There are names in American military history that all you need to say is that name and people should know where it is and what happened there. More often than not these are the sites of heroic actions or unimaginable suffering. The Civil War has numerous places like this, The Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh, Hell’s Half Acre at Stone’s River, The Wheatfield and Little Round Top at Gettysburg and Snodgrass Hill at Chickamauga to name a few. The Bloody Cornfield (or simply The Cornfield) at Antietam is no different.
September 17, 1862 was the bloodiest day in American history as George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, 85,000 strong clashed with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, 40,000 strong, near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The fighting began in a woodlot near the Joseph Poffenberger farm and continued south toward the farm of David Miller and his soon-to-be-famous cornfield.
David Miller had no idea his land would become some of the most fought over land in the United States when he purchased a farm at a public auction in 1844. His ancestors had emigrated from Germany in the 1760s and the Miller family became a prominent family in the area. His father John had actually wanted to buy the property but as executor of the estate of the family selling the farm he could not, so his son David bought it and transferred ownership to his father. David, his wife Margaret and their 13 children worked the fields. Miller owned 140 acres and besides his cornfield he had an orchard and a woodlot along the Hagerstown Turnpike and the property was bounded by two other woodlots which extended south to the Smoketown Road and a small church belonging to the Dunkards nearby. A log house stood on the site along with a blacksmith shop and a Pennsylvania Dutch bank barn were on the property. Large stacks of hay were near the barn as Miller had just completed his harvest and the corn was nearly ready to be harvested. As fighting began the family fled and took with them their family pet, a parrot. Miller certainly did not know the destiny that his farm would have.
After pushing Confederate troops out of the North Woods at a little after 5:30 in the morning Joseph Hooker’s Union I Corps continued moving forward. First they came under artillery fire from Confederate artillery located near the Dunkard Church and Union artillery responded. Hooker noticed the glint of bayonets in the cornfield to his front and called up artillery to clear it. Infantry under Abner Doubleday were the first to assault the Confederates. It turned into a savage melee and Doubleday’s men were forced back.
Next to try their hand was George Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserves Division. Again coming under artillery fire they advanced into the corn and into a savage fight with Marcellus Douglass’ Georgians who withstood the onslaught. Union reinforcements arrived but were repelled by the arrival of the famous “Louisiana Tiger” Brigade. The Federal “Iron Brigade”, midwesterners from Indiana and Wisconsin, tried next and advanced to the edge of the field where they were stopped by William Starke’s Louisianians. Confederate reinforcements again arrived and pushed them back through the field, by now the stalks of corn were nothing more than stumps. These Confederate reinforcements, Texans under John B. Hood were angry since they had just been allowed to cook their first solid meal in several days. While they pushed the Federals out of the cornfield and the nearby West Woods they paid a heavy price. When Lee asked Hood where his division was he replied “Dead on the field.” 60% loss.
Hooker called for support and received it from Joseph Mansfield’s XII Corps and later around 7:30 from Edwin Sumner’s II Corps. The XII Corps punched through and reached the Dunker Church, though they were not able to hold the position. A II Corps division under John Sedgwick assaulted the cornfield from the east and finally cleared it and fighting moved into Miller’s woodlot which would become known as the West Woods. In the fighting in what was known as The Cornfield and the West Woods cost 13,000 soldiers. Several senior commanders were casualties, on the Federal side Hooker was wounded and Mansfield was killed and on the Confederate side Marcellus Douglass and William Starke were killed. With the Miller farm in Federal hands the fighting now moved south towards the Sunken Road but that is a story for another day.
Following the battle the cleanup began. Despite the maelstrom around the property Miller’s home and barn had relatively little damage except for the blacksmith shop which was destroyed. His property was used as a hospital following the battle. While in use his brother Daniel caught one of the many diseases that were prevalent in Civil War hospitals and died shortly thereafter of diarrhea. Miller submitted a damage claim to the government for $1,237 and was awarded $995. He re-planted his crops and continued to farm the land until 1882 when his father died and a quarrel in the family began over ownership of the farm. The following year David bought the farm for the second time and remained there until 1886 when he sold the farm and moved into Sharpsburg. Successive owners sold lots of the farm over time and in the 1950s a dairy operation was started on the farm and ran until 1989 when a non-profit group bought the land and donated it to the National Park Service. The home dates to the 1790s and is for the most part original but the Park Service has done extensive renovations to it to return it to its 1862 appearance. The foundation of the barn is original but was modified over time. The Bloody Cornfield is still used for farming but a walking trail allows visitors to examine the terrain.