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Landscape Turned Red: Burnside Bridge

Along with Dunker Church and the Bloody Lane, another symbol of the Battle of Antietam is what is now known as the “Burnside Bridge”. Before the Battle is was known as the “Rohrbach Bridge”. On September 17, 1862, it was known as the “Lower Bridge”. After the battle it was renamed the “Burnside Bridge” after the Union General whose troops took the three arched, stone bridge that spans Antietam Creek as they drove Confederates back.

So I saw no problem in giving the bridge a new name: “Armstrong Bridge”. Sure it sort of sounds like Burnside. Both are two syllable words, both are compound words. It was only after inking the text that I realized the error. Instead of fretting over it or blaming it on a slight case of jet lag or the local pale ale I was sampling, I decided to embrace my mistake as if it didn’t happen. So I chose to embrace the mantra of Miles Davis who said, “Do no fear mistakes. There are none.” Besides, this just adds to the sketch. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

The bridge was built in 1836, to connect Sharpsburg to the nearby southerly town of Rohrerville. The bridge was in use for foot, hoof, and later auto traffic until 1966, when the bridge was restored to it’s Civil War Era appearance.

The battle over this crossing over Antietam Creek took place in the late morning. About 500 Confederate troops held the high ground on the westside of the bridge. Burnside’s Ninth Corps assaulted the important creek crossing. The rebels held until Union troops where able to ford the creek south of the bridge, forcing the Confederates to retreat and the North took possession of the stone bridge.

Using an old stone wall as my drawing table, I sketch Rohrbach Bridge, or whatever the bridge is called!
The Burnside Bridge seen for the Confederate side of the creek. The large tree on the opposite side of the creek is known as the Burnside Sycamore and is one of those “witness trees” which was alive at the time of the battle. I sketched the bridge to the left of the tree, along the stone wall.

At the end of the most bloody and most costly day in the history of American combat the destruction was astounding. The numbers are grime reminders: 23,000 killed. All this in a single day. Of all the soldiers that were wounded, roughly one out of seven died of their wounds. 2/3 of the 622,000 lives that were lost during the Civil War, died of disease.

One solider from the 9th Pennsylvania described the scene at Antietam as, “No tongue can tell, no mind conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed this morning.”

James McPherson in this Civil War masterpiece, Battle Cry of Freedom wrote about Antietam, “The causalities of Antietam numbered four times the total suffered by American soldiers at the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. More than twice as many Americans lost their lives in one day at Sharpsburg as fell in combat in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American war combined.”

And Antietam was just a warm up for a battle that took place less than a year later, around a small town in Southern Pennsylvania. This three day battle would have the highest death toll out of any battle during the Civil War and was the turning point in the war. This battle was the Battle of Gettysburg.

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Landscape Turned Red: Dunker Church

The Battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, is the single bloodiest day in any American War battle. During the Civil War, every causality was an American so the causality rate is understandably higher than in other conflicts. But the brutality of the fight over once day, makes the Battle of Antietam stand out amongst other battles.

About 23,000 where killed in this once day conflict. The Battle of Antietam, named after the creek that flows east of Dunker Church, was a failed campaign, by General Robert E. Lee to invade the north in the border state of Maryland. It was also not the decisive battle that Lincoln wanted and the ever meek General McCellan, let the depleted rebel army escape across the Potomic. McCellan was soon replaced but this victory was enough for Lincoln to introduce the document that had been sitting in a desk drawer: the Emancipation Proclamation.

One of the enduring sights from Antietam is the Dunker Church. It has been called, “one of the most famous churches in American military history”. This simple, one room church was surrounded by the horrors of war on September 17, 1862. When soldiers first came upon this small, plain, and unassuming building, some thought it was a schoolhouse.

The church was granted on a parcel of land by farmer Samuel Mumma and was constructed in 1852. The “Dunkers” were a pacifist German Baptist congregation, which is very ironic considering the bloodshed that surrounded the church on a September day in 1862.

Antietam, the mix of the holy and the profane. Dunker Church and cannon.

