SHARPSBURG — — The fighting that killed or wounded 21,000 Americans in the rolling hills of Western Maryland was over in about 12 grisly hours.
But a century and a half after the bloodiest day in American military history, the struggle to preserve the ground where Union and Confederate soldiers fought the Battle of Antietam only now appears close to a declaration of victory.
As Americans gather to honor the sacrifice of those who fell on Sept. 17, 1862 — as they will do this weekend and Monday on the 150th anniversary — they will do so at one of the nation's best-preserved Civil War sites.
Unlike many of the places where Union and Confederate forces clashed, Antietam offers visitors the opportunity to view the terrain much as it appeared at the time without the visual clutter of the 20th and 21st centuries.
"It's a remarkable success story of historic preservation," said O. James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust. "Antietam is the best-preserved Civil War battlefield east of Shiloh" in western Tennessee.
The prospects for Antietam's preservation didn't always appear so hopeful. For three straight years, 1989 to 1991, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Antietam among its 11 most threatened historic places because of the threat of encroaching development.
Now the national trust considers Antietam a model of public-private cooperation to preserve historic land — not just on the battlefield, but in the surrounding area.
"At Antietam, the context for the battlefield also is conserved," said Rob Nieweg, director of the trust's Washington field office. "The public in 2012 or 2050 will have the opportunity to envision what happened here."
Antietam was a turning point. Coming after a string of Union defeats at the hands of Robert E. Lee, it was just enough of a victory to allow Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation from a position of strength. That act, freeing the slaves in the rebellious states, changed the character of the war and the country.
The battle was the culmination of a campaign in which Lee — fresh off his successful defense of Richmond and a brilliant victory at Second Manassas — launched an invasion of Maryland, a slave state he believed was ready to be detached from the Union.
Over a two-week period, his troops seized Frederick and Hagerstown and fought the second-bloodiest battle in Maryland history at South Mountain – where 4,000 were killed and wounded 150 years ago Friday. Pushed off the mountain by a superior Union force, Lee consolidated his troops in an arc around Sharpsburg, a small Washington County town where some buildings still bear the scars of battle.
Antietam was hell in three phases.
At the Cornfield, where the battle started at dawn on Sept. 17, it is still possible to envision the rustling of fully grown stalks as thousands of attacking Union soldiers moved toward the clearing where Confederate defenders waited to mow them down.
Union troops pushed as far as the historic Dunker Church — now restored — before being thrown back by a deadly counterattack by well-concealed Confederates in the West Woods. The back-and-forth fighting was as deadly as any engagement of the war; one Texas regiment emerged with 82 percent of its soldiers dead or wounded.
Brian Baracz, a National Park Service ranger, said the carnage during the first phase of the battle was some of the worst of the entire war. "There was a soldier killed or wounded every second for four hours straight," he said. The patch of ground became the "bloodiest square mile in the history of the United States."
Along the sunken road where the second phase of the battle erupted in the middle of the field later that morning, it is readily apparent how a strong Southern defensive position became a death trap once two New York regiments seized the high ground and began firing into the Rebel flank. Filled with corpses, a section of the road would forever be known as Bloody Lane.
But by the time Union troops made their breakthrough, they were too shot up and exhausted to pursue the fleeing Rebels. Historians still debate whether Union commander Gen. George McClellan squandered an opportunity to end the war then and there by failing to throw in his reserves.
At the Burnside Bridge, where the Union launched its third attack of the battle, fighting continued through the afternoon. Viewing the bridge today, it is easy to imagine the terror of young Northerners ordered to cross Antietam Creek on a narrow span with the enemy shooting down from the heights. With a superb defensive position, a small force of Georgians repulsed two waves of Union attackers, including the 2nd Maryland.
But the eventual Union breakthrough at the bridge left the exhausted Confederate army in peril. It was only the late arrival of 3,000 troops under Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill, who had made a 17-mile march from Harpers Ferry that day, that saved Lee's army.
Susan Trail, superintendent of the Antietam National Battlefield Park, said that after Antietam, it was clear that the North was in the fight for the long haul. "After this point, there was not going to be a negotiated peace," she said. "It was becoming increasingly evident this was an all-or-nothing war."
In the 1890s, Antietam became one of the first five Civil War battlefields — along with Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Shiloh and Chattanooga — to be put under the administration of the War Department as a park. At the time, said Baracz, one of the chief reasons given was to set aside these places as outdoor classrooms for students of military science.
The tower that now stands near the middle of the battlefield above Bloody Lane was built so soldiers in training — not tourists — could study the terrain, he said. Cadets from West Point and Mids from Annapolis still come to learn from the fight.
At the time of the park's creation, a group of historians and battle veterans drew up a map of about 3,000 acres encompassing the main areas of combat. Within that area, the government was permitted to acquire land for preservation as it came on the market and if funds were available.
For many years, the National Park Service, which took over the park in the 1930s, owned only a fraction of the most sensitive sites. But in the two decades since the National Trust's warning, the pace of acquisition picked up as the federal government stepped up funding. Baracz said the park service now owns about 2,100 acres in the core battle area — over half of which was acquired in the past 12 to 15 years.
For visitors to the park, that has meant a much different experience, Baracz said. With more land in public hands, the park has been able to create a 12-mile trail system that allows visitors to trace the course of the battle on foot.
While the park service was increasing its holdings in the core battle area, state officials and private conservation groups were moving aggressively to protect the approaches to Antietam and South Mountain from intrusive development. In the early 1990s, under Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Maryland became a pioneer in the use of federal transportation dollars and Program Open Space to preserve farmland along the roadways leading to battle sites.
Today the battlefield is not only a place of remembrance, but an economic engine for Western Maryland. According to Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research firm, attendance grew from about 280,000 in 2005 to more than 390,000 in 2010 with an economic impact that year of almost $20 million.
Tom Clemens, president of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation, said there are still important properties on and around the battlefield he'd like to see conserved – either by acquisition or easements. But he said there is still some local opposition from property rights advocates.
"When you try to save anything, they argue that you're trying to save everything," he said.
Lighthizer said he'd like to see some of the 1950s-era ranch homes that line Route 65 overlooking the battlefield acquired and torn down. Eventually, he'd like to see the visitor center built at the heart of the battlefield in 1961 moved to a less central location. But he sees no imminent threat of a subdivision or strip mall popping up where armies once clashed.
"Antietam is 95 percent of the way there," he said.
A full programs of lectures, tours, commemorations and other events will be held Saturday through Monday at the Antietam battlefield. Highlights include:
Hikes designed to offer an overview of significant battlefield areas. Each is about one mile and will last approximately about 90 minutes.
•10:00 a.m. Cornfield and West Woods, start at the visitor center
•12:30 p.m. Bloody Lane, start at the visitor center
•2:00 p.m. Burnside Bridge, start at Tour Stop 9
Longer hikes. Each is about 2.5 miles and 3 hours.
•9:00 a.m. Burnside Bridge and the Final Attack, start at Tour Stop 9.
•2:00 p.m. Prelude to Battle, start at the visitor center
•3 p.m. Remembrance ceremony at Antietam National Cemetery.
More information at baltimoresun.com