.  The other two are located at stop 10 on the overlook of the final attack trail – “The Advance was Made with the Utmost Enthusiasm” and the Final Attack.  The park service reoriented these replacements to face toward the position of the Confederate defenders.  These new markers were added to the appropriate lists on my Antietam page.

– A state marker in Monroe, Michigan further interprets the life of General George A. Custer, complementing other markers and a monument there.

– Austin, Minnesota boasts a “soldier at rest” memorial in Oakwood Cemetery.  The memorial was placed by the local Woman’s Relief Corps in 1906.

– 115,100 pounds in weight, the 20-inch Rodman Gun marked the pinnacle of smoothbore, muzzle-loading technology.   The piece at Fort Hancock, Sandy Hook, New Jersey was actually produced in 1869.

– The Battle Monument at West Point, New York lists the names of Regular Army officers and men who died during the war.

Five new markers further interpret sites in Hanover, Pennsylvania related to the battle fought there during the Gettysburg Campaign.  All five are part of the Pennsylvania Trails system.  See the Battle of Hanover by Markers set for all the Civil War markers in the town.

– Our “Southern Unionists” marker for the week is from Erwin, Tennessee.  At the Battle of Red Banks, on December 29, 1864, the 3rd North Carolina (US) Mounted Infantry defeated a Confederate force.  In 1894, Unionist veterans returned to the site for a reunion.

– A marker from Russellville, Tennessee points out the location of General James Longstreet’s headquarters during the operations around Knoxville in the fall of 1863.

– Related to the Knoxville campaign, a marker in Limestone, Tennessee relates the stand of a portion of the 100th Ohio Volunteer Infantry there on September 8, 1863.  250 of the regiment were captured.

– The Shiloh project moves along steadily with twelve additions this week.  These cover the ground along the Eastern Corinth Road up to the Sunken Road, all first day fighting.

– In Scottsville, Virginia, a memorial lists the names of Confederate soldiers who died in the town’s hospital during the war.

– The Providence United Methodist church south of Richmond serviced soldiers from both sides during the war, according to the marker.

– A new marker along Hunter Mill Road outside Vienna, Virginia adds to a growing group interpreting the roads’ importance during the Civil War.  The marker singles out movements during the Antietam and Gettysburg Campaigns.

– Also in Vienna, Virginia, a simple plaque notes the location of Salsbury Spring.  The spring fed a farm owned by Captain Harmon Salsbury, from Company D, 26th Regiment USCT, who settled in the area after the war.  The spring still flows on occasion, and is today a city park.

– “I want you to make me a map of the valley….”  started the orders from General “Stonewall” Jackson to Jedediah Hotchkiss on March 26, 1862 at the Narrow Passage outside Edinburg, Virginia.  The marker relates that Hotchkiss not only made the map for Jackson, but went on to provide roughly one-half of the Confederate maps collected for the Atlas of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.

– A side note to the Battle of Shiloh was the death of Wisconsin Governor Louis Harvey.  Harvey had traveled to the battlefield to bring relief supplies to the state’s troops in the aftermath of the battle.  While attempting to cross from a small boat to a moving steamboat, Harvey fell and drowned.  Some details of the Governor’s life are related on a state marker in Shopiere, Wisconsin.

A closing note, and keeping with the Wisconsin theme – the current “Marker of the Week” is a Second Manassas marker of note.  Years after the battle a simple wood sign was placed by George E. Albee, from the Wisconsin (G) Company, 1st U.S. Sharpshooters.  The sign indicates where the company fought during the Federal assault in the Deep Cut sector.  At first, from a distance, I thought the sign was some warning about buried utilities, until Harry Smeltzer pointed out the significance.

Albee's Marker

Albee's Marker

Jim Burgess of Manassas National Battlefield provided the full history of the simple wood sign.  The original wood sign is preserved as part of the park’s collection, with the current replacement serving as a reminder of the August 30, 1862 fighting.

What Do the Sun and Moon Have to Do with Edwards Ferry?