The battle started near the church on the morning of the 17th. Blood runs thought the landscape and place-names of this battlefield. To the northeast of the church was a cornfield, after the battle, it was given the infamous moniker, the Bloody Cornfield. Many men, both north and south, died in a field of life giving corn.

The Dunker Church was the center of the morning’s conflict and today, the visitors center is built near the church. When I visited, on an early October Sunday, there was an artillery demonstration in a field to the east of Dunker Church. So I stuck around because reenactors would be firing a replica Napoleon Cannon.

Civil War reenactments started in 1960, the centennial of the war. It has been a growing hobby, some might say “obsession”, since that time. One of the biggest Civil War reenactments was to celebrate the 135th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (much more on Gettysburg later). That event included 15,000 participants. It seemed that Civil War reenactments are on the wane these days and younger generations have differing views of the Civil War, its influence and it’s impact. As a result they are not taking up the replica muskets and joining a “battle”.

These reenactors where dressed in the mismatched uniforms of the Confederate Army. Maryland was a border state during the Civil War and Lee counted on support from the locals on his Maryland Campaign. In the end, this didn’t really happen.
Fire In the Hole! The canon demonstration was both loud and powerful. It was haunting to hear the cannon echoing across the rural Maryland landscape. I’m not sure if the neighbors sleeping off Saturday’s revels felt the same.
A photography taken just after the battle of Antietam showing Confederate dead in the foreground. In the background, Dunker Church shows damage from artillery fire. This is the photograph where I took inspiration for my featured field sketch.
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Landscape Turned Red: the Bloody Lane

During the battle of Antietam, the Sunken Road became the Bloody Lane.

In mid morning, the fighting moved away from the Dunker Church to the area to the southeast known as the Sunken Road. The Sunken Road is a road that bisects two farm fields and as the name implies, runs below the land that flanks it; like a riverbed without the water. This road was worn down over time because of heavy wagon traffic.

This location was the setting of some of the fiercest fighting in a battle known for it’s fierce fighting. This is where the center of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac came together.

Here, in the Sunken Road, the Confederates under General D. H. Hill placed this division of 2,600 soldiers along this road. Union General William French attacked this position leading to a savagely bloody conflict that lasted for almost four hours. During this battle 5,500 soliders, on both sides, where either killer or wounded. Thus the Sunken Road became the Bloody Lane.

Soldiers who were involved in the conflict later describe the Sunken Road as the “road of death” and a “ghastly flooring”.

On my visit, I placed myself about half way down the Bloody Lane and I sketched looking toward the 132nd Pennsylvania Monument and the observation tower that was built in 1896 by the War Department. Starting out early had it’s benefits because I had the Bloody Lane to myself.

After my field sketch, I headed over to the 60 foot tall observation tower to get a 360 degree view of the battlefield and the receding view of the Bloody Lane. Again, the tower was all mine.

A photo taken from the observation tower, looking down the Bloody Lane. My sketching position was where the green turns to brown, just under an oak.
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Journals of the Civil War

Before I go one any trip I like to add a title page and a map to my sketchbooks.

For my trip to Civi War battlefields in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania I chose to bring two Stillman and Birn hard cover watercolor journals. One is my new go-to favorite, the panoramic Delta Series journal. And the other is a Beta Series 5.5 ” X 8.5″ sketchbook. I love both of these papers and they are great for sketching on the road with pen and watercolor.

In the Delta journal I created the title page based on the famous image from Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War, of a silhouetted canon and a glorious sunset in the background. This footage was filmed at Manassas in Virginia. This opening page is the featured sketch.

In my Beta sketchbooks I created a map of the places I would be visiting. All of the locations I would be visiting where within 90 minutes of each other. I distressed the map, covering it in mud and blood. Perhaps I added too much “blood”, but somehow since this is the Civil War it was fitting. It is estimated that about 620,000 Americans lost their lives during the Civil War.

In my Beta, created to spread to synthesize a lot of the information about my trip in a creative way. It is a montage of all the important facts of the trip. Well some of them at any rate. This was a fun page to do and involved a few different sketching techniques.