Morning sun burned off the fog, exposing countless twisted forms lying in fields and woodlots surrounding the village of Sharpsburg, Md. all malice and hostility vanished between those Blue and Gray. Soon, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s embattled Army of Northern Virginia would be across the Potomac River to the security of Southern soil, leaving the Army of the Potomac with the overwhelming task of caring for 10,000 wounded and burying as many Union and Confederate dead.
Following the Battle of Antietam (Sept. 17, 1862), a local farmer noted in his diary that “miles in any direction from Sharpsburg became one vast hospital.” Every barn, farmhouse, church and schoolhouse was converted instantly into a makeshift hospital.
Dr. Jonathan Letterman, a surgeon recently appointed medical director for the Army of the Potomac, established for the first time during the Civil War a system of tented field hospitals. One such city of white tents was erected at Smoketown, one mile north of the Antietam battlefield.
In 1862, Smoketown, the origin of its name lost, consisted of only four log-and-limestone homes and a one-room school near the intersection of Smoketown and Keedysville roads. The gravel Smoketown Road left the Dunkard Church on the battlefield and ran northeast to Smoketown, making it convenient to transport wounded.
To maintain a field hospital, an abundance of pure water was necessary. There were a couple of hand-dug wells, and a short distance down the road toward Keedysville, a constant spring at the Hoffman Farm served as a backup system. To provide firewood and protection from the sun, Smoketown Hospital was located in an old grove of oak and walnut.
Strictly a Union hospital, it housed 600 of the worst cases of Gen. Joseph Hooker’s 1st Corps and a few from the 12th Corps. Most were too injured to be moved to main hospitals at Frederick, Annapolis or Washington. A surgeon at Smoketown wrote home: “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.”
The Hoffman Farm, also a hospital site, tended to about 500 Federal wounded from Gen. Edwin V. Sumner’s 2nd Corps.
At Smoketown, Dr. Bernard Vanderkieft served as surgeon in charge and medical director. Under his leadership were Dr. William Child (5th New Hampshire Infantry) and Drs. Manly, Aiken, Chambers and William Ely (108th New York Infantry).
During the first days, the doctors got little sleep, performing mass amputations and removing bullets. It took a couple of weeks by train for medical supplies to reach Washington County from Boston, New York and Philadelphia. The life-saving cargo was transported by horse and wagon from Hagerstown and Frederick rail depots.
To the south, within view of Smoketown, stood the George Line Farm. It was there that the Union’s 12th Corps commander, Gen. Joseph Mansfield, died, struck down on the morning of the battle.
Although President Lincoln traveled to Sharpsburg during the first four days of October, it is not known whether residents or doctors at Smoketown got the opportunity to see him. He had come to give his commander of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. George McClellan, a “boost to pursue the enemy.” During the Antietam visit, Lincoln also reviewed Gen. William Franklin’s 6th Corps at Bakersville, a hamlet only a 10-minute ride on horseback due west. Because of the recent bloodshed and confusion, however, some folks at Sharpsburg had no idea “Old Abe” was in the area.
On Oct. 7, Washington County received its first snowfall. One can only imagine what it was like for the wounded at Smoketown in cold tents. To the east, South Mountain had lost its autumn hues of gold and crimson. The range was snow-covered and barren.
Thanksgiving was observed on Nov. 29. (President Lincoln would proclaim it an official national holiday two years later.) People in Smoketown had “slim pickins” for their dinner.
Meat houses, fruit cellars, chicken houses and hog pens had been ransacked to nourish and sustain disabled warriors in the white hospital tents. As a matter of fact, southern Washington County had been stripped bare of all food, including grain and hay. What the armies didn’t eat, their horses and mules did.
Perhaps residents of Smoketown had little for which to be grateful that day, but they still could give thanks to the Almighty: Smoketown would have been destroyed had the bloodiest day’s battle of the Civil War been fought one mile farther north.
By Dec. 10, only a handful of patients remained at Smoketown, mostly men from New York. Where were their friends or family to take them home? Did their letters reach New York? Did no one care?
In the nearby hospital cemetery lay the bodies of 159 of their comrades, marked by crude wooden headboards with each soldier’s name and regiment.
In the center of the graveyard, enclosed by a small white picket fence, stood a monument inscribed with a profound truth: “The land that is not worth our dead is not worth living for.” On the opposite side were words of hope: “I am the resurrection and the life, he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
In 1866, the Smoketown Cemetery was leveled and the remaining bodies were moved to the National Cemetery at Sharpsburg.
On a fall afternoon in 1983, the author used a metal detector in what once was the Smoketown Hospital woods.
Some of the excavated items found included a U.S. brass belt buckle, two U.S. cartridge box plates, several eagle buttons, a pair of surgical scissors and a number of Civil War bullets.
Some of the lead slugs, known as “pain bullets,” revealed human teeth impressions giving substance to the origin of the old saying “bite the bullet.”
When a limb had to be amputated, a soldier was offered a bullet or piece of wood to bite to prevent damaging his teeth during the operation.
Also on the surface of the ground were many scattered pieces of broken colored glass that once had been medicine bottles.
With the exception of the hospital woods yielding to the lumberman’s ax years ago, the Smoketown area has experienced little change. Nearly 140 years have passed since that bloody day in September 1862, but the old Smoketown Road still runs straight to the Dunkard Church still narrow, still gravel, still dusty.
Richard E. Clem is a cabinetmaker in Hagerstown, Md. He has published numerous articles on the Civil War and on relic hunting.