A final resting place

Many of the war's dead were buried in shallow graves on the field where they lay or by the hundreds in trenches on the fields of area farmers. In the years that followed, many of the graves became exposed, and local residents pestered elected officials to find a suitable resting place for the fallen.

September 10, 2012|By C.J. LOVELACE |
  • Bill Divelbiss, executive vice president of Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown, kneels near the gravesites of Jesse Hyder's relatives in Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown. Hyder, who fought with Company B 7th Maryland Infantry, is buried in the Confederate cemetery portion of Rose Hill, where headstones are not allowed. Hyder's relatives wanted to recognize him, and did so by placing a headstone on their family plot.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

When the dust settled and the smoke cleared after the Sept. 17, 1862, Battle of Antietam, thousands of soldiers lay dead or wounded on the rolling fields near Sharpsburg.

"For one day of battle, there would be really long, long, long lasting impacts," said Alann Schmidt, a park ranger at Antietam National Battlefield.

"A lot of folks focus on the troop movements from the battle, but it doesn't take long until the glory and rush of battle give way to the harsh reality of what you're faced with in a practical and logistical sense afterward," Schmidt said. "And that is thousands and thousands of killed soldiers, wounded soldiers of that 23,000 casualties."

The sheer numbers of casualties in the bloodiest day of battle in American history — the National Park Service lists 2,100 Union troops killed, 1,550 Confederate troops killed; 17,300 soldiers on both sides wounded and another 1,770 missing or captured — had an impact not only on military forces, but also on the community of the small town of Sharpsburg, Schmidt said.

"Almost every farm, almost every barn, every house, every building, anywhere that they can be ... is going to be a hospital facility," he said. "There's not a lot of doctors, not a lot of organization, so the local folks are probably going to be the ones to help with care."

It was the worst time of the year for local residents to deal with such a job, Schmidt said.

"It's in the middle of harvest time in September. All the work the farmers have done all year to provide food for the winter, that's now out the door," he said. "It's either eaten by over 100,000 men or it's trampled in the action of all that."

After the Confederate retreat, Union leaders began drafting teams of men to handle the burial of the dead as quickly as possible, many in shallow graves on the field where they lay.

Other soldiers were buried by the hundreds in trenches on the fields of area farmers, rendering that land useless for seasons to come, Schmidt said.

In the years that followed, many of the graves became exposed, and local residents pestered elected officials to find a suitable resting place for the dead.

On March 23, 1865, the state of Maryland purchased an 11.25-acre plot in Sharpsburg that would became Antietam National Cemetery.

The cemetery's original commission called for soldiers from both sides to be buried there, but bitterness over the recently ended conflict and the South's inability to raise funds to join the venture resulted in the North keeping exclusive burial rights there.

Union burial parties transferred the Union dead from the field to the cemetery, which was officially opened and dedicated on the fifth anniversary of the battle in 1867, Schmidt said.

Today, Antietam National Cemetery contains the remains of 4,776 Union soldiers — of which 1,836 were unidentified — from the battles of Antietam, South Mountain, Monocacy and other action in Maryland, according to the National Park Service website.

Confederate dead

Since Confederate soldiers were not permitted to be interred at Antietam, states started to look for other locations to bury the fallen Confederate troops.

"People weren't happy," said Bill Divelbiss, executive vice president of Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagers-town. "They weren't satisfied because they still ... were fighting in their own minds."

Officials from Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia eventually struck a deal in 1871, allowing the states to purchase a 3.2-acre plot at Rose Hill, a section of the cemetery that later would be named Washington Confederate Cemetery, Divelbiss said.

There are no individual grave markers for the 2,468 Confederates whose bodies were moved from Antietam and re-interred in Rose Hill in the early 1870s, and all but 346 of the dead are unidentified.

Most of the bodies weren't identifiable at that time because it was several years after the battle, and many of the bodies were robbed of weapons and clothing or arrived at Rose Hill in "pieces," Divelbiss said.

"You had five or six people in one box because arms, legs ... it was a terrible war," he said. "Let's face it — it was the worst that there was."

In addition to those who died on the field of battle, thousands more succumbed to wounds and disease.

The carnage reverberated for miles in all directions after Antietam as homes and churches in nearby towns became makeshift hospitals.

One of those towns was Frederick, Md., which was "one mass hospital at that time," according to Ronald Pearcey, superintendent at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Wounded soldiers from Antietam, South Mountain and Monocacy as well as Gettysburg were taken to Frederick to receive medical treatment, but many might have died on the slow, bumpy horse-and-buggy ride there, Pearcey said.

"I'm sure it was a difficult ride coming over the mountain in those days," he said.

A total of 303 Confederate soldiers — ranging from privates to lieutenants — were buried in a row along the western edge of Mt. Olivet in a trench that stretches for about a quarter of a mile. Each soldier's resting place is marked by two gravestones, one in front of the other.

The original markers, made of marble and placed around 1870, eventually became illegible from weather and wear, and new granite markers were donated and installed around 1990, said Pearcey, who estimated about 100 of the dead were wounded at Antietam.

The identities of 23 of the 303 soldiers at Mt. Olivet are unknown.

"A lot of them just carried little pieces of paper with their names on them," Pearcey said. "And a few of them, I guess, when they got to the hospitals were able to actually talk and say who they were to the nurses or doctors who attended them."

The remainder of Confederates were buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Shepherdstown, W.Va., another town that tended to a lot of wounded after the battle.

More than 114 soldiers from the South who were killed or later died from wounds received at Antietam are buried in Shepherdstown, including men from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida, according to a plaque posted at the cemetery.

Additional Confederates were buried there later, bringing the cemetery's total to approximately 281.

Of the men interred in Shepherdstown, Gen. W.W. Kirkland of Hillsborough, N.C., and Col. Henry Kyd Douglas, born in Shepherdstown and the youngest staff officer to Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson, are two of the most notable.

Finding remains

With the number of soldiers killed and the state of record-keeping at the time, it was inevitable that not everyone was accounted for as burials took place, Schmidt said.

"It's pretty amazing that they found as many as they did," he said.

Schmidt said he was unsure of how many bodies might have been found before the National Park Service took over Antietam, but a few remains have been found since.

The remains of several Union soldiers were found in 1988 near Sunken Road, Schmidt said.

Sunken Road, also known as Bloody Lane, is an area in the park where numerous photos taken following the battle show dozens upon dozens of bodies placed in shallow trenches for burial.

"They did disinter them and transfer them over to the (Antietam National) cemetery for burial," Schmidt said, adding that the found remains were identified as infantrymen of the Union's Irish Brigade.

The most recent discovery came in 2008, when a visitor was hiking along a trail in one of the park's cornfields and came across a groundhog hole that appeared to have a bone sticking out of it.

"So, he brought the bone in and gave it to our staff to take a look at, and sure enough it was a human bone," Schmidt said. "Our trained park service archaeology team came in and did a full investigation of the area and found that it was indeed one that was missed before."

The burial site was up against a rock, which might have kept farmers who tended the fields for more than a century from stumbling upon the remains, the ranger said.

"From where the area was and from the buttons and things, they determined it was a New York soldier," Schmidt said.

At the request of that state, the remains of the soldier were transported to New York and re-interred in Saratoga National Cemetery, he said.

While the battlefield is a popular destination spot history buffs and sightseers, Schmidt said, it's important for people to remember that it is sacred ground "that awful things happened on."

"Not only awful things, but important things," he said. "Someone cared enough about their country ... that they were willing to give their life for that and it's important to have the proper respect and proper reverence for that when you come here and realize that you never know what might be under the ground that you're standing on."

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