(from the July 2008 SHAF Newsletter)
By Antietam NBP Ranger Mannie Gentile,
photos by the author
Find yourself on the Northern edge of Antietam National Battlefield.Your feet are planted on Mansfield Avenue, the saplings of the newly replanted North Woods are at your back, highway 65 is a long shout off your left shoulder, and directly in front of you is the Joseph Poffenberger Farm. Usually it’ll be just you and the cows with the occasional visitor momentarily stopping nearby while listening to the audio tour before continuing toward the east.
The acreage of the Poffenberger Farm is some of the most charming of the battlefield, very rolling with the usual rock ledges, hills and swales dominated subtly by a commanding ridge just beyond the majestic Pennsylvania bank barn. The house is perched on high ground affording those who, long ago, lounged on its front porch a delightfully detached view of the old Hagerstown pike.
The view from that porch in the wee hours of September 17, 1862 would have been altogether different; both eerie and disconcerting.
In the predawn murkiness of first light an onlooker from that front porch would have had the impression that the ground itself was moving, slowly and lethargicallyat first, accompanied with occasional busts of coughing. And as the gloom just began to barely lighten in the eastern sky the ground would seem to roil as dark spectral shapes, by the thousands, arose and began to stumble into formation as orders rang out in the early hours and the long roll was sounded on countless field drums.
This was the last morning for many of the men of Hooker’s First Corps of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. The last evening prior to this last morning was spent by these nearly 8,600 men on the grounds of the Poffenberger Farm where they passed the damp darkness in bivouac – camping without shelter or, in this instance, cooking fires. These men would be the spearhead of the Union effort on this historic day. And the silent buildings of the Poffenberger Farm that remain to this day would be witness to the passing of the First Corps.
Later that morning the Farm would again play host to Union soldiers, as terrified and battered survivors of Sedgwick’s Division fresh from the so-called “Disaster in the West Woods” would seek shelter, succor, and solace among the gentle swales of the farmstead.
Some of those men would receive aid from a volunteer nurse from Massachusetts; that nurse would provide the last kind voice heard by many of those young men.
Joseph Hooker was there, Sedgwick was there, Meade was there, and Clara Barton was there; and, this morning, I was there.
The armies have moved on, time has moved forward, but on the grounds of the Poffenberger farm it could all have happened a week ago, or a week from now. Although today, while the buildings still stand and comprise the most intact of the original battlefield farmsteads, much work must be done to preserve them.
Acquired by the park fairly recently, the farm is in its second year of a five-year initiative to restore it to its 1862 appearance.
Already the wagon shed and washhouse have been stabilized and restored with rebuilt foundations, replaced timbers, and a fresh coat of white wash. Original fence lines are again graced with post and rail fences. And now the effort is on to restore that magnificent barn as well as the Poffenberger house.
This nearly $400,000 effort, undertaken by the Park, is being actively supported by the Save Historic Antietam Foundation. A $10,000 gift from SHAF will go toward the painting of the Poffenberger house. Stabilized and painted, the house will provide a “scene setter” for the restored farmyard and outbuildings presided over by that incredible barn.
The Maintenance and Cultural Resources Divisions of Antietam National Battlefield are moving ahead with both care and enthusiasm on this very challenging undertaking. Craig Cartwright, head of park maintenance, is emphatic when he says that he enjoys “the challenge of restoring such a valuable and historic structure”.
The work continues apace with three highly skilled maintenance personnel detailed to the project, and already the progress on the site is remarkable. And soon, thanks to SHAF the repaired and repainted Poffenberger house will be restored to its 1862 appearance, again a welcoming beacon, though this time not to weary soldiers, but to history loving visitors.
Come see for yourself, I’ll meet you on that porch, just north of Sharpsburg.