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Farmsteads dot Antietam National Battlefield landscape

September 14, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com
  • Pry Farm
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

SHARPSBURG, Md. — There are no bulldozers turning the earth on old and historic fields, no acreage falling victim to the relentless march of development.

Instead, Antietam National Battlefield is a dignified memorial to all who fought there — peaceful and picturesque.

Shallow water murmurs below Burnside Bridge and overhanging trees shade narrow winding lanes that edge acres of cornfields.

If you listen closely, you might think you hear heroic ghosts whisper of a great and terrible battle that was fought here 150 years ago — the site of the bloodiest day in the nation’s wartime history.

There are monuments, plaques and cannons that remind visitors of a house divided, one that only blood could cement.

For the most part, little has changed in the landscape since Sept. 17, 1862, when soldiers both blue and gray were doing their worst to each other.

The area seems captured in a time warp.

And that’s a major part of what makes Antietam special and appealing to visitors, said Jane Custer.

As head of the Cultural Resource Division at Antietam National Battlefield, Custer said she often gets feedback from visitors who know of the differences of Antietam versus other battlefields.

“They tell us how much they appreciate this and that it makes the experience better,” she said.

That’s not to say there have been no alterations to the landscape since the Civil War.

“The establishment of the National Cemetery was an early change,” Custer noted. “Placement of the observation tower, addition of the tour roads and the Visitor Center relate to changes for visitor access. And the addition of the Route 65 bypass was a major change.”

“But if those who lived on an area of what became the battlefield returned today, they would recognize it as their home,” she said.

While structures such as Dunker Church still stand, Custer said it is the farmsteads that hold particular historic significance.

The dead and injured covered the properties, many of which served as field hospitals.

Today, Custer said, “the acreage and field patterns of these farms is nearly the same. The fields are farmed by local farmers through a lease program. We have rebuilt fences and stone walls and we are preserving the historic structures.”

And so, 150 years later, the farmsteads still stand much as they stood on that fateful day in September of 1862.

The farmsteads at Antietam include:

• The Joseph Poffenberger Farm. It’s appearance today, as it was at the time of the Civil War, is plain and modest. Joseph and Mary Ann Poffenberger were living on the farm in the summer of 1862, but with approaching Union and Confederate troops, they moved their horses off the property, locked up the farm buildings and moved to a safer place. The farm served as an encampment for Federal soldiers and the southernmost part of the property was the scene of fighting on Sept. 16.

• The D.R. Miller Farm. The substantial farmhouse and property were owned by David R. Miller and became the scene of fighting on Sept. 17 that took place through the Miller fields, orchards and wood lots — some of the fiercest fighting of the Civil War.

The property, including crops, was left in ruins and was the center of the bloodiest square mile in American military history. However, the house and barn suffered very little damage. The wounded who gathered at the farm were later moved to a larger hospital.

• The Alfred Poffenberger Farm. This is also known as the Mary Locher Cabin. The dwelling house, a large Pennsylvania-style barn, root cellar and several outbuildings belonged to Mary Locher. After the Locher family moved to Lancaster, Pa., Alfred Poffenberger and family moved to the property.

On the morning of Sept. 17, 1862, the house was the setting for some of the worst carnage of the battle. The barn became an ambulance station, where surgeons and orderlies performed triage and first aid. 

• The Samuel Mumma Farm. Samuel and Elizabeth Mumma and their 10 children resided on this farmstead. As troops moved nearer to Sharpsburg, the Mummas fled the property.

Some of the first shots of the battle were fired from the high ground between the Mumma cemetery and Smoketown Road, a few hundred yards behind the house. Eventually, the house, barn, spring house and hog pen would be purposefully set ablaze by some North Carolinians, who feared the property would fall into the hands of the Federal army.

When the Mummas returned, nothing was left. The house was rebuilt on its original foundation.

• The William Roulette Farm. With the area swarming with soldiers, William and Margaret Roulette moved their family to Manor Church, 6 miles north, on Sunday, Sept. 14. On Wednesday, William Roulette returned to his farmstead, presumably to gather more supplies and check on livestock.

As the battle began around his property, he was caught between the lines and went to his cellar for safety. Following the fighting, the property was used to care for the wounded and dying.

• Henry Piper Farm. Constructed of logs, the simple house was home to Henry Piper and his wife, Betsy. Confederate Gens. James Longstreet and D.H. Hill chose the house to be their headquarters.

The Pipers stayed with extended family during the battle and returned home to find their house and barn intact. However, the gardens were destroyed and little food was left on the farm.

• Joseph Sherrick Farm. The residence of Joseph Sherrick and his family, Confederate troops of Brig. Gen. Robert Toombs’ brigade took up positions near the house on the morning before the battle and Confederate troops overlooked the house where Antietam National Cemetery is today. Although the scene of fighting, the property was left intact, but crops were destroyed and the dead of both armies covered the fields.

• John Ottto Farm. Scavenging soldiers appeared at the Otto house on Sept. 15. The next morning, the family left to find a safer place to wait out the battle. 

• Joshua Newcomer Farm. Today, only a house and barn remain of what was once a busy farmstead that included grist, saw and plaster mills.

On Sept. 15, Robert E. Lee and part of his army passed by the Newcomer property and established a defensive position overlooking the mill and the entire Newcomer farm.

• Joseph Park Farm. It is uncertain how much, if any, actual fighting took place on the property. Certain upper fields of the farm were traveled by troops engaged at Sunken Road. It is assumed that U.S. troops occupied the property on Sept. 16, since it was within Federal lines at the time. 

• Philip Pry Farm. By Sept. 15, the Keedysville Pike in front of the Pry house was filled with Confederate troops who were repositioned on the ridges west of Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg. The house became the headquarters of Gen. George McClellan, who used it until he relocated his headquarters after Sept. 19 to Sharpsburg. During the battle, the Pry farm was used as a hospital.

A book called “Antietam Farmsteads: A Guide to the Battlefield Landscape” is available at the park bookstore in the Visitor Center and can serve as a guide for visitors touring the battlefield. Each of the 11 farmsteads on the battlefield is spotlighted in the book, with a history of each property, the development of each farm and the part each played in the battle. 

There also are maps and historic photographs and modern-day photos that offer comparisons of then and now.

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