Sharpsburg: Sharpsburg, the C&O Canal, and the Battle of Antietam
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These itineraries, “Canal Towns: In the Shadows of the Civil War,” were developed, in part, with State Funds from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, an instrumentality of the State of Maryland. However, the contents and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority. Photographs were provided by Judy Olsen Photography unless otherwise noted.
Itinerary 2: Sharpsburg, The C&O Canal, and the Battle of Antietam
This itinerary explores Sharpsburg’s must-see sites related to the Civil War, as well as the C&O Canal Towpath.
The Town on the Spring
Begin in the heart of Sharpsburg town (Main St. and Mechanic St.). The Sharpsburg town website has detailed information about the history of the older houses, including contemporary photos. Three different booklets guide you on a walking tour of the town’s hospitals and shelters during the Civil war, old stone houses (all private property), and churches. For $5 each, booklets are available from the Sharpsburg Historical Society or at Captain Benders Tavern (113 East Main St.). If you like, arrange a guided walking tour through the historical society (Town Hall, 106 E. Main, upstairs from the library), which also has family history information, artifacts, old journals, and the complete set of Garnet Jex’s works (50 paintings): “The Upper Potomac in the Civil War.”
Some of the buildings date to the late 18th century, or at least portions of them do. Several are early 19th century, and many of them were makeshift hospitals for wounded and dying soldiers following the Battle of Antietam. The walking tour booklets offer detailed history of the buildings and their owners, as well as interesting anecdotes.
One building on the tour includes Tolson’s Chapel (111 E. High St.; open by appt.) In April 1868, the chapel doubled as a new Freedmen’s Bureau school, serving as many as 25 African American students; 12 had been slaves only 4 years earlier. Schooling for freed African American children continued in the chapel as part of the Washington County School system until the Sharpsburg Colored School was built in 1899. The “new” school building (now a private residence) stands at the corner of High and Church streets.
In September, enjoy the annual Sharpsburg Heritage Festival, featuring food, artists, craftmakers, re-enactments, and walking tours of town (2nd weekend after Labor Day). View the online events calendarfor more about what’s happening in Sharpsburg.
From town center, head east on Main St. to one block east of Church St. (south side). Here once stood the original Lutheran church, which was damaged during the Battle of Antietam. The church building suffered more afterward when the wounded were nursed here. The congregation decided to sell the building logs and rebuild elsewhere; a fence now outlines the original foundation. You can read more about the church in the booklet from the Sharpsburg Historical Society (“The Hospitals & Shelters of Sharpsburg”).
Another block up E. Main St. is the town cemetery, Mountain View, where Sharpsburg founder Joseph Chapline is buried. Across the street (south side), Antietam National Cemetery was founded in 1867 for Union soldiers. Confederate soldiers were denied burial here, leading to the creation of Washington Confederate Cemetery in Hagerstown. The statue of “Old Simon,” a Union infantryman, gazes toward the North. Weighing 250 tons, Simon was brought from Pennsylvania in two pieces. On the way, his top half plunged into the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., but he was saved and finished his journey up the C&O Canal.
Continue heading east on Main St./Shepherdstown Pike/MD 34 toward Boonsboro. About 0.5 mile east of Sharpsburg the Newcomer House is home to the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area Welcome and Exhibit Center (north side of the road). Three main rooms in the 1830’s farm house feature exhibits about Civil War battles in Washington, Carroll, and Frederick counties. Themes include the battles, the home front, and beyond the battlefields (weekends only April and November, 11 am–5 pm; Daily May–October, 11 am–5 pm). If you skip the battlefield visitor center, at least stop here.
Heading west from Sharpsburg town center (toward the Potomac River), stop to see the site were Gen. Lee pitched his headquarters tent during the Antietam Campaign. You’ll find a marker in some trees (south side of the road) just west of where the elementary school now stands. Limited parking is available along the shoulder.
Keep heading west, and just beyond the curve in the road you will see the old Antietam Train Station on your right. Moved from its original location, the station houses a model train exhibit managed by the Hagerstown Model Railroad Museum. Contact the museum for opening dates.
If you’re following the Civil War Trails markers, farther west on Shepherdstown Pike/MD 34 pull into the small parking lot at Grove farm on the south side of the road (just beyond the train station). Union forces camped around the farm during and after the Antietam Campaign. A few weeks after the battle, President Lincoln met Gen. George McClellan here and visited with wounded soldiers—both Federals and Rebels—hospitalized in the farm buildings. A month later, Lincoln relieved McClellan of his duties.
Commerce & Community
Construction of the Chesapeake & Ohio (C & O) Canal began in 1828 with a ceremony featuring President John Quincy Adams. The bold project was designed to hasten commercial trade between Washington, D.C., and points west—all the way to the Ohio River. But by 1850, construction stopped at Cumberland, MD, in the wake of numerous difficulties, and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad took its place as the primary mover of goods.
Start your explorations of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park (C&O) at Ferry Hill (about 16500 MD 34). The visitor center was renovated in 2012 and includes new exhibits depicting the house’s history, Henry Kyd Douglas (who lived here), and the canal and surrounding communities, including a hands-on area for children (weekends, 12–4 pm, Memorial Day–Labor Day).
The first ferry across the Potomac was established here in 1765 by Thomas Swearingen. Marrying into the Swearingen family, John Blackford gained ownership of the ferry and began acquiring the surrounding land. He built the grand Ferry Hill Place between 1812 and 1817 on the hill overlooking the river. When the C&O Canal flowed past in 1835, Ferry Hill was well positioned as a prosperous crossroads of travel, commerce, and community.
Blackford’s slaves Jupe and Ned operated the ferry, and the Potomac River was a dividing line between free and slavery state in this region. No one knows for sure how many fleeing slaves may have crossed at Ferry Hill.
