The 21st century and weak conservation easements have overrun a battlefield where soldiers from the 10th Maine Infantry Regiment fought and bled on Sept. 17, 1862.
Early on that far-off Wednesday, Col. George Beal led the 10th Maine boys into a bivouac on the George Line farm, located near the Smoketown Road several miles north of Sharpsburg, Md. Union and Confederate troops had converged on the quiet Washington County town, where Robert E. Lee had decided to fight than withdraw his men across the Potomac River to Virginia.
At him came George B. McClellan and his Army of the Potomac. A political resurrection of the 1st Maine Infantry Regiment, the 10th Maine belonged to the 1st Brigade (Brig. Gen. Samuel Crawford) of the 1st Division (Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams), 12th Corps. Beal and his men had fought earlier that year at Winchester and Cedar Mountain in Virginia; what they saw on those battlefields barely prepared them for the slaughter house known as Antietam.
While Union and Confederate troops battled across David Miller’s 20-acre cornfield and through the abutting East Woods in early morning, the 12th Corps moved south in support. The commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph King Fenno Mansfield, deployed his brigades and regiments by 7:30 a.m.
The 10th Maine Infantry spread from west to east across the Smoketown Road just north of the East Woods, said Nicholas Picerno. A Bridgewater, Va. resident, he is a leading authority on the 1st, 10th, and 29th Maine infantry regiments (most survivors of the 10th Maine later joined the 29th).
In the field on the west side of Smoketown Road, “the right flank of the 10th Maine was positioned during the fight” during the morning of Sept. 17, Picerno said. “Companies H and I were deployed there by” Beal, and “Capt. Nehemiah Furbish and Lt. William Wade of Company I were both killed on that land.”
Furbish was later buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Portland.
Mansfield was mortally wounded while riding near the deployed 10th Maine. Years afterwards, a monument to him was dedicated to him at the intersection of Smoketown and Mansfield Roads.
Congress established Antietam National Battlefield in 1890. For decades many privately owned buildings stood inside the park’s congressionally authorized boundary; not until the late 1950s — just in time for the Civil War centennial — did the National Park Service start buying and tearing down businesses and houses that encroached on the battlefield.
By then the auto tour routes through Antietam battlefield included Mansfield Avenue, an NPS road that intersects Smoketown Road north of where the 10th Maine fought. At this intersection, tourists can turn south on Smoketown Road and drive into East Woods.
Across from the Mansfield Monument stands a small house erected where Companies H and I of the 10th Maine Infantry fought 152½ years ago. Dr. Tom Clemens, Ph.D., the long-time president of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation, wrote in the preservationist organization’s January 2015 newsletter that the house “has been there for many years, and while it should not be there, it is fairly unobtrusive.”
The house “was a rental property owned by a neighbor on an adjacent farm,“ Clemens indicated.
In a January 2015 interview with “Maine at War,” he said that the house stands on “approximately 5 acres. The property is what they call here a ‘farmette.’
“It has been a fairly unobtrusive ‘inholding’ for a number of years,” he said, using a term that refers to privately held property located within a national park’s boundaries.
Often bringing students from the Civil War class taught at Bridgewater College, where he is the police chief, Picerno frequently visits Antietam and other nearby battlefields. In late 2013, “I was disheartened to notice a wire fence had been privately erected” at the Smoketown Road house, he said, describing the land as “core battlefield property.
“The fence prevented visitors from walking in the field” across which the right flank of the 10th Maine was deployed during the Battle of Antietam, Picerno said.
While visiting Antietam on Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014, “I was at the battlefield, and to my dismay I noticed that a structure was being built on the property, and the land has been adversely affected and appeared disheveled,” said Picerno, who documented the construction photographically.
Clemens discovered that the owner of the property had “recently sold the house and about 5 acres to the renter,” according to SHAF’s January 2015 newsletter. Earthmoving preceded the construction of a barn that rises obtrusively above the skyline and calls attention to the property.
ANB Superintendent Susan Trail consulted with the property owner as to the “size, location, and exterior appearance” of the barn, Clemens wrote in the SHAF newsletter. Trail “did not have the option to deny the [building] permit,” but “she did the best she could to locate” the barn “near where an older, smaller building once stood.”
Ironically, conservation easements negotiated decades ago made the barn’s construction possible. Budgetary constraints prior to the Civil War centennial limited the Park Service’s ability to purchase property outright. At Sharpsburg, the Park Service bought conservation easements on much farm land within the Antietam boundaries.
Therein lies the problem, according to Clemens. “A lot of the old NPS easements, like the farmette in East Woods, restrict new houses and commercial development, but do not restrict buildings used for agricultural purposes,” he said earlier this year.
If the NPS had attempted to restrict the construction of agriculture-related buildings, farmers might have balked on granting the initial conservation easements. The new owner of the Smoketown Road farmette could legally erect a barn — and did so.
However, many preservationists were stunned by the building, particularly by its high roof line and the earthwork that disturbed the property prior to the barn’s construction.
“That bucolic and historic scene has been devastated,” Picerno said.
What can be done to preserve the land remains uncertain. Picerno believes “the only hope is for the National Park Service to purchase the property. It’s already within the park boundary.”
Beset by a serious maintenance backlog and by budgetary restraints, the Park Service lacks funds to possibly buy the farmette. Picerno hopes that the National Park Service and perhaps the nation’s foremost Civil War preservation group, the Civil War Trust, will get involved.
“When the veterans of the 10th Maine returned to the battlefield in 1889, they revered the importance of this place and posed for a group photo on this exact location,” Picerno said. “This land should be venerated and revered because we owe no less to the memory of those Mainers who consecrated the land with their blood.”
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.