Just finished lunch at Captain Benders Tavern and spoke with our trail friends who own a landscaping business in Ohio. They clued us in on what routes not to take so that we could avoid any extra hills during our tour of Antietam. Our goal is to see as much as we can while avoiding higher elevations saving our legs for the final push into Washington D.C. So with bellies filled with crab cakes (our lunch) we headed up the main road (Route 65) to the Antietam visitor's center. The hills were gentle and after an initial rise, Antietam came into view.
From afar, it looks like any other fallow farm sitting among the background of rolling hills. A stone fence is to our right, field stones neatly stacked, a few feet high as a line heading up the hill. Split rail fences separate areas and define many of the roads that go into the site. It is clean and well organized with even the fallow fields looking in place.
But that was not the case over 150 years ago when over 23,000 soldiers out of nearly 100,000 were killed/wounded/missing in a 12 hour span in an area that is about 2.5 miles long and 0.5 miles wide. I was amazed by compactness of the battle as I looked over the site. It was inconceivable that so many people could die or be wounded in such a small space.
The visitor's center profers examples of the day. The most dramatic to me was a fence rail retrieved from the battle field that has four bullets in it. Each bullet is a nickel-sized ball. It was big. To see them stuck in the fence reminded me what they would do to a person if hit. From the vantage of the observation area on the Visitor's Center monuments, cannons and shrines rested, honoring the fallen showing us the expanse of the battle.
Ted and I take an initial walk next to the center to view up close the monument dedicated to the service of New York soldiers during the battle. Recognize the name of Abner Doubleday, credited with creating the game of baseball. Other states have similar memorials.
We hop on our bikes and start the tour.
I believe that seeing Antietam by bike offers the best view: you are taking it slow, you can see and appreciate many things that you cannot easily by car. Along historic Hagerstown Pike, signs relate the stories of the regiments that fought and died for the cause. The solitude is shattered by a half-dozen baying sheep that had just been sheered.
Antietam as a site has rolling hills, which we notice loaded down with our possessions as we attempt to go up and down them with minimal extra effort. But because we are looking a plaques and different monuments, the typical strategy of conserving momentum is discarded and we stop often and try to image what it was like at any given moment on that day of September 15, 1862.
We stop at the edge of the North Woods at the J. Poffenberger farm where a Union general was planning the initial attack where he would march Union troops across a cornfield to face the Confederate army. Today, the field has just been planted with corn; then a general's entire troops were resting there.
But like then, noticing much would have been vastly different; it is as it was over 150 years ago. Fields are planted wth grains, a rabbit hops across the road, fences keep animals where they should be. The bucolic and peaceful background belies what we are honoring. As we bike though Antietam we are drawn to the different memorials that dot the countryside. On a bike, the memorials draw your eye in a way they can't in a car. A slowing down, a long look, occasional stop then on to the next one.
We go to one of the most horrific spots, Bloody Lane, where it was written, "They were lying in rows like the ties of a railroad, in heaps like cordwood mingled with the splintered and shattered fence rails. Words are inadequate to portray the scene." The scene is quite different today. Bloody Lane appears as a miniature version of the canal that we have been shadowing for the last three days. The bottom is filled with gravel while the sides are neatly grassed. Split rail fences crown both sides of these low lying area. Ted goes down a set of concrete steps to more closely survey the lane but I decide not to: it feels wrong. So I stand at the top of a stairs and view the scene of the rolling hills and ridges where men were cut down by a barrage of bullets hundreds at a time for hours on a very tragic day.
After Bloody Lane we would need to travers some large hills to see the Antietam National Cemetery as well as the final attack on Burnside Bridge at Antietam Creek, which has been said to have turned red that day with the blood of all the Allen soldiers. I think we have seen enough. Time to start home.