A good military operations plan considers the times of sunrise, sunset, and the nighttime illumination offered by the moon.   I see no reason why a historian approaching the study of an operation or action shouldn’t also consult these factors.  (Since the data is often easy to come by, I “deduct points” from any review if an author fails to address these factors!)

The following chart was derived from data from the U.S. Naval Observatory specifying the year as 1863 and the place as Leesburg, Virginia:


The day of the month of June is listed on the far left column, and data for that particular day is listed on the row to the right of the day.  For those who are not familiar with the abbreviations across the top, here the translation:

BMNT – Beginning Morning Nautical Twilight.  The sun is 12 to 6 degrees below the horizon.  Weather and other factors aside, the first traces of illumination from the sun are apparent.  One can start making out ground objects at BMNT, but stars are still visible.

BMCT – Beginning Morning Civil Twilight.  Defined as when the sun reaches 6 degrees below the horizon.    Illumination increases to allow one to fully recognize objects on the ground, but only the brightest stars are visible.

Sunrise – Defined as when the sun is visible arising over an unobstructed horizon – not over terrain such as hills.

Sunset – Similarly, when the sun disappears below an unobstructed horizon.

EECT – End of Evening Civil Twilight – The sun passes beyond 6 degrees below the horizon.  As with morning, between sunset and EECT, illumination allows one to see objects on the ground, and some stars are visible.

EENT – End of Evening Nautical Twilight – The sun passes beyond 12 degrees below the horizon.  At this point, no ground objects are made out without artificial light or moonlight.

Moonrise and moon set are defined similarly to sunrise and set.  Note the table above adjusted the times for some moon sets to correlate the span of the moon’s visibility “overnight” for a particular day.

Moon phase – Traditional terms used to define the phase of the moon.

% Illum – Is the percentage of the moon’s surface that is illuminated.  From an operational standpoint, this gives an indication, again weather aside, of how much reflected light will aid those operating at night.

Those definitions set, the table offers some indication of the working daylight hours and the impact of night operations around Edwards Ferry in June 1863.  Based on the data, the earliest that soldiers might start work was roughly 4:15 a.m. each morning.  The terrain east of Edwards Ferry features a few hills, but nothing that would greatly obstruct the horizon.   However, to the west are the Catoctin Range, just outside Leesburg.  Given that on the horizon, probably the latest soldiers might work without aid of lanterns or candles was 8:00 p.m.

The moon had risen before sunset on each day reviewed.  However, the moon offered very little illumination over the nights of June 20-24, and sat well before sunrise.  On the vital nights of the crossing, June 25 – 27, the moon sat a few hours after midnight.  Of course cloud cover from the rains likely suppressed any illumination offered by the waxing moon.  Thus the infantry who marched beyond the bridges along the tow-path and towards Poolesville, Maryland were not offered much natural lighting.

Of note, on the night of June 20-21, when the engineers placed the first pontoon bridge, the moon sat about three hours after sunset and offered only 17% illumination (assuming no cloud cover).  Recall from the timeline that the order to place the bridge was issued at 5:20 pm on June 20.  The bridge was completed at 9:45 am the next day.  And this occurred while the Potomac was rising!

Perhaps to elaborate on that point with a visual, from my files of “photos that didn’t work out too well” is one taken on June 16, 2007 at 8:47 pm of White’s Ferry:

White's Ferry at Twilight

White's Ferry at Twilight

For the record, the Naval Observatory’s data for that day provides a sunset of 8:39 pm and a EECT of 9:11 pm.  The moon was a waxing crescent with only 8% illumination, and sat at 11:15 pm that night.  The camera, my simple point and shoot, had no extra filters and the flash of course did little good.  The ferry boat is visible to the right and the ramp in the distant center.  About the only thing standing out are the headlights of vehicles and a few on the boat.

Can you imagine walking across a swaying bridge in that lighting condition?  How about building one?

