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Misery lasts long after Antietam battle
Question of the Day
The horrible slaughter at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, would be remembered as “the bloodiest single day in United States military history.”
Casualties, Union and Confederate, totaled more than 23,000 . In a matter of hours, every barn and shed within miles of the battleground was filled with pitiful dead and dying. The southern end of Washington County was converted into what a local newspaper called, “one vast hospital.”
Four miles north of where the struggle took place, two little-known country villages provided shelter, food and water for countless wounded soldiers left behind. Those humanitarian acts are all but forgotten. Hopefully, in a small way, the following story will bring some recognition to the deeds performed at Smoketown and Bakersville.
After the battle, President Lincoln accused his commanding officer, Gen. George B. McClellan, of having a “bad case of the slows” for not pursuing the enemy into Virginia. To give “Little Mac” a push in the right direction, the president decided to pay a visit to Army headquarters somewhere near Sharpsburg.
During the first four days of October, Lincoln, with a few personal friends, reviewed Federal corps encamped at Harpers Ferry and various locations in the valley of the Antietam. On Oct. 3, the commander in chief and McClellan reviewed the 6th Corps camped at Bakersville.
In 1862, this small town surrounded by forest and farmland consisted of five or six homes, a church and a one-room school. The roar of cannon announced the coming of the president. Sixth Corps commander Gen. William B. Franklin had his veterans form on a level plain, but because of an unseasonable heat, the understanding Lincoln did not require the columns to march in review. A local journal reported that “Father Abraham” entered several tents and knelt by the side of soldiers too sick to stand.
His exact route to Bakersville was never recorded, but it is likely that Lincoln traveled the Hagerstown-Sharpsburg Turnpike. Going north three miles from the recent battlefield at Sharpsburg, he rode in a wagon or buggy to Eakles Cross Roads, turning left and going one mile to Bakersville. A New York columnist reported the excitement of the day:
“The President in company with General McClellan reviewed today the several corps of the Army of the Potomac, beginning with that of General [Ambrose] Burnside near the mouth of the Antietam, and concluding with that of General Franklin at Bakersville. … At the review of each corps the people collected in large numbers and manifested the greatest enthusiasm in meeting the President and ‘Little Mac.’ ”
Bakersville would never forget the presidential visit or the seemingly endless white Army tents where war was taking its toll on the 6th Corps. A roster of the 49th New York Volunteers lists several examples:
• Gilbert C. Chapin — died of convulsions, Bakersville, Md. — Oct. 8, 1862.
• Charles Sturdevant — died of congestion of lungs, Bakersville, Md. — Sept. 30, 1862.
• William Jackson — discharged for disability, Bakersville, Md. — Oct. 1, 1862
These are just a few cases from just one regiment.
Hospital of horrors
If “Old Abe” had turned right at Eakles Cross Roads onto Keedysville Road and had gone one mile east, his carriage would have reached Smoketown, where the Union’s largest field hospital was established. However, there is no evidence he journeyed to the remote hamlet.
At the time, Bakersville consisted of fewer than a half-dozen limestone and log homes and a one-room brick schoolhouse; more than a century later, the village remains about the same size. About 70 percent of deaths at Smoketown Hospital resulted from wounds received at Antietam, including shock from amputation. Many of these crude, ugly operations were performed by Chief of Surgery Bernard A. Vanderkieft, who remembered his first week at Smoketown “probing for bullets and sawing off arms and legs.”
Gen. Joseph Hooker’s 1st Corps infantrymen made up most of the 600 convalescents sheltered there in 80 white hospital tents. In the old oak and walnut woods that encompassed the village and hospital, a few 12th Corps casualties along with several wounded and “misplaced” Confederates were fighting their last battle.
An early cold spell on Nov. 7 left Washington County with its first snowfall of 1862. One can only imagine the misery of amputees trying to survive with only a tent for protection against unforgiving winter winds.
