Get off Interstate 70 outside of Frederick, Maryland, and take Alternate Route 40 toward Boonsboro and you will eventually pass through Turner’s Gap in South Mountain. It’s one of the three mountain passes where, on Sept. 14, 1862, Confederate troops tried to prevent Gen. George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac from challenging Gen. Robert E. Lee’s first thrust into northern territory. The target: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
The Battle of South Mountain, as the three failed Confederate holding actions that left 6,000 casualties are called, was the bloody prelude to the bloodiest single day of the Civil War at Antietam three days later.
A short side trip into Washington Monument State Park offers not only a chance to see the first monument built to our first president, erected on July 4, 1827, by the citizens of Boonsboro out of native blue granite, but also an opportunity to hike a bit of the Appalachian Trail that passes across the mountain. Climbing the dark stairway up the rebuilt 34-foot tower you may be lucky enough, as I was on July 3, to find Adam Taylor on guitar and Elizabeth Lademan on violin playing the theme song to Ken Burns’ classic Civil War documentary. The tower offers a view of the green valleys below, and served as a signal tower in the war, with
Antietam’s Grisly Legacy
All this is mere preface to the experience at Antietam National Battlefield six miles away. On Sept. 17, 1862, the tally of killed and wounded totaled 23,000 as 85,000 Union troops confronted Lee’s badly outnumbered 40,000. When photographer Alexander Gardner arrived from Washington two days later, he produced the first photographs of the body-piled-on-body carnage before the dead were buried, some of the images taken just 100 yards from the small museum where they are displayed.
Huge enlargements of these photos dominate the visitor center off of Route 65, a good place to start your visit to the battlefield, where a series of actions, not a single fight, took place. Some Antietam volunteers recommend signing up for one of the two-and-a-half-hour tours with commentary, but I found the well-produced hour-long film shown at noon everyday an excellent orientation, combining both context from historians and well-staged re-enactments with historical photos.
From the visitor center you can walk, drive, or hike to sites such as the reconstructed simple Dunker church. The original church, home to pacifist German Baptists, was pounded by cannon, but the day after the battle it was the scene of a remarkably civil exchange of prisoners and wounded.
Don’t neglect a climb up the observation tower at the end of the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane) that gives a panoramic view of the battle sites. Many of today’s fields are still planted in the high corn that sheltered and obstructed both sides in 1862. If you’re lucky enough to find a volunteer guide stationed at the top, ask to have the gaps in South Mountain pointed out.
The visitor center was fairly crowded on the Friday before the Fourth. “You picked a good day to come,” a ranger told us as we looked down the grassy knoll at the stage set up for the free holiday concert by the Maryland Symphony. “There’ll be 30,000 people here tomorrow.”
For More Information
Antietam Battlefield: 301-432-5124, www.nps.gov/ANTI
Pry House Hospital Museum: 301-416-2395, www.civilwarmed.org
Listen to the Action
Free podcast audio tours of the Antietam battlefield and John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry are now online at www.CivilWarTraveler.com.
The Antietam podcast, the third in a series featuring that battlefield, explores the final Union assault on Sept. 17, 1862, and Gen. A. P. Hill’s counterattack that saved the Confederates from even greater losses. National Park Service historian Keith Snyder narrates the nine-stop walking tour.
The John Brown’s Raid tour, seven stops narrated by Harpers Ferry National Historical Park chief historian Dennis Frye, covers sites associated with the October, 1859, event that many believe was the opening act in what became the Civil War.
“Keith leads visitors to one of the least explored yet most important parts of the Antietam battlefield. He lets the soldiers’ own words tell the story of the end of that bloody day,” says Don Pierce, CivilWarTraveler.com editor. “Dennis puts us in the shoes of Brown’s raiders at Harpers Ferry and takes us step by dramatic step through that pivotal event.”
Visitors to the website may listen to the tours on their computers and/or download them onto an iPod or other mp3 device for use while touring the sites.