Well-Known Obscure Places

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012-2013, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the September 2012 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

There is a joke about the Civil War which asks the question, “Why were so many Civil War battles fought on National Parks?” Of course it is the other way around. It is National Parks that were established on the sites of Civil War battles. But that joke prompts the thought that we would have never heard of those places had there not been Civil War battles there. In his book Mr. Lincoln’s Army Bruce Catton has a superb passage which captures how the war came to a place that we would have never heard of had the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia not fought there so many years ago.

Sharpsburg in the 19th Century

As Catton wrote, “The country around Sharpsburg is surpassingly lovely, with low hills rolling lazily down to the Potomac on the west, and little patches of trees breaking up the green-and-brown pattern of the farmers’ fields. The river comes down unhurried, going to the south in wide loops and then swinging to the east; and just before it turns again to go south the copper-colored Antietam comes down and joins it-another unhurried stream that makes little loops and bends of its own as it follows a north-and-south line to enter the river. Between the creek and the river is the town of Sharpsburg, lying on the western slope of a gentle ridge that slopes off, east and west, to the two streams.

Sharpsburg in 1862

“Now this country town, together with the streams and the principal roads, had names before the armies came together there, because men have to have names for such places in the daily routine of living. But most of the landscape lay nameless, and it serenely and happily lacked history and tradition. Nothing had ever happened there except the quiet, undramatic, unrecorded round of births and deaths, christenings and weddings, cornhuskings and barn-raisings, the plowing of the ground in the spring and the harvesting of fat crops in the fall. Life moved like the great tide of the Potomac a mile or so to the west-slowly, steadily, without making a fuss, patiently molding the land to its own liking.

Rare photograph of soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia in line of march in Frederick, Maryland on their way to Sharpsburg

“As one comes up the hill on the road from Boonsboro, there is the National Cemetery, green and well kept. It was not there at all on the morning of September 16, 1862; there was nothing there then but the broad crest and the peaceful grove. If a man stood in this grove and looked to the north, he could see the white block of the little Dunker church. And on that September morning in 1862, anyone who looked at the church would have seen two bits of woodland lying near it-one west of the Hagerstown road, and the other east of the road. Two quieter bits of woodland could not have been found in North America, and no one outside the immediate area had ever heard of them. But ever since then, because of what was about to take place there, those two wood lots have had a grim, specialized fame and have been known in innumerable books and official records as the West Wood and the East Wood-as if, in all that countryside, there were no other bits of wood that lay just east and west of a country road. There was a forty-acre cornfield between the two plots of trees, which ever since has simply been the cornfield, as if there had never been any other.

Sharpsburg after the battle

“Where the cornfield used to be there is a roadway flanked by gleaming, archaic-looking monuments and statues. But in the fall of 1862 no one was dreaming of statues, and because they had had good growing weather the corn was in fine shape, the tall stalks waving slowly in the last winds of summer. And over and above this perfection of peace and quiet, on the sixteenth of September, there was a silent running out of time and a gathering together of the fates, as issues that reached to the ends of the earth and the farthest borders of national history drew in here for decision.”

Sharpsburg after the battle

That passage beautifully conveys how the town and the landmarks and the residents of Sharpsburg would have remained out of the sight of history had the armies not happened upon that location for their battle. Would we even know what state Sharpsburg is in or that there are two round-topped hills just south of Gettysburg or that Vicksburg sits on the bank of the Mississippi River had Civil War battles not happened in these places? Most of these places would have “serenely and happily lacked history” had history’s sometimes cruel hand not reached into them. But because Civil War battles were fought there, the names of these places echo within our heritage and make us simultaneously quiver with dread and swell with pride. These places can never again be obscure nameless landscapes. Statues or no statues, monuments or no monuments, National Park or not, these places have become, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, consecrated “far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Note: For brevity, the passage from Bruce Catton’s Mr. Lincoln’s Army was abridged somewhat.