Antietam cemetery tours provide history lesson
The Frederick News-Post, Md.
SHARPSBURG, Md. — It was Sept. 11, the 12th anniversary of the day more than 3,000 Americans lost their lives in a terrorist attack. But the subject was a similar day in which thousands of Americans lost their lives.
John Schildt, a local historian and partially-retired Methodist minister who gives tours of the cemetery, drew the parallel between Sept. 11, 2001, and Sept. 17, 1862, the day on which more Americans were killed than any other. As many as 4,000 died. At least 1,000 more died in the days and weeks to follow.
Many of those bodies are buried in the same place, Antietam National Cemetery. It's a peaceful place, high on a hill above the town of Sharpsburg. The area is still rural, much as it was during the battle. Farmlands surround the cemetery, and in the evening, quiet settles over the area, broken only by the hum of cicadas. Stone walls separate the cemetery from the farmland.
"We're here, on this particular day," Schildt began, as he led a half-dozen tourists around the 11-acre cemetery. "We're here on hallowed ground where we remember that freedom isn't free."
Schildt gives the tours weekly in August and September, in the evenings as the sun is setting. The dead weren't buried in the cemetery after the battle. "They were buried where they fell," he said. "Sometimes a lot of Confederates were thrown into mass graves. The stench was terrible. For weeks, soldiers had to sleep and eat next to the stench."
Burials began immediately, in the rocky soil surrounding Sharpsburg. "The night of the 17th, you kept hearing shovels hitting rocks," he said.
The cemetery's beginnings
Aaron Good and Joseph Gill, two local men, marked and identified the graves. In the days, months and years after the battle, they gathered names and burial locations, using letters, receipts, diaries, photographs and marks on belts or cartridge boxes to identify the bodies. Interviews of relatives and survivors also helped in identification.
Because of the rocky soil, the graves were shallow, and by the time soldiers passed through the area a year later, some bodies were partially unearthed. Relatives came and got some of the bodies, and a few were buried in local church cemeteries. But the majority remained in rough graves on the battlefield.
In 1864, Lewis P. Firey, a Maryland state senator, proposed a national cemetery for the dead of Antietam. In March of 1865, just before the Civil War ended, the state of Maryland bought the 11 acres on the hillside, for about $1,100, to establish a cemetery. Later, the town of Sharpsburg would set up a town cemetery opposite the national cemetery.
At first, the state's plan was to bury all the war dead in the national cemetery, but anti-Confederate feelings were running high at the time. Also, the South was unable to contribute financially to the effort. Maryland decided that only Union soldiers would be buried there. The bodies of about 2,800 Southerners were sent to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, as well as cemeteries in Hagerstown and Shepherdstown, W.Va. More than 60 percent of those bodies were never identified.
The cemetery was dedicated on Sept. 17, 1867, five years after the battle. President Andrew Johnson took the train from Washington to nearby Keedysville. Generals U.S. Grant and Ambrose Burnside accompanied him. "This is the only time a U.S. president spoke (in public) within the confines of the cemetery," Schildt said. Johnson spoke of the many soldiers "who sleep in silence and peace within this beautiful enclosure." Other presidents, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Carter, did visit, however.
Two small cannons flank the entrance to the graves. There is a brick-framed platform, with a grassy bottom for a stage. There is a 44-foot high monument of a Union private soldier, which stood at the gate to the National Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, and came to the cemetery four years later. The statue is nicknamed Old Simon, Schildt said.
Among the dead
Soldiers continued to be buried in the cemetery through World War II. It officially closed to new burials in 1953, but a few exceptions have been made, Schildt said. The bodies of four unknown Union soldiers of the Irish Brigade were discovered in 1988, and buried in the cemetery on Sept. 17, 1989, with an 1862-style military funeral. The U.S. ambassador from Ireland attended.
U.S. Rep. Goodloe E. Byron , a captain in the U.S. Army after World War II, died of a heart attack in 1978, and was buried in the cemetery. Byron helped to get federal support for Antietam National Battlefield, the C&O Canal National Historical Park and Monocacy National Battlefield. Patrick Roy, who grew up in Keedysville, was buried in the cemetery in 2000. He was a Navy Fireman on the USS Cole when it was bombed in Yemen on Oct. 12, 2000.
Sometimes, things didn't go according to plan when burying the Civil War dead, Schildt said. An enlisted man was buried among officers when it was discovered the young man, killed at Antietam, was one of two soldiers who found Gen. Lee's famous lost orders wrapped around a cigar. The orders had successfully been delivered to Gen. McClellan.
Werner Van Bachelle, one of many German-born soldiers in a Wisconsin regiment, served with his sheepdog alongside him. After the battle, Schildt said, he was found with his dog's body stretched across him. "The captain and his dog were buried together in a field, and as far as we know, they are buried together here," Schildt said.
Henry Strubble, of Pennsylvania, was wounded at the Battle of South Mountain, Schildt said. Strubble survived the war, and later ran into a fellow soldier. According to Schildt, the soldier said "Henry, I'm glad you're alive. I just visited your grave." Apparently, Strubble had lent his canteen to a fellow soldier.
"Strubble visited the grave every year after that, and put flowers on it," Schildt said.