The sacred shadows of Antietam loom large here in Washington County. Travelers from the east who move westward just over the cusp of the Blue Ridge Mountains often can sense a powerful air of history, heritage, natural wonder, and perhaps most of all, a sense of community.
Washington County has long since the days of its settlement existed as a predominantly rural area where amber waves of grain literally sway through the rippling fields. If you take time to let off the gas in our section of the state, you will no doubt feel right at home in our valley of history. Our smaller rural communities give an impression as though they have been ripped straight from a Norman Rockwell painting.
Should you decide to make your way to the battlefield before chillier weather knocks on our doors, you would be remiss not to visit some of the communities that encompass this sacred ground and elicit these strong sentiments of early Americana. Both Sharpsburg and Boonsboro, Maryland are those kinds of towns.
The Civil War is burned into the living memory of Sharpsburg. A shining example of historic Main Street, USA, Sharpsburg looks quite similar today as it did in September 1862 when nearly 23,000 Confederate and Union soldiers lost their lives in a single day; the bloodiest battle of the war and the single deadliest day in American History. It is here that cyclists, hikers, ghost hunters, and Civil War buffs alike can find solace in the crisp autumn winds while standing atop an observation tower, offering vistas of farms off far in the distance and the Sunken Road where many of the fallen soldiers lay lifeless after the bloody siege.
The stark contrasts between the violence of 1862 and modern-day tranquility are striking. It will not take any visitor long to locate the peace which wraps around your body on the grounds of this site. The gentle serenades of Antietam Creek in the early evenings are especially prevalent at Burnside Bridge, where it is not uncommon to witness kayakers enjoying its cool following waters. Another observer, an old sycamore who was present for the battle, stands proudly at the edge of the recently restored bridge. Drivers can access the scenic site by traveling into Old Burnside Bridge Road; a route which most will stumble upon naturally as they explore the grounds of the battlefield.
Perhaps the most poignant tribute in honor of the dead of Antietam is the placement of luminaries throughout much of the five square mile battleground. Local groups and individuals from Washington County have kept up this age-old tradition of illuminating 23,000 candles to honor those who lost their lives in the deadly affair nearly 160 years ago.
Writers Note: Unfortunately, the luminaries have been canceled this year for the safety of those who do the diligent work of setting up the light show.
Leaving Antietam, your taste buds may dictate which way you travel after leaving the hallowed ground. If you’re looking for a sweet treat, Nutter’s Ice Cream in Sharpsburg is the place to go to get a huge scoop of moose tracks or cookies and cream.
Just fifteen minutes away, wine connoisseurs will be delighted to find Big Cork Vineyards which is best accessible by taking Porterstown Road to Route 67. The soft edges of the Blue Ridge Mountains and seemingly endless rows of grapes in this largely unpopulated area of the region are incredibly romantic and will complement any trip to Southern Washington County.
If you’ve come this far down into the Southern edge, do yourself a favor and stop at Gathland State Park to see the only War Correspondents Memorial in the world. Funded by author George Alfred Townsend, the structures at Gathland stand proudly at the edge of the South Mountain off the Appalachian Trail. Take a brief walk to Townsend’s empty mausoleum which reads “Goodnight, GATH” yet contains no cadaver. Upon his death, Townsend was too poor to even have his body returned home to his personalized crypt; a riches to rags story which reminds all who visit the uncertainties of life.
Instead of steering closer to the waters of the Potomac, you may find yourself headed north back onto the winding roads of Washington County. If so, you may find yourself in another charming community called Boonsboro. In recent years, Boonsboro has had something of a mini-renascence thanks, in part, to the internationally known author, Nora Roberts, who calls Boonsboro home. Roberts naturally manages a bookstore in the ever-improving downtown area while her endeavors have allowed her to branch out to open Inn Boonsboro, a charming spot for travelers to stay and enjoy rooms themed after some of Roberts’ most successful best-selling novels. Two foodie spots in particular will satisfy your tastebuds in downtown Boonsboro. Dan’s Restaurant Taphouse has a truly large selection of beers, wines, and spirits that will please anyone looking to try some local draughts from one of Washington County’s many local brewers. If your sweet tooth is asking for something more, stroll down the street from Dan’s to Stone Werks; a charming bakery offering a variety of cakes, cookies, scones, and more.
Before you head out of Boonsboro, you must climb South Mountain by car on Alternate Route 40 towards the Appalachian Trail. Perhaps one of the most interesting sites to see in the county sits immediately at the edge of the Frederick County line — Washington Monument State Park. Not to be confused with the towering icon on the National Mall, Washington’s Monument was constructed by ardent patriots of the town of Boonsboro on July 4th, 1827 and is recognized as the first monument erected to honor the founding father.
Of the many trails in Washington County, the very short hike to the monument is one of the easiest to manage. Upon arrival at the crest, the oddly shaped stone structure peers out beyond the trees to meet you at eye level. A special feature of the monument is the narrow steps that lead to the top of the structure and provides an overlook of much of southern Washington County. From the height of the tower, the shadows of Antietam can be seen in their beautifully hushed splendor. It is what happened in the valley below that Lincoln decided to draft the Emancipation Proclamation, a document which laid the groundwork to dissolve slavery in the United States. The landscape of Antietam bleeds history, her scars still visible in the landscape, and her disputes still never fully resolved even in our modern world.
While you’re in the area:
If you want to keep exploring historic communities, continue past the War Correspondents Memorial to a tiny town called Burkittsville, which has been mired in folklore and mystery. To the surprise of even most locals, segments of the wildly popular horror film The Blair Witch Project were filmed in the backwoods of Burkittsville.
Additionally, a popular local legend is Spook Hill; an eerie location in the small town where cars can be spotted at nighttime at the bottom of the hill putting their vehicles in neutral, only to find themselves drifting uphill. Legend has it that the ghosts of Civil War soldiers mistake your vehicle as a cannon, pushing you up the hill. Some have claimed to see handprints on their bumpers and the ghostly grunts during the experience. Others say the haunting experience is simply an optical illusion and that the upward grade is in fact facing downward and nothing more than a spooky experience to entertain riders. If you ever find yourself in this part of the state near dusk, test the spirits of the Civil War to see if they give your car a boost up this otherworldly knoll.
Lead Photo: Burnside Bridge at Antietam Battlefield. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
About the Author
Landon is a Washington County, Maryland native who has always had a fascination with local history, culture, and traditions. He is a social studies teacher with Washington County Public Schools and a member of the Antietam Battlefield Advisory Committee. He earned his Bachelor's Degree in History from Salisbury University and Master's Degree in History from Indiana University Bloomington.