Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Day 7: The Battle of Antietam

July 11: My guidebook used a very rough, poorly-made map of the area around the trail. Normally, this didn't pose a problem because the canal towpath is on the side of a small road and utterly impossible to miss, but it also pointed out that the Antietam Battlefield--also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg--was just a few miles off trail near the small town of Sharpsburg. I'm very much fascinated with the Civil War. Not a "rabid" fan, perhaps--I've never dressed up in period costumes or played in any Civil War reenactments (although it certainly looks like a lot of fun), but the idea of passing by this particular battlefield and being sooo close to it.... I couldn't do it. I needed to detour off trail and explore the site of "America's bloodiest day."

Killiansburg Caves

I left the towpath near Snider's Landing, and after exploring the battlefield, I planned to return to the towpath near Taylors Landing which would cause me to officially miss 4.2 miles of trail and Lock 40. My guidebook didn't suggest that there was anything particularly noteworthy along that stretch, and Lock 40 sounded a lot like the previous 39 locks I'd already seen. I didn't think I'd be missing much with this detour, but I'd miss a major battlefield of the Civil War if I didn't take the detour. It was a no-brainer for me!

My biggest problem, though, was the lack of good maps. Once I was off the towpath, I had nothing but the most primitive of guidebook maps to follow. I'd normally just pull out my smartphone and get directions--turn by turn direction from Google!--but I still had no service since leaving Harpers Ferry. It's frustrating to be in civilization and still not get service. Even in the town of Sharpsburg, I didn't get any service. Some of the bicyclists heading in the opposite direction told me that they had gotten no service since crossing from Pennsylvania into Maryland. They all had Verizon. AT&T users reported almost non-stop service the entire distance. I didn't have Verizon--I used a TracFone wireless plan that costs me all of about $5/month. (I might have a phone now, but I still almost never use it and won't invest very much into it!) But I was pretty sure that TracFone used the Verizon cell towers, though, and where Verizon doesn't work, neither does my phone.

I made it into Sharpsburg without getting lost, but I wasn't entirely sure where to leave Sharpsburg to get to the battlefield and asked a woman I saw walking down the street if I was heading in the correct direction. She assured me that I was and just to turn left at an intersection up ahead, and I continued onward.

When I reached the intersection, a large road sign pointed the direction to the Antietam Battlefield, and I could rely on those the rest of the way to the battlefield. Although it mostly just involved following the road I turned onto which took me directly there.

Walking through Sharpsburg.
An hour or so after I left the trail, I arrived at the battlefield visitor center. I asked the rangers at the front desk if I could leave my stroller and pack there while I walked around the battlefield explaining that I'd walked in from Washington, DC, and didn't have a car or anything to store it in. I'd have wandered around with the stroller if it was required. (Actually, I probably would have hid it in the woods somewhere nearby and carried my pack, but still... if they would be willing to keep it safe while I wandered around, why not?)

But the ranger said that that would be fine and had me leave it near them. I paid the admission fee, and explored the exhibits at the visitor center to get a sense of how the battle came together and the lay of the of the land. I'd never been here before, after all. They also gave me a map of the battlefield, including a 8.5-mile driving tour. I wouldn't be driving, but I seriously considered walking the whole route. I didn't know if I'd ever be back here again and didn't want to miss anything!

Before I get into my walk around the battlefield, let me give you a bird's eye view of it for those who aren't familiar with it. In the battle, 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing after twelve hours of savage combat on September 17, 1862--often called the bloodiest day in American history because there have never been so many American causalities in a single day of battle. Gettysburg had more casualties overall, but that was over the course of three days of battle, and none of the three days compared to the casualties of this battle. The opening day of D-Day didn't generate this many casualties, even if you include all allied forces and not just Americans. The results of this battle turned the tide of the Civil War and changed American history forever.

Tactically, the battle is considered a draw with neither side getting a decisive victory, but since the Confederates left the field of battle first, Union troops generally get credit for winning the battle. It left General Lee's army a wreck and ended the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia's first invasion into the North. And on the heels of their victory, Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. It gave the Union forces just enough credibility to keep European powers from supporting the south during the war.

So, with that in mind, I headed off to see the field of battle. Generally speaking, I walked counter-clockwise around the battlefield and my first stop was at the Sunken Road, also known as Bloody Lane because of the fierce fighting that took place there. The battle unfolded in three phases, and the fighting here was the second phase. The road had been worn down from years of traffic providing a natural trench that Confederates used to defend against the attacking Union forces.
Bloody Lane, where 3,000 Confederate soldiers held off 10,000
attacking Union soldiers for 3 1/2 hours.

Approximately 3,000 Confederate soldiers defended the road against 10,000 attacking Union soldiers for 3 1/2 hours. Not great odds, but they managed to hold off the Union forces despite the Confederates losing over 80% of their force as casualties. The Union had more losses in absolute numbers, but it was a much smaller percentage of their overall force. In all, both sides reported a total of about 5,100 soldiers as casualties.

The temperatures were miserably hot again, and I sweat profusely walking around exposed to the sun. I had forgotten how much the shade on the C&O Canal had helped cool me down, but this area of the battlefield had no trees and no shade. It was hot, humid and absolutely miserable. I carried a small, one liter bottle of water that I could have finished off in seconds, but I drank from it slowly knowing I wouldn't have any easy way of filling it up until I got back to the visitor center.

