The Impact of the Battle of Antietam on the Civilians of Sharpsburg
Originally published in Winter 2006 in the Surgeon’s Call
Prior to the battle, some of the residents of Sharpsburg and the surrounding area fled with their families, while others remained in their homes. Many of the men drove their horses and livestock north for protection, leaving their families behind. Civilians were affected by the battle in many ways, including the loss of property and crops, damage from artillery shelling, and the hardships brought on by their homes being used as field hospitals. Other impacts included the persistent smell from the battlefield where many of the bodies of soldiers and horses lay only half-covered, the abrupt change in the look of the landscape since farm fences were gone and landmarks burned or damaged, and a strange silence that was noted by one of the residents after the armies had left:
“You couldn’t hear a dog bark nowhere, you couldn’t hear no birds whistle or no crows caw. There wasn’t no birds around till the next spring. We didn’t even see a buzzard with all the stench…The farmers didn’t have no chickens to crow…It was a curious silent world.”
Citizens Take Refuge
The village of Sharpsburg was controlled by the Confederate Army and therefore was a target for Union artillery. The Kretzer family had chosen to stay in town rather than flee. They had a large home on East Main Street, and many residents congregated there to take shelter in the spacious cellar with thick stone walls and a spring. Most of the residents seeking refuge were women, children and the elderly, including one new mother who had given birth on September 10th. Chairs, benches and blankets were brought into the cellar for comfort and the citizens remained there for days because of the constant shelling. On the day of the battle, six Confederate soldiers who were tired of fighting joined the people in the cellar.
“A number of babies were there, and several dogs, and every time the firing began extra hard the babies would cry and the dogs would bark. Often the reports were so loud, they shook the walls. Occasionally a woman was quite unnerved and hysterical, and some of those old aged men would break out in prayer.” Theresa Kretzer
The Sharpsburg area was full of prosperous farms, and in September 1862, the bountiful crops were awaiting harvest or had already been stored for winter use. The entire area suffered due to the battle and the presence of two armies. Besides the damage done by shelling, many residents lost food, clothing and other valuables. The Union Army remained camped in the area until late October and needed food for themselves and their horses, plus fuel for their fires. As a result, the local farmers lost livestock, crops, fences, and food that was put away for the winter. Even the land suffered, since the tillable soils were compacted due to the occupying armies. Horses were particularly valuable, both to the army and to the farmers since they were needed to plant and harvest crops. Most of the horses in the Sharpsburg vicinity were taken by either the Confederate or Union armies as cavalry mounts and draft animals for the supply wagons and ambulances. Some farmers attempted to hide their horses–Samuel Poffenberger hid his eight horses in the cellar with their feet muffled in feed sacks. Very few horses were left in the area by the time the Union Army departed.
“The farms between here and there are completely desolated–fences and trees destroyed and everything moveable and of value stolen. What the Rebels left the Unionists finished. You have no idea of the damage done just by the passage of an army through their own land even when all is done possible to save property. The man with whom I stop has not an apple, peach, sweet or Irish potato left. He would have had great quantity of each had no army passed this way.” William Child, Assistant Surgeon, 5th New Hampshire Infantry
The Roulette Farm
William and Margaret Roulette and their five children lived on a farm bordered by the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane). They were pressured to leave but decided to remain on the property, staying in the cellar throughout battle. The Roulette’s beehives were overturned during the fighting, and the angry insects attacked the men of the 132nd Pennsylvania Infantry, adding to their discomfort.
The Roulette farm was used as a field hospital by the Union Army. Planks for operating tables were set up in the large barn and straw was laid down for the comfort of the wounded. Parts of the house were also used, and William Roulette received a detailed accounting of his household goods that were taken for hospital purposes, signed by Surgeon Philo G. Rockwell. Beds, pillows, bedding, carpets, tablecloths, kitchen furniture and crockery were all utilized by the Medical Department. In addition, there were at least 700 soldiers buried on the farm, and Roulette submitted a claim to the government for nine acres of ground that could not be seeded “in consequence of the army,” due to the poor condition of the soil. A more personal tragedy also befell the family when their youngest daughter Carrie May died in October 1862.
The Mumma Farm
Samuel Mumma, his wife Elizabeth and their eight children, ages 11 to 26, lived on a prosperous farm north of Sharpsburg near the Dunker Church. The Confederate Army established their line close to the farm and urged the Mumma family to leave for safety, which they did. Their home was ransacked, and later the house and barn were deliberately burned to prevent them from being used by Union sharpshooters. The Mummas lost everything–house, barn, crops, livestock, personal belongings–and their losses exceeded $10,000. Unfortunately, since their property was destroyed by the Confederate Army, the Federal Government would not compensate them for their losses. The Mummas stayed at the Joseph Sherrick farm until their own farm was rebuilt in the spring of 1863. In addition to the destruction of property, fifty-five dead horses littered the farm and Samuel Mumma dragged them to the East Woods and burned them.
Henry and Elizabeth Piper
Henry and Elizabeth Piper’s farm was located north of Sharpsburg on the Sharpsburg-Hagerstown Turnpike. It was just behind the center of the Confederate line and was used by Confederate Generals James Longstreet and D. H. Hill as their headquarters. The officers pressed the family to leave, so they went to the farm of Henry’s brother Samuel near the Potomac River, leaving nearly everything behind. They returned on September 19th to find wounded men in every room of their home and the barn damaged by shells. Union soldiers encamped on the property for several weeks after the battle, eventually butchering nearly all of the Piper’s livestock and consuming their crops. The Piper’s losses also included fencing, household items such as goblets and decanters, and a large quantity of ladies’ clothing.
Assisting the Wounded
Many local citizens helped tend to the wounded soldiers on the battlefield, even as early as the evening of September 17th. One pregnant woman in town had torn the family’s clothing and bedding into strips for bandages, packed water and goose grease into containers, and headed out to assist the wounded with her young children in tow. When families returned home and found their houses and barns taken over for hospitals, they usually helped care for the injured soldiers. Local women also volunteered at the large field hospitals. They brought food and delicacies, bandaged wounds, helped write and deliver letters, and read to the soldiers to help lift their spirits. Women who were members of local Ladies Aid Societies gathered food and supplies to be distributed among the hospitals. Other citizens opened their homes to the people who came to the battlefield searching for their loved ones. Local men were hired to help with the overwhelming task of burying the dead. Few were unaffected by the magnitude of the suffering caused by the battle.
Martin Eakle, a forty-seven year old miller from Keedysville, drove a carriage up to Capt. William M. Graham’s Battery K of the First Union Artillery on the west side of the creek near Antietam Bridge. The battery was under heavy fire at the time, so the soldiers were surprised to see a civilian on the battlefield. Eakle handed out biscuits, ham and whiskey, then took several wounded gunners to a field hospital, since they were in dire need of medical attention. Eakle then came back for a second load of wounded men. He made additional trips onto the battlefield that day, helping all the soldiers he could. Eakle was not wounded but one of his horses sustained an injury.