Antietam National Battlefield
Visiting Antietam National Battlefield
If you asked people what was the bloodiest single day in American history, they would guess D-Day, Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor. They would be wrong. On September 17, 1862 some 28,000 soldiers were killed or wounded near the banks of the Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg Maryland, making it the worst single day for the loss of American citizens ever. The battle itself was a tactical draw thanks to the incompetence of Union generals and a last minute epic charge by Stonewall Jackson's "foot cavalry", but ultimately it proved to be a major strategic loss for the South. The day had tremendous implications, not the least of which was giving Lincoln a reason to release his Emancipation Proclamation - an act that changed the course of the war and American history forever.
I spent a day at Antietam National Battlefield and found it to be one of the more powerful experiences of my life. I have provided a trip report on this visit to help you plan for your own pilgramage to this amazing place.
Antietam Battlefield and Sharpsburg Maryland:
Lodging in Sharpsburg - You will probably have to look outside of Sharpsburg for a place to stay. We found ourselves looking at hotels, cabins and B&Bs as far away as 30 miles. You'll find a good selection of hotel rooms starting in the $55/night range in the 30-mile span at hotels.com and Yahoo travel. Cabins and B&Bs seem to start in the $135/night range and go up from there. My wife made the decision on where we'd stay, and she picked a cabin in Middleton, MD - about 15 miles from Antietam and Sharpsburg.
The Log House - - My wife decided that she wanted to get away from the hotels for this trip, so she booked us at a small cabin in Middleton, MD.
The cabin she chose is called the Log House. It was built recently, but it stands on the foundation of a spring house that goes back to the 1820s. The spring still runs under the cabin’s back porch and you can see it from the back yard.
If you like deer you’ll love this place. On the drive in to the cabin, I bet we saw 15 deer wandering around the roads. Of course, that means you need to be careful when driving in this area, especially at night. But it was nice to be up to our ears in Bambis- they didn't seem frightened of the cars at all.
The Log House is just a stone's throw from the house of the owners Kate and John. Some people who want to get lost in the wilderness might be concerned about being that close to the owners' house, but we didn't find it a problem at all. The cabin offers plenty of privacy. If you sit on the porch, the cabin is between you and the house so it’s like it isn't even there.
The interior is nicely decorated throughout and the log walls provide a great rustic feel to the space. Being a relatively new structure, the cabin offers all the amenities of home. It has a stove, microwave, full size refrigerator, kitchen sinks and satellite TV. A large stone fireplace almost overwhelms the small living room; I can imagine enjoying that quite a bit in the winter months. The bathroom completes the downstairs area. While the bathroom is pretty small, the tub actually had plenty of room. I'm a big ol' hoss and I was able to maneuver easily in the bathroom, so you shouldn't have any trouble. The only door on the bathroom Isa folding slat door, so I hope you're, um, chummy with your travel partners. LOL
The upstairs area features two regular beds, a desk and a chair and table. Doors on opposite sides of the cabin allow a nice breeze to blow through in the early morning. The stairs were a bit of a challenge for me as they're very steep and narrow. If you have to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, be sure to turn on the lights!
Kate has included a ton of information about the surrounding area, including lists of restaurants and other places you might need. We chatted with her one evening and she was extremely helpful with suggestions on places in the local area. Both Kate and John were very friendly and welcoming; you’ll enjoy your communications with them, by email or in person.
The cabin is a bit tricky to find. We had maps from Mapquest and those weren't entirely accurate. . . we should have pulled the GPS out of the luggage and used it instead.
We found the Log House to be very comfortable and charming. This would be a fun place for a couple, a small family, or some friends who are traveling together. Older or handicapped people might find the stairs to be a problem so if you fall in those categories, look over my pictures to see how you feel about that. Otherwise, this is a really nice place to stay and we're happy to give it a big thumbs up.
We found the Log House through vrbo.com - click here to see the listing and get contact information.
Specific Locations on Antietam Battlefield:
Dunker Church - Also called the Dunked Church. The building is open for you to go inside. I liked that. View Dunker Church photos .
