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Civil War Trails: The Antietam Campaign

By Thomas J. Straka
Photography by Patricia A. Straka


Yes, this is an article about the Civil War battle at Antietam, or Sharpsburg to a Southerner. The North named battles after the nearest body of water, while the South used the nearest settlement. But it is not about the battlefield. Rather, it is about the campaign routes Lee used to get from Virginia to Antietam and back. The trail that Robert E. Lee's troops took to get to Antietam can be just as interesting as the battlefield itself.

The Best Farm. General Lee's Headquarters south of Frederick. This is where Special Order Number 191 was lost, greatly impacting the battle.

For example, Lee's �lost order number 191 played a large role in the battle. Lee issued Special Order 191 to detail troop movements in Maryland. A copy was found wrapped around several cigars by Union soldiers at the Best Farm south of Frederick. It provided the Union Army of the Potomac with detailed troop movement plans. Union General McClellan remarked, �Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.� The Best Farm is well-preserved and part of the nearby Monocacy National Battlefield. The campaign trail gives a splendid overview of events that led up to the battle at Antietam. How would the battle have gone if those orders did not reach Union hands? For those interested in the campaign, the states of Maryland and Virginia have provided trail markers and historical information plaques along the route.


After the southern victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) in late August 1862, Lee decided to take the offensive and relieve pressure on Virginia by marching his troops north to threaten Washington, D.C. Lee and most of his troops (including the �Stonewall Division,� Jeb Stuart's Calvary, and Longstreet's command) crossed the Potomac at White's Ford and moved north toward Frederick. His troops sang �Maryland, my Maryland� as they marched into Maryland, fully expecting strong support from the slave-holding state. This part of Maryland showed itself to be mainly pro-Union. Headquarters was south of Frederick, where the special orders were lost.

Map of the Antietam Campaign. (Source: Civil War Trails.)

Lee divided his troops into three wings at first. The invasion of Maryland was expected to cause Union forces to abandon Harpers Ferry (to the south). When this did not happen, Lee felt compelled to divide his forces (using special order no. 191) and send Stonewall Jackson to clear the federals out of Harpers Ferry. (See the Spring 2012 issue for an article on Harpers Ferry at ). The rest of the troops moved across South Mountain (the northern extension of the Blue Ridge Mountains) west to Hagerstown and then north into Pennsylvania as objectives. Severing the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge at Harrisburg would disrupt Union supplies and Lee's army could live off the land in Pennsylvania while threatening Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Jeb Stuart was to guard the passes on South Mountain to keep the Union forces at bay. McClellan moved rapidly and forcibly and Lee concentrated his troops near Sharpsburg, while ordering Stonewall Jackson to quickly return from Harpers Ferry. Lee chose to fight near Antietam Creek and that is where the battle took place.

We included a few battlefield photographs, but the campaign is our subject. The main battle was fought on September 17, 1862. It was the bloodiest day in American military history, with over 22,000 causalities. Lee was forced to withdraw south and his troops crossed the Potomac at Blackford's Ford and then moved into the Shenandoah Valley. A rear action at Shepardstown on the river was the battle of the campaign. Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command for not pursuing Lee after the battle.

White's Ferry. The modern way to cross the Potomac. The ferry is named after a Confederate General who fought in Northern Virginia.

White's Ford, about 2 miles upriver from the ferry. The river is waist deep in most places here if the season is right.

Lee began this campaign in Leesburg, Virginia. The first interpretative marker is at the Loudoun County Museum near Lee's Headquarters at the start of the campaign. A second Virginia marker is just north of Leesburg at Mile Hill, a small cavalry action that cleared the way for Lee's infantry to cross the Potomac. Most of Lee's troops crossed the Potomac at White's Ford. The modern traveler will use White's Ferry about two miles downstream. There is a marker at the ferry and upstream at the actual ford.

Monocacy Aqueduct. Where the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal flowed across the Monocacy River.

Lots of minor military actions are marked south of Frederick (Lee's first objective). One of the more interesting ones is the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Aqueduct that crossed the Monocacy River just before it empties into the Potomac a few miles upriver from White's Ford. Some of Lee's troops forded further upriver and cleared that area of federal troops.

They also attempted to destroy the C&O Canal and managed to breach and drain it. Destruction of the Monocacy Aqueduct proved futile due to its �extreme solidity and massiveness.� Markers will identify about a half dozen cavalry skirmishes along Lee's route to Frederick. Much of the route must be close to what Lee's troops saw: stone and snake or worm rail fences and crops, mostly corn. Sugarloaf Mountain dominates this part of Maryland and signalmen from both sides used it for observation. It has its own marker.

Landon House. General Jeb Stuart's Headquarters was near here. The �Sabers and Roses Ball� was held here.

South of Frederick is Best's Farm, Lee's Headquarters prior to moving west to Sharpsburg. Here is where Special Order 191 was lost. Nearby General J.E.B. Stuart occupied Urbanna and held a ball at Landon House that was interrupted by reports of federal cavalry. It has become known as the �Sabers and Roses Ball.� About a half dozen cavalry skirmishes are marked on the route between the river and Frederick. From Frederick, Lee moved west to put South Mountain between him and the Federal Troops; the skirmishes on this route area also marked. Southern troops protected all the gaps on South Mountain and Federal efforts to break through these gaps are also marked.

Dunkard (or Dunker) Church. A landmark on the battlefield at Antietam. Wounded from both sides cared for in the church and later it was used to embalm bodies. One of the most iconic photographs of the War shows a �Wrecked Battery at Dunker Church.� The wrecked battery with scattered causalities sits near the church.

The Burnside Bridge on Antietam Battlefield.
Bloody Lane on Antietam Battlefield.

High atop South Mountain is the first monument to George Washington. It is a tower with grand views that both sides used for observation and signaling. Once across the mountain there are a few more skirmishes marked, but the battlefield is close. The trail gives an appreciation of what the troops saw, the terrain, roads, and countryside. Not much has changed in places. The southern troops got sick from eating green corn and bloodied their shoeless feet on the hardened Maryland roads. They were used to sandy Virginia roads. Those same cornfields and roads are still there if you look for them. The advantage of the trail is that it gives a feel for what the troops went through and prepares you for the battlefield.

Some of the most iconic photographs of the Civil War were taken at the Antietam Battlefield. We included a few to give the trail perspective. The Civil War Trail is a way to give the battlefield perspective.


Authors: Tom Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. His wife, Pat, is a consulting forester. Both have a keen interest in history.

For more info:

Maryland Civil War Trails: The Antietam Campaign.

Maryland's Civil War: Frederick, Monocacy and South Mountain.

Maryland's Civil War: Antietam Battlefield, Hagerstown, Sharpsburg, more.

Civil War Trust: General Robert E. Lee's �Lost Order� No. 191.

Antietam on the Web:

White's Ford Potomac River Crossing.

Antietam National Battlefield, National Park Service

National Park Service, Antietam Battlefield Site Historical Handbook

National Park Service, Maryland Campaign

Sabers and Roses Ball at Landon House










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