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Antietam Battlefield

Caveat: I am not a military historian and I do not specialize in military sites archaeology. While the data were well-collected for this study and thoroughly reported in a peer-reviewed technical report, I make no claims to expertise and recognize that the interpretations below lack the authority of one better versed in Civil War history and archaeology. Corrections of all errors, whether of commission or omission, are greatly appreciated and will be considered in revisions to this page. And there you have it.

This report on which this page is based was accomplished with assistance from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. The statements, findings, conclusions, recommendations, and other data in the report and on this web page are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service.

Antietam map

Smoke and dust obscured the battlefield and the screams of men and horses, and the roar of artillery and small arms volleys, muted shouted orders. For one full day--September 17, 1862--the otherwise idyllic fields and woodlots of Sharpsburg, Washington County, Maryland, hosted chaos and carnage. For years afterward they bore the scars of that pivotal Civil War battle, the Battle at Antietam. Scholars--professional and avocational--have debated the battle ever since--who won, who lost, who exhibited greater courage or tactical skill. The debate isn't likely to end any time soon, but it is heartening to note that new data can still be brought to the discussion. In November 2006, assisted by Scott Lawrence (Grave Concerns) and Sarah Michailof (Straughan Environmental Services), I conducted an archaeological investigation of the overflow parking field in front of the Visitor Center at Antietam National Battlefield. The Federal Highway Administration commissioned the study, and the National Park Service issued in Antiquities permit under the provisions of the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. I summarize the work here.

The parking area lies just below and to the southwest of the Confederate artillery position held by Colonel Stephen D. Lee for a few hours on the day of the battle, and 400 ft south of the Dunker Church, which is on the west side of the Hagerstown Turnpike. "Bloody Lane" or "Sunken Lane" is about 600 ft to the south, and the infamous West Woods is directly across the turnpike. The crescent-shaped parking field lies in the midst of some of the best known, and bloodiest encounters of the battle, and by extension, of the Civil War.

Study area map

The Battle of Antietam

The Battle of Antietam is too well known to warrant more than a summary here and, in any case, has been researched and written upon by outstanding scholars better equipped to untangle the chaos of September 17, 1862 (Priest 1987; McPherson 2002). Briefly, General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, for several military and political reasons, invaded Maryland. Portions of his forces engaged General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac at South Mountain while General Jackson captured a poorly defended Harper’s Ferry, taking badly needed arms, clothing and other materiel from the Federal arsenal.

On the morning of September 17, the two forces met in the quiet farming community of Sharpsburg, Maryland, Confederate forces securing the town and establishing defensive positions in the West Woods (the area west of the Dunker Church and the Hagerstown Turnpike), at Piper Farm and the Sunken Lane, and on the heights above Burnside Bridge. Lee, reinforced by Jackson, defended northern and eastern approaches to the town and his western escape route across the Potomac River and through Shepherdstown. The direction of the battle was generally southerly along the Hagerstown Turnpike and southwesterly through the East Woods, and westerly and southwesterly across Antietam Creek into otherwise unremarkable places that now bear the names of “the Cornfield,” “Bloody Lane,” and “Burnside Bridge.”

Taggart 1859 Map

Thomas Taggart's1859 map of Washington County, Maryland (detail). The names and lines represent the farms of this prosperous agricultural community on the eve of the American Civil War. The Antietam National Battlefield Visitor Center is just north of Sharpsburg, on the east side of Hagerstown Turnpike, near the boundary between the Piper and Mumma farms.

