War comes to Sharpsburg

When you ask someone to name some of the battles of the American Civil War the Battle of Antietam always comes out near the top. The name is instantly recognizable to even the most casual history buff. On one brutal Wednesday in September more men became casualties than on any other single day in American history. For 150 years now historians have debated the actions (or inaction) of the commanders, examined the experiences of the soldiers, and mapped the movements of various formations across the rolling hills of western Maryland. I’m actually in process of working through Ezra Carman’s monumental trilogy on the Maryland campaign right now. Although over a century old at this point his work is still the go-to on the campaign and I can understand why. A Civil War officer himself, Carman brings his own experience to bear when describing the movements and actions that led to that fateful day. I also recently picked up a copy of Scott Hartwig’s To Antietam Creek, but at over 800 pages it’ll be a while before I get too far into that one.

Needless to say I’m on a little bit of a Maryland Campaign kick right now, and I’m working on some interesting material as soon as I get a free weekend to go exploring. In the meantime I want to take a closer look at the town of Sharpsburg itself. Almost all of the information relating to the town during the Civil War looks at the community through the lens of the Battle of Antietam. And why not? It was the bloodiest day in American history, and for months after the battle townspeople were left picking up the pieces. Their homes and churches were filled with dead and dying men. Their fields and pastures were covered with the hastily buried dead. Hungry armies had stripped their barns and smokehouses of provisions just as fall began to set in. It was no doubt the single most traumatic experience that the citizens of Sharpsburg endured. But what about the townspeople before the battle? How did the coming of war touch Sharpsburg in the year and a half before battle came to their very doorsteps?

In 1861 Sharpsburg was a small but relatively prosperous community nestled between Antietam Creek and the Potomac River. Originally settled in the 1760 by German and Swiss farmers, the town had grown to over 650 residents by the 1860s, and was a commercial center for the surrounding farms. Mills lined the banks of Antietam Creek, while just south of town was the Antietam Iron Works. In the 1830s the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal reached the vicinity, tapping Sharpsburg into a larger trade network that would dominate the Upper Potomac in the coming decades. In many ways Sharpsburg was not unlike the countless other towns that dotted western Maryland, southern Pennsylvania, and northwest Virginia.

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Detail from Taggert’s Map of Washington County, 1859 (Archives of Maryland)

As the clouds of war began to gather in 1860 the citizens of Sharpsburg began to organize themselves into militia companies and in March of that year a company of 47 men was formed (1). As the deep south plunged into secession and the upper south wavered the people of Sharpsburg, as in many towns across western Maryland, made it clear that their sympathy was with the Union. In February 1861 a 115 foot tall Liberty Pole was erected in town, to the wild enthusiasm of over 500 onlookers. Among the crowd was the rifle company, now known as the Sharpsburg Rifles and under the command of Captain R. E. Cook (2). I’ve mentioned Cook before, but to refresh Roger Ellsworth Cook was a native of the north – either Connecticut or New York – and had come to Sharpsburg in the 1830s to work on the Canal. By the time he took command of the Sharpsburg Rifles he was in his early 50s and had been working as a teacher (3). Cook addressed the assembled crowd and promised full support for the Union and for Governor Hicks, who was then trying to stave off a secession movement within the legislature.

Cook and his men had their hands full in the spring and summer of 1861. With the secession of Virginia the people of Sharpsburg suddenly found themselves on the front lines. Although Virginia attempted to court her sister state into joining the Confederacy the actions of her citizens did little to curry favor north of the Potomac. Virginia troops made repeated attacks across the river, aiming to sever the Canal and rail lines (4). Officers from the local militias banded together to oppose these raids. The following correspondence passed between Lt. Jacob Masters of the Williamsport Union Guards and the officers of the Sharpsburg Rifles:

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Herald of Freedom and Torchlight 16 May 1861 (Crossroads of War)

Captain Cook was quick to respond to Masters, writing the following:

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Herald of Freedom and Torchlight 15 May 1861 (Crossroads of War)

In August Cook marched his rifle company numbering “100 able bodied young men” to Frederick, where they became Company A of the 1st Potomac Home Brigade Infantry (5). A month later the Sharpsburg Rifles were joined by another company of Sharpsburg men under the command of 38 year old merchant William Cronise (6). All told as many as 200 men from Sharpsburg joined the US Army during the war – the vast majority serving in the 1st PHB Infantry.

