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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
Then looking northwest, “Old Simon” in the National Cemetery comes into view:
And finally looking west, the Hawkins Zouaves Monument and the water towers of Sharpsburg are visible:
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!