The Cornfield (and West, North and East Woods) - Wow, what a moving place to visit. Even more so if you go out into the Cornfield and walk through it yourself. As you view the Cornfield, you have to remember a few things. These fields are still used for planting crops and the crops are necessarily rotated from year to year. Also, many of the wooded areas from 1862 have been largely cleared. So . . . as of July 2009, if you enter what was the North Woods (where the Union attack started) you're actually walking into a cornfield. Not THE Cornfield, but A cornfield. Much of this cornfield was an empty field in 1862 - I'll call it the Open Field. You follow the path around The Open Field area (which is currently a cornfield) and come to the corner, a fence between this and The Cornfield. The Cornfield isn’t a cornfield now - I don't know what it's planted with, if anything. Fortunately, the East Woods and much of the West Woods are still intact and a replanting project in the East Woods is now underway.
You just have to remember that The Cornfield isn’t a cornfield, and the cornfield isn't The Cornfield. Or . . . the cornfield is actually The Open Field and the open field is actually The Cornfield. Get it? LOL Follow the podcast walking tour and you'll understand. See comments below on podcast walking tours.
I make light of the situation, but this part of the battlefield is incredibly moving. Walk this area with reverence for the courage and sacrifice that covered this area with the wounded and dead, Union and Confederate alike. View The Cornfield photos .
Sunken Lane (Bloody Lane) and the Hillside - For me, this is a very powerful part of the battlefield. Here is a tip to gain a unique perspective on this location . . . When you go, be sure to walk up the Sunken Lane to the 132nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Monument (the tall, white statue of a flag-bearer in the lane), where you will find an opening in the fence. Walk through the opening into the field, and go all the way up the hill to the crest of the hill. Then turn around and look back at Sunken Lane. Imagine that gully filled with hundreds of Confederate soldiers, well protected by the depth of the lane and the fence, shooting volley after volley into your exposed ranks. This is what greeted the Union soldiers as they came over the crest of the hill. If you actually go into the field and view the lane, you really can see why this was the site of such horrible devastation, particularly for the first Union soldiers who came over the hill and were caught unaware. This is a view that few tourists actually make the effort to see and it's important. View Sunken Lane (Bloody Lane) photos .
Observation Tower by Sunken Lane - Once you have walked through Bloody Lane, walk up to the Observation Tower and turn around. Look down the lane. Imagine you're a Union soldier. The sunken lane that protected the Confederate soldiers from a frontal attack becomes their trap from this angle. Hundreds were killed or wounded in the lane from where you're standing, as well as from the waves of attacks from the front. This gives you a sense as to how the Sunken Lane earned the new name Bloody Lane; it is a very powerful place to stand on the battlefield.
In his book Civil War Battlefields, Jeff Shaara said that he didn’t really like observation towers on battlefields, but he did like the one at Antietam because it gave you a good look at the terrain, which played such a crucial role in the battle. I agree with him completely. The tower itself provides a tremendous view of the battlefield. Helpful signs point out specific points on the battlefields you can easily find what you're looking for. It's worth the 69 steps up to the top (see the picture to the right).
Miller Farm, J. Poffenberger Farm, Mumma Farm, Sherrick Farm, Otto Farm - None of these are open to the public . . . just something to walk or drive by as you go through the park. The Mumma Farm is private property.
National Cemetery - When you look at all the tombstones in this cemetery and remember that the Cornfield was covered with this many dead and wounded after a couple hours' fighting, it really drives home the magnitude of the battle. The large statue in the center is dramatic as well. View National Cemetery in Antietam photos .
Burnside’s Bridge - The Auto Tour has you park on top of the hillside along the west edge of Antietam Creek to visit Burnside's Bridge. Part way down the hill are some informational plaques. What you'll also discover from this vantage point us that you can't see the bridge well at all. The trees have grown too tall and thick, as you can see in the picture to the right. If you walk north from the plaques along the hillside (to your left as you face the bridge) for a hundred feet or so, you have a much better view of the bridge. So did the Georgian sharpshooters, incidentally. Be careful as you make your way to this vantage point - you could easily lose your balance and tumble down this very steep hill. When you're done, you can then walk back to the plaques and follow the path down to Burnside Bridge.
I found the better photo opportunities for Burnside's Bridge were in the morning (mid- to late morning preferable), both because of the direction of light and the volume of other tourists. My wife enjoyed taking pictures of the ducks around the bridge in the morning.