Summer 1861 also saw the first casualty from the ranks of the Sharpsburg men. The 1st PHB Infantry was still in training at Camp Frederick up at the current site of the Maryland School for the Deaf. While practicing guard mounts a musket belonging to Augustus Bender went off. The ball passed through the chest of 18 year old John Marrow and Marrow was killed instantly. Both men were natives of Sharpsburg – Bender was a boatman on the Canal, an Marrow was the youngest of four brothers who went of to serve in the Home Brigade. The young man’s body was escorted back to Sharpsburg under the watch of a 24 man honor guard. Today the young private rests in the Reformed Church cemetery in town.

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findagrave.com

Through the remainder of 1861 and 1862 casualties continued to mount at a slow trickle as disease and accidents took their toll. In August, 1862 Henry McCoy of Company B was struck and killed instantly by a train at Point of Rocks; the former boatman left behind a wife and four children (8). He lies in the Lutheran graveyard, not far from Private Marrow.

Back in Sharpsburg itself conflicts continued to flare up between the Unionists in Maryland and their rebel neighbors to the south. On the 28th of May, 1862 a skirmish broke out between the citizens of Sharpsburg on one side and those of nearby Shepherdstown on the other. The rival communities traded shots across the Potomac at one another. The Marylanders even pressed an old Revolutionary War era cannon into service in the skirmish (9). Around the same time as the skirmish a prominent Sharpsburg resident – Benjamin Franklin Cronise – was arrested by Confederate authorities in Shepherdstown. Benjamin was the brother of Captain William Cronise, the man who commanded the volunteers who became Company H of the 1st PHB Infantry. Benjamin operated a store on the Shepherdstown side of the river but soon had a run-in with some Confederate cavalry that put him out of business. The paper reported that a squad of Turner Ashby’s cavalry arrested Cronise “at the insistence of some of the leading secessionists of that place” (10). He was released within the week, but his entire stock, amounting to over $2,000 in goods, was confiscated by rebel authorities (11). Whether he was targeted because his brother was a Union officer or not isn’t explicitly stated, but it is clear that he was specifically targeted because of his political stance.

In September of 1862 Robert E. Lee began his first invasion of the north, crossing the Potomac near Leesburg and beginning on the road that would ultimately take his Army to Sharpsburg. For the men of the Potomac Home Brigade it was the first time that they were expected to help repulse a major invasion onto their home soil. There had been small raids and skirmishes before, but nothing like this. Cole’s Cavalry and both the 1st and 3rd PHB Infantry would be involved in the coming campaign. I don’t want to get into too much detail about their actions – instead I want to make that story a whole series of posts on their own. To put it simply the men of the Home Brigade were spread out along the upper Potomac from Williamsport to the Monocacy and up to Frederick. These small detachments were ordered to concentrate at Harpers Ferry in an attempt to augment the garrison there.

As any student of the Civil War can no doubt relate, the decision to try and hold Harpers Ferry in the face of the rebel siege was more or less doomed from the start. The men of the Home Brigade would take part in the fighting on both Maryland and Bolivar Heights, as well as the astonishing cavalry escape on the night of September 14-15. Like I said before, though, this is a story for another day. In all the chaos and commotion of the siege I can’t begin to imagine how the men from Sharpsburg felt, knowing that the Army of Northern Virginia was loose in their very own backyards. They must have felt powerless knowing that their families and friends were in the rebel’s path and there was nothing they could do all bottled up in Harpers Ferry. When the town fell on September 15 the men of the Sharpsburg Rifles, along with their fellow Home Brigaders, were paroled and sent east to Annapolis to await exchange. One has to wonder if any of them were around long enough to hear the guns booming away to the west on the 17th.

The majority of the men paroled at Harpers Ferry were exchanged by the end of the year. For those that came back to Sharpsburg the landscape must have been nearly unrecognizable. The town was still flooded with wounded, and the surrounding fields were dotted with mass graves. Local farmers not only had to contend with the dead, but with the massive amounts of unexploded ordinance in the ground. Civilian casualties became a regular occurrence. The young son of Reverand Shuford (German Reformed Church) lost his life in March, 1863 when the shell he had was handling went off. The boy’s leg was cruelly mangled, and despite the best efforts of the doctors he died the same day (12). The following month a shell claimed the life of 49 year old Johnathan Keplinger, a farmer who left behind 10 children (13).

