(Sharpsburg, Md.) — One hundred and fifty-eight years ago next month, two great armies clashed outside a sleepy town in Western Maryland, a struggle so intense that September 17, 1862, remains the bloodiest day in American history. Today, the American Battlefield Trust, the nation’s premier historic land preservation group, has launched a national fundraising campaign to protect a portion of the West Woods, one of the most fiercely contested areas during the battle. Once saved from the threat of development, this three-acre property in an area that is currently largely inaccessible to visitors, will be transferred to the National Park Service for permanent protection within Antietam National Battlefield.
“I realize it would strike many as odd that land bordered on two sides by national park and a short walk from the iconic Dunker Church could qualify as ‘threatened,’” said Trust President Jim Lighthizer, “But it emphatically does. Privately owned property inside a national park can be bought and a modest home swiftly replaced with a much larger McMansion. In this case, before pursuing a sale on the open market, a thoughtful landowner approached the Trust to gauge our interest.”
Knowing that the national park considered the land a priority for acquisition, the Trust wasted no time in moving forward with the sale. A part of the land’s appeal is that it will provide visitor access to this portion of the West Woods for the first time; a state highway bisects this portion of the battlefield and the far side had lacked an access point for motorists, forcing pedestrians to cross the busy roadway unprotected.
One of the ways in which the Trust is a notable partner for battlefield parks is the group’s ability to move swiftly when preservation opportunities arise and time is of the essence. The transaction must be completed and paid for by September 30, 2020, leaving the Trust just five weeks to raise $155,000 to match a major donor’s gift and meet the $310,000 purchase price.
“Although many, myself included, regard Antietam among the most bucolic and pristine battlefields in the Civil War’s Eastern Theater, there are still key portions unprotected,” said Lighthizer, “But few are more important than this one. What a legacy to leave for all future generations who will visit this place that not only altered the course of the Civil War, it turned the tide of American history.”
The Battle of Antietam marked the culmination of the Maryland Campaign, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s first invasion of the North. The Union strategic victory saw the Southern army retreat back into Virginia and offered President Abraham Lincoln the opportunity to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
But the cost was staggering, with nearly 23,000 total casualties. Legendary historian Bruce Catton described this portion of the Antietam Battlefield after four hours of the heaviest fighting of the entire Civil War thus: “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 12,000 men were lying on the ground dead or wounded.” The terrible human toll of war described by Catton are clearly illustrated in a map brought out of obscurity earlier this summer that shows the locations of more than 5,000 burials performed in the battle’s immediate aftermath. Previously unknown to historians, although a single known copy had made its way to the New York Public Library, the S.G. Elliott Burial Map is a remarkable resource for both interpretive and preservation planning. It clearly depicts more than 650 soldiers both from armies, as well as three dozen horses, buried on the 461 acres protected by the Trust to date.
Learn more about this effort at www.battlefields.org/antietam2020.
The American Battlefield Trust is dedicated to preserving America’s hallowed battlegrounds and educating the public about what happened there and why it matters today. The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization has protected more than 50,000 acres associated with the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Civil War. Learn more at www.battlefields.org.