Preserve the West Woods at Antietam

A message from Jim Lighthizer, American Battlefield Trust president


Jim Lighthizer, president of the American Battlefield Trust.

August 19, 2020

“Of all the days on all the fields where American soldiers have fought, the most terrible by almost any measure was September 17, 1862. The battle waged on that date, close by Antietam Creek at Sharpsburg in western Maryland, took a human toll never exceeded on any other single day in the nation’s history. So intense and sustained was the violence, a man recalled, that for a moment in his mind’s eye the very landscape around him turned red.”

— Stephen Sears, Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam

Dear Dedicated Preservationist,

Because I need your response as soon as possible, please – please – look at the special battle maps that I have rushed to you today.

These are maps of the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), fought nearly 158 years ago on September 17, 1862, still the bloodiest day in American history. Far more Americans perished on that day than during the attack on Pearl Harbor, D-Day, or September 11.

And the 3-acre tract noted in yellow on those maps – a crucial part of the “West Woods” portion of the battlefield which has just come onto the market – is the latest piece of this most hallowed ground that we have an urgent opportunity to preserve.

Historian Bruce Catton described this part of the Antietam Battlefield after four hours of the heaviest fighting of the War: “In a square of ground measuring very little more than one thousand yards on a side – cornfield, barnyard, orchard, East and West Woods, and the fields by the turnpike – nearly twelve thousand men were lying on the ground dead or wounded.”

He also wrote that, “Over and over, in official reports and in regimental histories, one finds Federals giving the same account of it – the heaviest, deadliest fire they ever saw in the entire war.”

As you can also see on your map, from the portions of the land saved in whole or in part by members of the American Battlefield Trust like you denoted in blue, the preservation of this West Woods tract would accomplish several things:

  1. It would add significantly to the historic land preserved all around the West Woods by the Trust as well as the National Park Service.
  2. There is a state highway that runs through this part of the battlefield. Currently, anyone who wishes to walk that western part of the battlefield must “wait until the coast is clear” of speeding traffic before sprinting across the road. Acquisition of this tract will help open up this part of the battlefield for greater visitation, essentially for the first time.
  3. It prevents any future sale and development of this crucial property, and gets us one very important step closer to being able to declare Antietam an essentially preserved battlefield.

And today, you and I can save it forever!

I realize that it might strike you as odd that this land – bordered on two sides by National Park Service property and a short walk from the iconic Dunker Church – is still threatened.

But this incredibly important land is a special case. It is one of those rare properties called an “in-holding,” which is privately owned land contained within the boundary lines of a national park. Because it is private property, it has been completely inaccessible to the general public.

And also because it is private property, it is most emphatically not protected, and will not be, unless we are able to purchase it!

In fact, just like hundreds of other tracts of battlefield land across America, the greatest threat to this land is that the property could be sold to a buyer who might try to replace the existing older house with a massive “McMansion” right in the West Woods, in the heart of the battlefield.

And before you say “that could never happen,” I ask you to recall that the American Battlefield Trust had to acquire and tear down just such a monstrosity that was built several years ago right on top of Jeb Stuart’s headquarters at Fleetwood Hill, on the Brandy Station Battlefield! It can, and sometimes does, happen!

Instead of that sad fate for this hallowed ground, however, the landowner has given the American Battlefield Trust the opportunity to buy the land, so that it can be preserved and eventually restored to the way it looked on September 17, 1862!

The price to acquire this land is $310,000. While that is a big number, it is also a very fair price. But there are several challenges:

First, we have to close on the property no later than September 30 of this year! That’s right, just a few weeks away.

Next, because of where this land is situated (inside the official boundary of the Antietam National Battlefield), it is not eligible for any of the traditional matching-grant sources we would normally use.

However, we do have a very generous gift from an anonymous donor that was made last year to the “Lighthizer Legacy Fund” when I announced my retirement, and that gift will cover fully half of the amount we need, $155,000.

That means, however, that we must raise the other $155,000 in the next five weeks to save this absolutely crucial part of the Antietam Battlefield.

One glance at the maps shows you how essential this hallowed ground is. It is the point at which numerous Confederate brigades launched their advances into the West Woods and toward the Dunker Church and some of the hottest fighting of the War.

In an essay from several years ago, historian Robert K. Krick wrote that “In the West Woods [Union Generals] Sedgwick and Sumner stumbled into the most abject disaster suffered by any large unit of either side during the battle.”

