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Memorial in progress

Efforts continue to preserve sanctity of Antietam Battlefield

Efforts continue to preserve sanctity of Antietam Battlefield

August 03, 2009|By PAT SCHOOLEY / Special to The Herald-Mail

Edtior's note: This is the 176th in a series of articles about the historical and architectural treasures of Washington County.

Antietam Battlefield is one of the United States' treasures, a vast collection of virtually unspoiled ground infused with quiet, a place to reflect on our own lives and the purposes of our country. It is one of those places that seems inevitable, foreordained, unchanging.

But nothing could be further from the truth. It has taken almost 150 years to get it right.

In 1864, no rules existed for memorializing battles, not even for the one-day battle with the highest casualty count in the history of our country, Sept. 17, 1862.

First memorial: A cemetery

Later that year, Md. Sen. Lewis P. Firey proposed that the state of Maryland purchase a portion of the battlefield of Antietam, not to exceed 20 acres, for a state and national cemetery. This would be one of only two national cemeteries developed in connection with 80 cemeteries established by states to inter 318,492 Union dead.

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The Maryland Act of 1865 appropriated $7,000 to purchase, enclose and ornament land for the Antietam National Cemetery. Later that year, Rhode Island contributed $1,000 toward the project. A board of trustees met in Hagerstown in May 1865, inspected the proposed site on the 31 1/4-acre farm of Sharpsburg resident Robert F. Kennedy and authorized the purchase of 10 acres. The trustees also authorized the purchase of an additional 1 1/4 acres from Samuel H. Rohrbeck and his wife Diana on the east side of the parcel.

Union and Confederate soldiers' graves were to be separated.

The board also made efforts to secure a registry of the dead and the locations of their temporary graves. After the battle, Aaron Good and Joseph A. Gill, both from the Sharpsburg area, had started such a list. Good was hired to complete the list of grave sites as well as he could.

Plans made, and construction begins

Bids for the stone wall to surround the cemetery exceeded funds available. Dr. Augustin(e) Biggs, president of the board, was appointed general superintendent and proceeded with having the ground graded and stone quarried for the wall. Having exhausted the funds available and estimating the cost to complete the cemetery at $85,852, the board sent an appeal to the governors of the different states that had lost soldiers in the battle, along with the cemetery's charter and the cost estimate. The "Trustees, History of A.N.C." reports: "Whilst in one or two instances a State has failed to make the full amount of its appropriation to correspond to its apportionment ... the generous liberality of one (state) has more than compensated for the deficiencies..." By December 1869, the states had donated $63,729.

By 1877, the trustees had collected and spent $90,261 and were in debt $10,379 for a planned soldier's monument. They voted to transfer the cemetery to the government of the United States. This took two years, for each of the 16 contributing states had to pass legislation to approve this transfer, and three of these states had legislatures that met in alternating years.

The monument, a 27-ton, carved soldier with a 212-ton base, was carved at a quarry in Rhode Island. It was shipped to Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, then brought by barge up the C&O Canal to Grover Landing and moved the final mile and a quarter over local roads.

George A. Haverfield, then superintendent of Antietam National Cemetery, reported on Dec. 19, 1879, that the work of setting up the monument was going slowly but that all the stones were on the grounds or at the canal landing "except one piece of the Statue which is at the bottom of the River at Washington." No further explanation is offered. The overboard piece must have been recovered or replaced, for dedication occurred Sept. 17 the following year.

Second phase: Preserve the battlefield

By 1888, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 visitors came to Antietam each year, most by train. Norway maples were purchased to line the 1.76-mile-long road from the station to the battlefield to shade the aging veterans as they walked. In 1890 Congress authorized funds to preserve the battlefield itself. Two years later Maryland approved the purchase of tracts of land "in the neighborhood of the Battlefields of Antietam and Monocacy by the Secretary of War for the purpose of erecting monuments or tablets for each of the several commands of the army of the United States engaged in the Battles..."

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