Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Hike at Antietam

For those of you who don't know, I am getting married in one month. This past weekend my best man arranged a "bachelor party" of sorts, though certainly not a typical one. The full schedule included camping near Hagerstown, Maryland, hiking on the Antietam Battlefield, and a trip to a minor league baseball game. It was perfect.

I last visited Antietam in the spring of 2008. The battlefield is in a wonderful state of preservation, and it provides several contrasts to Gettysburg. You won't find the same the commercial development in the town of Sharpsburg that you see at Gettysburg, and the veterans left far fewer monuments on the field. Antietam is smaller battlefield too, and I love the various hiking trails that the National Park Service has developed. There are many places for you to get off the beaten path at Gettysburg - The trail to Willoughby Run, the path at the Slyder Farm, the Weikert farm lane, Pickett's Charge, and the old trolly line are some of my favorites - but I am not aware of anything that approaches the comprehensive trail system, complete with self-guided walking tours, that exists at Antietam.

Not a sight you see every day. As we hiked past the Dunker Church,
we ran into the mascot of the Hagerstown Suns, cheering
on runners at the nearby finish line. Photo by Ryan Stauffer.
We arrived at the Visitor Center at 9 a.m. on Saturday. While my best man handled other arrangements for this weekend, our battlefield itinerary was left to my discretion. We had six in our group, and all but one of us had toured the field before. The forecast threatened rain, but we were determined to tour the field on foot - in my opinion the only way to get a grasp of the terrain features of a battlefield. We browsed the exhibits briefly, and spent some time orienting ourselves outside on the high ground around the Visitor Center. We then drove up and parked a car at the North Woods tour stop, dodging the rear elements of a 5K taking place on the battlefield that morning. Once we arrived at the North Woods, we began our first hike - the Bloody Cornfield.

I had come prepared with a few resources to help our understanding. In advance I had printed out all of the hiking trail guides offered on the NPS website. Each of the trails have multiple interpretive stops, marked by posts. The trail guides provide very brief descriptions of the action at each stop. In addition to this, I had downloaded the Civil War Trust's Antietam Battlefield App. The Trust has developed several of these apps, all of them very impressive. They provide multiple guided walking and driving tours of each battlefield, complete with interpretive text and videos. They are also GPS enabled, so that you can locate yourself on a map. Finally, the apps feature augmented reality "field glasses" that you can use to scan the field through your camera lens and view labeled landmarks and terrain features. The Antietam app's tours did not always match up with the hiking trails, but frequently there was a great deal of cross-over. In addition to these resources, I also packed William Frassanito's study of Antietam photography, and a mini-tour booklet put together by Antietam historian John Michael Priest.

The monument to the 15th Massachusetts
We followed the hiking trail south to Miller's Cornfield, and considered the back-and-forth fight that ruptured the chilly early-morning air on September 17th, 1862. Then, we picked up the West Woods hiking trail that begins by the Dunker Church. This is a trail I've never explored before. It takes you to the Philadelphia Brigade monument, and then loops around into the West Woods, allowing you to explore the terrain crossed by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick's 5,000 man division. The path emerges into the open at the western end of the woods near the 15th Massachusetts monument - the unit that suffered the most casualties in the battle - and then it reenters the West Woods and winds down to the monuments to the 34th New York and 125th Pennsylvania (a 12th Corps unit). These two regiments held the left flank of Union forces in the West Woods when they were struck by a devastating Confederate counterattack that would eventually rout Sedgwick's entire command. Walking through this terrain, I observed many hallows and ravines in the woods, and came to understand how confusing a place this must have been for Sedgwick's men. The division was stacked up in a column of brigades when it was struck on its flank and rear, and the smoke of battle that filling the wooded ravines must have made it very difficult for officers and men to understand what had happened.

