The Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 was the bloodiest day in American military history. Over 22,000 Americans were killed, wounded or captured on this day near the small farming community of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The fighting had started to the north of the farm owned by William and Margaret Roulette but made its way onto their land. Their land itself had been originally owned by Thomas Cresap, a land agent for Lord Baltimore and the Colony of Maryland. Cresap’s zeal in acquiring land for the colony had intruded into Pennsylvania and led to a shooting war between Pennsylvania settlers and Maryland settlers. Royal intervention has needed and two surveyors, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were sent to survey the border and end the dispute. Cresap had acquired 2,000 acres of land along the Antietam Creek and established a store and trading post. He sold 212 acres to a Virginia farmer named William Anderson in 1751.
Anderson sold the land ten years later to Pennsylvanian John Reynolds who added more land to the farmstead and grew corn, wheat and rye while raising cattle as well. Reynolds built a farmhouse shortly after buying the land. Upon his death his farm was divided between his two sons Francis and Joseph. Joseph sold his farm in 1804 to John Miller, who built most of the buildings on the farmstead. He added to the house, built a log kitchen, a springhouse, an icehouse and a smokehouse. The farm remained in the Miller family until 1851 when it was sold to the Roulettes, who lived on a nearby farm. William and Margaret had married in 1847 and had their first child in 1849 with another on the way as they moved in. By the time of the battle they had six children.
Roulette built the barn on the property. He had a large livestock operation ranging from horses to cattle to pigs and he also grew corn, wheat, oats and rye. A small orchard was also on premise. The family did not own any slaves but did employ two former slaves. One worked in the house and one worked the fields. They may have had another field employee as well.
When the sounds of battle were heard on nearby South Mountain on September 14 the family became worried. Two days later as soldiers began to appear William sent his family away but he returned to the farm to keep it safe and he was there when the battle began. He was a pro-Union man and took to his cellar to hide from the Confederates who initially occupied his farm. Eventually Union soldiers drove them away and William emerged from the cellar shouting to the soldiers: “Give it to ’em! Drive ’em! Take anything on my place, only drive ’em!”
More Union soldiers from William French’s division of the II Corps began to occupy the farm as the Confederates of D.H. Hill’s Division fell back to a wagon roadbed to take cover. Confederate artillery opened up on the farm and one shell fell amongst a new Union regiment. The rookies were so scared they took flight and one frightened soldier knocked over Roulette’s apiary giving the Confederates a brief ally in a swarm of angry honeybees.
Eventually the Union moved to assault the wagon road in a series of headlong assaults. French’s division was first at 9:30 and was repulsed with heavy losses as was Israel Richardson’s which followed at 10:30. The Confederates were reinforced by Richard Anderson’s Division, the last reserve in Robert E. Lee’s army, and held the road, soon to become known as the Sunken Road, tenaciously until Union infantry from John Caldwell’s brigade got on their right flank turning it into a deathtrap and forcing the surviving Confederates to withdraw. 5,000 casualties from both sides littered the area and the lane gained another nickname, Bloody Lane. Only a desperate counter attack by Hill prevented a complete Union breakthrough in this sector and two generals, Richardson and Confederate George Anderson (no relation to Richard) were killed during the fighting and Confederate colonel John Gordon was wounded five times. He refused to leave the field until he was hit in the jaw and would have died by drowning in his own blood had it not been able to drain through a bullet hole in his hat.
Union wounded were taken to the Roulette’s barn which was used as a collection point where they would be transported to other hospitals for care. Once the fighting ended the dead were buried where they lay and the Confederate corpses lay on the ground for two days before they were buried. The crops were trampled and bullet holes littered the house. Roulette estimated that there were over 700 bodies buried on his property.
Like everyone else in the area Roulette filed a damage claim with the government. His claim of $2,496.27 was denied though he would later receive $377.37 from a separate hospital claim years later. William would continue to press the claim until his dying days to no avail. The casualties of the battle though did not end when the armies left. Roulette’s youngest daughter died of typhoid a little over a month after the battle was fought due to the unsanitary conditions.
Roulette rebuilt his farm and continued to work the land until 1883 when Margaret died. He turned the farm over to one of his sons and moved into town. He died in 1901 and is buried nearby in Mountain View Cemetery. His farm became a tourist attraction. The War Department established the Antietam National Battlefield and constructed a tour road along the Sunken Road as well as a 60 foot observation tower. The farm became a popular reunion location for Union veterans and remained in the family until 1956 when it was sold to Howard and Virginia Miller. They remained on the farm until they sold it to the Richard King Mellon Foundation in 1998 which then donated the land to the Antietam National Battlefield. The farm is leased to local farmers and is accessible to the general public via a walking trail. The landscape around the farm has not changed much since giving a visitor a good idea of what the battlefield looked like in 1862. Visitors of the museum can see some of the family’s furniture on display.