Located in Sharpsburg, Maryland, Antietam National Battlefield is a battlefield park operated by the National Park Service, commemorating the 1862 Battle of Antietam, a decisive American Civil War battle that is credited as directly leading to President Abraham Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Fought on September 17, 1862, the Battle of Antietam was part of the Maryland Campaign of the American Civil War, during which Confederate General Robert E. Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia in a strategic invasion of the Union.
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Following the Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Manassas during the prior month, Lee felt that military action in Maryland was necessary in advance of the upcoming midterm elections, as the state was divided in its sympathies to Union and Confederate ideologies. As the first major engagement of the war to take place within Union territory, the battle followed Lee’s advancement over the Potomac River into nearby Frederick and the subsequent advancement of Union Major General George B. McClellan’s troops. Following an earlier skirmish at South Mountain on September 14, the one-day battle near Antietam Creek proved to be the deadliest single-day conflict in American history, resulting in a death toll of more than 22,000 soldiers, predominantly among Confederate troops. Though the battle was considered a victory for Union troops, a lack of tactical success on McClellan’s part allowed Lee’s army to retreat back into Virginia, and McClellan’s refusal to pursue Confederate troops upon retreat is credited with his removal from command of Union troops that November. The Union victory was considered decisive enough, however, for President Lincoln to use the victory as a catalyst for announcing his Emancipation Proclamation, a January 1863 executive order that declared the legal freedom of all enslaved people residing within Confederate states once they could reach a Union territory.
Following the American Civil War, the Antietam battlefield was preserved as a National Battlefield Site on August 30, 1890. In 1933, control of the battlefield site, along with all other similar park units, was transferred from the United States War Department to the National Park Service. The battlefield was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, along with all other units overseen by the National Park Service.
Permanent Attractions and Exhibits
Today, Antietam National Battlefield encompasses more than 3,000 acres in western Maryland’s Washington County, approximately 10 miles from the city of Hagerstown. A Visitor Center, opened in 1962 and located in nearby Sharpsburg, serves as an entrance point for the battlefield site, containing museum exhibits on the battle’s significance within the larger context of the American Civil War. A theater offers periodic showings of a 26-minute orientation film, narrated by noted voice actor James Earl Jones.
The 11-acre Antietam National Cemetery is located next to the battlefield park, containing the final resting places of nearly 5,000 soldiers, including many unidentified Civil War soldiers. Commissioned in 1865, the cemetery only interred Union soldiers during the Civil War, with Confederate soldiers buried at the nearby Washington Confederate and Mt. Olivet Cemeteries. Today, the cemetery is recognized as part of the National Cemetery System and contains gravesites for soldiers killed during 20th century American conflicts up to the Korean War. A Private Soldier Monument stands at the cemetery’s center, weighing 250 tons and reaching a height of 44 feet. The monument, created by artist James Pollette and dedicated in 1880, depicts a soldier colloquially referred to as “Old Simon” and contains the inscription “not for themselves, but for their country.”
The Pry House Field Hospital Museum, located within the battlefield’s historic Pry House, contains exhibits detailing 19th-century care practices for those wounded in battle. Other historic sites within the battlefield include the Dunker Church building and the Burnside Bridge. A variety of hiking trails are offered within the battlefield park, including the ¼-mile paved Antietam Remembered Walkway, the Bloody Lane Trail, which retraces a key battlefield path, and the picturesque Three Farms Trail.
Ongoing Programs and Education
Interpretive talks by park rangers are offered daily at the battlefield’s Visitor Center, with expanded ranger programming offered throughout the summer months. Visitors may also purchase an audio tour at the Center, meant as an accompaniment to the park’s 8.5-mile driving path. Field trip opportunities are offered for elementary and secondary school students, incorporating Maryland curriculum requirements, and distance learning materials are also offered, including web conference presentations bringing park rangers directly into classrooms. A Junior Ranger program offers participation badges and certificates for young visitors in exchange for completion of park activities. Public programming is held annually on the anniversary of the battle, including ranger-led hikes, weapons demonstrations, and a formal keynote address.
P.O. Box 158, Sharpsburg, MD 21782, Phone: 301-432-5124