Antietam: Church of Misery


Houses, barns and churches in the Sharpsburg area be-came makeshift field hospitals during and after the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. Many Connecticut soldiers were treated at the German Reformed Church, a small, brick building on Main Street a short distance from where Robert E. Lee held a council of war the night of the bloodiest day in American history. Wounded men were carried into the church on planks, laid across the pews, and operated on by surgeons, who tossed amputated limbs out the window. Parishioners aided the overtaxed doctors.
Soldiers from the 16th Connecticut, most of whom were wounded in farmer John Otto’s cornfield about a mile and a half away, were treated at the German Reformed Church well into October and November. In nearly indecipherable doctor’s scrawl, surgeons E. McDonnell of the U.S. Volunteers and Truman Squires of the 89th New York detailed in a case book the treatment of those men, some of whom suffered from multiple—and often ghastly— wounds:1
Private Horace Lay, Company I, 16th Connecticut, Hartford: “Admitted to this hospital Oct. 5, 1862. Present condition (Oct. 6) fracture of left femur by a ball … his thigh being quite small, would seem to invite the knife—but I am sick today myself and cannot pursue action.”
Lay’s wife, Charlotte, traveled to Sharpsburg and was present when her husband died on Nov. 16, 1862.2
Private George Chamberlain, Company G, 16th Connecticut, Middletown: “Present condition: Wound from the entrance of a musket ball a little below the bend of the right knee … he keeps the leg flexed at a right angle and is careful not to move the joint for reason of pain.”
His mother, Mary Ann, traveled to Sharpsburg to help nurse her son back to health, and both of them witnessed the death of Horace Lay, an acquaintance of George’s.3 Chamberlain, 18 years old when he enlisted, was discharged from the army because of disability on April 1, 1863. He died of his Antietam wound on May 11, 1865.
Private John Loveland, Company C, 16th Connecticut, Hartford: “Lost more blood in the operation than I could have wished and the patient sank quite low after the removal of the limb and was long in coming from the influence of the chloroform. But tonight he has good pulse, good color, is rational, feels hopeful and the case appears … promising.”
Loveland died on Oct. 16, 1862. He left behind a wife, Anna, whom he married on Jan. 15, 1860.

Private William W. Porter, Company H, 16th Connecticut, Glastonbury: “Oct. 8: evening: Amputated the thigh this morning. Patient stood the operation well and is comfortable.”
“Oct 9: Pulse quite feeble … Stump looks well. … Case now critical.”
“10th Oct. morning: Died at 2 1/2 this morning.”
William Wallace Porter, a private in the 16th Connecticut, was mortally wounded at Antietam. He is buried at ancient Green Cemetery in Glastonbury, Conn. Porter’s father traveled to the battlefield and returned to Connecticut with his son’s body. William Porter is buried in ancient Green Cemetery in Glastonbury next to his brother, John, who died in action near Petersburg, VA.

Private James Brooks, Company I, 16th Connecticut, Stafford: “He has six wounds…
“The boy is emaciated but has an appetite and there is hope.”
“Oct. 7 evening: Doing pretty well considering multiplicity of his wounds.”
“Oct. 9 morn.: Holding his own remarkably.”
“Oct. 11th: Failing rapidly and might die soon.”
“Oct. 11th 3 p.m.: Just died.”
From the outside, it looks like many small churches in the United States. Brick facade. White double doors. Neatly landscaped property. Pointed roof and a bell tower. But nearly 150 years ago, the Christ Reformed Church on West Main Street in Sharpsburg, Md., was anything but ordinary. Amputated limbs littered the floor and cries of wounded soldiers filled the air as blood-spattered surgeons tirelessly worked after the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862.
Like most churches in the Sharpsburg area after the battle, the Christ Reformed Church, built in 1832, was used as a hospital for Union soldiers. The wounded were carried into the church on planks, which were laid across the pews, and parishioners helped care for them there.
Among the men tended to were soldiers from the 16th Connecticut, an untested regiment that suffered 43 killed and 161 wounded at Antietam, its first battle of the Civil War. The 16th included men from Hartford and the small towns surrounding the state capital— including Avon, where I live now. Most of the losses suffered by the 16th occurred in farmer John Otto’s 40-acre cornfield about a mile and a half from the church. (After Gettysburg in July 1863, the church was used as a hospital by retreating Confederates heading back to Virginia.)
Three decades after Antietam, the Christ Reformed Church was badly in need of remodeling. In 1890, Lizzie Miller, treasurer of the Ladies Aid Society of Sharpsburg, Md., sent a letter to Connecticut Civil War veterans soliciting their help. In part, it read:
“The members of the congregation gave all the assistance in their power in aid of the wounded after the battle. Some of you may have been the sick or wounded comrade cared for in this church. Some of the ladies of the Aid Society may have ministered to you as you languished in your bed of pain within the walls of this sanctuary.
“The church was greatly injured during those trying times, and the congregation has never been able to put the building in thorough repair since the war. When vacated little remained but the walls. To repair, so as to afford a place of worship, was no little tax on the people over whose farms and homes had swept the raking destructive shot and shell from friend and foe, and what was still worse, the presence of two armies had depleted garner and cupboard. Indeed, the community has never fully recovered from the effects of the war.
“We propose to give an opportunity for the Grand Army Posts whose comrades fell at this battle to put one or more memorial windows in the church to commemorate their names, and thus render this church historic. Year by year thousands of comrades visit the battlefield and we desire to make this a place of attraction, where each comrade may feel he has a personal interest.”
The veterans of the 16th were eager to memorialize their comrades and honor the good people of Sharpsburg who came to their aid, so they graciously donated two large stained-glass windows (cost: $400 and $100) to the church, which was re-dedicated on June 14, 1891. The windows, inset in the wall opposite the altar, measure about 25 feet by 5 feet and include the words, “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men” in the circular portion at the top. Another smaller stained-glass window, to honor the dead of the 11th Connecticut, was placed inside the entry way. It was donated by a mysterious “Comrade T,” perhaps a veteran of the 11th Connecticut that fought its way across Antietam Creek. Apparently there’s no record of his real name.

1 Report Surgical Cases in German Reform Church Hospital, Sharpsburg, Md., 1862
2 Widow’s army pension document, Dec. 22, 1862 and Feb. 27, 1864.
3 Widow’s pension affidavit, Nov.10, 1863

Reprinted by permission from John Banks. We encourage you to visit his site at http://john-banks.blogspot. com

About the painter: Captain James Hook, a professional artist, was 43 years old and a member of the 2nd Vermont Infantry. Hope had taken part in a dozen engagements prior to Antietam, but disabled by illness, he was assigned to sideline duties as a scout and mapmaker. He recorded in his sketchbook the [Antietam] battle scenes before his eyes, and then after the battle converted his sketches into a series of five large paintings.

Text courtesy of the National Park Service.