- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2003

Almost two weeks had passed since the bloody battle at Antietam — known as the Battle of Sharpsburg to Southerners — fought on Sept. 17, 1862, over the rolling farmland and woodlots of Western Maryland.

When President Lincoln visited the valley of Antietam a few weeks after the bloody day to congratulate his Army of the Potomac on the victory, he also wanted to give his procrastinating commander, Gen. George B. McClellan, a “little push” to pursue the enemy, now licking its wounds on Virginia soil.

An exact account of the president’s Oct. 1-4 visit was never recorded.This article is gleaned from diaries and tales handed down from families living in the Sharpsburg area at the time of the battle, and thus the correlation of dates and locations is controversial at best.

Early on the morning of Oct. 1, Lincoln left Washington by train en route to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., from which he would travel by horse and wagon to Sharpsburg.Accompanying him were his bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon; a close friend, Ozias M. Hatch; John W. Garrett, the president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad; and Gen. John A. McClernand.



The party arrived in Harpers Ferry around noon. Later in the day, assembled ranks of Gen. Edwin Sumner’s 2nd Corps, camped on Bolivar Heights, was reviewed with Gen. McClellan, who had traveled from Sharpsburg to meet the president.

The next morning, Oct. 2, after breakfast, Lincoln visited Federal troops on Maryland and Loudoun Heights. The little band of distinguished visitors then headed north toward the battlefield at Sharpsburg. The exact route is subject to debate. Some feel that the party traveled from Harpers Ferry up through Pleasant Valley (presently state Route 67), entering the field from the southern end, while others believe they went along the tow path between the C&O; Canal and the Potomac River.

• • •

It had been a long day for the president, who reached the battlefield too late to review the several Army corps still camped in the area.

Lincoln was up early on Oct. 3, and before the morning sun had melted the fog hanging in the hollows around Sharpsburg, he requested a stroll with his friend Ozias Hatch. While they walked among hundreds of white army tents stretching from Sharpsburg to the Potomac, Lincoln waved his arms and with a dejected voice asked, “Hatch, Hatch. What is all of this?”

Mr. Hatch did not completely understand the strange question. He answered, “Why, Mr. Lincoln, this is the Army of the Potomac.” After a moment’s thought, the president said in a sad voice, “No, Hatch, no. This is McClellan’s bodyguard.”

Around noon, Lincoln and McClellan rode together up a long lane in an Army ambulance to the Stephen P. Grove farm, Mount Airy. The homestead is one mile west of Sharpsburg on the south side of the road leading to Shepherdstown. Then used as a Confederate hospital, the historic home today is privately owned and in great need of repair.

The Groves, Stephen and his wife Maria, remained at Mount Airy during the battle to protect the property. Their young daughter, Louisa, was sent to safety across the Potomac to stay with friends in Shepherdstown. By early October, she had returned home in time to see Mr. Lincoln. Although only 7, she remembered the rest of her life how “Old Abe” placed his large hand on her head and apologized to her mother and father for the destruction the war had brought to their home.

Then the president began slowly walking down a wide hallway leading to a back room full of wounded Rebels. A newspaper correspondent jotted down what happened next: “The president … remarked to the wounded Confederates that if they had no objection he would be glad to take them by the hand.” After a moment of silence, the battered and bloodied enemy came forward and “… fervently shook the hand” of the man much acquainted with grief; in February the president had buried his beloved 11-year-old son Willie. Lincoln walked to those too seriously wounded to stand and “… bid them good cheer, assuring them that every possible care should be bestowed upon them.”

Tears flowed freely from battle-torn soldiers, many of whom would never see home again.

Alexander Gardner, working for Mathew Brady, photographed Lincoln in conversation with Gen. McClellan “near Sharpsburg.”

There is evidence to support the opinion that the famous image was taken at Mount Airy: First, Gen. Fitz John Porter’s 5th Corps headquarters was at Mount Airy following the battle, and over half the members of his staff are in the photograph. Second, according to a Grove descendant, the chair in the picture on which the president leans with his left hand once belonged to Stephen and Maria Grove and is still in the family’s possession.

• • •

When Lincoln left Mount Airy he traveled to Bakersville, where he reviewed Gen. William Franklin’s 6th Corps camped just north of Sharpsburg. This small community today remains as in 1862: several limestone homes in a peaceful rural setting. En route to Bakersville, Lincoln had stopped at the battle-scarred Dunkard Church, where worshippers had been totally against slavery or war.

After the review and then shaking hands with members of 6th Corps, Lincoln visited the wounded and sick at the encampment. He noticed a soldier kneeling while trying to cool the forehead of a brother. The young private had not noticed the president, who asked the condition of the fallen warrior as he rested his huge and gentle hand on the private’s shoulder.

“This is my brother, sir. He is very sick with a high fever. We are from the state of New York.”

Only seconds after Lincoln’s departure, several excited 6th Corps boys burst into the tent and fired the question, “What did he have to say?” The young private, having no idea that the concerned man was the president, told his comrades that the “tall man with a beard” told him he would remember his brother in his prayers and had wished them a safe trip back home.

Another soldier, of the 20th Maine, recalled the visit. “There was deep lines in his bearded face. He looked as though he was carrying the burdens of the entire country.”

During his stay, while riding with Ward Lamon, Lincoln said that if he ever had the chance to express his feelings about the devastation he had seen around Sharpsburg he would do so. The following year, on Nov. 19, 1863, he had that opportunity, in his dedication speech at Gettysburg.

Lincoln spent the early part of his last day at Antietam at the Philip Pry farm east of Sharpsburg on the high ground overlooking Antietam Creek. During the battle, it had been Gen. McClellan’s headquarters, and it was originally thought that Gardner’s “Lincoln and McClellan” photograph had been taken there. Official records, however, state that the headquarters was relocated on Sept. 20 “… three miles south of Sharpsburg.”

The main reason Lincoln stopped at the Pry house in October was to check on a friend, Gen. Israel B. Richardson, who had suffered a wound that would eventually prove fatal while leading his division (2nd Corps) against the Sunken Road, or Bloody Lane.

After a warm welcome from the Prys, Lincoln went upstairs to the general. On his return to the kitchen, he was greatly surprised by breakfast, which Mrs. Pry had prepared for her honored guest. One of the first things the president did on returning to Washington was to convey his appreciation to her.

The small note, signed “A. Lincoln,” remained in the Pry household for many years.

• • •

An invited visitor to the Philip Pry home 30 years ago stood for a few quiet moments in the room where Gen. Richardson died on Nov. 2, 1862, then was taken to the attic.

Mr. Pry opened a heavy trap door cut into the roof that swung on hinges to the outside, and pointed to an apple crate: “Here, stand on this. Gen. McClellan did while he observed the battle.”

Could this story, handed down over the years, be true? One thing is certain: McClellan would have had an excellent panoramic view of the battlefield — and being only a bit over 5 feet tall, he, indeed, would have needed something on which to stand.

The Philip Pry home is now owned by the National Park Service. On Nov. 7, 1862, President Lincoln relieved Gen. McClellan of command of the Army of the Potomac due to what he referred to as a “bad case of the slows.”

Richard E. Clem is a cabinetmaker in Hagerstown, Md., and a frequent contributor to this page.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide