Underground history

Researchers study Antietam's Piper Orchard

Researchers study Antietam's Piper Orchard

March 29, 2007|by KAREN HANNA

SHARPSBURG - In a sun-dappled field, where molten lead once rained from the sky, researchers armed with metal detectors listened for evidence from America's bloodiest one-day battle.

Stephen R. Potter, who headed a team of National Park Service archaeologists at Antietam National Battlefield, said Tuesday that the group, which included a couple of amateur metal detectorists, was studying an area of Piper Orchard where the 7th Maine fled from a smaller Confederate force.

"I don't think they would've been able to drive the Maine guys back if they wouldn't have had the artillery that they had, because what we're finding out here is pretty nasty stuff," Potter said.

Now a cornfield, the area will be planted with apple trees to recreate the appearance of the landscape Sept. 17, 1862, when more than 20,000 Union and Confederate troops were killed, captured, injured or went missing.


After the battle, which was the bloodiest one-day engagement in American history, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

"I think about who was out here, that's what I think about ... and the proximity to each other. This wasn't (soldiers) shooting at each other at 250 yards. This was 70 yards. You could see the faces of your enemy," archaeologist Bob Sonderman said. "It must have been terrifying."

Karen Orrence, who like her colleagues works in the National Park Service's capital region, said the team found more than 400 objects - mostly bullets and shrapnel - during their time on the field Monday and Tuesday.

For each hour in the field, Orrence said the archaeologists likely will spend about three hours in the lab analyzing the evidence they discovered.

Potter said the locations of shrapnel and spent and unfired bullets helps the team determine troop movements, such as the retreat line of the fleeing 7th Maine, which was ordered to attack a Confederate unit near Piper Farm in the late afternoon.

Potter called the order a stupid move.

With the Union troops in their artillery sights, Confederate troops managed to drive back the assault.

One piece of shell that the group found was about half the size of a human hand. Inside would have been lead shot about the size of pingpong balls. Any piece could have taken off a limb, Potter said.

"They're designed, to put it rather undiplomatically but graphically, they're designed to turn people into hamburger meat. It's a horrible, horrible thing," Potter said.

By looking at the marks on bullets, Potter determined whether bullets found on the field had been fired. Deformities at the bullets' tips indicate they hit something, though without any other evidence, Potter said there's no way to know what they struck.

Orrence said the team found at least two buttons from soldiers' uniforms in the field.

"Millions and millions and millions of rounds," were fired at Antietam, Potter said.

According to the Antietam National Park Web site, more than 3,700 Confederate and Union troops were killed, captured, injured or went missing during the battle's afternoon phase.

Tom Henrique, a volunteer metal detectorist from the Gettysburg, Pa., area, said he collects bullets, firearms and cartridges from the Civil War era, and he loves history. On Wednesday, he said he was proud to be part of science.

"It just also nice to be on such hallowed ground with permission," Henrique said.

Debbie Cohen, geographical-information systems specialist in the national resources division of the National Park Service, said the apple trees will be planted in October.

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