Edwards Ferry – The Weather

When I started posting information about the June 1863 crossing at Edwards Ferry, I planed at least one post dealing with the weather and its effects on operations.  Logically this discussion should have occurred early in the sequence, but I was just not happy with the source material or data.  Trouble is, while there are multitudes of first hand accounts that describe the weather, none offer the meteorological data that I would prefer.  I didn’t want to simply say it rained on a given day, but rather what time of day it rained and how much.  And even more important with regard to the bridging, how high was the river cresting.

At first I figured detailed data from the Naval Observatory (Washington, D.C.) might suffice.  After all, the station is only some 25 miles, straight line, from Leesburg, Virginia.  But common sense told me to validate that as a data set.   So I started comparing both contemporary weather and historical data from other time periods.  As I figured, there is enough variance to the samplings to invalidate the assumption that D.C. weather could be a constant with regard to approximating the weather at Leesburg.  Furthermore, the river stage in D.C. is certainly not a good measure of that upstream of the Great Falls of the Potomac.  That said, until I can locate some weather station reports that provide the data I prefer, all I can really point to are the first hand accounts which mention the rains.

Colonel Moses Lakeman offered an itinerary for the movements of the 3rd Maine (Ward’s 2nd Brigade, Birney’s First Division, III Corps) over the days in involving the crossing:

June 16th. Fair. Started at 5.30 o’clock A.M., and marched about three miles to rifle pits.
June 17th. Fair. Started at 3.30 o’clock P.M., and marched about three miles in rear of Centreville.
June 18th. Rain. Remained in bivouac. Smart rain in afternoon and evening. Lt.-Col. Burt left on fifteen days’ sick leave.
June 19th. Rain. Started at 3 o’clock P.M.; marched to Gum Spring; distance marched ten miles; a very severe march on account of rain, mud and darkness; arrived at 10.30 P.M.
June 2oth. Rainy. Remained in bivouac. Lts. Day, Anderson, Gilman and Blake missing, supposed to be captured by guerillas.
June 21st. Rainy. Remained in bivouac until 3.30 o’clock P.M., when we changed position to front. Heavy firing in direction of Aldie.
June 22d. Fair. Remained in bivouac until 5 P.M. Part of regiment went on picket, rest moved to rear on reserve. Sat on court martial on case of Major D of N. Y. Vols. at Col. Berdan’s headquarters.
June 23d. Fair. Remained in bivouac.
June 24th. Fair. Remained in bivouac.
June 25th. Rainy. Regiment relieved from picket; struck bivouac at 6 o’clock A.M., and marched to Monocacy, where we arrived at 10 P.M. ; distance marched about twenty-four miles.
June 26th. Rainy. Started at 6 o’clock A.M.; marched to near Point of Rocks; distance six miles. Division officer of day.
June 27th. Rainy. Started at 10 o’clock A.M.; passed through Jefferson and bivouacked near Middletown; distance about twelve miles.
June 28th. Fair. Started at 8 o’clock A.M. ; passed through Middletown and Frederick to Walkerville, distance about sixteen miles, and bivouacked for the night.
June 29th. Rainy. Started at 6 o’clock A.M.; passed through Walkerville, Woodsborough, Middleburg and Taneytown, distance marched about eighteen miles, and bivouacked for night.
June 3oth. Rain. Started at 2.30 o’clock p. M. and marched to near Emmitsburg; distance eight miles.

Lakeman records nine days of rain of the fifteen sampled above.  In fact, after three days of fair weather, when the 3rd Maine moved on June 25 along with the rest of the III Corps, to Edwards Ferry it rained.  And the rain did not let up until the 27th.  Recall the III Corps was among the first to cross the pontoon bridges.

