History and agriculture come together at Antietam National Battlefield

September 17, 2012

One-hundred-and-fifty years ago Monday, this county was the scene of the bloodiest single day of the Civil War or the War of Northern Aggression.

If you are a frequent reader of this column, then you know I am almost as passionate about history as I am about agriculture.

As we look back, “The 1860 agricultural census of Washington County portrays pre-war Sharpsburg as a district of prime land, crops, and animal husbandry (the raising of livestock). Typically, wheat, Indian corn, hay, rye oats and Irish potatoes were the crops raised.

Individual farms produced hundreds of pounds of butter, as well as some wool and honey. Many farms maintained wood lots to provide lumber, cord wood and fence posts.

Apple orchards were common and the fruit, wine and jams produced were used by the farm household or sold locally.”

— Historic Structures Report-Samuel Mumma House, 1999.

One of the things I especially like about Civil War history is all of the little twists. Maryland was a divided state, bordered by Union Pennsylvania and Confederate Virginia.

Men from Maryland fought for both sides.

The institution of slavery was practiced in Maryland. In fact, several families in and around Sharpsburg owned slaves.

The Battle of Antietam directly resulted in President Lincoln’s issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. However, the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in states rebelling against the Union. Those enslaved in Maryland would not be freed until the Maryland State Constitution was rewritten in 1864 to abolish slavery.

On Sept. 17, 1862, Gen.George McClellan’s Union forces first slammed into the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee in Daniel Miller’s cornfield, which would become known to history as The Cornfield. This was the same Robert E. Lee who not even three years earlier captured a rogue named John Brown in a firehouse in Harpers Ferry.

At 6 a.m., Union forces under the command of Brig. Gen. Abram Duryee entered Miller’s cornfield.
Although unseen, they were betrayed by the glint of sunlight off their bayonets in the rows of corn. As the brigade came to the southern edge of the cornfield and a low fence, Georgians under the command of Col. Marcellus Douglass rose up from the ground south of the cornfield and unleashed a deadly volley into Duryee’s ranks. 

For the next several minutes, both sides stood in the open and poured lead into each other.

Sixty percent of Duryee’s unit was lost in 30 minutes and later an eyewitness commented that “the cornfield looked as cleanly cut as if done with a scythe, and the dead lay in the field in their exact lines.”

Miller was not the only farmer to suffer a loss.

Neighbors like the Mummas lost not only their crops but their house and buildings. The only building to survive was their stone spring house.

The Confederates, fearing the Union forces would put sharpshooters in the buildings, burned them to the ground to prevent such a strategic advantage.

As you look at the many maps of the battlefield, you will see many an agricultural landmark — the Roulette farm, Poffenberger farm, Piper farm, Sherrick farm, Otto farm, and many more. These houses, barns and buildings were used as headquarters, and after the battle, as hospitals.

It took decades for the area to recover. Many families never did since they were either not reimbursed or only partially reimbursed for their loss. As an example, the Mumma family was not paid for their loss since the fire was set by the Confederates and the federal government felt no obligation.

So if you get a chance, visit Antietam National Battlefield, where history and agriculture come together today as they did 150 years ago.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at


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