Midday, September 17, 1862. The Federal Line. Three soft-lead .58 caliber bullets shatter the bones in a middle-aged infantryman’s chest as he charges across a sunken road towards Confederate guns.
The Battle of Antietam was the first major engagement in the American Civil War to take place on Union soil. It was also the bloodiest day in the entire four-year conflict. When the guns on both sides fell silent, the aforementioned infantryman was one of the 3,650 lives which had ended on that day. An additional 19,500 soldiers on both sides were either wounded or missing.
Due to Baltimore’s proximity to the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland I have traveled to the Antietam battlefield quite often. My first visit took place when I was very young, about five or six years old, and it made quite an impression on me—not because of my enchantment with the park rangers who led tours in period dress, the imposing granite monoliths that loomed over us in memory of the fallen, or the surrounding hillsides with their crops of wildflowers that formed a riot of color in the parched summer grass. What lingers prominently in my memories of that day is the abundance of marble slabs, tombstones, and other granite markers indicating mass graves of “unknown" dead. Although a young child may grasp the concept of war as an affair that claims lives, my first visit to Antietam marked the moment when I first realized that it also had the power to snuff out people’s identities.
After most battles, survivors on both sides made attempts to bury their deceased. By all accounts, however, the majority of post-Civil War battle graves were shallow, hasty affairs. Western Maryland Historical Library reports that “grave markings were haphazard; stone piles, rough-hewn crosses and wooden headboards...Identities of the dead were discerned, where possible, by marks on belts or cartridge boxes, letters, diaries, and photographs." Scores of other individuals—especially those who had carried no such personal effects or identifying documents—were consigned to eternal anonymity. The grounds of Antietam National Battlefield alone contains over 1,500 unknown soldiers.
When the war ended, the government dispatched paid laborers to locate fallen soldiers and give them proper burials in military cemeteries, such as the National Cemetery at Antietam. But some unmarked graves went undetected, such as that of the middle-aged soldier who was mortally wounded during the battle on the Sunken Road. His remains, along with those of three other men, were not discovered until 1988, when relic hunters noticed human bones in a field next to Antietam National Battlefield. Based on the location and accompanying artifacts (e.g. New York state buttons, “buck and ball” ammunition, Catholic rosary beads), National Park Service archeologists speculated that these unidentified men had likely served in the 63rd New York Regiment of the Irish Brigade. Researchers took special interest in the older man because his unique age (the average soldier was about 26) enabled archaeologists to hone in on the man’s identity. Some sources report that he was Private James Gallagher, a stone cutter who originally came from Kilkenny, Ireland.
On September 17, 1989, the 127th anniversary of the battle, the National Park Service reinterred the four soldiers at the National Cemetery at Antietam and held a Roman Catholic mass at the Sunken Road, now known as Bloody Lane. Even now, in the 21st century, the soil of Antietam National Battlefield continues to yield up its dead. (The most recent discovery occurred in 2009.) As more artifacts come to light, recent advances in archaeological science will hopefully shed more light on the infamous battle of September 17, 1862 and connect the anonymous deceased to their lost identities.
The National Park Service is running a series of upcoming programs from September 14-22, 2012 in commemoration of the 150th anniversary. For more general information about Antietam, please visit the Antietam National Battlefield website, and check out the books in our catalog. National Public Radio also has an image gallery that enables users to view photos of Antietam in both 1862 and the present day. For additional web resources, visit the Pratt Library's Antietam and Emancipation Proclamation.