The Battle of Antietam in September 1862 marked the bloodiest single day in the history of the Civil War.

Located on the far western edge of Maryland is the Antietam Battlefield, which can be found just outside of the small town of Sharpsburg. This former battlefield is perhaps the best preserved of all of the areas that have been turned into National Park Battlefields, looking much as it did at the time of the battle in 1862. On a clear day, when the crisp wind is blowing across the grass, you can almost imagine yourself in another time. You feel that if you looked up, you might actually catch a glimpse of a weary soldier, trudging on toward either death or victory.  Of course, some people claim to have done more than just imagined this....

The Battle of Antietam took place in September 1862, during some of the most brutal days of the war. The Union Army had been badly beaten at Manassas and was in the midst of turmoil as President Lincoln fired ineffectual general after general. At this point, it still looked as though the Confederacy might actually win the war.

The battle was fought on September 17 and marked the first of two attempts by Robert E. Lee to take the war onto northern soil. It would become known as the bloodiest single day of the entire war with combined casualties of 23,100 wounded, missing and dead. The battle itself was considered a draw but the effect on both sides was staggering.

By early September, Lee was on the move to the north. He had trounced the Union Army at Manassas in August, but his men were exhausted, low on ammunition and out of supplies. He marched them north into Maryland under the watchful eye of Union Commander George McClellan. As luck would have it for Lee, McClellan (as usual) believed that he was greatly outnumbered by the Confederate forces and he was slow to act in heading off Lee’s march. Then, a strange occurrence took place ---one that has never been fully explained --- that changed the course of the battle to come. Copies of Special Order No. 191, which was Lee’s plan for the invasion of the north, were sent out to all of Lee’s generals. Stonewall Jackson received his copy of the order, copied it and then sent it out to his brother-in-law, Harvey Hill. Unfortunately, Hill received his own copy and the copy sent to him by Jackson was apparently lost.

On September 13, Union troops moved into an area that had been recently vacated by Hill and they found a copy of Lee’s orders wrapped around some cigars. The orders were presented to McClellan and he realized that he was now privy to Lee’s secret plans. "If I cannot whip Bobby Lee," he stated when he received the orders, "then I will be willing to go home."

Needless to say however, McClellan was never known for moving with great speed. His failure to act had previously cost the Union Army dearly and he was frequently criticized by President Lincoln for being overly cautious. This time was no exception. Instead of starting in immediate pursuit of the Confederate forces, McClellan waited overnight and then started west to South Mountain, still believing that Lee’s dirty, hungry and tired army still outnumbered him. Ironically, the Union Army outnumbered Lee by more than 35,000 men.

On September 14, Lee tried to block McClellan’s pursuit at South Mountain but he was forced to split his army and send troops to aid Stonewall Jackson in his capture of Harper’s Ferry. He was able to delay McClellan for one day and by September 15, battle lines had been drawn west and east of Antietam Creek near the town of Sharpsburg. Harper’s Ferry surrendered the same day and Jackson soon moved north and joined Lee at Sharpsburg. They moved into position along a low ridge that runs north and south of town.

The battle opened at dawn on September 17 when Union General Joseph Hooker’s artillery began firing on Jackson’s men in the cornfield north of town. They advanced, driving the Confederates before them. It was reported in eyewitness accounts that the corn in the field was "cut as closely as could have been done with a knife". This early harvest claimed not only the corn crop, but the lives of hundreds of Confederate soldiers as well. The fighting raged on through the day, moving back and forth on the grassy ridges, each side taking and then losing ground.

Meanwhile, Union troops encountered Confederates under General D.H. Hill posted along an old sunken road which separated the Roulette and Piper farms. For nearly four hours, fierce fighting occurred along this road and it would later become known as "Bloody Lane". Finally, confusion and exhaustion ended the battle here.

On the southeast side of town, Union troops under General Ambrose Burnside spent hours attempting to cross a stone bridge over Antietam Creek. Southern troops made up of only 400 Georgians held them back for nearly four hours and when Burnside’s men finally crossed, it took them almost two additional hours to reform their lines. They succeeded in driving the Georgians into Sharpsburg, threatening to cut off a line of retreat for the now weary and decimated Confederates.

Finally, late in the afternoon, Confederate reinforcements arrived under A.P. Hill. They had been left behind in Harper’s Ferry and now joined the fight, driving Burnside back to the bridge that his men had just taken.

