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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
Dedicated in 1867, Antietam National Cemetery, located within the boundaries of the Antietam National Battlefield, is the final resting place for more than 4,700 Union soldiers killed at the Battle of Antietam and on other Maryland battlefields. Numerous monuments stand in both the cemetery and nearby battlefield to commemorate the Union and Confederate troops who fought in the battle. Antietam is one of 14 national cemeteries currently managed by the National Park Service. In addition to preserving the battleground of one of the Civil War’s bloodiest engagements, the National Park Service provides the public with the opportunity to learn more about the battle with a visitor center, tours, programs, and hiking trails.
In the early 1700s, German and English settlers established farms in the area around Sharpsburg. Along the rolling landscapes crossed by the Potomac River and Antietam Creek, farmers raised livestock and grew a variety of crops, including corn, wheat, and rye. By the 1800s, the area also could claim an efficient transportation network of turnpikes, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and the tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
The area’s farms and transport lines influenced Robert E. Lee’s decision to invade and occupy north-central Maryland in the fall of 1862. Lee’s Maryland Campaign of 1862 was the Confederacy’s first invasion of Union territory. Its goals were to open new sources to supply his army, influence upcoming mid-term elections in the U.S. Congress, and liberate Maryland, a Union but slave-holding border state.
Strong Union forces met Lee’s push into Maryland. Determined to control Harpers Ferry and South Mountain, Lee decided to make a stand at the village of Sharpsburg, just two miles north of the Potomac River and the borderline between Virginia and Maryland. The Confederate army captured Harpers Ferry and 12,000 Union soldiers, the largest surrender of U.S. soldiers until World War II. Confederate forces of more than 38,000 gathered on the west side of the village’s Antietam Creek, a tributary of the Potomac. The 75,000-strong Union army gathered east of the creek. At dawn on the morning of September 17, 1862, the Union led the first assault on Lee’s forces. Union assaults continued throughout the day, yet Confederate forces maintained a defensive line. The next day, a break in the hostilities allowed the armies to collect the wounded and the dead, and on the evening of September 18, the Confederate Army withdrew across the Potomac River and back to Virginia.
With the return of Confederate forces to Virginia, the Union army held the field. Five days after the battle, President Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation which freed enslaved persons in rebelling areas of the country. The final document dated 1 January, 1863, also provided for the service of African American soldiers and about 200,000 Americans of African descent joined the Union armed forces.
The battle carried a high cost for both sides. More than 12,000 Union soldiers were killed or wounded. Losses for the Confederacy were almost as high, with almost 10,000 killed or wounded. The threat of diseases, such as typhoid fever and cholera, necessitated quick burial. The dead were buried where they lay, which made cultivation of the fields impossible until the establishment of cemeteries.
The cemetery was dedicated on September 17, 1867. Ten years later, the U.S. Congress appropriated $15,000 to pay the debts of the cemetery, acquire the property, and turn the supervision and maintenance of the cemetery to the U.S. War Department. The War Department transferred the Antietam National Battlefield site and the national cemetery to the National Park Service in 1933.
The boundary of Antietam National Cemetery is trapezoidal, marked by a limestone wall and ornamental fencing dating to the cemetery’s original construction. The cemetery’s paths and graves form an amphitheater with a large monument at the center. The 44-foot tall granite memorial, known as the Private Soldier Monument, features a Union infantryman symbolically looking north toward home. Designed by James Baterson and sculpted by James Pollette, the monument was dedicated in September 1880.
A superintendent’s lodge is located near the cemetery’s main gate. Built in 1867, the small limestone lodge has been little altered and retains its Gothic Revival details. Designed according to a standard plan issued by the U.S. Army Quartermaster General’s office, the cemetery’s brick rostrum (speaking platform) dates from 1879.
The remains of 4,776 Union soldiers are interred in the cemetery. The graves of more than 1,800 unknowns are marked with a small square stone. The cemetery also contains the graves of veterans from the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II.
Antietam National Cemetery was closed to new interments in 1953. A few exceptions have been made, most notably in 2000 for Patrick Howard Roy, a local resident and United States Navy service member, who died in the October 12, 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole. Roy was buried at the cemetery on October 29, 2000.