Small church bore stains of brotherly hate

WAY BACK WHEN

May 04, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

ANTIETAM - It's hard to imagine on such a warm and beautiful Maryland spring day that this tranquil place of soft, rolling hills, freshly plowed fields and blooming dogwood and cherry trees was the setting for one of the nation's greatest human struggles.

In mid-September 1862, the fate of a nation seemingly converged at a rural Western Maryland village called Sharpsburg.

It was here that Gen. Robert E. Lee came with his Army of Northern Virginia, some 40,000 strong and flushed with its recent victory at Manassas, to clash with 87,000 federal troops under Gen. George B. McClellan.

The battle took its name from the meandering Antietam Creek. Union and Confederate forces established positions on either side of the stream and a furious battle ensued for control of the Lower Bridge.

It was later renamed the Burnside Bridge, for Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, whose troops slugged it out for hours against 400 Georgia soldiers before eventually taking and crossing the bridge.

As Union Gen. Joseph Hooker positioned his troops the night before the battle, he told a reporter, "We are through for tonight, but tomorrow we fight the battle that will decide the fate of the Republic."

At 6 a.m. Sept. 17, the battle began when Hooker's artillery began a furious assault on Gen. Stonewall Jackson's troops in a cornfield north of Sharpsburg.

All day the battle raged over 12 square miles of farms, fields and woods, only ending 12 hours later when the guns fell silent.

The human carnage was staggering. Nearly 23,000 Union and Confederate troops were dead, making it the bloodiest day of the Civil War.

In one furious action that lasted four hours, 5,000 men died trying to conquer a muddy, rutted, sunken country lane, and when it was over, the little road would be forever known as Bloody Lane.

A battlefield correspondent, writing in the New York Tribune several days later, described it as "the greatest fight since Waterloo, and contested all over the field with an obstinacy equal even to Waterloo."

For the moment, Lee's northern advance was checked and the next day he withdrew his troops back across the Potomac into the safety of Virginia.

At the center for most of the battle was the tiny Dunker Church, sometimes spelled Dunkard, on the Hagerstown and Sharpsburg Turnpike, which seesawed back and forth during the day between Union and Confederate forces.

The whitewashed church was built in 1852 by local Dunker farmers, more commonly known as German Baptist Brethren, who had settled in the region in the 18th century.

It's been suggested that the little church, with its plain wooden pews and single wood-burning stove, is probably the bloodiest church in American history.

"On its benches the wounded and the dying were laid, their blood leaving permanent stains on the wood. Its floor and furnishings were covered with dust and the rubble which fell from the holes made in the walls by the shells of both armies," wrote Freeman Ankrum, in his book, Sidelights on Brethren History. "From its walls echoed the moans of the wounded, the shrieks of the dying, and the songs of those for whom the war was over."

He added: "That a church dedicated to peace and goodwill to all men should be a witness to the greatest bloodshed brought about by the strife of our country is indeed ironical."

Surgeons working at amputation tables set up in the yard surrounding the church, removed wounded arms and legs at such an astounding rate that a pile reached several feet high with discarded limbs, while embalmers nearby busily prepared bodies to be shipped back home.

The little church - where President Lincoln visited and prayed with the wounded of both sides and where Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, nursed them - sustained serious damage.

Its roof was damaged by artillery fire and its walls pockmarked by thousands of bullets. After repairs were completed, services resumed in 1864. Its congregation remained there until a larger Dunker church was built in Sharpsburg in 1899.

A heavy hail and windstorm on May 23, 1921, leveled the old church. In 1924, Elmer Boyer, a Sharpsburg resident, went to the public sale and bought the old church, a hopeless ruin, for $800.

Souvenir hunters had picked over the site but Boyer had workmen disassemble what was left of the church, brick by brick, down to its foundation. Its 3,000 bricks, timbers, beams, shutters, doors, flooring, window sills engraved with the names of soldiers who had fought there, were put in storage.

Boyer sold the land in the 1930s, and a gas station and home were built on the old foundation. In 1951, the Washington County Historical Society bought the site, removed the gas station and donated the foundation to the National Park Service.

The restoration of the old church, which included Boyer's salvaged materials, was aided by a $35,000 grant from the State of Maryland, and opened to the public in 1961.

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