Hiking Antietam National Battlefield

Visiting Maryland battlefield is stepping into war's bloodiest day

April 07, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Antietam National Battlefield is one of my favorite Civil War sites, even though it appears my ancestor missed this fight, the bloodiest day of any battles in the war. About 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing on Sept. 17, 1862, after 12 hours of savage fighting between Union and Confederate armies in the town of Sharpsburg in Western Maryland.

The battle ended Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North, forcing the Confederate troops back across the Potomac River into Virginia. The outcome, seen as a victory in the North, also encouraged President Abraham Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Proclamation five days later, redefining the war as a struggle to end slavery and not merely to preserve the union.

Antietam is one of the best-preserved, least-modernized landscapes of any of the sites dedicated to the War Between the States. Near the visitor center is the Dunker Church, a humble house of worship by a group of pacifist farmers that became a focal point of intense fighting.

There are no fewer than nine self-guided hikes offered by the park service here, through corn fields leveled by bullets and down a sunken road so fought over it came to be known as "Bloody Lane."

One of the more interesting hikes is the "Union Advance Trail," a mile-long loop across Antietam Creek at the point where for three hours a small force of Confederate riflemen kept a vastly superior Union force from crossing a narrow bridge and outflanking the Southern army. You can appreciate the difficulty of the Union attack when you start the trek from the bluff overlooking the bridge, then cross over to the open field that soldiers had to cross to get to the bridge.

For those who might visit this battlefield in warmer weather, there's an added, uncharted bonus on the Burnside Bridge hike — a pair of rope swings dangle from a tree limb over the creek. It's an unobtrusive, but welcome reminder of the peace that has returned at last to this place, which one historian of the battle, Stephen W. Sears, dubbed a "landscape turned red."

Getting there: Antietam National Battlefield, 5831 Dunker Church Road, Sharpsburg, 21782.

Hiking time: Allow at least a full day

Admission: A three-day pass is $4 per person or $6 per family. An annual pass is $20.

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