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Weekend Planner

Surveying the battlefield

Around Antietam, historic sites are a bike ride away

Email|Print| Text size + By Doug Warren
Globe Staff / August 20, 2003

SHARPSBURG, Md. -- It's impossible to visit the Antietam National Battlefield, scene of the bloodiest single day in American military history, and not sense the ghosts. More than 3,000 men died -- and more than 22,000 were counted as casualties -- in the cataclysmic 12-hour clash between the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia that occurred here on Sept. 17, 1862.

That kind of psychic energy can't help but linger. Plus, little has changed here since 1862. Compared with Gettysburg and many other Civil War sites that have suffered from the encroachment of unbridled development, the Antietam battlefield is pristine.

Sharpsburg has lost half of its 19th-century population of 1,300; it still doesn't have a stoplight. You have to go to Boonsboro for that. But Sharpsburg does have a lot to offer history buffs who enjoy long bike rides, excellent food, and a hospitable inn. Which may also be haunted.

At the four-room Jacob Rohrbach Inn on Main Street, the innkeeper, Joanne Breitenbach, gave us keys to our well-appointed, air-conditioned rooms, a warning to avoid the tavern next door, and a brief history of the inn that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

It turns out that Jacob Rohrbach, whose family had a farm on the battlefield near what is now known as Burnside Bridge, was murdered in the inn in 1864 -- apparently by two of Confederate guerrilla fighter John Mosby's men who were after Rohrbach's horse.

It is said that the sounds of heavy boots can be heard tromping around the house. And Breitenbach told of a guest staying in the Clara Barton Room, on July Fourth of this year, who swore she heard a child giggling in the night. She woke her husband, who heard it, too. But there were no children. In fact, children younger than 10 aren't permitted in the inn.

This gave us pause. But the sun was shining, so we headed to the battlefield. Sharpsburg then, as now, was an unlikely place for a pivotal battle. The armies were drawn there largely because key roads pass through the tiny town on their way to places of greater import.

Through a failure of nerve and command on the part of General George B. McClellan, Union troops were sent in piecemeal -- or not used at all -- against a vastly outnumbered Confederate army under General Robert E. Lee. The outcome was a ghastly draw, but it did stem the Confederacy's first invasion of the North and gave Abraham Lincoln the opening he was seeking to issue his Emancipation Proclamation.

The battlefield is sprawling, and it's best to drive to the three key areas -- the Cornfield, Bloody Lane, and Burnside Bridge -- and then explore them on foot. My traveling companion was outraged to find soybeans planted in the infamous Cornfield, which changed hands several times during the battle and turned into a slaughter pen, but it proved to be a matter of crop rotation rather than the government conspiracy he was promulgating.

The observation tower at Bloody Lane gives a striking overview of the central part of the field, where the bodies of Rebel soldiers were piled in heaps in an old farm road after successive Yankee attacks. And the serenity of Burnside Bridge today stands in stark contrast to the mayhem perpetrated there as a few hundred Confederate soldiers held off an entire Union corps for several key hours.

We had worked up quite an appetite after tromping around the battlefield for three hours, so we headed to the Old South Mountain Inn for a richly deserved dinner. The next morning, we hopped on mountain bikes, provided by the Breitenbachs along with excellent maps and directions. And we rode to the 184.5-mile towpath that runs along the route of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

Construction of the canal, now a national park, seemed like the Big Dig of the 19th century. Originally planned for boat traffic from Washington to Pittsburgh, the canal was supposed to have cost $3 million and to have taken 10 years to build after the groundbreaking in 1828.

By the time the project was declared finished in 1850, although it never did reach Pittsburgh, it had cost $13 million, and railroads, in the meantime, had made canal transport all but obsolete.

The canal continued to function until 1924, when it was closed and basically abandonded until the early 1950s, when Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas stepped in to help preserve it. Today, the towpath, where mules pulled canal boats from lock to lock, offers hikers, bikers, and equestrians a level, shaded road that hugs the banks of the Potomac. We rode about 16 miles south to Harpers Ferry, W. Va., where we parked our bikes, walked across the railroad bridge spanning the Potomac, and explored the old town, the site of John Brown's ill-fated raid in 1859.

That evening, still a little saddle sore, we crossed the Potomac again into Shepherdstown, W. Va. The oldest continuously settled community in West Virginia, Shepherdstown has a funky, artsy feel and is home to Shepherd College and the popular Contemporary American Theater Festival, held each summer.

Having been warned to avoid the barroom next to our inn, we of course had to go there for a nightcap. We found that Pete's Tavern was also haunted: by a very small group of people who appeared to be very regular customers. But the place has a shuffleboard game and cold Yuengling lager pints on tap (for $1.25), so we got into the spirit, too.

The next morning, after another fortifying breakfast by Breitenbach, we checked out after reporting no supernatural encounters and explored the Crystal Grottoes Caverns, Maryland's only public show cave, where a tour of sparkling stalactites and stalagmites offered welcome respite from the heat.

Before leaving town, we went back to the battlefield, loaded up on souvenirs for our families at the visitors center's well-stocked gift shop (those cannon-mounted pencil sharpeners are a hit with the school-age crowd), and took a last walk through the woods near Burnside Bridge. We recounted the highlights of our trip -- the unsullied history, the excellent lodging, the fine dining, and the cheap beer -- and decided that while Sharpsburg might not become a regular haunt, we would certainly be back.

Doug Warren can be reached at dwarren@globe.com.

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