In a letter home, surgeon William A. Childs of the 5th New Hampshire Infantry described what he saw at this hospital of horrors: “The dead appear sickening, but they suffer no more. But the poor wounded, mutilated soldiers that yet have life and sensation make a most horrid picture.”
Help from Maine
The first week of November, Isabella Morrison Fogg of Calais, Maine, arrived in the Sharpsburg area. A member of the Maine Soldiers Relief Agency, she had come to help “her boys” from the Pine Tree State who had fallen in what the South calls the Battle of Sharpsburg.
Fogg’s companions from the relief agency were Harriet Eaton and Charles C. Hayes. Fogg had followed her son, Hugh, of the 6th Maine Infantry to Washington in 1861. Realizing the greatest need was not in Washington hospitals but in the field, the agency representatives had started for Sharpsburg after hearing about the bloody encounter.
In a progress report to the Maine agency in Washington sent on Nov. 10, Fogg said: “We then went up to Smoketown, here we found 30 Maine men. This place is in a most miserable condition, the men complain very much. The effluvia (noxious odor) arising from the condition of these grounds is intolerable, quite enough to make a man in perfect health sick, and how men can recover in such a place is a mystery to me.”
The Rev. John B. Kerfoot of St. James College drove a wagonload of supplies to Smoketown on the afternoon of Sept. 17, with hostilities still raging to the south. Kerfoot’s writings reveal this field hospital was being erected before battle smoke had settled. When Fogg and company appeared almost two months later, the hospital grounds had deteriorated to the point that she was “horrified to find sick and wounded soldiers, supposedly long since removed, still languishing all over the area.”
As the Maine women had not expected the great number of people in need, their single wagon carried little that was not depleted within minutes. So, after promising to apply pressure on the agency for more relief stores, Fogg’s team continued on a snow-covered road toward Bakersville — a 20-minute ride by horse and creaking wagon.
Reaching the village, they discovered soldiers of the 5th Maine “left in a school house in care of a steward, without supplies; found him making every effort to keep them comfortable.” Franklin’s 6th Corps had marched from Bakersville a month earlier. The “school house” referred to here was originally a log chapel built around 1800. Burials in an adjacent cemetery date back to 1815. The log structure was removed at an unknown date and rebuilt out of native limestone — possibly on the same foundation.
In 1854, eight years before the battle, the Salem Lutheran congregation had built a new brick church on a higher elevation just yards to the east. Locals say Franklin had his headquarters in the Salem Church while he was camped at Bakersville. Sometime before the Civil War, the old stone church was converted into a schoolhouse. After being used for years as a school and private residence, the historical little dwelling is being restored to its original condition.
After the Maine women repeated the promise made at Smoketown to contact the agency for much-needed supplies, Bakersville was left in the hands of one lone but determined hospital steward to care for more than 20 badly injured Maine warriors. The journey continued to other field hospitals at Sharpsburg, Berlin (Brunswick today), Harpers Ferry, Keedysville and eventually Hagerstown.
Each stop had its own heart-sickening sights, leading to a withering letter to the Maine agency for delaying vital rations for Antietam survivors: “You no doubt think your ladies in Washington are doing a great work. But I can assure you if they were here, they would find the stern reality of want, privation and extreme suffering.”
Making good her word, Isabella Fogg and associates returned late in November to the valley of the Antietam. Frustration and despair were evident in her report: “Again we went to Smoketown, hoping to find them in a more comfortable condition than when we were last there, but how sadly were we disappointed. How I wish I could introduce you, and the Washington [Commission]. To Smoketown [Hospital]. In the midst of this driving snow storm!”
The dispatch gave a description of what once resembled a hospital: “You could have seen the poor fellows huddled together, with their pallets of straw on the ground, their tents with no stoves. Those who were able to creep out of their tents were crouched over fires, built in the woods, their heads covered with snow.”
What few provisions they had gathered along the way were distributed — amounting to a single drop in an empty bucket. Once again, the Maine agency in Washington failed to respond to Fogg’s urgent requests.