Hiking back up to the car is pretty steep. Along the road leading up to the auto stop, you passed a few handicapped parking spots that offered a no-hill path to Burnside Bridge. If you struggle with walking up hills, park near the handicapped spaces alongside the road and you can get to the bridge very easily. Any photographer should approach the bridge along the path from the handicapped spots - this perspective is the best, least obstructed ground-level view of Burnside's Bridge you'll find. View Burnside’s Bridge photos .
Visitor Center - Antietam's visitor center is so much smaller than the one at Gettysburg. Given the significance of this battlefield, you'd think a more substantial facility would be justified. Basically the center consists of a small lobby where park rangers answer questions, a gift shop, bathrooms and a movie room that seats (unfairly uncomfortable chairs) about 100, I'd guess. Down the stairs is a one-room display of a few artifacts and mural paintings. Upstairs is an observation deck. That’s it!
The Park shows two different films in the Visitor Center. "Antietam Visit," is shown on the hour and the half hour, except at noon. This film is more about Lincoln's visit following the battle, and wasn't really worth the time to me. Every day at 12:00 noon a one-hour documentary about the battle of Antietam narrated by James Earl Jones is shown in the visitor center theater. This is better quality and gives more information about the battle. If I had to choose between enough time on the battlefield or going to this film, I'd definitely give up the film. If you've got the time, however, it's worth watching.
The visitor center doesn't do this battlefield justice.
Other Antietam Battlefield / Sharpsburg Comments:
General Observations about Antietam Battlefield:
- I really appreciated how accessible the park is. Other than the various farm houses and areas where trees are planted, I can't think of any place on the battlefield where we couldn't go.
- Unlike Gettysburg, you can drive around Antietam Battlefield before the visitor center opens. Antietam Battlefield doesn't close.
- The cost to use Antietam National Military Park is $4 for an individual, $6 for a family, for three days. I don't know how they can enforce this fee. It's really more on the honor system than anything else. $6 is nothing for your experience here. Be sure to support the park.
Photography on Antietam Battlefield - You will love the freedom you have to shoot pictures at Antietam. Other than sticking your lenses into the windows of private property on the battlefield (like Mumma's Farm) or in the visitor center's movie theater (and why would you?) you can take pictures anywhere. As I said above, you are not restricted to the footpaths. You can get up into the fields and woods to get different perspectives.
Split Rail Fences - I'm not a religious person, but when I saw the lines of split rail fences running across the battlefield (see the picture to the right), my first thought was of Christ's thorny crown. Given the pain, violence and terrible loss that took place around these fences, I can't help but think there's a metaphor somewhere in that.
Auto Tour Around Antietam Battlefield - We spent$20 on the lower-priced auto tour kit at the visitor center. (For $39 you can get a fancier version that includes a DVD with pictures, maps, etc.) This was a great purchase. The auto tour works very well for Antietam. The battle itself happened in three phases, moving from north to south, and the tour runs that route. This is a good way to start your visit to Antietam, giving yourself a solid overview of the park. Allow a couple hours for the auto tour.
Podcast Walking Tours - We did the Cornfield Walking Tour Podcast, which we downloaded from civilwartraveler.com.Before we left, we downloaded the MP3 file into ITunes and onto my IPod, and printed off the accompanying PDF map. Then, when we got to the Cornfield we just followed the stations on the map and listened to the tour guide explain the battle on the IPod. Walking from station to station is simple, because the park service keeps the path mowed close to the ground so you don't have to worry about going the wrong way. (You do have to watch out for animal burrows, even on the mowed path. There are dozens of them, some hidden under the grass.)
The walking tour was fantastic. Standing there, listening to the guide describe what happened from the spot where you're standing made it come to life. You have so much better understanding of exactly what took place at the location.
The Cornfield tour is 1.6 miles. There are two more tours for Antietam - Burnside's Bridge and the Final Battle. Inexplicably there is no walking tour for Sunken Lane. The Burnside Bridge tour didn’t seem as interesting to us, and after doing the Cornfield tour, going up the observation tour and climbing up the hill from the bridge to the parking area, we decided the Final Battle was further than we wanted to walk. LOL If we go back, we will walk that tour, however. I think any of the tours are worth the effort.