The area did see occasional skirmishes throughout the remainder of the war, but Sharpsburg was spared heavy fighting during Lee’s second invasion and Early’s 1864 campaign on Washington. As the residents of Sharpsburg attempted to adjust to life after the battle they were joined by men returning from military service. The three year enlistments of the early PHB recruits expired late in the summer of 1864. Most of the Sharpsburg Rifles returned home at that time, while many of those in Cronise’s Company H reenlisted for the rest of the war. 1864 also saw the beginning of the movement to create what is now Antietam National Cemetery. Creating a cemetery as a memorial to the Union dead came from none other than Lewis Firey (14). If we go all the way back towards the beginning of the blog you may remember Lewis as a well known Unionist politician and one of the first officer appointees to the 1st PHB Infantry. He was also brother to William Firey, commander of Company B of Cole’s Cavalry. Lewis didn’t accept his military post and instead remained active in championing the Union cause politically as a state senator. He proposed a bill authorizing 11 acres be set aside to rebury the Union dead at Antietam – his work would come to fruition three years later with the dedication of Antietam National Cemetery.

The connections between the Potomac Home Brigade and Antietam National Cemetery don’t end with Lewis Firey, however. 90 Marylanders were buried in the Cemetery when it opened in 1867 – 38 had served in the Home Brigade (15). They included 17 from the 1st PHB Infantry, 3 from the 2nd, 7 from the 3rd, and 11 from Cole’s Cavalry. The graves of these men, along with the other laid beside them, were taken care of by one of their former comrades in arms. Edward Hebb worked as one of the first caretakers at the National Cemetery. Born in 1846, Hebb was a native of Sharpsburg and like most of the other young men in town he served the Union cause during the war. He enlisted late in the war due to his young age, joining Company H of the 13th Maryland Infantry in February, 1865. The 13th was a newly formed regiment comprised of veterans of the 1st PHB and new recruits like Hebb. He certainly would have seen a lot of familiar faces in Company H, as many of Captain Cronise’s veterans filled the ranks. After the war he worked as a laborer for the National Cemetery, maintaining the grounds until his death in 1914 (16). You can visit his grave today in Mountain View Cemetery, across the street from the National Cemtery.

As the 20th century dawned fewer and fewer of Sharpsburg’s veterans answered the call at the local G.A.R. post. By 1917 the Sharpsburg Register listed the following 12 veterans of the 1st PHB Infantry:

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Sharpsburg Register 31 May 1917

This short list represents the last survivors of the 200-odd men who marched out of Sharpsburg a half century earlier to defend the Union. While most of these veterans are buried across the street from Antietam National Cemetery in Mountain View, they remain under the watchful gaze of “Old Simon.” Next time you visit Antietam be sure to walk over an pay your respects to the local boys of the old Sharpsburg Rifles.

 

  1. Valley Register. 23 March 1860
  2. Herald of Freedom and Torchlight. 13 February 1861
  3. 2 “A Venerable Citizen Dead” Hagerstown Herald and Torch Light. 16 November, 1893
  4. See “Border Strife on the Upper Potomac: Confederate Incursions from Harpers Ferry and their Affect on Maryland-Virginia Relations, April-June 1861” in Maryland Historical Magazine, Spring 2002
  5. Valley Register. 16 August 1861
  6. “Sharpsburg for the War” Herald of Freedom and Torchlight. 25 September 1861.
  7. “Death of a Sharpsburg Soldier” Herald of Freedom and Torchlight 25 September 1861
  8. “Accident” Valley Register. 15 August 1862
  9. Valley Register. 6 June 1862
  10. “Made Prisoner” Herald of Freedom and Torchlight. 4 June 1862
  11. “Returned” Herald of Freedom and Torchlight. 11 June 1862
  12. “A Fatal Accident” Herald of Freedom and Torchlight. 4 March 1863
  13. “A Well Known Citizen Killed” Herald of Freedom and Torchlight. 6 May 1863
  14. https://www.nps.gov/places/antietam-battlefield-antietam-national-cemetery.htm
  15. http://www.whilbr.org/antietamNationalCemetery/index.aspx
  16. “Antietam Caretaker Dies” Harrisburg Telegraph. 11 December 1914
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