Reliving the Battle of Antietam

Thousands of re-enactors brought two major skirmishes, Dunker Church and Sunken Road, to life Saturday during the 150th Battle of Antietam commemoration.

September 15, 2012|By C.J. LOVELACE |
  • Union soldiers walk past crowd gathered to see Saturday's re-enactment of Bloody Lane.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

Thousands of people took up positions next to the rolling farm fields of Legacy Manor Farm off Bakersville Road on Saturday, waiting for history to come alive in the form of two crucial engagements to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, still known as the single bloodiest day of battle on American soil.

Grandstands were packed and people set up chairs or sat on the ground to see the re-creation of major skirmishes at Dunker Church and Sunken Road, which took place during the 12-hour battle — also called the Battle of Sharpsburg in the south — on Sept. 17, 1862.

“In terms of the nation, it was a tragedy because the war would continue for two more very bloody years,” said Union re-enactor Terrance McGowan, who played the role of major general of staff. “And it could’ve ended right here.”

Just before Antietam, which devastated both armies and resulted in about 3,500 men killed out of 23,000 total casualties, three Union soldiers somehow came across three cigars rolled in a piece of paper that turned out to be Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s battle plans “right down to the smallest detail,” McGowan said.

The plan made its way up the chain of command to Union Gen. George B. McClellan, who used the information to the North’s advantage against the Confederates’ initial charge into Maryland, he said.

“He should’ve ended the war right here,” McGowan said of McClellan. “He outnumbered Lee 4-to-1. He reacted faster than Lee expected because he had his battle plan.”

The short-handed Confederates, both in numbers and resources, had planned to invade Maryland in an attempt to recruit new soldiers and storm toward Washington, D.C., but that went sour quickly as the small town of Sharpsburg became a war zone beyond imagination.

Dunker Church

Fighting on that fateful day started at dawn along the Hagerstown Turnpike before a clash for the strategic location of Dunker Church took place about midmorning.

A makeshift church was set up on the field at Legacy Manor as forces from both sides battled in the morning re-enactment that started about 10 a.m.

Using Lee’s battle plans, Union forces were able to push the Confederates back into a roadway that ran through a depression in the middle of the field. It later became known as the Sunken Road.

“It was terrible fighting, terrible,” Confederate re-enactor William O’Donnell said. “And them Yanks drove us back over. We come up here by Dunker Church about 9:30 this morning and we met them there again.”

O’Donnell, who was heavily entrenched in his character before he revealed himself as Ed Reiter of Raleigh, N.C., said the Union’s artillery fire and sheer numbers drove the southern forces backwards during the ambush.

“They just kept coming,” he said. “There was so many of them I could barely even begin to count the number of companies, let alone how many of them there were.”

Smoke produced from musket and cannon fire, which could be heard from miles away, wafted over the field before the first re-creation wrapped up around noon.

Sunken Road

With numbers and higher ground on its side, Union re-enactors continued their planned onslaught during the day’s second conflict that started at 3 p.m. along the Sunken Road, which is now known as “Bloody Lane” for the death and carnage it left behind.

Bodies from both sides were left littered about the field, especially along the Sunken Road where the South took up its defensive position to try to hold off charging Union forces.

“Because of the bloody nature of it, it was said after the battle that we could walk down Bloody Lane and never touch the ground with your feet,” said Confederate re-enactor Bob Flaniken of Daytona Beach, Fla. “There were so many bodies there.”

Union forces, which continued to batter the Confederates with cannon fire and wave after wave of reinforcements, were able to outflank the South, ultimately overtaking their position and forcing the Confederates to retreat.

Nearly 50 percent of Confederate forces were reduced to casualties in only about three hours of battle at the Sunken Road in 1862.

“Antietam being the bloody battle that it was, it kind of let people know that this wasn’t going to be a quick affair (or) a bloodless affair,” Flaniken said. “It was going to be mean and nasty and everybody was going to be hurt in one way or the other.”

After forcing the Confederacy back, McClellan stood his ground and Lee ordered his men to retreat back across the Potomac River to the safety of Virginia.

Saturday’s re-enactment activities finished up around 2:45 p.m.

Two more battles will take place Sunday, with one at 11 a.m. and another at 2 p.m., featuring a live mortar fire demonstration.

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