Sights around the Dunker Church
Over a number of blog posts, I want to share with readers a series of descriptions of the scenes surrounding the Sharpsburg area in the days and weeks after the Battle of Antietam. Most of these will be through the eyes and pen of George F. Noyes – a lawyer from Maine who was a part of Abner Doubleday’s staff – and who wrote incredibly descriptive and moving prose in his 1863 book The Bivouac and the Battlefield.
This third post in this series continues the writing of Noyes’ early ride around the battlefield. His words will be in italics; my additional comments within <brackets like this>. He wrote:
Over this graveyard of the unburied dead we reached a wood <referencing the West Woods>, every tree pierced with shot or cut with bullets, and came to the little brick church on the turnpike. This must have been a focal point in the battle, for a hundred round shot have pierced its walls, while bullets by thousands have scarred and battered it. <It is interesting how he states that it “must have been a focal point” … indicating how he was not within sight of it during the action. Probably by the time Noyes arrived on the field – probably about 8:00 – the fog of battle would have made it invisible to him in the area of the Miller farmhouse where he caught up to Doubleday. But before the battle at dawn of day, the white church stood out from a long distance to the north woods.> A little crowd of soldiers were standing about it, and within, a few severely wounded rebels were stretched on the benches, one of whom was raving in his agony. Surgical aid and proper attendance had already been furnished, and we did not join the throng of curious visitors within. Out in the grove behind the little church the dead had already been collected in groups ready for burial, some of them wearing our own uniform, but the large majority dressed in gray. No matter in what direction we turned, it was all the same shocking picture, awakening awe rather than pity, benumbing the senses rather than touching the heart, glazing the eye with horror rather than filling it with tears. I had, however, seen many a poor fellow during my ride, something in whose position or appearance had caused me to pause, and here, lying side by side with three others, I saw a young rebel officer, his face less discolored than the rest, whose features and expression called forth my earnest sympathy, not so much for him as for those who in his Southern home shall see him no more forever. No one knew his name among the burying-party, and before night he was laid in a trench with the rest, with no head-stone to mark his resting-place, one of the three thousand rebel dead who fill nameless graves upon this battlefield. So ends the brief madness which sent him hither to fight against a government he knew only by its blessings against his Northern brothers, who never desired to encroach upon a single right or institution of his who were willing that he should hug to his breast forever the Nessus shirt of slavery, <This refers to the account in Greek mythology about the poisoned shirt that killed Heracles. It has been an oft popular reference in literature, and is common in the mid-19th century Civil War writings.> asking only that he did not insist upon forcing its poison-folds over their shoulders also. So disappears the beloved of some sad hearts, another victim of that implacable Nemesis – who thus avenges upon the white man the wrongs of the black, and smiles with horrid satisfaction as this fearful game of war goes on.
Noyes was a passionate abolitionist, as were so many of the officers and staff gathered in Doubleday’s command.
The Confederate dead would find their final resting place beyond Sharpsburg, the largest number of them being buried in the Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown. This monument stands over the grassy field of the mass graves of these soldiers.