Monday, March 5, 2012

Antietam Battlefield paintings

While I was writing the Antietam battlefield blog, I realized some of the photos we took in the park's museum are a story all to themselves.  The battlefield museum has an impressive display of period items, but more importantly, it contains a display of the paintings of Captain James Hope, who witnessed the battle as part of a Union unit held in reserve.  During and after the battle, he made sketches of various parts of the field.  In the late 1880s, he produced several paintings based on those sketches and interviews with veterans.  They would go on display in Washington, DC in 1892.  Veterans praised them, although one allegedly said there were not enough bodies in the scenes.  Hope died in 1892 and his paintings were kept in the gallery of a church for many years.  Unfortunately, a flood in 1935 damaged some and destroyed others.  The surviving paintings were purchased in 1955 and stored in an old church until the Park Service bought them in 1979 for $5,000.  Heavily damaged from water, insects, and time, they were painstakingly restored and are now on display in the battlefield museum. The four panoramas (and a small remnant of a fifth) in the museum are amazingly detailed and certainly worth the few bucks it cost to see them.   In addition to the detail, they provide a useful look at the linear tactics used by Civil War armies.  Check them out in person at the Antietam National Battlefield Park museum and pick up a copy of Witness to Battle:  The Story of September 17, 1862, as told through the paintings of Captain James Hope from the Western Maryland Interpretive Association (, a nonprofit partner of the battlefield (, in cooperation with the National Park Service.

The Dunker Church, a focal point for Union attacks during the first phase of the battle.  Those are Confederate artillery batteries firing on Union battle lines.  A Confederate officer, Stephen Lee, commanding these guns described the battle as "artillery hell."  Some of his men that were killed during the battle were afterwards photographed by Alexander Gardner  and forever immortalized (see previous post).

For the unfamiliar, this is a great look at the tactics of American Civil War armies.  Units used linear tactics for command and control and to bring as many rifles to bear on the enemy as possible.  Rifles of the era were single-shot and relatively inaccurate, so massed firepower was important, yet the commanders needed formations they could control on foot or horseback.  The best way to do this is depicted in what you see.  Battle lines such as these were usually two deep.  The men would march up within range of their opponent's line of battle and open fire.  The opposing lines would blaze away until one side or the other broke because of casualties or ran out of ammunition.  Yes, it was a bloody way to do business, and the casualty figures reflected the tactics.  The dark spots scattered haphazardly between the lines are bodies.  The men on horses are officers accompanying and directing their regiments. The puffs of smoke on the right are Union artillery batteries firing over the heads of the troops.  Confederate troops did not like for their artillery to fire overhead because ammunition produced in the South was often-times defective, causing short rounds and very annoyed troops. 

Same panorama; different angle.  The Union troops represent the 5,000-man strong division of General John Sedgwick.
Phase two of the battle and from a different panorama.  A Union division assaults the Sunken Road (the line of smoke on the right).  Great depiction of lines of battle, preceded by skirmishers (the individual troops between the battle lines).  Skirmishers were small bodies of troops put out in front of main battle formations in order to break up the enemy's line of battle.  They used aimed fire, while the men in the lines of battle depended on mass fire.
The Sunken Road....or as it would forever be known afterwards, the "Bloody Lane."  Here is why.  This is the only remnant of the Bloody Lane panorama left, although there is a much smaller one of the same view owned by the US Army Center for Military History. 

The close up from the previous shot.   Notice the Confederate officer on the left side of the photo; killed, but left standing amongst the bodies.  These are most likely North Carolina or Alabama troops.  As the Confederate line broke apart because of exhaustion, confusion, and misunderstood orders, they were caught in a crossfire and trapped in the road as Union forces seized other parts of the road and the ground above it.


And horrible detail.
A shot of the entire panorama, entitled "After the Battle.  Bloody Lane--Antietam."  Eyewitness accounts describe the bodies being stacked as much as five deep.

An Alexander Gardner photo taken two days after the battle.
Union troops later in the battle crossing over the Bloody Lane and moving into the Piper cornfield.  Confederates are in the background (see the smoke) and to the right.  The unit depicted, the 7th Maine, was evidently told to attack by a drunken officer and did so right into a crossfire.  Over half the regiment did not come back.
The right side of the panorama, showing the Bloody Lane and Confederates firing on the Maine troops.
Third phase of the fighting.  Burnside's bridge.  Union troops crossing and attacking towards the Confederate-held heights beyond.

Another shot from the right side of the painting.  Union troops fire across the river, while Confederate prisoners are escorted to the rear.