After a brief lunch at the Red Byrd - a restaurant on the Boonsboro Pike that  I would highly recommend - we returned to the Visitor Center and headed out on the Bloody Lane hiking trail. This pathway had overgrown a bit, suggesting that it sees seldom use - but it is an excellent way to understand the fight for the Bloody Lane from the perspective of the troops in the federal divisions of William H. French and Israel Richardson. The trail leads out from the Visitor Center to the the Mumma and Roulette Farms. The trail guide provides information on these two families and the fate they suffered during and after the battle. The pathway then curls around the Roulette Farm, and picks up the line of march for French's division as it crested a rise sixty yards in front of the Sunken Road. It was on this rise that French's men first met with withering volleys of musketry from the Rebel forces firing behind fence rails in the lane. For two and a half hours, the Confederate forces in the lane held the 2nd Corps at bay and protected the main approach to Sharpsburg. Meanwhile, just across the Middle Bridge McClellan refused to commit his reserves to the engagement. The Confederate position finally collapsed at about 1 p.m., but Richardson and French's divisions could push on no further.

A view of the Bloody Lane. This photo was taken in 2004. Unfortunately the weather on my recent trip was not so nice.

After a brief jaunt up the Bloody Lane observation tower, we returned to our vehicles at the Visitor Center, and drove down to Burnside Bridge. By now, light rain had set in. We visited the bridge and then considered the weather before we headed out on the Final Attack trail. We decided to give it a go. Unfortunately the rain increased as we got out on the trail, and at some points it became a steady downpour. We were mostly prepared with rain gear though, and we pressed on.

The Final Attack trail is one of my favorite Civil War hikes. This 1.7 mile loop covers Burnside's final attack toward Sharpsburg on the afternoon of September 17th, and A.P. Hill's successful counterattack. The hike takes you across the farm owned by John Otto during the battle. This farm remained in private hands until the Park acquired it in 2003. Today, it is easy for battlefield tourists to overlook the significance of fighting on this farm. The dramatic storming of the bridge across the Antietam attracts more interest. If you do make it out on the trail, you can visit several monuments that you cannot access from any tour road. You will also reach some of the best vantage points for obtaining panoramic views of the Antietam landscape.

Many battlefield tourists end their trip on the southern end of the battlefield here at the Burnside Bridge. But the
Park Service has developed a great hiking trail that follows the 9th Corps's advance well beyond the bridge
to the very edge of Sharpsburg.

The pathway heads west from the Burnside Bridge parking lot, and connects to the Otto Farm lane. The terrain the 9th Corps faced as it drove toward Sharpsburg was daunting. The undulating landscape gradually rises from the valley cut by the Antietam to the highest point held by D.R. Jones' Confederate division near Sharpsburg. Once the Otto farm lane is reached, the trail turns south and loops down beyond the 9th Corps flank to the southern boundary of the Antietam Battlefield, and the site where A.P. Hill's soldiers arrived that evening. Here you stand in what is known as the 40-acre cornfield, and you overlook a gully. Rookie soldiers of the 16th Connecticut and 4th Rhode Island were driven into this gully by Hill's advancing men. The landscape here reveals what a terrible ordeal these soldiers must have suffered through.

The Final Assault trail ended our hike at Antietam. We didn't have time to check out several other trails on the battlefield. A devoted hiker can actually explore the entire field on foot while rarely running into the auto tour routes. Most of the trails link up together rather easily, and the park's Three Farms trail actually connects its northern trail network (the Bloody Cornfield trail, the West Woods trail, and the Bloody Lane trail), with its southern network (the Sherrick Farm trail, the Union Advance trail, the  Snavely Ford trail, and the Final Attack trail).  Sometime I would love to do this. Judging from maps, it is about an 8 or 9 mile hike.

If you want to check out some of these trails, visit Antietam NPS's guide to hiking the battlefield to download their tour maps. For a few of these trails, you can also download a more in-depth podcast tour delivered by Antietam Park Rangers from the Civil War Traveler website.  Finally, I would also highly recommend that smart phone users check out the Civil War Trust's Antietam App as an additional resource.

What are some of your favorite Civil War hiking trails?

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