Although the battle involved cavalry and artillery on both sides, infantry bore the brunt of the fighting. Long-range guns on the heights above Antietam Creek helped keep at bay the Confederate forces in the West Woods, and field artillery on both sides inflicted horrific casualties on foot soldiers engaged in attacks and counter-attacks, and while preparing for action. The vastly superior Federal forces (an estimated 87,000) stone-walled Lee’s 35,000 troops, and Lee returned to Virginia the following day, contributing his share of the more than 6,000 soldiers who died on the 17th and soon thereafter. The losses, the savagery, the misery defied comprehension by people of the day, as they do of people of this day. Scholars and Civil War ‘buffs’ have debated the battle since the day it was fought—who won, who lost, who exhibited greater courage or tactical skill—but the battle was a tactical loss for the Confederacy, effectively ending hopes of allying themselves with the British and French, and giving President Lincoln the moment that he felt he needed to proclaim emancipation, turning the war from a constitutional squabble into a moral crusade against slavery, at least from the perspective of foreign powers (McPherson 2002).

Archaeological Research at the Visitor Center

Metal detection
Scott surveying either side of a 300 ft measuring tape with a metal detector.

The Battle of Antietam, like many non-siege battle sites, poses interesting problems for archaeologists. The battle occurred during the course of a single day, from dawn to sometime past dusk. Priest (1987), drawing on official and personal accounts of participants and observers, recounted the various actions of the battle in a time series, shifting back and forth among the various fronts. Sterling and Manning-Sterling (2000), in an outstanding unpublished report, related some of their findings from a four-year archaeological study at the Battlefield to the movements of individual units (see also Sterling 2000; Sterling and Slaughter 2000; and Harbison 2000). Potter and Owsley (2000) even attempted to identify one of four burials, uncovered on private lands prior to federal acquisition. Their study is telling: even with military records, documenting ordinary individuals with a level of detail unmatched by any other source prior to the 20th century, they could not definitively identify the soldier. They could convincingly identify his unit. Battlefield archaeology is likely to continue to focus on individual units rather than on individuals, analogous to domestic sites archaeology ’s focus on households, the smallest analytical unit regularly addressed by current archaeological theory and methods. Accordingly, our work at Antietam Battlefield collected information on troop movements, even though many of the recovered objects were left at the site by individuals.

Shell Fragment
Shell fragment recovered with a metal detector, mapped, and catalogued..

Investigation of the overflow parking area (~2.2 acres) employed standard shovel testing combined with magnetic prospecting. Thirty-one shovel tests, measuring 1.5 by 1.5 ft were excavated at 50 ft intervals. The soils were screened through ¼-inch (6 mm) hardware mesh, although the soils were very clayey and damp and, as a consequence, were trowel-sorted within the screen rather than truly screened. In fact, the shovel testing produced no artifacts definitely associated with the battle.

Following shovel testing, six transects 25 ft apart were laid out with a nylon tape. The metal detector operator identified magnetic anomalies which the assistant marked with a pin flag. Prospecting proceeded without any attempt to discriminate on the basis of metal type.

Upon completion of the prospecting phase, the two-person team excavated a small hole at each marked anomaly and, using the metal detector, pinpointed and recovered the source or sources of the anomalous magnetic reading. Each object—if it proved to be pre-20th century—was collected and its location mapped in three-dimensions with a total station. Non-metal objects in these holes were also collected and their proveniences noted. Artifacts were placed in bags with numbers corresponding to those on the pin flags marking the anomalies.

The numbered pin flags, each representing one or more collected objects, were then mapped.

Upon completion of the prospecting phase, the two-person team excavated a small hole at each marked anomaly and, using the metal detector, pinpointed and recovered the source or sources of the anomalous magnetic reading. Each object—if it proved to be pre-20th century—was collected and its location mapped in three-dimensions with a total station. Non-metal objects in these holes were also collected and their proveniences noted. Artifacts were placed in bags with numbers corresponding to those on the pin flags marking the anomalies.

Minie ball
Scott Lawrence Jim the rodman

Minié ball. Same deal...recovered, mapped, and catalogued (upper right).Scott carefully mapping recovered artifacts. The Digmobile can be seen behind (lower left). The other half of the mapping team, rodman unidentified (lower right)

Back in the laboratory, we created a digital map that depicts the locations of our shovel tests, positive finds from the magnetic survey, and a host of landmarks that will allow future researchers to determine exactly where we found each of the recovered artifacts. We cleaned the artifacts and placed them in marked curatorial-quality bags with acid-free paper labels, and then catalogued the entire collection (144 objects), noting precise location of each find, the kind of object, and anything about the object that seemed particularly noteworthy. The entire collection was conveyed to the National Park Service facility outside of Washington, DC, where Marian Creveling of the National Park Service, National Capital Region, entered the catalogued data into the NPS cataloguing system.