Licensed Battlefield Guide at Antietam Battlefield - We would have loved to hire a licensed guide to take us around Antietam but it just didn't fit into our budget. The typical price is around $70 for 2.5 hours, with an expected tip (probably $15-$30). We used a guide at Gettysburg and loved it, so the services well worth the price. We just didn't have the bucks on this trip. If you DO have an extra $100 in your budget, reserve a licensed battlefield guide at antietambattlefieldguides.com and you'll get a LOT from your 2.5 hours.
Park Rangers - The Park Service should send the rangers at Arlington National Cemetery to Antietam, Harpers Ferry or Gettysburg for customer service training. All the rangers on this trip were very friendly and helpful, and added to our trip.
Find the Inverted Cannon - Around Antietam Battlefield, you will find six turquoise cannon, standing on end with black plaques on their sides (one is pictured to the right). These cannon mark the spots where six general officers were mortally wounded during the battle. We found five of the six during our visit. I'm not one to make a game of any aspect of a visit to a place like this, but I think these cannon can be used to get your kids more engaged in their visit. If they know to look for something specific like the six cannon, I think they will pay more attention, participate more and better enjoy in their visit.
Gnats, Ticks and Critter Holes - I have never experienced so many gnats as I did at Antietam. All over the battlefield they were swarming, in your nose, your eyes, your mouth. They were just terrible. We were choking on them, sneezing them out our noses and swatting them from our faces almost constantly. If we ever go back to Antietam during the summer, I will take one of those white masks, that's no exaggeration. I don't know if anyone makes spray to repel gnats, but if they do you’ll want to take some with you.
We read on the Park Service's website that ticks are a common problem in this area. The website was correct. My wife saw two of them crawling on her leg and her notebook, and I got one of them stuck in my scalp. We didn't even go into any wooded area, so I don't know how the tick made it to my hair. If you go here, watch out for ticks.
The third animal-related warning is the most serious. There are dozens and dozens of animal burrows around the park. I don't know if they're badgers or skunks or gophers . . . whatever they were, the holes were very large. You have to watch carefully for these holes, even on the mowed paths of the walking tours. You can see just one of the animal burrows in the picture to the right. These holes area real walking risk. If you step in one, you very easily could sprain or break your ankle.
The Pry House - This was General McClellen's field headquarters for the battle of Antietam and was used as a field hospital after the battle. The Civil War Medical Organization has set up a museum in the Pry House. As of now, I'd probably suggest passing on this museum unless you just have time to kill. The displays are very limited and you can't take pictures. You'll spend more time driving to this house than you will viewing the exhibits. If they can expand this to a more significant museum it would be worth the effort. The civil war operating room they have set up here is pretty cool.
Ghosts - Gettysburg is considered one of the most haunted places in America, but Antietam also has its share of ghost stories.
I don't know where you stand on the question of whether or not ghosts exist. I try to approach this subject from a totally objective perspective. I don't immediately leap to accepting ghosts as real, nor do I dismiss the possibility. I simply accept the evidence as it comes to me, dismiss those events that can be explained by normal reasons, and wonder about what is left. You can make your own decisions. If you dismiss the possibility of ghosts, you can enjoy your Civil War experience without them. (If they'll let you MWHAHAHAHAHHAAAAA!!!) If you are open to the possibility, this adds a whole dimension to your visit there.
Visit our Antietam Ghosts page for more information about our experiences with ghosts in Antietam.
Sharpsburg - The town leadership for Sharpsburg needs to send a working group up to Gettysburg. Sharpsburg has virtually no facilities for tourists that I could find. Few restaurants and hotels, no souvenir shops or other businesses that cater to tourists. As soon as you left the battlefield, there was almost no sign that the park was close by. We had to struggle to find a restaurant there other than the bar and grill places we saw here and there.
Maybe they don't want to be a tourist town. I just know they're throwing away tons of money. Tourists come to places like Antietam with money in their pockets, looking for gift shops and photo studios and tour groups and restaurants and snack shops. We did - and we left with most of the money still in our pockets.