Another account of the weather, with a little more detail, comes from Asa W. Bartlett of the 12th New Hampshire (Carr’s First Brigade, Humphreys’ Second Division, III Corps).  Speaking of the march to Gum Springs, Virginia on June 19, he wrote in the Regimental history:

It rained hard during the night, and the next day’s march of twelve miles to Gum Springs was through mud and water instead of heat and dust.  During the day the mercury fell thirty or forty degrees, and so great and sudden a change of temperature in a few hours, followed by a cold storm that set in just as the troops had pitched their tents, caused much suffering during the night….[2]

The temperature change mentioned is worth noting.  Bartlett further describes the march along to Edwards Ferry and the “Tow-path March”:

From Gum Springs to Edward’s Ferry, a distance of fifteen miles, the troops were hurried forward, with only a few five-minute halts to take breath.  Immediately crossing the Potomac at 5 p.m. on a pontoon bridge… the division at once entered upon the famous “tow-path march,” … ten to twelve miles further to somewhere near the Mouth of the Monocacy river….  About dark it began to rain, and soon the path was but a narrow stretch of mud, trodden by many thousand feet into mortar-like consistency….[3]

Bartlett continued to describe the march in rather descriptive prose, and offering some judgment on the choice of the tow-path by General Humphreys.  Lakeman’s itinerary, written probably at the time of the campaign, is not specific as to the time of day the rains arrived on the crossing day.  Bartlett’s account is specific, but it was written decades after the campaign (although assembled from diaries and other first hand recollections).

On both marching days highlighted in the accounts, the units made good distance – 10 to 12 miles on June 19, 24 to 27 miles on the crossing day.  The evidence that the rain affected the rate of march on the crossing day lies in the time line.  Lakeman stated the June 25 march took some sixteen hours.  Bartlett did not state the time the 12th New Hampshire began the march that day, but indicated going into bivouac between midnight and 1 a.m. the next day.

While the rains certainly resulted in a muddy path for those marching, the precipitation also offered some problems for those maintaining the bridge.  For a floating pontoon bridge, as the water level rises, the anchor points had to be reinforced, and the abutments had to be raised.  As the river rose, the points joining the bridge to the shore had to be progressively moved  up and away from the bank, otherwise the bridge would not float above the rising water and become swamped.  Conversely as the waters fell, the abutments and anchor points had to be adjusted back to prevent loose swings and grounding of pontoons.[4]

Another issue presented by rising waters was drift wood.  Military manuals of the day prescribed different barriers to deflect and collect debris in the current.  Estacades, one type recommended, were barriers formed by logs across the river.   These estacades came in fixed or floating types, but required careful placement and much maintenance. [5]  However, there is no mention of any estacades or even activities to deal with drift debris from the Army’s engineers.

A personal observation I can offer is based on crossing several times at modern day White’s Ferry, north of Leesburg.  On most days, the ride across is a peaceful event, with barely a few moments to take in the river.  However in the winter of 2008, one of our crossings took some fifteen minutes, as the crew stopped repeatedly to pull debris – and in one case an entire tree – from the ferry’s cable.  The Potomac can be a messy river after heavy rains.

Potomac at Whites Ferry During High Water

Potomac at Whites Ferry During High Water

In summary, while I cannot offer specific data as to how much rain fell or how high the Potomac River rose, clearly the weather had an impact on the crossing.



  1. From Maine at Gettysburg, by the Maine Gettysburg Commission, Lakeside Press, 1898, page 135.   (The entire volume is digitized and available by way of Google books.)
  2. Asa W. Bartlett, History of the Twelfth Regiment:  New Hampshire Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion,  I. C. Evans, printer, 1897, page 115. (The entire volume is digitized and available by way of Google books.)  Bartlett was a Sergeant-Major at the time but later promoted to Captain, serving on the regimental staff and later as a company officer.
  3. Ibid. Page 116.
  4. George Washington Cullum, Systems of Military Bridging in Use by the United States Army, D. Van Nostrand, 1863, page 199.  (The entire volume is digitized and available by way of Google books.)
  5. Ibid. Pages 201-205.

Ten Pilots I’d Pitch to the History (Channel)

Ok, time for my twisted sense of humor to show up again.

If I were in the “biz” and had an audience with the History (Channel), here’s ten shows I’d propose:

1. Hot for Civil War Books – Have Marina over at Hot for Words (no really, that link is safe for work!  I think….) review new offerings in the field of study.  Sure to draw the 16 to 30 year old male audience!

