Visitors reflect on the day, 150 years ago, wagon road at Antietam earned name Bloody Lane

September 15, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • A very large group walks the Antietam National Battlefield near the Cornfield on Saturday.
By Yvette May/Staff Photographer

SHARPSBURG, Md. — It is little more than a long, narrow depression in the ground — an old sunken wagon road that has been smoothed and altered by time.

Lined with hand-split fences, it blends in with most of the rural land that surrounds it.

But a century and a half ago, it was filled with bodies two and three deep, earning the name Bloody Lane.

There was hardly a moment on Saturday when a person was not standing near that depression trying to imagine what it must have been like on Sept. 17, 1862,  when more than 2,000 Confederate soldiers waited there for the advance of the Union army.

Alone with their thoughts, people tried to imagine the fear and the bitter fighting that raged for nearly four hours.

And they reflected on the carnage.

“Survivors of the battle reported that a person could walk along the road without ever touching the ground,” said Joseph Adams of Charlotte, N.C. “We are standing in the same spot where, all those years ago, blood turned the earth red. It’s an incredibly somber experience.”

On the 150th anniversary weekend of the bloodiest single day in American history, Adams was among the thousands of people from across the United States and beyond who descended on Antietam to ponder the lessons of a war that ripped a nation apart.

Mike Litterst, public affairs specialist with the National Park Service, estimated that throughout the four-day observance, as many as 200,000 visitors will tour the battlefield, re-enactment site and historic Sharpsburg.

Activities at Antietam on Saturday alone were expected to draw more than 30,000 people, he said.

“The weather is absolutely glorious. We couldn’t have scripted this any better,” he said. “It’s not hot. It’s not raining. So that should really bring out a big crowd.”

Litterst said Antietam organizers had anticipated a big crowd on Saturday, “but when 100 people showed up at 9 a.m. for the first program — a walking tour of the cornfield — we had an inkling that this would be a very busy day.”

While many visitors to Antietam were serious Civil War buffs, organizers said there also were families and students who were interested in learning more about Antietam.

Case in point was the Cofflins from the Washington, D.C., area.

“We live within a short drive, but have never visited the battlefield,” Sarah Cofflin said. “We know a little about Antietam, but with this important anniversary, we thought it would be a great time to brush up on our history.”

Cofflin was accompanied by her husband, Dave, and their two twin children, Michael and Meredith, 14.

“We could have gone to the re-enactment site, but we wanted to experience the battlefield — the actual place where it all happened,” she said. “I’m glad we did. It’s been a real education.”

Park Ranger John Rudy, who was providing information at Dunker Church, said there had been “a good crowd of people all day. It’s wonderful that’s there so much interest.”

Rudy said he normally works in the training center at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., “but today, I had this opportunity to get from behind a desk and come here to talk to the public.”

Among the topics he shared with visitors was some background on the Dunkers, who, as pacifists, he said, “were sitting in their church the night before the Battle of Antietam, aware that fighting was taking place at nearby South Mountain and knew what was looming on the horizon.”

“They were feeling tension and fear, and that’s what I try to help visitors feel — that fear, that tension,” he said. “It’s like providing a time machine.”

Rudy said shuttle buses provided transportation between Antietam, Sharpsburg and the re-enactment site off Bakersville Road, “so there’s always a new group of visitors coming through. Even if you don’t know the significance of Dunker Church, it’s a very prominent structure that’s easily spotted on the battlefield and draws a crowd.”

Park officials said Saturday’s events included something for everyone and ranged from walking tours and weapon-firing demonstrations to author lectures and book signings to living-history programs.

“Despite backups on the roads earlier in the morning, everything at Antietam is going smoothly,” Litterst said. “It’s been a great day."

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