The following two tables summarize the ordinance data:

Variety Type Form Dimensions

Weight (g.)

Total FS
Minié ball 2 ring Deformed 0.57" 38 1 M79
Minié ball   Laterally flattened 0.57" 32 1 M93
Minié ball 3 ring Deformed 0.57" 32 1 M68
Minié ball   Deformed N/A 22 1 M91
Minié ball   Lateral damage 0.53" 31 1 M95
Minié ball   Laterally flattened 0.58" 33 1 M16
Minié ball   Undamaged 0.57" 34 1 M82
Minié ball     0.59" 33 1 M80
Minié ball Williams Cleaner 3 ring Laterally flattened 0.59" 30 1 M73
Round Ball   Deformed 0.73" 24 1 M75
Round Ball     0.75 x 0.67 30 1 M71
Round Ball   Faceted 0.65" 27 1 M111
Round Ball     0.67" 27 1 M87
Round Ball       26 1 M89
Total    

 

 

14

 

 

FS

Variety

Form

Type

Dimensions

Estimated
Diameter

Element

Weight
(oz.)

M122

Friction fuse

 

Uncertain

1.5"

 

fragment

 

M124

Fuse plug

disk, two perforations

threaded

1 x 0.37"

 

complete

1

M41

Fuse plug

disk, one perforation

threaded

1 x 0.3"

 

complete

0.7

M20

Shell fragment

Conical

12-pdr?

3.25 x 1.1 x 0.5"

4.33

fragment

3.8

M35

Shell fragment

Conical

6-/12-pdr

2.7 x 1.8 x 0.57"

3.14

fragment

6.5

M4

Shell fragment

Spherical

12-pdr?

2.8 x 1.75 x 0.72"

4.33

fragment

9.5

M54

Shell fragment

Spherical?

24-pdr howitzer

2 x 0.425

5.51

Fill hole?

2.2

M67

Shell fragment

Conical

Hotchkiss

1.5 x 1.5 x 0.65"

3.14

fragment

3.5

M72

Shell fragment

Conical

6-/12-pdr

2 x 1 x 0.56"

3.14

fragment

2

M76

Shell fragment

Conical

3-inch/12-pdr

1.75 x 1 x 0.53"

2.75

fragment

2

M9

Shell fragment

Spherical?

24-pdr howitzer

1.9 x 0.5"

5.51

Fill hole

2.6

M92

Shell fragment

?

Uncertain

2 x 1.75 x 0.75"

?

fragment

4.8

And this map shows the spatial distributions of Small Arms, Artillery, and Equestrian artifacts:

Artifact distribution
This map illustrates the distributions of three classes of artifacts and the contours of the parking field in front of the Antietam National Battlefield Visitor Center.

Here's a quick tour of the artifacts that likely were left on the battlefield on September 17, 1862.

Horseshoe fragments

Some of the broken horseshoes recovered. All show hard wear.

 

Lead shot Minie balls

Round lead shot... buck and ball (muskets) or canister shot, perhaps cannon loads fired on advancing infantry and cavalry? (left). Recovered Minié balls, primarily in the .57 to .59 caliber range. Notice the severe deformation of several of the Minié balls (right).

Shell and fuze fragments
Shell and fuze fragments recovered from the parking field.

Neither individually nor collectively, the artifacts contribute nothing to our knowledge of the Battle at Antietam; except if we pay close attention to where we found them. The map above shows widely scattered artillery shell fragments. They may well have been from projectiles fired by Federal batteries from the heights above Antietam Creek at Colonel Stephen D. Lee's Confederate battery on the high ground next to what is now a visitor center.

