Sharpsburg: Two Day Sharpsburg & Antietam, the C&O Canal, Turner’s and Fox’s Gaps
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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 4: Sharpsburg & Antietam, the C&O Canal, Turner’s and Fox’s Gaps
This 2-day itinerary explores Sharpsburg’s must-see sites related to the Civil War, the C&O Canal Towpath, and the Canal visitor center at Ferry Hill. Spend Day 2 with a stop in Boonsboro before exploring two battle sites of South Mountain, as well as Washington Monument State Park.
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.
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.
Plan on spending several hours—if not a full day—at Antietam National Battlefield. (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.
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.
Today’s journey takes you to two battle sites at South Mountain. On the way out of Sharpsburg, visit to the Newcomer House, home to the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area Welcome and Exhibit Center. From Sharpsburg town center head east on Main St./Shepherdstown Pike/MD 34 toward Boonsboro. Newcomer House is about 0.5 mile east of town on 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).
A little farther up the road (18906 Shepherdstown Pike/MD 34), stop at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum and learn how doctors cared for the battle wounded. The house was also the headquarters of both Gen. McClellan and medical director Dr. Jonathan Letterman during the Battle of Antietam. See a re-creation of an operating theater and early medical instruments. Learn why the site is considered the birthplace of military and emergency medicine. Explore the grand barn, see what’s growing in the kitchen garden, and take in the scenic view from an overlook of the battlefield. Open daily, 11 am–5 pm, Memorial Day weekend–October; weekends only, May & November, 11 am–5 pm. $2 suggested donation.
Continue heading east on Shepherdstown Pike/MD 34 toward Boonsboro, another area town steeped in Civil War history and about 6 miles northeast of Sharpsburg. Founded in 1792 by cousins of Daniel Boone, Boonsboro offers an array of historic sites, shops, restaurants, and accommodations. West of town visit the Rural Heritage Museum for a peek into the county’s agricultural heritage (year-round weekends only, 1–4 pm and by appointment; no fee but donations accepted). For more information, visit Boonsboro online.
To reach Turner’s Gap, Fox’s Gap, and Washington Monument State Park, head southeast on Main St./Old National Pike/US 40.
Irresistible Forces and Immovable Objects
On September 14, 1862, the Battle of South Mountain rumbled over the rocky, wooded landscape at three separate places: Turner’s Gap, Fox’s Gap (near each other), and Crampton’s Gap (see Sharpsburg Itinerary 5). It was the first major battle north of the Potomac River. At Turner’s and Fox’s gaps the Union was tactically defeated even though their forces outnumbered the Confederates 3 to 1. At Crampton’s Gap, Union troops outnumbered Confederates 6 to 1, soundly defeating their foes. Taken together, however, some historians consider South Mountain a strategic standoff, even though the Confederates retreated. Fox’s and Turner’s gaps have been characterized as the classic paradox of irresistible forces meeting immovable objects.
At Turner’s Gap, Confederate Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill’s troops effectively held back Union Brig. Gen. Ambrose Burnside (commanding Gen. Joseph Hooker’s corps). At Fox’s Gap, Union Gen. Jesse Reno faced Confederate Brig. Gen. James Longstreet. Reno and Confederate Brig. Gen. Samuel Garland Jr. were both killed here. You’ll find a monument near where both fell, as well as a much newer (2003) sculpture—the North Carolina Monument along the Garland Trail—honoring the memory of Samuel Garland’s men, whose brigade suffered the worst casualties here.
Two future presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley, were linked to the Battle of South Mountain. Hayes was a lieutenant colonel with the 23rd Ohio and was seriously wounded. McKinley was a supply sergeant and didn’t see combat. In an ironic twist of fate, he was assassinated as president on the same day (September 14) 39 years later.
The Civil War Trails marker for Fox’s Gap is located at 21605 Reno Monument Road next to the Appalachian Trail. The Turner’s Gap marker is nearby at 6132 Old National Pike (US Alt 40), Boonsboro, MD (by the Old South Mountain Inn). Built in 1732, the inn was a Rebel command post under D. H. Hill and James Longstreet. Visit the nearby Washington Monument State Park (6620 Zittlestown Road, Boonsboro). The monument was the first to honor the nation’s premier president, and both Union and Confederates used it as an observation post. A small museum has information about the Battle of South Mountain (weekends only April and October; 7 days/week May–September; parking fee.) The views from the hill where the monument stands are stunning.