The Battle of Antietam, or Sharpsburg, on September 17, 1862, was the tragic culmination of Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North. That one fateful day more than 23,110 men were killed, wounded, or listed as missing. Approximately 4,000 were killed, and in the days that followed, many more died of wounds or disease. The peaceful village of Sharpsburg turned into a huge hospital and burial ground extending for miles in all directions.
Burial details performed their grisly task with speed, but not great care. Graves ranged from single burials to long, shallow trenches accommodating hundreds. For example, William Roulette, whose farm still stands behind the Visitor Center today, had over 700 soldiers buried on his property. Grave markings were somewhat haphazard, from stone piles to rough-hewn crosses and wooden headboards. A few ended up in area church cemeteries. In other cases, friends or relatives removed bodies from the area for transport home. By March of 1864, no effort had been made to find a suitable final resting place for those buried in the fields surrounding Sharpsburg. Many graves had become exposed; something had to be done.
Burial Crew Library of Congress
Establishing a Plan
In 1864, State Senator Lewis P. Firey introduced to the Maryland Senate a plan to establish a state, or national, cemetery for the men who died in the Maryland Campaign of 1862. On March 23, 1865, the state established a burial site by purchasing 11¼ acres for $1,161.75.
The original Cemetery Commission's plan allowed for burial of soldiers from both sides. However, the rancor and bitterness over the recently completed conflict and the devastated South's inability to raise funds to join in such a venture persuaded Maryland to recant. Consequently, only Union dead are interred here. Confederate remains were re-interred in Washington Confederate Cemetery in Hagerstown, Maryland; Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland; and Elmwood Cemetery in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Approximately 2,800 Southerners are buried in these three cemeteries, over 60% of whom are unknown.
An Arduous Task
In an effort to locate grave sites and identify the occupants, no one was of more value than two area men: Aaron Good and Joseph Gill. In the days, months, and years following the battle, these men freely gave of their time and gathered a large number of names and burial locations. The valuable service provided by these men cannot be overstated. The dead were identified by letters, receipts, diaries, photographs, marks on belts or cartridge boxes, and by interviewing relatives and survivors. Contributions totaling over $70,000 were submitted from 18 Northern states to the administrators of the Antietam National Cemetery Board. With a workforce consisting primarily of honorably discharged soldiers, the cemetery was completed by September 1867.
On September 17, 1867, on the fifth anniversary of the battle, the cemetery was ready for the dedication ceremonies. The ceremony was important enough to bring President Andrew Johnson and other dignitaries. President Johnson proclaimed, "When we look on yon battlefield, I think of the brave men who fell in the fierce struggle of battle, and who sleep silent in their graves. Yes, many of them sleep in silence and peace within this beautiful enclosure after the earnest conflict has ceased."
Dedication of the National Cemetery An NPS Image