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Burial sites at Antietam to be dug up

November 30, 1999|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

SHARPSBURG - By using existing computer software in a new way National Park Service officials believe they have located two sites where confederate soldiers were buried at Antietam National Battlefield.

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As many as 30 bodies were buried in each trench after the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, said Stephen Potter, Regional Archaeologist for the National Park Service, National Capital Region.

In the late 1860s or early 1870s civilians were hired to dig up the bodies, which were moved to individual graves.

Most, if not all, of the human remains would have been removed but not all the objects they had with them, Potter said during an interview Tuesday.

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Potter said they will excavate a portion of the sites next year. He said a busy schedule will dictate when they start digging at the locations, which are being kept a secret for fear of looting.

Any objects found at the sites can provide information about the common Confederate soldier at that time, Potter said.

"We're going to have a single slice of the past ... an unprecedented opportunity to study the effects of 30 or more Confederate soldiers," he said.

But as any artifacts found would only give clues to what life was like for the soldiers, so verifying the location of the burial trenches is only one piece of a larger puzzle.

The technology used to locate the potential grave sites is being used to create a virtual picture of the battlefield with the hope that someday visitors will be able to see what the landscape looked like during the Battle of Antietam.

Potter said ultimately there could be a computer screen and you could choose to be a private soldier and see what it was like to charge into the North Woods on the bloodiest single day in U.S. history with 23,110 casualties.

The larger project, creating a virtual map of the landscape, has been going on for about two years and has cost about $28,000 so far, Potter said.

Antietam National Battlefield was chosen as the test site for this new application of technology for three main reasons, Potter said.

The battlefield, which stretches over about 3,200 acres or roughly 12 square miles, is the best preserved 19th century landscape in the eastern theater; Antietam was the first Civil War battlefield extensively photographed after the battle - 70 photographs were taken of the battlefield within five days of the fighting; and the top artist correspondents in the world were at the battle, he said.

To create a virtual picture of the battlefield during the Civil War, historic photographs and sketches were compared with existing landmarks.

Potter said it would probably take three to five years to complete the project.

"This is the first time anything like this has been done," Potter said. "A study of a historic landscape using historic photos."

For the first test of the computer mapping method, they located a long-gone tree near the Mumma Farm on the battlefield.

Next they will try to verify the location of a smokehouse at the Mumma Farm and the burial trenches.

"One test isn't enough. Once could be dumb luck," Potter said.

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