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Discovery of old well raises new questions

August 18, 2002|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

An archeological dig at Fox's Gap unearthed the side of a stone well Friday, leaving Civil War historians and archeologists to debate whether it is the well that once was a burial site for Confederate soldiers.

"Well, that's the big topic of debate," historian Steven Stotelmyer said Saturday afternoon.

Stotelmyer said the well found Friday could be a second well the Wise family dug for drinking water after their first well was used as a mass grave.

A Union burial detail, drunk on whiskey, tossed 58 dead Confederates into the well two days after the Battle of South Mountain on Sept. 14, 1862, Stotelmyer said.

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A day earlier, the Union detail had respectfully buried their own dead with headboards of scrap wood or buried a bottle containing a note with them, Stotelmyer said. Since the Confederates were the enemy, they were often buried in mass graves in trenches, he said.

Much of the soldiers' remains were exhumed from the well 12 years after the battle, which led to the more well known Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, Stotelmyer said. Those remains were reburied at Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown.

There may still be some bones in the well - which may or may not be the one just unearthed.

Stotelmyer said his gut tells him the well he seeks is further west.

Daniel Wise lived on the land where Lambs Knoll intersects Reno Monument Road from 1858 to 1878, Stotelmyer said.

Some people might ask why wouldn't the Wise family reuse the original well since digging a well is no small job, Stotelmyer said. But after holding 58 dead people for 12 years, "who would want to use it?" he said.

"I think today, it answered a lot of questions, but it probably raised as many as it answered," said Joe Baker, an archeologist from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Diggers also discovered what could be the west stone wall to the foundation to Wise's cabin, Stotelmyer said. By the end of Saturday's efforts, there was doubt that foundation belonged to the cabin because it was so small, he said.

On Saturday, the top of the well's south side was exposed, thanks to a 4-foot deep trench. The 4-foot-wide, 32-foot-long trench was slowly dug Friday by a backhoe as Baker gave instructions so the well wouldn't be damaged. Bell-shaped concrete that could have served as a cistern sits above the well, Stotelmyer said.

This is the last weekend for the archeological dig so volunteers will have to cover the well back up and hope they can secure another grant to come back and explore the site further, Stotelmyer said.

To prevent relic hunters from digging around or in the well, organizers planned to cover the area with a steel plate.

If it is the well that once served as a burial site, it is 60 feet deep, Stotelmyer said. Hopefully, that will discourage relic hunters from disturbing the land, he said.

Relic hunting at the site is illegal. People who cause $500 or more worth of damage could face a fine and jail time, National Park Service archeologist Lloyd Chapman said.

Volunteers also have discovered miniballs, musket balls, rifle percussion caps, a pen knife and a small buckle off a backpack, Stotelmyer said.

Those items were found east of Lambs Knoll. Stotelmyer said Civil War relics weren't found west of the structural foundation probably because there was a garden there during the battle.

Discovering the well is not the primary purpose of the archeological dig.

"It was nice to come up here and do an excavation," Stotelmyer said. "But, this is secondary."

The dig is meant to help create a management plan for the land, which is part of a state battlefield, Stotelmyer said.

Some people want to restore the land to its 1862 appearance and others want a scenic environment for the Appalachian Trail, which cuts through the area just yards from the structural foundation, Stotelmyer said.

Other people want to place monuments on the site to recognize the battle that resulted in approximately 6,200 soldiers being killed, wounded or reported missing, said Stotelmyer, author of "The Bivouacs of the Dead: The Story of Those Who Died at Antietam and South Mountain."

The dig was financed by a $25,000 state grant from the Maryland Treasures program and $5,000 each from the National Park Service and the nonprofit Central Maryland Heritage League, Stotelmyer said.

The dig was conducted on federal, state and private land.

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