Road trips are the traveler’s manifestation of a rite of passage. At least, it seems that way, if one reads enough books or watches enough films. Last year’s road trip to Boston was certainly epic and proved to me that extensive traveling didn’t have to be expensive or difficult. This year’s trip to Pennsylvania and Maryland reminded me that my own history is stretched out over more geography than the road between Greenville and the town where I grew up.
This year’s road trip was supposed to be 9 days of American history between D.C. and Philadelphia. Because of various incidents beyond our control, I spent 7 days on the road with Ticcoa, and Harvin joined us for several days in Pennsylvania, but did not travel with us for most of the trip. And we skipped D.C. altogether.
But I sort of got a bonus out of this year’s road trip. When Ticcoa and I were at Gettysburg, I flipped through a Civil War battlefields guidebook and realized that Sharpsburg, MD, wasn’t all that far south of Gettysburg…and definitely within a geographic range to visit on this trip, if we so desired. So I proposed a slight change to the plan: Ticcoa and I left Pennsylvania Saturday morning instead of Saturday evening and made the 3 hour journey southwest to Antietam National Battlefield.
Antietam is the bloodiest single-day battle in all of American history–not just the Civil War. In less than a 12-hour time span, 23,000 casualties occurred, including my great-great-great grandfather Harmon Reed Gambrell.
I discovered that I had a Confederate soldier for an ancestor six years ago when I took a class on American folklore and was assigned a large family history project. I searched genealogy records and found out that my 47-year-old great-great-great grandpa left behind a wife and eight children to enlist. And he was one of only 3 men killed from his unit at Antietam, a tremendous surprise considering the overall number of casualties. Furthermore, he was the only rifleman actually killed in his unit on the day of the battle. The 1st man was a colorbearer killed early and the last man was killed by a Union sharpshooter the next day (according to accounts in the official Civil War Records). I’ve always wanted to visit Antietam, just to see the land where my grandfather died. Among a lineage of small-town farmers, a Confederate casualty stands out a bit, particularly since he died in such an epic battle.
When Ticcoa and I arrived at Antietam National Battlefield, I really had no hope of figuring out where his unit had been fighting. Because Antietam was a spontaneous addition to our trip, I had left all my records and information at home. I knew his name, that he was a private in the 1st South Carolina Rifles, and that he died on that day. But, truthfully, I had not uncovered very much more information. So we went to the visitors center and then started driving around to all the monuments and stops on the driving tour.
We saw Dunker Church, where much of the fighting took place, and then a place called “the bloody cornfield,” where I again wondered if this was where my grandfather had spent his last moments. But when we arrived at stop 5, the West Woods, a volunteer named Jim Buchanan walked up to us. The conversation went something like this:
Jim: “Are you from Boston?” (Note: I was wearing a Boston t-shirt. He’s not a mindreader.)
Me: “No, we’re actually from South Carolina.”
Jim: “Oh, really? We had a number of units from South Carolina fighting here.”
Me: “I know. My great-great-great grandfather died here during the battle.”
Jim: “Oh, really? Do you know his unit? We can probably figure out where he died.”
This was the moment where Ticcoa pulled out her video camera. She has footage of our conversation, which I haven’t seen yet, but I can imagine the wide-eyed look on my face. I had no idea, no expectation, that I would actually discover where my grandfather had been on all the miles and miles of farmland that is part of the national battlefield. But Jim pulled out his book, entitled The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, flipped to the back, looked up the 1st SC Rifles in the index, and was able to determine when and where my grandfather’s unit had been fighting. He then informed me that the battle of Antietam was incredibly well-documented, and someone has actually made maps of the troop movement down to the half-hour. After reading the account in the book, Jim pulled up maps from later in the afternoon, and I saw on the map when my grandfather entered the battle. He then unrolls his map, starts comparing the location to the park service map, and told me exactly how to find the hills where the 1st SC Rifles were fighting.
Here’s what I learned: my grandfather’s unit had been on reserve most of the day, and they were called up mid-afternoon (after 3 p.m.) to engage with the 4th Rhode Island regiment near Burnside Bridge. The Confederates were able to hold onto that piece of land, and, in fact, remained camped nearby until the morning of Sept. 19 (the battle of Antietam occurred on Sept. 17, 1862). Eventually, they were the last Confederate troops to leave the area by crossing the Potomac.
I’m still not sure where my grandfather is buried. Most likely, he is buried with most of the Confederate soldiers who died at Antietam in one of three mass graves nearby. Something like 10% of the bodies were ever identified, so the chances that he was once of them are slim. However, some reports on ancestry.com show my ancestor as being buried in Honea Path, SC, his hometown (though I suspect that may just be a monument and not a gravestone). I’ll soon be traveling a few counties over to Honea Path to find that cemetery and confirm whether he’s buried there or not. Another posting on Ancestry lists him as being in Jackson, Mississippi, though that may be confused with his older brother, who also died during the Civil War, though of a disease and not in battle. At any rate, I may never find his grave. But that’s okay because I pulled off the side of a road and looked down the hills to the area where he was fighting. And it was beautiful.
This might be the greatest thing I’ve marked off The List so far. I mean, Boston was epic in so many ways, and there are others that I’m proud of. But at Antietam, I found a piece of my history, and it’s a place I plan on revisiting whenever possible. Also, I’m a little obsessed now with Civil War history: researching online, narrowing down where exactly my grandfather fought before Antietam, etc. But that’s totally okay. 🙂