Ah, the aroma of a fine cigar made from the sweet tobacco of the south. How many men have enjoyed them over the years. After a fine meal, with a snifter of brandy, or relaxing on one’s front porch watching the last of that magnificent southern sun fade away into the twilight sky. But did three cigars lead to the bloodiest single day in American history? Apparently so as two great armies were to meet at the woods and cornfields near Sharpsburg Maryland.
George B. McClellan, commander of the Federal Army of the Potomac, forever cautious and convinced his foes were more numerous than his, once again exercised his wariness upon learning of Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the north. Much to the frustration of Abraham Lincoln, McClellan had yet to score a glorious victory for the union, largely due to his inactivity in pursuing the enemy.
As the Army of the Potomac and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia somewhat paralleled each other crossing into Maryland, Union pickets observed a small packet lying on the ground. Since this was previously occupied by Confederate pickets, the Union sergeant and private figured they must have found something of value. Much to their delight, they did find something of value, three cigars wrapped in paper. Quite a rarity and valuable discovery, it wasn’t until later they realized the true value of this treasure. The paper wrapped around the cigars was a copy of Lee’s general order 191. This document provided troop strength and intended movements of his army and was carelessly dropped upon enemy land.
Upon receipt of this document, McClellan is quoted as saying, “If I can’t whip Bobby Lee with this, I shall gladly go home.” He would have his chance on September 17, 1862.
The battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburg as the Confederates referred, was actually three separate little battles taking place almost simultaneously. As the battle rages for numerous hours throughout the morning, fresh federal troops converge on the sunken road, so named for its indented appearance on the earth due to the high travel of wagons. This road was soon to take on the macabre nickname, the bloody lane. This natural breastwork was defended by desperate Confederates; exacting a deadly toll upon the Union ranks.
A belated support attack just south of town saw murder in the thousands as Union soldiers attempted to cross Antietam creek. Union General Ambrose Burnside, instead of having his men cross at a shallow ford one quarter mile south, bottlenecked his troops as he attempted to cross about ten thousand men over a bridge that could hold six men across. The Rebel troops had an easy day of it, whereas the Federals had no cover and were herded like cattle trying to cross this bridge.  History has renamed this bridge and his blunder to the Burnside bridge.
By late afternoon, the battle ended. Although both sides would claim a victory; strategically it was a draw. Lee limped back to Maryland, and McClellan, typically did not pursue. As both armies exited the field, they left a total of 23,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. Thus ended the bloodiest day in American history.
The battlefield looks much today as it did 138 years ago. With the exception of some woods having been removed, and a few monuments, one can stand and peer at the same landscape that bore witness to that horrific event. Today, one can see what those before us saw, perhaps even bear first hand witness to a sampling of what those brave men endured.
As the bloody lane became a mile long pit for Confederate dead, many seem to have stayed on. Visitors have reported the sound of gunfire when in the area of the bloody lane while others have smelled the unmistakable scent of black powder that seems to emanate from out of nowhere. One visitor to the park saw what he thought was a company of Confederate re-enactors only to realize that was not so when they suddenly vanished before his eyes.
An elementary school day trip became quite an experience for some of those youngsters one spring day. After the guided tour, they were invited to wander the area of the bloody lane for a short time before their departure. Upon their return, they mentioned to their chaperone that they heard what sounded like chanting, that seemed to increase in volume and intensity, emanating from all around them. When asked what it sounded like, they assimilated it to what sounded like the Christmas song ‘Deck the Halls’. The youngsters said it sounded somewhat like “Fa La La La La”. 
The area in which they stood saw the charge and decimation of the New York Irish Brigade. When asked if the chant was “Fahaugh A Balaugh”, most enthusiastically confirmed while some remained unsure. This was the Irish Brigade’s equivalent of the ‘Rebel Yell’; meaning “Clear the Way”.
The Burnside Bridge isn’t without its ghostly tales. Drum cadences are heard from time to time, calling into action the brave men of a time passed. Torturous shouts and screams have taken many a park visitor by unwelcome surprise, reminding us of the bloodshed upon this creek span.
Visits to the National Park, at the very least, will offer a beautiful view and a reverence to those who fought and died in a most tumultuous time in our nation’s history. Perhaps if you’re lucky enough, or unlucky, depending; you may just get more from your visit than anticipated. Perhaps you will hear, firsthand, the events that bestowed the area around Sharpsburg, Maryland the dubious honor of hosting America’s single bloodiest day.


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