I continued on to the Burnside Bridge--the third and final phase of the day's battle. At the time of the battle, it was called Lower Bridge and 500 Confederate soldiers held off 5,200 Union soldiers for 3 1/2 hours in intense fighting. Union forces suffered 500 casualties while Confederates suffered 120.

Only three bridges crossed Antietam Creek at the time of the battle, and the Union tried very hard to take this particular bridge! But it was up against a steep hillside that provided Confederates an extremely advantageous position despite their much smaller numbers.
Burnside Bridge, where 500 Confederate soldiers held off 5,200 Union
soldiers for 3 1/2 hours. Burnside Bridge was having some work done
and I couldn't cross it to make a loop of my hike like I initially
had wanted to do. =(

I had intended to walk across the bridge and make a loop around the battlefield but was disappointed to see that the bridge was closed while they were doing some reconstruction work on it. I grudgingly backtracked a bit trying to decide what to do next, eventually doing a road walk to near where the trail would have come out out if I had been able to cross the bridge. I lost time and in the hot sun, it wasn't fun, but I couldn't see any way around it.

Once I got back on the trail again, it was a lot nicer. The trail was nice to walk on, and it was in a thick, shaded forest.

The trail connected with other trails which eventually brought me to the infamous 24-acre cornfield where the first phase of the day's fighting started. For nearby three hours, Union and Confederate forces clashed leaving nearly 13,000 casualties in its wake. Hays' Louisiana Brigade suffered over 60% casualties in a mere 30 minutes.

I couldn't help but do some math in my head.... 13,000 casualties in 24 acres amounted to over 500 casualties per acre. Nearly 200 casualties per acre per hour. That's a hell of a lot.

Afterwards, Union General Joseph Hooker wrote that the firepower was so thick, "every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the [Confederates] slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before."

The heaviest fighting took place in this cornfield where there were
about 13,000 casualties in a mere 24 acres in less than 3 hours.
It's hard to imagine how chaotic the battle must have been. Today, although hot and muggy, the area seemed so quiet and peaceful. Groundhogs frolicked near the corn fields and birds chirped in the distance.

I walked back to the visitor center and there was a new ranger at the counter who chastised me for leaving my stroller and pack without leaving a name or phone number. Well, jeeze! Sorry! The other ranger hadn't asked for it when I asked if it was okay to leave it there! Next time I'll know better, not that I had ever intended to walk to this battlefield with a stroller ever again.

I pushed my stroller back in the direction of the cornfield not wanting to return to the C&O Canal where I had left it. I had probably added a solid 10 miles of walking to the day's hike with this detour, and felt no qualms about skipping 4.2 miles of the same old canal towpath.

But my poor guidebook map wasn't much help, and the battlefield map I picked up at the visitor center didn't include details beyond the battlefield, so once again I was left not entirely sure if I was walking in the correct direction.

It didn't help that my very rough guidebook map also appeared to get some of the street names wrong. On several occasions, I was left at an intersection trying to decide what to do. Go straight, or turn? Mostly, I followed my gut. I knew, vaguely, what direction I needed to go, and the C&O Canal is 185 miles long. As long as I headed vaguely in the correct direction, I was bound to hit the canal eventually--it's all but impossible to miss!

Remarkably, I made it back to the trail at Taylors Landing without taking a single wrong turn. I was actually quite surprised I had done so well!

The next hiker/biker camp was just a few miles away, and I stopped for the day fairly early at 5:00 in the afternoon. I had it in me to do a few more miles, but the next camp was 8 miles up and I wasn't sure I could make it that far before dark. It had been a long day anyhow. I didn't mind quitting a bit early for once. =)

I shared the campsite with a couple of bicyclists who showed up. They were originally from England, but now living in Pittsburgh, and they'd be the only other people camping with me tonight.

Later in the evening, after they had gone into their tent to sleep for the night, I headed to the shore of the Potomac to go for another swim, and this time--with nobody around--I took off all my clothes and skinny dipped. The water was initially cold when I first entered, but it only took a few seconds to adjust to it and I happily laid around in the water and the moonlight for an hour or so before I started getting chilled enough to get out, dry off and head to my sleeping bag. With good weather expected during the night, I planned to cowboy camp again.

I saw this bizarre site on my walk into Sharpsburg. I tell you, it grabs your attention! WTF?!
Ah, it's a protest. Against.... Verizon? Corporate America? Well, my phone didn't work here either! =) I guess it used to work 40 days earlier, though?

Antietam Creek was said to have run red with the blood by the end of the day's fighting.
Intense fighting took place near Dunker Church. Union infantry and artillery aimed their attacks towards this high ground and the church.

At the end of the day, a little skinny dipping in the Potomac really hit the spot! =)

1 comment:

Bon Echo said...

For future trips you might consider installing offline maps on your phone and an app to display them. Then you won't need to rely on (or use) data service. You can install the OpenSteetMap from mapsforge. What trails and roads will show is largely dependent on whether they have been added by contributors - so be sure to check your route before relying on the map. For example, you would have had no trouble finding you way from the battlefield to the C&O and both are well defined on the maps (including all the trails at the battlefield). All you need is GPS reception which most new phones do well to acquire and maintain. Put the phone on airplane mode to shut down the cell and data antennas (or whatever they are properly called) - GPS will still work and the battery life will be pretty good (several days, a week even depending on how often you have the maps running). I do not have a data plan but use offline maps on a cheap smartphone (LG 510, $40) all the time and it works great.