County was site of pivotal Civil War battle

May 04, 2006|by S. ROGER KELLER / Civil War author

Editor's Note: The Washington County Commissioners have designated this week as Washington County History Week. To celebrate the week, The Herald-Mail is publishing a five-part series written by local historians about the events, people and products that shaped the county.

Washington County experienced hostile action and military occupation during every year of the Civil War, from 1861 through 1865.

From early skirmishes in December 1861 at Fort Frederick and in and around Hancock, to the South Mountain and Antietam campaign of 1862, to the numerous bloody skirmishes and running battles during the Confederates' retreat from Gettysburg in July 1863, to the ransoming of Hagerstown in 1864 and other Confederate raids and forays, Washington County played a pivotal role during the war.

While situated far from other major fighting arenas of the Civil War, there was one battle - the bloodiest day of them all - that was the most pivotal to the war's outcome. On Sept. 17, 1862, on hallowed ground along a meandering stream near Sharpsburg, Md., it was contested between a Union army of 70,000 and a Confederate army of less than 40,000. This was bloody Antietam.


On that most costly of all days in human suffering and carnage, more than 23,000 men and boys from North and South fought to a draw, falling by the score, at a most frightening rate. The ground was drenched in blood over a 12-hour period as the battle took place in a cornfield, along the Hagerstown Pike, the old wagon path shortcut connecting the Hagerstown Pike with the road to Boonsboro (forever remembered as Bloody Lane,) in the dense, murderous West Woods and at Burnside Bridge. Companies and regiments were literally cut to shreds by withering rifle and cannon fire. The 15th Massachusetts alone, in the fiery furnace of the West Woods, lost one half of its regiment in less than 20 minutes. Nearby, the 1st Texas lost 82 percent of its men in the morning combat.

Southern Gen. Robert E. Lee maneuvered frantically, fighting to a state of total exhaustion by day's end. Union Gen. George B. McClellan pressed his blue coats, but in stages. At sunset, the battlefield was soaked in blood; men's bodies were singed black. Thousands wounded and dying begged for water and aid.

On Sept. 18, Lee's exhausted and decimated Army of Northern Virginia braced itself for an expected, overwhelming assault by McClellan's immense forces. However, "Little Mac" failed to seize the initiative, allowing Lee to limp back across the Potomac River to Virginia, to fight again another day. In effect, the Confederates retreated and allowed a "victory" of sorts for the Union.

The failure of the Southern army to wage a successful campaign north of the Potomac River had two immense effects on the ultimate outcome of the war, despite the three years of fighting that remained.

The British and French governments turned away from recognition of the South.

Despite McClellan's failure to pursue Lee, as President Abraham Lincoln strongly urged, it provided Lincoln with the tool to give the war direction.

Five days after the battle, the president released the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln decided it was the proper time to release his previously written proclamation, that began, "I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free . . ."

The North's superiority in manpower and materiel would eventually overwhelm any effort the South would make to engage on an even footing. Antietam had tipped the scales.

Washington County was therefore central to the war in many ways. The struggle could have ended here twice. Had Gen. Burnside moved quickly on Sept. 17, crossed the bridge named for him and circled in behind Lee's exhausted warriors, the worn-out Army of Northern Virginia would have been trapped between the Ninth Corps and the remainder of McClellan army.

Additionally, if Gen. George Gordon Meade had moved quickly after the Battle of Gettysburg and assaulted the Confederate defensive lines south of Hagerstown, Lee's worn out and broken, retreating army might have seen its end. Both opportunities were wasted, costing thousands of lives and ruining a like number of families, farms and businesses.

Today, many of the brave men who fought and died in Washington County are buried in the Soldiers National Cemetery (Union) at Sharpsburg. The Confederate dead were not permitted formal burial. Most were buried where they fell: in orchards, down water wells, along dusty roads, next to barns and between fruit trees on farmlands. These sites were identified after the war. In 1874, the remains were exhumed and reburied in Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown. Confederate Maj. Gen. Fitz Hugh Lee, nephew of Robert E. Lee, delivered the dedication speech. Of the more than 2,000 Confederate dead who fell at Antietam and South Mountain, and were reburied at Rose Hill, fewer than 345 could be identified.

The Civil War, though bitter to both sides, brought us together and established the United States as a unified, world power.

To learn more about Washington County's history, join the third annual Museum Ramble May 6 and 7, sponsored by the Washington County Association of Museums and Historical Sites and the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau. For information or directions, contact the Convention and Visitors Bureau at 301-791-3246, the Washington County Association of Museums and Historical Sites at 301-733-3638 or visit

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