- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 10, 2009

SHARPSBURG, Md. — Cutting through a cornfield where soldiers were literally blown to bits on the bloodiest day of the Civil War, a hiker spied something near a groundhog hole: fragments of bone and a metal button, clotted with red clay.

He brought the remains to the visitors center at Antietam National Battlefield, where they were turned over to experts who determined that they belonged to a Union soldier from New York state.

The remarkable find 146 years after the soldier perished is a reminder that the battlefield at Antietam is “ground that was basically changed forever by what happened on it,” Superintendent John W. Howard said.

Many of the nearly 3,700 soldiers killed in the pivotal 1862 battle were buried in nearby cemeteries five years later, but the New York soldier’s remains were somehow overlooked until now.

The handful of bone fragments, iron uniform buttons and U.S. belt buckle help bring into focus the story that battlefield rangers strive to tell.

“These armies were made up of people, of men who fought here,” Mr. Howard said Thursday.

The soldier’s identity may remain a mystery. He was young, probably between 19 and 21, based on the condition of teeth in a recovered jawbone, Mr. Howard said. A National Park Service archaeologist and Smithsonian Institution anthropologist were the ones who confirmed he was a soldier.

And he apparently was no fresh recruit. Five iron buttons found along with textile fragments included some from a coat issued in New York and others bearing the “Excelsior” slogan of federal uniforms, an indication that he had served long enough to replace the lost originals.

The soldier could have served in any of 24 New York regiments that fought in the field where fierce small-arms and artillery fire obliterated cornstalks and men alike.

“We’ve always worked with the number that there’s somewhere between 140 and 200 missing in action here, and some of them, because of the volume of fire, they just ceased to exist as an entity — they were just totally destroyed,” Mr. Howard said.

About 23,100 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or declared missing at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. Days later, the dead were buried less than three feet deep in the rocky soil, marked by crude wooden headboards.

Five years later, most were dug up and reburied — the Union soldiers at the Antietam National Cemetery and the Confederates in nearby towns.

The New York soldier’s remains were found beside one of the limestone outcroppings that stud the rolling hills at Antietam like whitecaps, Mr. Howard said. Farmers who worked the soil after the war avoided such outcroppings to spare their machinery, which explains how the soldier stayed hidden for so long.

Remains turn up from time to time. A visitor found the last set, belonging to four unidentified members of the Irish Brigade, in 1989, Mr. Howard said.

The New York soldier’s bones may be buried in the Antietam National Cemetery next spring, after the park service and Douglas Owsley, a forensic pathologist at the Smithsonian’s natural history museum, complete their examination, Mr. Owsley said. The park service will first contact the adjutant general of New York state to ask whether the state wants the remains, he said.

Mr. Owsley declined comment on the case because he hasn’t yet examined the bones closely.

Historians consider the battle at Antietam, also known as the battle of Sharpsburg, a turning point in the war because Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s retreat from the battlefield gave President Abraham Lincoln the political strength to issue the Emancipation Proclamation five days later.

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