Antietam's stone Observation Tower was built during the War Department's era of battlefield preservation and interpretation. In 1890, congressional legislation gave the War Department oversight of the Antietam Battlefield Commission to preserve and maintain the battle lines from the September 17, 1862 Battle of Antietam. Until 1933, when administration of the battlefield transferred to the National Park Service, the War Department was the steward of Antietam and many other Civil War battlefield sites for commemorative and educational purposes. The preserved landscapes were meant to honor the dead and serve as open- air classrooms for military study
Built to provide a commanding view of the Antietam Battlefield, this structure was constructed by local workers using primarily local resources and materials such as native limestone. Rising nearly sixty feet, the tower enabled visitors to have a better view of the Antietam battlefield. The surrounding topography lacked elevated natural land features, making it difficult at times to envision the battlefield landscape as a whole. As part of a new preservation plan developed between 1890 and 1895, the tower also allowed visitors to view battlefield land still held in private ownership by local Sharpsburg residents. The "Antietam Plan" preserved narrow strips of land, maintaining the rural agricultural landscape while simultaneously providing access to key battle locations. With limited access to most of the battlefield, the Tower provided a commanding 360 degree view. While a fair portion of returning war veterans made use of the Observation Tower, its construction also reflected an increase in tourism at the turn of the century. Whether utilized by veterans or the larger tourist population, the Tower demonstrates the War Department's physical impact on the landscape of the Antietam Battlefield.