SHARPSBURG, Md. -- Ranger Dan Vermilya ended his guided tour of Antietam battlefield with a bit of personal history.
Sept. 17, 1862, was the bloodiest single day in American history, he told visitors. Confederate and Union armies suffered more than 23,000 casualties. That number of killed, wounded and missing is higher than total U.S. losses in the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War combined.
One of those Union casualties was a 31-year-old shoemaker from Bradford County named Ellwood Rodebaugh. A soldier in the 106th Pennsylvania Volunteers, he was killed in the mid-morning fight for an area known as the West Woods.
"He was my great-great-great-grandfather," Mr. Vermilya said.
The cobbler-turned-soldier left behind a 26-year-old wife named Josephine, a 4-year-old daughter named Heloise and a 2-year-old son named Charles. "Every casualty was someone like Ellwood Rodebaugh," Mr. Vermilya said. "There were thousands of ordinary people who made extraordinary sacrifices, not for themselves, but for their country."
The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam will be commemorated next month with a series of programs expected to draw as many as 200,000 people to this national historic site. That number represents almost two-thirds of the approximately 300,000 visitors that the battlefield ordinarily draws over an entire year, Ranger Brian Baracz said.
The 12-hour fight along and near Antietam Creek was the most significant battle in Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North. The fighting outside Sharpsburg was preceded by a Confederate victory at Harper's Ferry on Sept. 15, 1862. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson surrounded a Union force of more than 12,000, forcing its surrender.
Union forces had their own success a day earlier on nearby South Mountain. After a day of hard fighting, Northern troops were able to force their way through three mountain passes. The two sides then spent the next two days gathering and arranging their forces for the Sept. 17 confrontation at Sharpsburg.
Although more than 100,000 soldiers were present on the battlefield, the ultra-cautious Union commander, George B. McClellan, kept a significant portion of his army in reserve. That decision reduced the North's almost 2-to-1 advantage.
The multistage fight took place over a 3-mile-by-5-mile area of rolling hills. The National Park Service battlefield map recommends making 11 stops to get a sense of the terrain and the events that occurred there.
As it was a century and a half ago, much of the countryside remains farm fields, woods and pastures. Both armies sought to make use of the region's natural features, including Antietam Creek, as they struggled for control of the area.
On one recent weekday afternoon, Mr. Vermilya's two-hour, three-stop tour of the battlefield drew several dozen visitors. They crowded around him at each stop as he described the daylong efforts of each side to outflank the other.
Lee's forces were arranged roughly in the shape of the number "7" with the top of his line running east to west near the northern edge of the battlefield, Mr. Vermilya explained. When Union troops commanded by Joseph Hooker marched into the Cornfield before dawn, they were hidden initially by the tall stalks, with only their battle flags visible.
Their objective was the small, white-walled Dunker Church, less than a mile away.
But when they neared the line of Confederates at the southern end of the cornfield, they were met with a hail of musket and artillery fire that resulted in the worst single hour of the fight. As Union soldiers fired back, casualties were estimated at one per second, Mr. Vermilya said.
Of the 334 men in the 12th Massachusetts Regiment, 224 were killed, wounded or missing. Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood was asked that morning about the location of his Texas Brigade, which lost more than 500 of its 800 men. His chilling reply was, "Dead on the field."
It was during unsuccessful Union efforts to secure the West Woods, near the Cornfield, that Mr. Vermilya's ancestor was killed.
The second stop on the tour was a sunken farm road, known as Bloody Lane. As many as 10,000 Union soldiers tried for several hours to dislodge 2,200 Confederates from their natural entrenchment. Superior equipment also helped the Southerners hold off the Yankees. Many of the Confederates were armed with smoothbore muskets effective at 100 to 150 yards, Mr. Vermilya said.
The topography of the sunken road appears to have changed little over the past 150 years. The biggest difference is that it now is lined by granite and bronze monuments and statues, honoring the soldiers who fought and died there.
Only after multiple attacks were Union troops able to advance around the right flank of the Confederates. Then the sunken road, which had protected the Southerners from a frontal assault, lent itself to "systematic killing." Union troops were able to fire down the length of the trench at the rebels, forcing them to withdraw, Mr. Vermilya said.
A stone observation tower, built in 1897 at the south end of Bloody Lane, provides bird's-eye views of the battlefield and surrounding country.
The most iconic image from the battle comes from the fight for the so-called Burnside Bridge over Antietam Creek. Union soldiers commanded by Gen. Ambrose Burnside, best remembered now for his impressive set of muttonchop whiskers, spent three hours in the afternoon trying to take the narrow span.
By the time Burnside's troops captured the bridge and were ready to mount an assault on the Confederate lines above them, Lee's army was reinforced from an unlikely source. Gen. A.P. Hill arrived with an infantry division that had marched 17 miles that day from Harper's Ferry. Those tired soldiers helped drive Burnside's men back to Antietam Creek.
While neither side broke the other, it was Lee who retreated back across the Potomac into Virginia on the night of Sept. 18.
The most important effect of the battle was what happened a week later, Mr. Vermilya said. McClellan's victories at South Mountain and Antietam set the stage for President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. That executive order, which took effect Jan. 1, 1863, freed slaves held in territory that was in rebellion against the Union.
A half-mile from Burnside Bridge is Antietam National Cemetery, which offers a reminder of the battle's toll. Almost 4,800 Union soldiers are interred there. Southern casualties were buried in separate graveyards elsewhere in Maryland and what is now West Virginia.
Time, however, can heal old animosities.
After Mr. Vermilya described how his ancestor had died in the West Woods, one of the visitors on his tour reported a battlefield connection.
Gary Hooper, who lives in Jefferson, Md., said that his great-great-grandfather, Abraham Burns, had served with the 52nd Virginia Infantry. That unit, part of "Stonewall" Jackson's command, had fought the Union troops trying to capture the West Woods.
Stories about Abraham Burns' service during the war, along with one special artifact, were passed down from generation to generation. "I still have his bayonet," Mr. Hooper said.
A century and half after their ancestors battled to the death, Mr. Vermilya and Mr. Hooper shook hands.
Len Barcousky: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1159. First Published August 26, 2012 4:00 AM