Armies from both sides crossed the Potomac at Ferry Hill to and from the battles of Antietam, Gettysburg, and Monocacy. Though the lovely grounds are peaceful now, during the Antietam Campaign in September 1862 soldiers dug rifle pits, and Union troops camped on the plantation in the days leading up to the battle. The farm was laid to waste. Henry Kyd Douglas, step-grandson of Blackford, and who lived in the house as a boy, enlisted in the Confederate Army and became Gen. T.J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s youngest staff officer. In his book, I Rode with Stonewall, Douglas recounts his dejection at witnessing Union troops occupying his home and the ensuing destruction from the war.
From the house, you can take a 0.25-mile footpath through woods down the slope to the canal towpath. Or by car, foot, or bike you can exit the main gate and cross Shepherdstown Pike (MD 34); whichever your mode, use caution when crossing.
If you take the trail, turn left when you reach the towpath and go under the bridge to nearby Lock 38. Here, the small community of Bridgeport sprang up around the ferry crossing. John Blackford owned a hotel and tavern to accommodate locals and travelers. A few old buildings and foundations remain. There’s room for a few cars to park here, but you’ll find a larger parking area just downstream at towpath milepost 72.8.
Spanning the river between the current railroad trestle and Shepherdstown Pike are two sets of old stone piers, remnants of 19th-century bridges that once carried rail and carriages between Shepherdstown and Sharpsburg. At canal milepost 72.5 you can see the remains of one of only three river locks on the canal. Canal boats used the lock to access the Potomac River and cross to Shepherdstown.
During the Civil War troops often traded volleys across the river and canal; smaller battles erupted here and there along the banks. Close your eyes and imagine the sound of artillery echoing through the river valley, ordinance splashing in the water and exploding on shore, tree branches cracking under fire.
The canal was on Federal territory, and Confederate troops often disrupted canal operations by confiscating boats, destroying locks, and raiding supply stores. Union troops waged their share of destruction, too, to keep the Rebels from seizing valuable supplies or gaining control of the C&O.
About 1.5 miles downstream from the parking area was a well-used Potomac River ford, which had many names over the years: Pack Horse, Swearingen’s, Blackford’s, and Boteler’s. Because the Shepherdstown bridge was destroyed in 1861, the ford became a strategic crossing for both Federals and Rebels. Stonewall Jackson and company crossed on their way to Antietam. Following the battle, Gen. Lee’s entire army crossed back into Virginia, creating a massive bottleneck of horses, soldiers, and wagonloads of wounded. Union troops harassed them while they tried to cross, with sharpshooters stationed on the river bluffs. Soldiers also used portions of the canal, which had been drained, as breastworks. Confederates crossed here again during the Gettysburg Campaign in 1863, and Gen. Jubal Early crossed here in 1864 on his way to attack Washington, D.C. In July 1864 Union troops crossed the ford on their way to Hagerstown. The Union lost 269 soldiers of the 118th Pennsylvania, who were attacked by Gen. A.P. Hill at the ford.
Continue downstream to Antietam Creek Aqueduct (about 3 miles from Lock 38). To drive, follow Canal Road. On July 5, 1864, Gen. Early’s troops blasted a portion of the aqueduct and burned several canal boats.
Heading upstream from Lock 38 at Ferry Hill will take you to Killiansburg Cave Campground (canal milepost 75.7), about 3 miles. You’ll find a few small caves in the low bluffs along here, where Sharpsburg residents sought refuge during the Battle of Antietam.
If you’re following the towpath, continue upstream to milepost 76.6—Snyders Landing. Stop in at Barron’s Store for cold and hot drinks, snacks, ice cream, and penny candy. Opened in the 1960s, the original owner had a small collection of C&O Canal artifacts. The store was sold in 2006 and the artifacts were donated to the National Park Service, but a few vintage pictures still hang on the walls. The store is open most weekends May–September (weather dependent). To check availability: 301-432-8726 or 410-583-5299. They also have a small selection of bike tubes, camping supplies, trail maps, first aid items, and used books, as well as a tire pump.
Snyders Landing has a boat ramp and ample parking. To drive from Main St./MD 34 in Sharpsburg, turn on N. Potomac Street, go 2 blocks and turn left on Chapline St. After bearing right in the first block, Chapline changes to Snyders Landing Rd. Follow it 1.4 miles to the canal access point. Barron’s is on a little hill on the right just past Mose Circle.
The Bloodiest Day
At dawn on September 17, 1862, Union and Confederate troops began exchanging fire across the farm fields, woodlands, and stream bottoms around Sharpsburg. Nearly 12 hours after it began, the Battle of Antietam was over, claiming 23,000 dead, missing, and wounded, and dubbing the engagement as the Civil War’s bloodiest day. Five days later President Lincoln issued a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.
If you don’t have time to drive around the Antietam National Battlefield, at least stop by the visitor center (Labor Day–Memorial Day, 8:30 am–5 pm; Memorial Day–Labor Day, 8:30 am–6 pm; fee). Check the National Park Service website for special events that take place throughout the year. Particularly moving is the Memorial Illumination (1st Sat. in Dec.), during which 23,000 luminaries line the roads in memory of the fallen.
You may also want to visit the Pry House Field Hospital Museum (18906 Shepherdstown Pike/MD 34). Learn how doctors dealt with the sometimes gruesome task of treating the battle wounded. The house was also the headquarters of both Gen. McClellan and medical director Dr. Jonathan Letterman during the Battle of Antietam. Open daily, 11 am–5 pm, Memorial Day weekend–October; weekends only, May & November, 11 am–5 pm. $2 suggested donation.