2.  Trading Commanders – Taking the visitor back in time, we switch the heads of two major armies on campaign, just to mix things up a bit.  In the pilot episode, William T. Sherman attempts to put out fires (both real and political) while leading the Army of Tennessee.  Meanwhile J.E. Johnston is confused.  He’s got complete support of his superiors and a well supplied army, with nothing close to an excuse for NOT giving battle!

3.  NED – In line with a Sasha Baron-Cohen production, follow a very nerdy and annoying post-graduate student who pesters history professors around the country.  In the pilot, we’ll have Ned confront James M. McPherson about side burns and Burnsides.

4.  The Book Pitch – Reality show following an aspiring author in his quest to publish a book.  Sort of a daily video blog walking us through the process, following the wheeling and dealing, pitching and wooing to publishers… all in the quest to get his book “Lincoln’s Privies:  Places where Lincoln Relieved Himself” published.  Hey, who says we don’t need another Lincoln book?

5. Extreme Makeover: Reenactor Edition  – Selecting the most inaccurate (“farby” is the word) reenactor at an event, the show has ultra authentics (people who would put Rob Hodge to shame) revamp the “subject”, improving his (or her) impression.  By the end of the show, the subject has to galvanize and point out “farbiness” with his old mess-mates.  SPECIAL *** season finale *** All previous contestants must attend an immersion event (that means they live in the woods like the soldiers, not that they get dunked in water), and survive in a simulated battle…. sort of a “Survivor Man” take.   Last ten minutes of the show is one whale of a skirmish!

6.  The “Internship” – Follow a team of graduate students assigned to a project involving archival research for a public history display (i.e. an interpretive kiosk, or such).  The team would gain approval from libraries and archives for use of materials and photographs;  Work with sponsoring organizations to coordinate the presentation; Deal with offended groups who oppose the presentation; and, Fight with general contractors erecting the kiosks or waysides.  At the end of the program, the work is reviewed by a board of eminent historians, chaired by Ed Bearss.  One of the team, of course, will be voted out by the board.  Close your eyes and imagine the tension in the air – “The Origins of Shu-fly Pie was the best you had?   Off you go then!”

7.   Historic Viewshed Restoration Loggers – Follow the logging team through as they clear a tree line to restore the ground to the historic look.  First episodes at Gettysburg and Manassas.  The team will build up to a massive clearing operation at Chantilly or Franklin at which special guest “Snort” the steam roller will assist with clearing office complexes!!!!

8.   Seven Degrees of Relations – Host Harry Smeltzer walks us through connections between notable Civil War era figures and teen stars of today.  In the opening episode, he’ll show how Miley Cyrus is related by marriage to Stonewall Jackson, in seven generations or less.  I hear he’s having difficulty sorting through all those East Kentucky family relations though!

9.  Desperate Generals – A docu-drama of sorts.  Follow the commanders of the Army of the Potomac through the first three years of the war.  Guaranteed to keep you glued to your recliner (snore…) with intrigue and plot twists.  Watch as catty infighting paralyzes an army in the field.

10.  History Theater 3000 – A team of crazy bloggers, shown below the screen in silhouette, are forced to watch bad Civil War portrayals in documentaries and movies, providing pithy comments and dialog.   I’ve got dibbs on the “bubble gum machine” robot!  First episode…. that terrible Gettysburg Documentary the Military Channel ran earlier this year.

I know…. I know… .don’t quit the day job!

HMDB Civil War Updates – Week of September 21

A short list of 17 additions to the Civil War category at HMDB this week.  This weeks updates range from Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia.  Here’s the rundown:

– A marker in Montgomery, Alabama recreates a telegram sent from the Confederate Secretary of War to General Beauregard at Charleston, on April 11, 1861.  The telegram lead directly to the firing on Fort Sumter, and consequently the start of the Civil War.