The Small Arms projectiles are another matter. The narrow distribution fanning towards the west suggests an infantry attack, perhaps on Confederate positions in the West Woods, perhaps as a flanking maneuver on Colonel Lee's position. Additional investigation of the parking field (we only surveyed between 11% and 22% with the metal detector, our 5.5-ft transects being 25 ft apart).

The equestrian artifacts also are interesting. The toes and caulks of each shoe are heavily worn, suggesting hard riding and little attention from the unit farrier. A wagon wheel bearing (called a thimble skein) and part of an iron tire (called a strake) from a wagon indicate horse-drawn vehicles, not just cavalry mounts. And the cluster of artifacts in the northern part of the parking field might be from Colonel Lee's horses and limbers, kept in the relative safety (we did find shell fragments in the same area) of the low ground behind the battery.

What have we learned?

We did not locate and recover all of the metal artifacts that lie beneath the surface of the parking field, much less all of the artifacts that are present, metallic and non-metallic. But, through systematic recovery, mapping, cataloguing, analysis, and reporting, we have evidence of one or more military actions not otherwise detailed in such works as I have listed below. Future work can build on what we found, adding to the database and, perhaps, revising our conclusions.

To be sure, this is one minor action in massive engagement of nearly 125,000 soldiers; but the outcomes of battles can be directly effected by seemingly small, insignificant actions. Perhaps those ends were sought and the participants succeeded or failed. Perhaps the outcome was wholly unexpected by either side. Understanding the decisions that officers made, events often unfolding faster than they could be assessed, requires the analyst to first document those events and, if possible, the officers' perception of those events. Archaeology not only fills gaps in conventional records, but it recovers and analyzes material evidence that might conflict with written reports and reminiscences. It's a powerful tool, but it works best when the evidence has not been destroyed.

References Cited

Gibb, James G., and Sarah M. Michailof
2007  Phase II Archeological Site examination of Portions of Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, Washington County, Maryland. Project PRA-ANTI 300(1), 900(1). Straughan Environmental Services, Columbia, Maryland. Submitted to Federal Highway Administration, Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division, Sterling, Virginia.

Harbison, Jeffrey
2000  “Double the Cannister and Give ‘Em Hell”: Artillery at Antietam. In Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War, edited by Clarence R. Geier and Stephen R. Potter, pp. 348-359. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.

McPherson, James M.
2002  Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam. Oxford University Press, NY.

Potter, Stephen R., and Douglas W. Owsley
2000  An Irishman Dies at Antietam: An Archaeology of the Individual. In Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War, edited by Clarence R. Geier and Stephen R. Potter, pp. 56-72. University of Florida Press, Gainesville. Potter, Stephen R.,

Robert C. Sonderman, Marian C. Creveling, and Susannah L. Dean
2000  “No Maneuvering and Very Little Tactics”: Archaeology and the Battle of Brawner Farm. In Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War, edited by Clarence R. Geier and Stephen R. Potter, pp. 3-28. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.

Priest, John Michael
1989  Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle. Oxford University Press, NY.

Sterling, Bruce B.
2000  Archaeological Interpretations of the  Battle of Antietam through Analysis of Small Arms Projectiles. In Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War, edited by Clarence R. Geier and Stephen R. Potter, pp. 323-347. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.

Sterling, Bruce B., and Elise H. Manning-Sterling
2000  Antietam Battle on an Agrarian Landscape: A Study in Archeology. URS Greiner, Bethesda, Maryland. Submitted to the National Park Service, National Capital Region, Washington, DC.

Sterling, Bruce B., and Bernard W. Slaughter
2000  Surveying the Civil War: Methodological Approaches at Antietam Battlefield. In Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War, edited by Clarence R. Geier and Stephen R. Potter, pp. 305-322. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.

Taggart, Thomas
1859  A Map of Washington County, Maryland. V. McKee and C.G. Robertson, Philadelphia. [Wall map, Washington County Courthouse.]

 

 
 

 

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