One hundred fifty years ago, when Union and Confederate forces clashed on Sept. 17, 1862, in the Battle of Antietam, the fighting was so intense that 2,200 men were either killed or wounded within the first 20 minutes. By 10 a.m., about 10,000 were dead or wounded.
By nightfall, 23,000 men had been killed, wounded or listed as missing, marking the single bloodiest day in the history of the United States.
Thomas J.C. Williams, editor of The Hagerstown Mail for about 17 years, wrote a two-volume history of Washington County titled the “History and Biographical Record of Washington County, Md.” Williams gave an account of the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of South Mountain and other aspects of life of the county during the Civil War in the books published in 1906.
“The month of September 1862 was the most eventful in the history of Washington County,” Williams wrote.
Williams described the morning of Sept. 17, 1862, at the battlefield when Confederate bayonets were seen “rising above the tall and luxuriant corn.” Soon “the corn stalks had been leveled ... as completely as if they had been cut down by knives,” Williams wrote.
When the fighting was over, the air was filled with the smell of burned houses and barns and the fields “were ploughed by cannon balls and strewn thick with all manner of debris,” Williams wrote.
The next day, dead bodies festered in the hot sun and “the faces turned up to the sky were black and swollen,” Williams wrote.
“No human being who has never witnessed such a scene can picture in his mind the horror of that field.
Fourteen dead bodies were counted lying in a heap in the cornfield adjoining Bloody Lane; the whole field was dotted with the dead, single and in heaps, and the air was filled with the groans and lamentations of the wounded and dying, calling for help and begging piteously for water. Young boys in the delirium of pain were talking of homes and mothers. Dead and wounded horses added no inconsiderable amount of horror,” Williams wrote.
Before the battle
Before the Battle of Antietam, Hagerstown was bustling with life and merchants enjoyed thriving business, according to Williams. The wheat crop in the county that year was excellent and at the Joseph Poffenberger farm near Sharpsburg, the family worked for months to harvest wheat, flax, corn and clover.
“By September, Joseph’s barn was nearly full. Large stacks of straw towered above the barnyard. The little orchard trees around his house had produced well and Mary Ann (Poffenberger) had filled the shelves of her cellar with apple, peach, and plum butter, barrels of pickles and preserves of all kinds. Hundreds of pounds of smoked meat hung in the storehouse, and there was even a barrel of whiskey on hand,” Walker wrote in his book “Antietam Farmsteads, A Guide to the Battlefield Landscape.”
But the successful farming year was tempered by what was happening on the Civil War battlegrounds.
The Battle of Antietam pitted Union Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. The Maryland Campaign was Lee’s first attempt to take the war North and President Abraham Lincoln tasked McClellan with stopping Lee.
“The Southern army had been successful everywhere and when a squad of Virginia Cavalry dashed into Hagerstown on Thursday, Sept. 11, 1862, a considerable portion of the Union population had departed, and taken refuge in Pennsylvania,” Williams wrote in his book.
On Sunday, Sept. 14, 1862, just days before the Battle of Antietam, people in Sharpsburg and the surrounding area went to church at one of the places of worship in Sharpsburg or at Dunker Church, which would be witness to the most intense fighting on the battlefield, according to Williams.