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Historical Diversion   Leave a comment

Historical Diversion;

Cycling Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, MD:

Cycling is a pastime that frequently takes us to new and interesting places.  Those that know me well know that I am a self-professed history “nerd” of the highest order.  The fact that I am NOT a cyclist of the highest order is also well-known!  In spite of this, I recently had the chance to combine my “nerdy” passion for history with my devotion to our two-wheeled friend.

An upcoming trip to Washington, DC had me dreading the awful parking lot that is the I-95 corridor between New York and Maryland.  Surely there must be a better way to get there, I thought.  A review of Google Maps indeed showed a more westerly route that added several miles but that might be devoid of traffic and the all-too-familiar monotony of the New Jersey Turnpike.  The fact that a more westerly route also passed many famous Civil War battlefields was an added draw.  Having already visited Gettysburg, I set my sights on the Antietam National Battlefield in central Maryland.

A quick visit to the park’s web-site yielded a wealth of information on the history of the battle and “things to do” when visiting.  The following advice was given; “The best way to view the battlefield is to take the self-guided driving tour. The tour road is 8½ miles long with 11 stops. Most visitors drive the route, but walking and biking are encouraged.”  Interesting!  I was planning on bringing my trusty steed to DC, anyway…could I tour the battlefield by bike?  A plan began to take shape and I left for Maryland on a Friday morning in early September.

Interestingly, the battle took place on a mid-September day (the 17th to be exact).  Global warming aside, I would be riding the battlefield’s roads in similar seasonal weather conditions.  All the better to somewhat appreciate the heat and humidity that the thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers experienced on that terrible day in 1862.  The present day did not disappoint…on opening the car door when I arrived, I was slapped rudely by the 90 degree heat and 90% humidity of a late-summer day in rural Maryland.  I quickly changed into my cycling gear in the park’s visitor center and took a brief look around to get my bearings.  I also procured the park’s brochure and map (entry fee; $4…gladly paid to support our National Park Service).  I brought a small backpack to carry my camera, spare shoes and a bike lock (in case I had to leave my expensive “friend” somewhere to take an exploratory hike).  My one mistake was only bringing one water bottle…this wasn’t going to be a long ride, right??

Always believing that “the best defense is a good offense”, Confederate General Robert E. Lee launched his first “invasion of the north” in the late summer of 1862.  Thinking that a major victory on Union soil would make the Union think twice about pursuing the war, Lee’s army invaded Maryland in early September.  It was also hoped that such a victory would bring foreign recognition (and aid) to the fledgling Confederate States of America.  Union General George McClellan, and his grand Army of the Potomac, were sent to confront Lee.  The two great armies met on the shores of Antietam Creek near the village of Sharpsburg.

The bloodiest single day in American military history (23,000 combined casualties) began early on that September morning with a massive Union attack on the Confederate left flank.  The tour begins at the old Dunker Church in the northwestern corner of the park and follows the battle chronologically from morning to midday to afternoon.  A modest white building, the church seems very serene today…a far cry from the carnage that raged around it, for it was the Union army’s objective that morning.  The church was riddled with bullets and artillery fire but was still standing by day’s end.  It has since been restored and now serves as a symbol of peace on this former killing ground.

I began my ride in earnest now, cycling a long loop around the battlefield’s northern reaches.  The rolling Maryland farmland was perfect for cycling and the park road well-maintained.  Great effort has been expended by the NPS to try and keep the battlefield as it was back in the 1860s.  I truly appreciated my tax dollars at work!

The Union attack on the Confederate left flank traversed a large cornfield which ultimately attained infamy for the indescribable horrors that occurred there.  Most students of history will instantly recognize the name “the bloody cornfield” as symbolic of the many tragedies of Antietam.  Union soldiers emerged from the cornfield that morning straight into massed Confederate rifle and artillery fire.  They were slaughtered and retreated.  Union artillery then showered the cornfield with canister fire…the equivalent of gigantic shotgun blasts…which cut entire Confederate regiments to ribbons.  The cornfield then descended into a hellish cauldron of hand to hand combat, changing hands 15 times in the space of an hour.  Union forces eventually reached the Dunker Church but were decimated in the process and unable to hold their “prize” for long.  Confederate counter-attacks drove them back and left the cornfield a bloody stalemate.

Today, the field is peaceful with rows of corn waving gently in the late summer breeze.  It’s bucolic rural beauty belying the horrors that occurred there.


