Written by Ronald J. Gordon Published: August, 1998 ~ Last Updated: March, 2013 ©
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On the crown of a long ridge near the Antietam Creek in north central Maryland, stands a little Dunker Church that continues to render a silent testimony to the horror of a one day battle that surrounded it on September 17, 1862, during the Civil War or the War Between the States. Its gleaming white walls became an early morning goal for the advancing Union army of General George B. McClellan who was attempting to dislodge the Confederate army of General Robert E. Lee from this ridge and prevent his northern advance into Union territory. Around 23,000 troops had been killed, wounded, or missing. Six generals also died in the countryside surrounding this alabaster jewel in what still remains the bloodiest day of fighting in the history of United States warfare. Prominently located next to the old Hagerstown Pike on ground donated to the newly formed congregation by Brethren farmer Samuel Mumma, the little Dunker Church would be surrounded by Confederate forces during morning hours, possessed by Union infantry for brief moments, reclaimed by the Confederacy, modified into a field hospital for wounded and dying soldiers by evening, and finally a post battle refuge for peaceful conversation between both armies the next day.
Early morning light gleaming over South Mountain bathed the white exterior church walls, making its luminescence easily visible to Union officers who instructed their units to move toward it by crossing a thirty-acre corn field. Morning hours saw cannonballs and rifle bullets piercing its walls and studding its rafters. By evening it became a makeshift hospital that heard shrieks of pain and unending moans, this in stark contrast to praises of God and melodies of worship. Sermons echoing victory through the Blood of Christ were disquieted by human blood that splattered defeat on its wooden furniture. Hope was exchanged for despair and life replaced with death. Unimaginable horror continually announced itself through a stream of mangled soldiers being carried into the little Dunker Church, because of its immediate proximity to the Corn Field where most of the morning slaughter had occurred. So furious and chaotic was the maddening exchange of gunfire, canister, and shell cannon in this now famous Miller Cornfield, that Union General Joseph Hooker stated: In the time I am writing, every stalk of corn in the greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife. A horrific sight of dead bodies, many laying on the ground as if still in formation: the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before (Hooker). Another unknown witness testified that the Corn Field was so full of bodies that a man could have walked through it without stepping on the ground. Union troops had failed to dislodge the Confederate left flank, and would spend the afternoon trying to penetrate their center at the Sunken Road or Bloody Lane and finally on their right at Burnside Bridge. This engagement would be remembered by the Union as the Battle of Antietam because McClellan's headquarters was near this stream, and by the Confederacy as the Battle of Sharpsburg because Lee's headquarters was located in this nearby town.
When the killing and movement of troops finally halted at the end of this one day battle, the lines of entrenchment were not that much different from where they originated that same morning. Although this bloodiest day of fighting produced no clear winner, historians usually give Lee the dishonor of defeat because he was unable to continue his northern advance into Union territory. But it could also be argued as a minor victory for the Confederacy when considering that Lee's 37,000 troops were able to withstand a much larger force of McClellan's 56,000 and that President Lincoln fired McClellan over repeated hesitancy's to capitalize on fortunes of opportunity. Because the Union army possessed almost twice the number of troops, it has been called the battle that McClellan could not lose and Lee could not win.
The magnitude of suffering witnessed on the Antietam Battlefield was nine times greater than the number killed and wounded on June 6, 1944 ( D-Day ) the so-called longest day of World War II. Six Generals died in the heat of battle this day, the exact spots where they fell now marked by cannon barrels mounted in concrete. More soldiers were killed, wounded, or listed as missing during this one day of battle than the total number of casualties of all Americans in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War combined. Eye-witnesses stated that the Cornfield / Dunker Church fighting lasted about three hours.
Every second, a husband, father, or son was dying. The stillness of a quiet countryside heard the roar of cannons and the agony of men. Sweet air was exchanged for the smoke of gunpowder. All before the Little Dunker Church where the Brethren preached a message of peace and non-violence.
Visitors to the Antietam Battlefield stand in quietude or respectfully walk over its hallowed grounds. They read the large historical markers erected by the National Park Service, looking intensely at the view just beyond, trying to imagine how it must have appeared during that respective phase of the battle. A few take pictures while others check maps and brochures. They come from all parts of the world to feel history, to be enveloped in the mesmerizing wonderment of artifacts, stories, and photographs. Only when the physical eye has seen the landscape does one actually feel apart of the experience. Sharpsburg is a small town of about six hundred and fifty-nine people (1990 Census) and only 14 miles south of Hagerstown, Maryland>, along Route 65, yet lost from the notice of most tourists and war enthusiasts. Whereas, Gettysburg receives almost two million visitors every year to its battlefield memorial park, Antietam gathers only a few hundred thousand because it requires a dedicated effort, just to find its location.
This picturesque community resides among the beautiful hills of the north-central Maryland countryside, miles from Interstate highways and major airports. No plethora of hotels and fast-food restaurants as in Gettysburg or Richmond. This town has not experienced much growth since the battle, and because of the scarcity of overnight accommodations, visitors should plan to bring their own food and then leave before nightfall, in order to return to nearby motels in Hagerstown. Perhaps, the visitor to Antietam comes for a more specific reason. What do they hope to find? ...history? ...genealogy? ...religion? ...ghosts? ...themselves? Our story is about the Dunkers, their historical witness for peace and non-violent resolutions, and the monumental battle that confronted that witness.
Sketch artists preceded battle photographers by many years. Brush and oil captured the pageantry of victory, horribly juxtaposed with the gruesome contortions of those slaughtered. From charcoal stick figures of cave paintings to the breathtaking murals of Antoine-Jean Gros. On the day following the battle, Alfred Waud stood before the Little Dunker Church and immortalized this peaceful scene of Union and Confederate soldiers talking with each other. It was paradoxical. Bewildering. Yet, strangely fascinating.
The previous day they had fiercely struggled to kill each other on these very grounds, and now before Waud's pencil they corporately mused over the hideous import of their actions. The Army of Northern Virginia would soon head west, crossing the wide Potomac river, while the Army of the Potomac would wait for Lincoln to clarify their mission. Weary men from each army would never forget this bloodiest day of battle, and how they finally enjoyed peace - in front of that Little Dunker Church.
Abraham Lincoln, Sixteenth US President:
Alexander Gardner, Photographer of Antietam:
Clara Barton: Angel of the Battlefield
Maps of Antietam: