Antietam National Battlefield Sharpsburg, Md. Visited: June 2, 2006 NPS Site Visited: 297 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? Site of a September 17, 1862 Civil War Battle; the bloodiest single day battle in United States history. The North referred to the battle as Antietam, the creek that runs through the grounds, while the South referred to the fight as Sharpsburg, the nearest town.
BEAUTY (3/10) Gab insists that the hazy, anonymous, rolling farmland terrain of Maryland is her least favorite genre of American scenery. Amid the panoramic nothingness, Antietam NB does have it hidden charms.
The land sinks into unexpected gullies and rises to form deceptively steep hills. These shifts are unseen from the wide angle where everything looks flat. The terrain’s disguised whimsy defined the battle’s shape. The fight most famed locale’s name, the Sunken Road, attests to this mystery.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (8/10) The Battle of Antietam is a tragic American story. Over 20,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured here in the course of a few hours. The slaughtering grounds of the Sunken Road, the Cornfield and the Burnside Bridge remain. Our Ranger talk told us that the Battle was a draw. No gains and no progress made towards the War’s end. Just tens of thousands of tortured souls.
History tells us that the Union won a slight tactical victory here, their first of the war. Nevertheless, Abraham Lincoln’s two sweeping Antietam inspired actions trumped any importance achieved by the quickly gained and quickly abandoned Maryland farmland.
These two actions were: 1) the removal of the incompetent George McClellan from command of the Union Army and 2) movement towards issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Antietam brought the Decision 1 because McClellan’s ridiculous insubordination to Lincoln and cowardly slow command reached an apex at Sharpsburg. Had McClellan been even the slightest bit aggressive, the War might have ended that September.
Decision 2’s relevance to Antietam is slightly more specious even though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued just five days after the battle. History will forever speculate on Lincoln’s motivations and reasoning. But Antietam revealed to Lincoln that he had to do something. His Army could not rout the enemy’s and end the War, even with more men and countless other advantages.
Sharpsburg’s stalemate had delayed a rumored British entry into the war on the Confederate side. But John Bull’s pro-South leanings were real. The only way to sway their leaders against the Southern cause would be to issue the Proclamation. Antietam was a major Civil War turning point, its importance more intangible and speculative than most battles despite the massive carnage.
CROWDS (6/10) Not to say that the place wasn’t crowded, but we expected a lot more people – Gettysburg-type numbers. There were no reënactors and to our snooping ears, it sounded like the crowds were a lot less Civil War-savvy that the average battlefield visitors.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5) Antietam NB is located about 80 miles west of Baltimore, Md. or 80 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. Interstate 70 and Hagerstown, Md. are located 10 miles north of the Park.
The easiest way to the Park is from the north via I-70, Exit 29A, and then south on Maryland Route 65. The Park entrance will be on your left, bordering Route 65. If you wish to weave your way from Frederick (the east) or Martinsburg, W.Va. (the west) to Antietam via backcountry roads just make sure you have a map.
The Battlefield itself is enclosed and separate from exterior traffic. You will only be driving with other Civil War enthusiasts. The one-ways could get confusing but no one is going to get mad at you for driving at a snail’s pace.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5) Antietam NB’s book selection was stellar but not up to par with most Civil War Battlefields. The souvenir selection ranged from the standard coffee mugs, T-shirts, maps and DVD’s to the downright macabre chintzy plastic toy soldier recreations of the Dunker Church and Burnside Bridge. Wave upon wave of Union soldiers died from sniper fire while trying to cross that fateful bridge. Let’s play again!
COSTS (3/5) $4 per person, $6 per family, free with the National Parks Pass.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5) A good number of Rangers wandered the Visitor Center halls and were ready to answer questions.
TOURS/CLASSES (3/10) We were lucky enough to arrive at the Park just as a Ranger was beginning her talk. Problem was, she was speeding through her discussion at an alarming rate, presumably so that she could finish before the intro film started. She should have slowed down, not just because slowness makes for better learning, but also because the film is not very good.
The tiny museum is big on artifacts, including George McClellan’s presentation sword (hardly unique) but small on information and historical explanations. We left the Visitor Center knowing less and feeling more confused than when we started. Regrettably, we failed to heed our on advice: Always bring a companion Civil War book when you travel to a battlefield. We really missed our Battle Cry of Freedom.
We skipped the newly opened Pry House Field Hospital Museum for fear that we would go queasy and pass out because that is what nearly happened at the Chimborazo Medical Museum in Richmond, Va. The Pry Field Hospital Museum is sponsored by and affiliated with the National Museum of Civil War Medicine located in nearby Frederick, Md.
FUN (3/10) If we had to choose one word to describe our Antietam experience, it is Disappointing. All day, we had geared up for the big Park Experience we were expecting. We feared we wouldn’t have enough time to see and experience everything. We wondered if we should skip Antietam and dedicate an entire day just to this Site.
When it was all said and done, we spent a little more than an hour and a half here. That’s with the Ranger talk, the movie, a thorough review of the museum, the driving tour and a few short hikes, all less impressive than they should have been. We admit we left the movie early; there are only so many scenes of cannons firing, reënactors charging and dropping that we can take.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10) If you asked the average Joe to name at least two Civil War battles, Gettysburg and Antietam are probably the two that come to mind. The carnage that occurred at Antietam is legendary, its significance hard to dispute. Why then, did we walk away feeling none of that?
A trip to Gettysburg is almost overwhelming and that’s even before the additions of the renovated cyclorama and multi-million dollar Visitor Center. We were shocked when we realized Antietam’s museum extended no further than the four walls we were already viewing and had NO ELECTRIC MAP. Sad Michael.
What you do gain in your trip to Antietam is a better understanding of how the seemingly mundane terrain put the troops in such disarray. A few wrong turns gone right and the ending could have been different. We are not fans of speculation, but one can only imagine how moving Antietam could be if it were given the proper Park Service presentation.
USA-C2C.com is an independent website, not affiliated in any way with the National Park Service, the National Parks Foundation or any of their partners.