We really couldn't find restaurants of note in Sharpsburg. We saw some bar and grill places along the main road, but those didn't look appealing and we didn't see a lot of parking around them. I'm sure the town has a variety of restaurants, but they do a really poor job of promoting town businesses to tourists. As a result, we only have one food place to review here. Our remaining meals were found near our cabin - the owner of the cabin provides a list of restaurants and can offer feedback on their respective merits if you stay there. If you don't, it's very unlikely you'd be going to the restaurants we visited - all that's to say, I’m not writing up the Middleton restaurants here.
The only food place I'll describe is a convenience store / deli near the visitor center, and I only list it here to steer you away from it.
BattleviewMarket / Deli - - 5331 Sharpsburg Pike, Sharpsburg MD.
A park ranger pointed us to the Battleview Market as a place to get sandwiches. It looked like a million other convenience stores you find around the country, but it did have a fairly extensive deli inside. A rather sour-tempered woman manned the cash register, griping constantly at the other employees and showing no sense of humor or personality to any customers other than her "regulars." (I quipped to my wife that maybe Battleview Market should be called "Battle Axe Market" in honor of the boss lady.)In spite of this we decided to order our meals.
My wife ordered a club sandwich, untoasted bread. I got adventurous and ordered spaghetti, with meatballs and ranch dressing on the salad. With sodas that came to $19. I think the price may have been the only thing they got right. My wife's bread was toasted. I got no meatballs and the salad had no dressing whatsoever. The spaghetti was cold with a small pond of water had collected on one side of the plate . . . where the cold garlic bread had been placed, apparently to sop the water up.
Bear in mind that we were asked about each of the options - do you want your bread toasted? Do you want meat balls? What kind of dressing on your salad? We didn’t just come up with these requests on our own.
We enjoyed this luscious fare while sitting on unforgiving plastic booth seats near the doors. Actually, the spaghetti probably would have been pretty good if it had actually been warm and my wife said her sandwich was very good in spite of them not following her instructions.
For sandwiches, this might be a decent place. You can order your sandwiches and take them elsewhere, avoiding the incapable kitchen, the crabbiness and QuickieMart ambiance. Otherwise, I have to give this place a thumbs down. There isn’t much else to choose from for eating places near the battlefield, but based on our experience here I'd encourage you to go elsewhere.
Civil War Trip Reports
Civil War trip report (general notes) - Many of our observations applied to more than one battlefield or to the trip in general. This was particularly true with regards to planning and booking the trip and the items we brought with us on our vacation. Rather than duplicate those comments in the Antietam, Harpers Ferry and Gettysburg trip reports, I've included a separate page for these general comments here.
Antietam National Military Park trip report - We spent one and a half days touring Antietam National Military Park. Read this trip report to learn about our cabin, a great restaurant . . . to avoid, suggestions for improving your visit, and much more.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park trip report - We visited Harpers Ferry National Historical Park for a half day. While we weren't there for too long, we still had a good time and identified several tips and observations that might help you as you plan for your vacation.
Gettysburg National Military Park trip report - We made two trips to Gettysburg. The first was an overnight stay as part of our June 2009 vacation to Washington DC with our two 16 year-old boys. We all loved it there and when we got home, my wife and I planned a second trip for the two of us in July 2009. We devoted a great deal of time to the Gettysburg battlefield and came up with several tips and suggestions that should help you save time, money and mix-ups on your vacation.
Vicksburg National Military Park trip report - We spent a fast two days in Vicksburg to travel the battlefield in March, 2010. We spent a great deal of time traveling around the battlefield, and stayed overnight in Vicksburg. Good tip for a hotel, not so good experiences with restaurants unfortunately. But you can learn from our mistakes.
Living Civil War History - Civil War Reenactment in Jefferson, Texas - In May, 2010 we traveled to Living Civil War History a civil war reenactment in Jefferson, Texas. This trip report describes the event and provides reviews of two restaurants you don't want to miss.
Texas Civil War Museum - Fort Worth Texas - We have driven past this facility literally hundreds of times - it is within 10 miles of our house. Every time we see it, one of us will say to the other, "We need to check that place out - is it open?" Well, we finally broke down and went for a visit on February 27, 2010. Yes, it is open. We were pleasantly surprised at how nice it was inside too! Check out the trip report from the Texas Civil War Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
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