The Children of Antietam

Like most any writer of history, I love the research process. Nothing is more satisfying than unearthing some previously unknown treasure. Most exciting of all are primary documents—diaries letters, reminiscences, or articles left by people who experienced the events I’m studying.

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This unidentified couple was photographed in Western Maryland.

I spent twelve years digging through such documents while researching Too Afraid to Cry:  Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign. I got shivers reading the words of people who had lived through the Civil War in Sharpsburg and surrounding communities in Maryland.

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The Sharpsburg square, in Washington County, Md. The Civil War’s deadliest single day of fighting happened in and around this village. (Photo courtesy Marian and Sid Gale)

Several of the most detailed accounts of the Battle of Antietam (also called the Battle of Sharpsburg) came from people who had been children during the campaign. After the book was published, a man attending one of my programs politely called me out for including the memories of such young witnesses. Surely, he said, they were unreliable.

We had a respectful conversation, but he didn’t change my mind. Any firsthand account comes through the writer’s personal filters. Also, Too Afraid to Cry doesn’t offer a single viewpoint of the events of September, 1862. Instead, hundreds of accounts were used to present a much larger story.

I can’t imagine any group more likely to remember details than the children who watched everything familiar explode in carnage beyond comprehension. Many of them were haunted forever by the scenes and experiences that had shattered their world.

Meet three of the children of Antietam.

Oliver Thomas Reilly of Keedysville was five years old in September of 1862. As the armies jostled into place, he witnessed an altercation between Union cavalrymen and several Confederate stragglers. He was among the crowds of local civilians who watched the battle from a nearby hill, although he saw little but smoke. The family returned home to find two dead soldiers in their yard and three more in the house.

Watching the battle

A newspaper artist captured a family watching the battle.

 Those September days shaped the rest of Oliver’s life.  O.T., as he was known, spent the rest of his life collecting and selling relics, writing about the battle, and giving tours of the battlefield.

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Here’s O.T., ready to lead a tour. (Photo courtesy Missy Kretzer and Antietam National Battlefield)

Lucky customers to his store on the Sharpsburg square got to hear him play his Civil War drum. Over the years he escorted hundreds of veterans over the battlefield.

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One of the postcards sold by O.T. Reilly.

Ada Mumma was also a young child, living near Antietam Creek, when the armies descended. Her parents and grandparents initially planned to stay in their home during the battle, and Ada thought the novelty of hauling mattresses to the basement was quite exciting. However, when a general spotted her peeking up the steps, he insisted that some  members of the household take her to safety. Ada wrote later:

We had the orchard to cross first.  the bullets were whistling all around us. One went through my father’s hat and several went through the curtains on the carriage. . . Then I heard a terrible whistling and an explosion which sent the earth and stones in every direction, which I was told was a shell exploding.

After the battle, surgeons turned Ada’s home into a hospital. Her grandmother returned first and found the farmhouse so crammed with wounded that she had to crawl in a window. Ada returned to the terrifying scene the next day:

I could not sleep. I could hear those poor men calling for “water. . . for God’s sake, give me a drop of water.” 

Field Hospital

Many civilians lived with injured and dying soldiers in their homes, barns, and yards—sometimes for months. The children helped provide food, water, and comfort to the patients. This photo shows an Indiana surgeon among makeshift shelters at a field hospital. (Photo by Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress)

Ada’s mother Jane was pregnant when she was forced to flee her home.  On October 10 she delivered a baby girl, who died. Jane died herself a month later.  Ada wrote later, “My mother, due to the great amount of excitement, was taken ill and died.”

Ada had not yet turned four that September.  While her memories may have been augmented by stories, some of the personal details she included in her reminiscence feel too childlike to be second-hand.  She spent her life collecting relics and accounts of the campaign.

The third story also depicts the battle’s aftermath.

A little girl named Margaret lived on the edge of Sharpsburg. She spent the day of the battle in her cellar with several siblings and their mother, who was pregnant. They spent much of that interminable day tearing their clothes and bedding into strips, and packing lard and goose grease into shards of crockery. Jugs and gourds were filled with water.

When the fighting subsided, the little group ventured onto the battlefield, lugging baskets and quilts. The world the children knew was replaced by a smoldering landscape. Smoke stained the sunset eerie shades of red, and flames from burning buildings writhed against the sky.

Antietam National Battlefield

(Antietam National Battlefield photo.)

Much later Margaret wrote:

There was a red haze from the sunset…the brick of the church was red, and as far as I could see were suffering, crying, or dead men. . . red, red, red. It was a red stew. I can remember my mother laboring with three big baskets and I holding her pettiskirts. . . pulling a large bundle along the ground. . . and all of us, my brothers and sisters, too afraid to cry.

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The children in this portrait are unidentified, but the photograph was taken in Hagerstown, MD—not far from Sharpsburg. I imagine this little girl was about the age of Margaret, whose description provided the title for my book.

No, I don’t find it difficult to believe that four, five, and six-year olds might well remember details of those horrific days for the rest of their lives.

I wrote Too Afraid To Cry in large part to honor them—and all of the civilians who endured so much.

My only nonfiction book focuses on Maryland civilians' experience during the Civil War.

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5 Responses to “The Children of Antietam”

  1. Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

    What a great post. Your stories remind me of Ginger Wadworth’ s book of child-pioneer journals and letters as they came West. Your book has to be a treasure!

  2. Kathleen White Says:

    Very moving! It is touching to feel very close to what happened in the lives of these people, hearing about it in their own words.

  3. Labyrinth-Living Says:

    This is so special to read. My first immigrant ancestor died in the Civil War, and I have been enjoying reading more about it.

  4. Nancee Says:

    I would love to win a copy of this book. I love Civil War history and fictional stories. Thank you for offering this contest!
    quiltcat26[at]sbcglobal[dot]net

  5. elaine stonebraker Says:

    Oh my goodness! Little did I expect to see my GGG grandparents at the top of this article! Looking forward to delving further into this with you, Kathleen.

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