The Battle of Antietam was over.

The following day, Lee began withdrawing his army across the Potomac River. The wounded were left behind in places like the Lutheran Church in Sharpsburg and at a house west of town called Mt. Airy, or the Grove Farm, where President Lincoln visited after the battle. It has been said that the floorboards in this house are still stained with the blood of those who fell during the battle. Now, more than 135 years later, these stains refuse to be removed -- no matter how much sanding or scrubbing is done.

More men were killed at Antietam than on any other single day of the war. The loss of life here was tremendous, as were the stories of heroism and valor. There are many tales still lingering on this battlefield -- and some believe the soldiers, and the deeds committed here, may linger too.

The morning battle at Antietam shifted directions several times and eventually became centered in the middle of Lee’s line, at a country road which divided the fields of two local farmers. On the day of the battle, it served as a sunken rifle pit for two Confederate brigades.

The Sunken Road as it looked in 1862

Lee ordered the center of the line to be held at all costs. This task fell to Colonel John B. Gordon, the commander of the 6th Alabama. Gordon allowed the Union troops to approach to within yards of the road before he gave the order to fire. The Union commander fell at once, his men wavered and then retreated, only to charge the Confederate line five more times. The Federals continued to try and overrun the sunken road, unit after unit falling back under the rain of fire from the Confederate position. Finally, a vantage point was reached where the Union troops could fire down upon the road’s defenders. Now, the once seemingly impregnable position had become a deathtrap. It was described like "shooting animals in a pen" and the road, soon to be known as Bloody Lane, rapidly filled with bodies, two and three feet deep.

The Union troops continued to fire and they poured into the sunken lane, kneeling on the bodies of the slain Confederates to fire at the retreating survivors. "A frenzy seized each man," one soldier recalled. He remembered tossing aside his own empty rifle to pull loaded ones from the hands of the dead to continue firing.

The slaughter at the Bloody Lane became one of the most memorable and tragic events of the battle, and perhaps even of the entire war. Perhaps the most heroic participants were the 69th of New York, recalled today by their nickname, "The Irish Brigade".

The Brigade had been reformed in New York after the fighting at Manassas cost the lives of many of the men and many others were captured. They formed again under the command of Thomas Meagher, an Irish immigrant and a campaigner for Irish freedom. The Brigade were among the most colorful of the Union troops and brawling was common, as was heavy drinking. They brought along their own priest to war and he conducted mass for them on the Sabbath and on the eve of battles. In 1862, the 69th came to Virginia and were designated the Second Brigade of Israel B. Richardson’s First Division, Edwin V. Sumner’s II Corps. They saw action at Fair Oaks, Gaine’s Mill, Salvage Station and a number of other places before meeting their destiny at Antietam.

The Union troops attacking the road were in serious trouble when they saw the emerald banner of the Irish Brigade appear on the horizon. The Irish announced their arrival with the sounds of drums and volleys of fire as they attacked the Confederate position. They launched their assault, cheering loudly, while their priest, Father Corby, rode among the men offering prayers and absolution. As they charged, the Brigade screamed loudly and shouted a battle cry that sounded like "Fah-ah-bah-lah", which is Gaelic for "Clear the Way!" and is spelled Faugh-a-Balaugh.

The thunderous sound of weaponry filled the air and men fell on both sides. Father Corby, who seemed to be oblivious to the gunfire, dodged across the field, administering last rites to fallen Irishmen. Colonel Meagher fought alongside his men and when he saw the emerald banner fall, he ordered it to be raised again. The 69th lost eight color bearers at Antietam and once, the firing was so intense that the flagstaff was shattered in a man’s hands.

Meagher’s horse was shot out from under him as the fighting intensified. The Brigade fought fiercely and fell in huge numbers. They fired all of the ammunition they had and then collected what they could from the dead and wounded and fired that too. Eventually their cries of "Faugh-a-Balaugh" became fainter and the Irish Brigade lost more than 60 percent of their men that day --and wrote their name in the bloody pages of American history.

