Back Story: 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam

On a sunny, humid day 150 Septembers ago, the fate of a nation seemingly converged at a diminutive rural Western Maryland village called Sharpsburg.

There, 87,000 federal troops under the command of Union Gen. George Brinton McClellan met the overconfident Army of Northern Virginia, some 40,000 strong, that had been victorious in its recent battle at Manassas and was under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee.


The Battle of Antietam, fought on Sept. 17, 1862, took its name from Antietam Creek, which wandered through the battlefield. Union and Confederate forces slugged it out at the Lower Bridge, later renamed the Burnside Bridge for Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, whose troops eventually secured and crossed the bridge.

By the end of the battle, there were 22,000 Union and Confederate casualties — with some 6,000 killed in 12 hours — and 5,000 of them fell trying to take a muddy, rutted, sunken country lane that was thereafter known as Bloody Lane.


The battle ended in a stalemate, but it marked the bloodiest day of the Civil War. The terrible battle at Antietam would forever remain in the American consciousness, later joined by the hideous loss of life at Shiloh, Cold Harbor, Gettysburg and Frederickburg.

While tactically of little consequence to either side, Lee's advance into Maryland was stopped, and McClellan's command would also become a casualty of Antietam.

Because he had not been aggressive enough in checking the withdrawal of Lee's forces across the Potomac into Virginia, he was relieved of his command by President Abraham Lincoln.

The battles of Antietam and Gettysburg and Confederate Gen. Jubal Early's occupation of Frederick will be highlighted in an hour-long Maryland Public Television documentary, "The Heart of the Civil War," which will air at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Framed on the north by the Mason-Dixon line and the Union, and on the south by the Potomac River and the Confederacy, Maryland inevitably found itself the setting of some of the fiercest, most brutal battles of the Civil War.

Lincoln knew that keeping Maryland — with its railroads and turnpikes, proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, manufacturing capabilities in Baltimore, and location as the gateway to Washington — in the Union was critical to the nation's survival.

Carroll, Frederick and Washington counties make up the heart of Maryland's Civil War heritage area.

Christopher E. Haugh, a Frederick historian who is scenic byway and special projects manager for the Tourism Council of Frederick County, which produced the documentary in partnership with MPT, was its research historian.


"I grew up in Frederick and my father forced history on me, plus we had all of this history in our backyard, and the landscape had been witness to the history of the Civil War," Haugh said in a recent interview.

"The war came to their door and they saw the ugly part, as Hagerstown and Frederick were major hospital centers. And the townspeople here cared for the wounded, sick and the dying," he said. "And even after the battles were over, they'd plow their fields and find the dead."

Haugh hopes that the documentary inspires people to visit the battlefields that shaped the war.

"There are nearby premier historic sites, and they are at their disposal," he said.

Michael English, an Emmy Award-winning MPT executive producer and writer, directed the documentary.

"I think it is a regional story that isn't so widely known," he said. "This whole thing was Chris' brainchild, and he wanted to tell stories and give them a deeper appreciation of what happened here, and he did a good job."


English was also thrilled that he was able to do location shooting.

"That's the great thing about shooting in Maryland. You can go to the actual location and they are authentic, and the camera sees what it almost looked like during the Civil War," he said. "We are very lucky. The Park Service has done an amazing job preserving those areas."

The only scene, said English, that was not filmed on location was Corbit's Charge. It took place on June 29, 1863, in Westminster, when Rebel and Union troops clashed in a five-minute skirmish that left four dead.

"Back then, Westminster was a sleepy little hamlet; today it is a bustling small city. There was no way we could transform that with galloping horses and everything else, so we shot it in Virginia," he said.