– General Franz Segal enjoyed a twenty-five year long breakfast at the Eagle Hotel in Bentonville, Arkansas.  Well that’s implied from a marker there, which states the General was interrupted on March 6, 1862 by advancing Confederate troops. In 1887, the General returned and remarked he had arrived to finish the meal.

– A memorial in Prospect, Connecticut lists the veterans from the community who served in several wars, including a respectable number who served in the Civil War.

– Many of the Confederate wounded from fighting around Atlanta were treated in a hospital in Forsyth, Georgia.  The marker also indicates the location of a Confederate cemetery.

Savage Mill, in Howard County, Maryland, provided canvas for tents and field covers during the war.  The area around the mill was often used as a camping ground for Federal troops during the war.

– The G.A.R. Memorial in Pottstown, Pennsylvania features water fountains at its base.  The statue atop the monument is another “soldier at rest” pose.

– Thirty Jewish Confederate soldiers are buried in the Hebrew Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Nearby, at the Shockoe Hill Cemetery, lies Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union spy who operated in wartime Richmond.

– A marker near Moss Neck, Caroline County, Virginia recounts a minor engagement in December 1862.  According to the text, alert Confederates under General Jubal Early prevented a crossing downstream of Fredericksburg by Federal forces.  The Federals were force to cross at points closer to the city during the battle later in the month.

Eight entries for the Shiloh project this week.  All are in the area south of the Peach Orchard and near the Field Hospital site.

Beyond the Civil War markers this week, but interesting and somewhat on topic, are several from Idaho entered by Rebecca Maxwell.   Starting in the fall of 1862, a gold rush brought settlers to the area around Idaho City.  One marker puts the number of settlers at 6,275 (5,691 were men).  Another marker indicates many of these miners and prospectors were from the Southern states.  Interesting set of events – southerners moving to the far northwest to mine gold which likely went to fund the efforts to preserve the Union.

If it has not already, this would make an interesting research topic in terms of demographics.  Were these simply people who moved to get away from the war (in 1862)?   Were these perhaps southerners with Unionist leanings?   What economic class did the settlers come from?  Did they formerly own slaves?

And I wouldn’t be asking those questions today if not intrigued by some of those marker entries.

13th Massachusetts Blog

Brad Forbush, long time researcher on the 13th Massachusetts Infantry, has launched a blog focused on the study of that regiment.  Brad and I have exchanged information over the last few years where his interest intersected with my marker hunting.

The 13th Massachusetts saw active service in the Shenandoah, Northern Virginia, and almost all the major campaigns in the East up to their mustering out in 1864.  Little wonder I have run across several monuments to the regiment, as well as markers mentioning the 13th, at sites ranging from 2nd Massassas to  Antietam to Gettysburg to Fredericksburg.

I’ve added the blog to my rollup on the right, as an “Information Compilation” blog.  Welcome to the blogosphere, Brad!

More Trails at Antietam

I didn’t get enough Antietam on Thursday, so I traveled back for another round!  Hard to improve on Thursday’s weather, but mother nature did.  Clear blue skies, and a temperature in the high 70s.

My objective for the morning was the Three Farms Trail, recently added to the park’s hiking options.  The trail, as seen on page 3 of the hiking guide, connects the Bloody Lane and Sherrick Farm Trails, providing a link between the northern and southern sections of the battlefield.  No significant action occurred along the trail, so in some regards this is simply a nature trail.  Nice to get out and see the flora and fauna, but I also had an eye to look at the terrain.  Federal units moving into action on September 17, 1862 traversed some of the ground.  I was also looking for different perspectives on the main battlefield.

For example, looking back off the trail through the Roulette Farm at the visitor center.

Roulette Farm from the East

Roulette Farm from the East

From the barn in the left center, follow the horizon to the right.  Just before the trees around the Roulette house, the visitor center loops on the high ground in the distance.  Consulting the Antietam Battlefield Board maps, my “swag” at the line of site is depicted by the green line:

Line of Sight from the Trail

Line of Sight from the Trail

The view in the photo is looking from the right end of the line to the visitor center somewhere near the left end of the green line.  The snapshot is based on Map 8 (9 to 9:30 a.m.) in the set.  From that time perspective, the view is looking at the rear of French’s Division and the left most of Greene’s Division.  The Antietam battlefield is, as the park rangers continually remind us in the tours, deceptively compact.  That is partly due to the folds of the terrain, which often masks the “big picture” vistas seen at other battlefields.