Over the years, the sunken road called Bloody Lane has become known as one of the most eerie places on the battlefield. Strange things have taken place here which lead many to believe that events of the past are still being replayed today. Reports over the years tell of the sounds of phantom gunfire echoing along the sunken road and the smell of smoke and gunpowder which seems to come from nowhere. I spoke to a man who visited the battlefield a few years ago and he told me of seeing several men in Confederate uniforms walking down the old road. He assumed they were re-enactors, present at the park for some upcoming event until they abruptly vanished. And ghostly apparitions are not the only things experienced here.

Perhaps the most famous story of the sunken road involves a group of boys from the McDonna school in Baltimore. They toured the battlefield and ended the day at Bloody Lane. The boys were allowed to wander about and think about what they had learned that day. They were asked to record their impressions for a history assignment and some wrote brief remarks and poems. But the comments that got the most attention from the teacher were written by several boys who walked down the road to the observation tower, which is located where the Irish Brigade charged the Confederate line. The boys described hearing strange noises that became shouts, coming from the field near the tower. Some of them said that it sounded like a chant and others described the voices as though someone were singing a Christmas song in a foreign language -- a song like "Deck the Halls".

Most specifically, they described the words as sounding like the part of the song that goes "Fa-la-la-la-la". The singing came strongly and then faded away. But what if the singing had not been a Christmas song at all -- but the sounds of the Irish Brigade "clearing the way” with the fateful cry of Faugh-a-Balaugh…?

Located overlooking the battlefield is the Phillip Pry House, a brick farmhouse that was commandeered by General George McClellan to use as his headquarters during the battle. Shortly after the battle began, General Joseph Hooker was brought to the house with wounds that he received during the fighting. He was followed by General Israel B. Richardson, who died of painful abdominal wounds at the Pry House, more than 6 months after the battle ended.

The Pry House as it looked in 1862

The house today is owned by the National Park Service and is not open to visitors --although this has not stopped strange stories from being told about the place. For many years, the house was simply used for storage, then in 1976, the Pry house caught fire and about one-third of it was gutted. It was during the restoration of the house that many strange events were recorded.

One day, during a meeting of park personnel, the wife of one of the men in the meeting met a woman in old-fashioned clothing coming down the staircase. She asked her husband who the lady in the long dress was but he had no idea who she was taking about. A short time later, workers arrived at the house to see a woman standing in an upper window... the same room where General Richardson had died. They searched the house and after going upstairs, they realized the room where the woman had been standing had no floor! Could the apparition have been that of Richardson's wife, Frances, who cared from him on his deathbed?

It would not be the last time the ghost was seen, and on one occasion, a new contracting crew had to hired when the one working in the house caught a glimpse of the spectral figure and abandoned the project.

Another piece of reported phenomena is that of phantom footsteps that have been heard going up and down the staircase. Could they have belonged to worried generals, pacing up and down in anticipation of battle? Or perhaps to Fannie Richardson as she climbed the stairs to check on her dying husband? No one knows for sure -- but those who have heard them are convinced they are not just the sounds of the old house settling.

Burnside Bridge

Those who have spent time at the area known as Burnside Bridge on the battlefield, especially those park rangers and Civil War re-enactors who have been at the location after dark, say that there are strange things going on there as well. Historians and experts report that the fighting which took place here in 1862 left a number of fallen soldiers behind and many of them were hastily buried in unknown locations near the bridge. Could these restless souls be haunting the area? Visitors to the bridge at night have reported visions of blue balls of light moving about in the darkness and the sound of a phantom drum that beats out a cadence and then fades away.

Near the center of Sharpsburg is another site connected to the battle, the St. Paul Episcopal Church. It was used as a Confederate field hospital following the battle, although it was heavily damaged during the fighting and was later rebuilt. Those who have lived close to the building claim they have heard the screams of the dying and injured coming from inside of the structure. They have also seen unexplained lights flickering from the church's tower.

There is also the Piper House, located on the battlefield itself. During the battle, it served as headquarters to Confederate General Longstreet and the barn was used as a field hospital. The house was directly in the heat of the battle and after the fighting ended, three dead soldiers were removed from under the piano in the parlor. I spent the night in this house several years ago and while nothing bothered my sleep, others have complained of strange sounds and mysterious figures that appear and vanish without explanation.

The Piper House

Do ghosts still walk at Antietam Battlefield? You have to be the judge of that for yourself, but nevertheless, there are many questions here which will probably always remain unanswered.

© Copyright 2003 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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