All around this ground, the maelstrom of battle raged, brave men fell, overwhelmed men – hit simultaneously from front and flank – ran for their lives. Five bullets struck down the color bearer of the 34th New York, and Sergeant William Andrews of the 1st Georgia later recalled that portion of the field:

“You could hear laughing, cursing, yelling and the groans of the wounded and dying, while the awful roar of musketry was appalling. Where the line stood, the ground was covered in blue, and I believe I could have walked on them without putting my feet on the ground.”

My friend, there are still a few key parts of the Antietam battlefield yet to be saved . . . but few are more important than this one.

What a legacy to leave for all future generations who will visit this supremely significant battlefield. As you well know, the Battle of Antietam not only altered the course of the War, it turned the tide of American history. It marked the end of George McClellan’s Civil War career, while at the same time ending the South’s hope for foreign political recognition.

It gave Abraham Lincoln the victory he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which changed the character of the War. It can be called – without exaggeration – one of the most important, significant, and pivotal battles in the history of the world.

And today, you and I have it within our reach to save one of the most important, significant, and pivotal unprotected tracts of land at that battlefield.

My friend, I know everyone’s financial circumstances are different. But given the urgency of a September 30 closing date and the importance of this hallowed ground, I pray that you will make every possible effort to stand with me today, and make your most generous gift to help the American Battlefield Trust raise the final $155,000 need to preserve this land forever.

With the $155,000 leadership gift I already have in hand, it is essentially the same things as having a government matching grant – every $1 you give today is doubled!

To thank you for your generous gift to our preservation and education mission today, it would be my honor to send you a recently re-discovered piece of American history. For your gift of $62 or more (in honor of this 1862 battle), I will send you a specially commissioned reproduction of the Samuel G. Elliott burial map for the Antietam Battlefield, created in 1864.

On this remarkable map – housed in the collection of the New York Public Library, but recently discovered by Timothy Smith and Andrew Dalton of the Adams County (PA) Historical Society – Elliott documented the burials of 5,844 soldiers – 2,634 Union and 3,210 Confederate. The burials of some 269 horses and the position of 152 cannons are also noted on this astonishing, rarely seen map. The map depicts more than 650 soldiers form both sides as well as three dozen horses on land we have preserved together at Antietam.

This map lay forgotten for decades, but if you can rush a gift of $62 or more back to the American Battlefield Trust before our September 30 deadline, it will be my honor to send you this oversize 21”-by-30” map to add to your collection. (Maps will be printed on high-quality paper stock and sent rolled up in a protective mailing tube, so there will be no creases, making it suitable for framing in your home or office.)

Over the past twenty years, I have sent many letters to friends like you asking for your help, commitment and generosity to save hallowed ground all across America. I know you have already done so much for the cause of battlefield preservation . . . you have been so generous and have saved so much priceless history for future generations.

I am proud to be engaged in this noble work with you, and of all we have achieved together, for the good of our nation. I can only hope that you, too, are gratified to be a member of the American Battlefield Trust, because this organization would be nothing . . . could do nothing . . . without you.

Please help preserve this land today, so that the next generations coming up behind you and me will have a place where they can learn about the courage, valor, and gallantry of American soldiers.

You can make that happen, and I can double every $1 you send today for this drive to preserve the West Woods! I really need to raise our $155,000 portion as soon as possible.

I thank you very much for your time, and thank you for seriously considering making yet another major contribution to the cause of historic battlefield preservation.

Most sincerely yours,

Jim Lighthizer Signature

Jim Lighthizer, President

P.S. Today, you have it within your power to ensure that even more precious hallowed ground is preserved forever. That, my friend, is your legacy, and it is a significant one.

I encourage you to visit the American Battlefield Trust’s website to learn more about this effort, and your role in saving hallowed ground at Antietam and all across our nation! To see more maps, photos, and articles – and to make your donation online, go to today! You will receive an e-mail confirmation of your gift in seconds. Thank you!

P.P.S. Whether you make your gift of $62 online or by mailing a check or credit card gift in response to this letter, you will receive your copy of the Elliot Antietam Burial Map. But as we must go to closing by September 30 – just a few short weeks away – please let me hear back from you as soon as possible, and thank you again for saving our country’s history!