On the other hand, part of the problem here is interpretation.  We approach learning about this battlefield with those “three distinct phases.”  Yet never really grasp how those phases were inter-related.  In this case, fighting at the Dunker Church and the West Woods clearly had some direct influence on the fighting at the Sunken Road.  And vice versa.  And you don’t really see that spacial relation until you get out and walk the terrain.

To understand the flow of battle at Antietam, one must fully appreciate the terrain.  Consider this view from the anniversary day hikes looking from the Roulette Farm toward the Sunken Road:

Looking South from the Roulette Farm

Looking South from the Roulette Farm

Portions of French’s Division advanced across the fields in view, toward the road in the background of the photo.  The observation tower makes a convenient mark for the far end of the Sunken Road.  And the trees to the left stand in front of the road.  But not a single portion of the road itself is visible.  Neither side had a line of sight here. Once the skirmish lines were pushed back, the tactical situation devolved into something akin to two blindfolded boxers.

Another point to consider is the impact of the seasonal foliage and crop rotation.  We’ve all heard the stories about the cornfield.  But how exactly did that look?   How did it effect the line of sight?  Consider this view, from April 2008 from the second stop on the Cornfield Trail, at the edge of what was in 1862, the North Woods.

Looking South from the North Woods

Looking South from the North Woods

If you select the photo above and zoom in a bit, clear are the Indiana and New Jersey Monuments at the intersection of Cornfield Avenue and Dunker Church Road (Old Hagerstown Pike).  Of course the D.R. Miller farm is to the right.   And you can see the visitor center and New York Monument just left of center.  Sort of looks like a clear line of sight.  Some folds in the terrain we can’t see, but still looks clear.  But what happens if the field is planted with corn, as it is this year.  Looking south from nearly the same spot (stop 2 on the Cornfield Trail) this year:

Looking South through a Cornfield

Looking South through a Cornfield

Umm….. well…. maybe if one were on horseback?    Full disclosure however – the Battlefield Board maps indicate this field was plowed, but not planted at the time of the battle.  But as this season the Cornfield was planted with beans, the reader will have allow me one exception for the visualization.

There are places where those “sweeping big picture” views exist at Antietam.  Moving to the south end of the field, stop two of the Final Attack Trail offers just such an opportunity.  At the time of the battle, the rise to the east of the “Burnside” Bridge was open field (either stubble or grass).  From that vantage point, visible to the north is the Observation Tower at the Sunken Road.  Look dead center of this photo:

Looking North from the Trail Stop

Looking North from the Trail Stop

Then looking northwest, “Old Simon” in the National Cemetery comes into view:

Looking Northwest from the Trail Stop

Looking Northwest from the Trail Stop

And finally looking west, the Hawkins Zouaves Monument and the water towers of Sharpsburg are visible:

Looking West from the Trail Stop

Looking West from the Trail Stop

The stop is about 300 yards from the Burnside Bridge, however, the bridge is not visible due to the fold of the terrain.  Somewhat ironic, but demonstrates the tactical problems presented by the terrain to the commanders on the ground during the battle.

If you are seeking an understanding of the Battle of Antietam beyond what is read in the books, you’ve got to hit the trails.   In recent years, additional trails have opened up more of the battlefield to visitors, some backed up with podcasts.  There are plans to add even more hiking miles to the battlefield, particularly in the center portion.  Many of the later, while currently closed on most days, are featured on ranger led hikes throughout the year.  So it is worth a few minutes to check the park schedule of events prior to a trip out to Sharpsburg.

Bottom line – if you visit Antietam, don’t do the drive by.  Get out and stretch the legs a bit… and your understanding of the battlefield too!