In spite of the heat, I was beginning to realize something…that riding the battlefield’s roads was an excellent way to appreciate the intricacies of the terrain and what the soldiers on both sides had to deal with that day.  A cyclist is uniquely attuned to topography…something about powering your way up a hill (and the effort that it entails) gives you a better perspective on the lay of the land!  The battlefield itself, surrounding the small hamlet of Sharpsburg, Maryland, is hilly indeed.  The Confederates held the high ground and the Union attacks all went uphill for the most part.

By midday, the battle had shifted to the Confederate center with Union attacks converging on a sunken road through the farmland.  Confederate troops had fortified the road into an almost impregnable fortress which, due to the undulating nature of the terrain, was invisible to attacking Union soldiers until it was too late.  Waves of Union attacks broke upon the sunken road with horrific casualties on both sides.  The road eventually fell to a Union flanking attack and by the afternoon, heaped mounds of bodies littered the road in all directions.  This sunken road would eventually bear the name, “bloody lane”…another synonym for the horror of Antietam.  Photographs of the Bloody Lane after the battle were among the first photographic images of war ever published in America and they brought the horrors of the war home to newspaper readers in the North.  Today the sunken road is well-preserved and it is easy to see how it was such a major obstacle to Union forces.



A large tower marks the mid-point of the tour and it was here that my bike lock came in handy…not that there are many bicycle thieves among history nerds, but you never know!  I locked my friend to a sign and climbed the tower.  A welcome breeze and beautiful vista greeted me at the top with endless miles of farmland stretching out in all directions.  Numerous monuments to various Union and Confederate regiments dotted the battlefield below.  Descending the tower, I was happy to find my trusty friend still waiting for me.  We joined forces again and continued our ride.

The road now became seriously fun…if one can have fun in such a somber setting.  A long, winding downhill led to the southern end of the park and the battle’s final chapters.  The famous Burnside Bridge straddles the Antietam Creek which gives the battlefield its name.  The southern-most of three creek crossings on the battlefield, the bridge became the focal point of the Union’s final thrust against the Confederate right flank late in the day.  A small group of Georgia riflemen held the high ground overlooking the bridge and beat back numerous Union attempts to cross the bridge before finally running out of ammunition and retreating.  Union troops eventually poured across the bridge after suffering heavy losses.  Today, as with other battlefield landmarks, the bridge is peaceful with the burbling creek coursing beneath.  It is easy to appreciate the heights where the Confederates rained fire down upon the Union soldiers attempting their crossing.


All cyclists know that what comes down must go up.  The rangers in the visitor’s center had warned me about the long hill that had to be climbed on the return trip.  Running low on water at this point (should’ve brought TWO bottles!), the hill was indeed challenging in the afternoon heat.  Union troops attacked the Confederate right flank up this same hill and came close to breaking their line.  Only a desperate counter-attack by late-arriving Confederate reinforcements saved the rebels from total defeat.  Climbing the hill on a bike again revealed the difficult nature of the battlefield’s terrain.  A perspective one could not appreciate in a car with the assistance of an internal combustion engine!  Union troops, near the point of exhaustion, climbed this hill directly into Confederate rifle fire.  Many of these Union soldiers now lie buried in the Antietam National Cemetery in the town of Sharpsburg itself, near the end of the tour.


A mile-long, gentle climb was all that remained of the ride and I spun easily up the road on my return to the visitor center and my car.  A thunderstorm gathered to the west and I reflected on a most interesting and sobering ride.  Although my Garmin barely registered 10 miles for the entire park loop, I felt as if I’d traveled much farther…a journey not measured by mere distance but by the passage of time.  With stops and photo-ops, my ride had lasted only an hour and a half, yet it seemed so much longer.  The beauty of the landscape, the rolling terrain and the grim knowledge of the slaughter that occurred here, all came together to affect me as few rides ever have.  Although a stalemate, the battle constituted a strategic Union victory as Lee’s battered and outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia had to retreat the next day.  Lee’s first “invasion of the north” was a failure.  Lincoln used the “victory” as a springboard to issue the Emancipation Proclamation…yet the war continued on.

A great ride under my belt, I too, continued on to Washington, DC, about an hour away.  Although the area around Sharpsburg promises more great cycling, I was pressed for time and (reluctantly) had to return to the present.  Cycling again had given me an unexpected gift…a unique perspective on a great, though tragic moment in our nation’s history.  I hope my two-wheeled friend and I will have more such historical diversions in the future.


– Rick Stafford, Katonah, NY (9/9/14)


Battlefield Map; rick cemetary rick church fence rick field rick


Posted September 10, 2014 by bicycleworldny in Uncategorized

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