Shadowbox honors a horrific Civil War battle

WAY BACK WHEN

September 07, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

As Americans turn their thoughts toward remembering the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the Maryland Historical Society opened a poignant exhibit the other day recalling an earlier traumatic event in the nation's history.

Remembering Antietam: John Philemon Smith's Shadowbox tells the story of the Battle of Antietam, where 23,000 Union and Confederate troops were either killed or wounded, on another September day, making it the bloodiest 24 hours of the Civil War.

The great clash came at Sharpsburg, a small Western Maryland village, when 87,000 federal troops under the command of Gen. George B. McClellan met the Army of Northern Virginia, some 40,000 strong, under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee.

On the evening before the battle, Union Gen. Joseph Hooker, sensing the urgency of the coming battle, said: "We are through for tonight, but tomorrow we fight the battle that will decide the fate of the Republic."

At 6 a.m. on Sept. 17, 1862, the battle commenced when Hooker's artillery unleashed a ferocious attack on Gen. Stonewall Jackson's troops positioned in a cornfield north of Sharpsburg.

Mid-morning, a contest that lasted four hours consumed some 5,000 lives as troops struggled to conquer a rutted, sunken country lane, which would become known as Bloody Lane.

Twelve hours later, the battle that had raged over 12 miles of countryside came to an end. The anguished cries of the wounded and dying rose and mixed with the gathering dusk that swirled over the field of conflict.

Almost immediately, the U.S. Burial Corps began identifying and burying the dead in shallow graves, while physicians attended the wounded.

In 1865, the state of Maryland purchased 11 1/4 acres of land, which was set aside for a national cemetery, and by 1867, all identified Union dead from Maryland battlefields had been reinterred there. The Confederate dead were removed and buried in other nearby cemeteries and in West Virginia.

The Antietam National Cemetery was dedicated on Sept. 17, 1867, the fifth anniversary of the battle. Dignitaries attending the ceremonies included President Andrew Johnson, and the governors of Maryland and Massachusetts, and A.W. Bradford, former governor of Maryland.

"When I look on you Battlefield I think of the brave men on both sides who fell in the fierce struggle of battle, who sleep silent in their graves," said President Johnson.

"Yes, who sleep in silence and peace after the earnest conflict has ceased. Would to God we of the living could imitate their example, as they lay sleeping in peace in their tombs, and live together in Friendship and peace," he said.

A witness to the daylong carnage at Antietam was John Philemon Smith, a 17-year-old student, who lived in Sharpsburg.

Overcome by what he had seen and experienced, Smith, who later became a teacher and Sharpsburg's historian, spent the remainder of his life preserving the memory of the great battle.

On walks through the battlefield, he gathered up the detritus of war such as Union buttons, minie balls, fragments of artillery shells and uniforms, belt buckles, cartridges, bayonets and a folding spoon, which he later fashioned into a "tablet board" or shadowbox.

He designed and constructed the 39 3/4 -by-34-by-5 3/4 -inch shadowbox and inside carefully displayed the battlefield artifacts he had collected. Also inside the box, is a carefully painted miniature replica of the Private Soldier Monument, which was dedicated at Antietam in 1880.

Lining the walls of the box and inscribed in Smith's perfectly legible handwriting, are extracts from the cemetery dedication, dignitaries' speeches and other facts relating to Antietam.

Smith's dedication, written in pencil, surrounds the Private Soldier Monument: "Sacred to the memory of our Gallant soldiers who fought and fell on the Battlefield of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"To the Widows, Children, Fathers, Mothers, Brothers and Sisters of 4,667 brave men who left their homes in the morning of life, sundered family and social ties, abandoned cherished enterprises and business schemes and sacrificed themselves upon the altar of their country in defense of her laws and institutions, her liberties and her rights; and whose sacred dust now repose beneath the shadow of the Monument of Antietam National Cemetery is this tablet board respectfully dedicated," he wrote.

In the lower right, the box is signed: "Designed and constructed by J.P. Smith of Sharpsburg, Md. August 6, 1886.

Jeannine A. Disviscour, Maryland Historical Society gallery curator, suspects that the miniature 48-star printed cotton flags, which are suspended across the top of the box in front of a black crepe draped in funereal style, were most likely added in 1912, on the 50th anniversary of the battle.

The shadowbox, which was discovered in the attic of a Hagerstown home, was recently presented to the society by an anonymous donor.

"You can't help but be sucked in by its contents. When I first saw it, I wanted to read it all," said Disviscour, the other day.

"Shadow boards were quite common after the Civil War and they contained collections that were picked up by veterans and buffs who often randomly attached them to boards. But this is one of the most elaborate I've ever seen," she said.

Disviscour adds that the piece relates strictly to the dedication of the cemetery and was "Smith's way of working through the events he had witnessed. It's also clear that he was a Union sympathizer because it commemorates only the Union dead."

Smith died in 1912.

The exhibit remains at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St., through Jan. 3; hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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