The procession of three then made the second trip to Bakersville school. “We found the industrious steward, William Noyes of Saco [Maine] grating corn on a grater he had made from an old canteen, to furnish meal wherewith to make gruel for his sick men.”
Fogg added: “This is only a sample of his expediments for his men, give his name a place in your report … for he is worthy.”
William S. Noyes had enlisted at Saco, Maine, in Company C, 5th Maine Infantry on June 24, 1861. Following First Bull Run, the 20-year-old private was captured and listed as a prisoner of war confined at Richmond. Noyes was released (date unknown) and after returning to his regiment was promoted to hospital steward. The 5th Maine was held mostly in reserve at Antietam but received heavy losses from Confederate long-range artillery while holding a position in Mumma’s Lane.
Apparently, Pvt. Noyes at Bakersville had taken a canteen (or half) and with a bayonet or other pointed object, had punched it full of holes, making a “rough grater” to produce cornmeal. In November, this would have been the same corn as fed to livestock, stirred with water to form a mixture called “gruel.”
Cattle feed was not much sustenance for men burning up with fever, but with all foodstuffs gone, what choice did they have? Later, Fogg was successful in collecting close to 100 flannel shirts from the good residents of Hagerstown. She would always remember “expressions of gratitude” received while personally handing them out to “my boys.”
Long winter ahead
The people of Antietam Valley found it hard to find something for which to be grateful on Thanksgiving in 1862. Their meat houses were empty; fruit cellars lay bare. In plain words, all provisions prepared to sustain them through coming frigid months, including livestock, had been devoured by hungry, if not starving, soldiers.
Times could have been worse, considering the Sam Mumma family just down the road. The Mummas lost their home, barn and all personal belongings to fire, results of the battle. However, praise still could be offered to the Almighty, for by His grace the people of Smoketown and Bakersville still had roofs over their heads and a place to sleep.
The Maine Soldiers Relief Agency and Isabella Fogg separated for unclear reasons in 1863. Still wanting to help others, she volunteered with the U.S. Christian Commission. In 1865, while working aboard a hospital ship on the Ohio River, she accidentally fell through an open hatch, permanently injuring her spine. Officers of the Army of the Potomac, including Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, Gen. George Meade and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant were instrumental in seeing that Fogg received a federal pension for her dedicated service during the war.
When the National Cemetery at Sharpsburg was dedicated in 1867, Smoketown had contributed more than its share of Federal dead. An untold number of bodies from this hospital also were taken home.
Three years later, when the Confederate remains were moved to a new cemetery in Hagerstown, a list contained: “Removed from Smoketown — James F. Maxcey — 27th Georgia — died Dec. 12th, 1862.” This Rebel’s date of death shows the pain and misery still being endured at this tent hospital late into the freezing months of winter.
It is believed that by late November or early December, those remaining at Bakersville too incapacitated for the trip home were transferred to Smoketown. The exact closing date of this field hospital has been lost in time. What a shame that a small monument has never been erected on this ground where so many gave their “last full measure of devotion” to a cause greater than themselves.
On a sunny June afternoon last year, the author had the humbling experience of strolling in Bakersville Cemetery. The old graveyard is located between the stone schoolhouse and the Salem Lutheran Church. Chiseled in the more than 700 marble and granite stones were the names of deceased residents of the Smoketown-Bakersville area. Although worn and moldy, names of those who witnessed the aftermath of the battle at Antietam were still legible. Family names of Stonebreaker, Poffenberger, Line, Baker and Eakle were found in abundance.
In studying dates of death, the increase in local burials following Antietam became evident, a common occurrence after other major engagements during the War Between the States. The reason was that civilians contracted typhoid, diphtheria and scarlet fever while caring for wounded soldiers who carried these highly contagious diseases.
Blood of the folks of Smoketown or Bakersville never dampened the sacred soil of a battlefield to preserve a nation. However, their sacrifices and compassionate care following Antietam to preserve the lives of fellow human beings has earned them a higher reward beyond this life.
Richard E. Clem is a retired cabinetmaker in Hagerstown, Md., and frequent contributor to this page.
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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