ANTIETAM BATTLEFIELD VISIT LETTER OF CIVILIAN
MARY E. HOFFER, MOUNT JOY, PA
WRITTEN OCTOBER 27, 1862 TO “MY DEAR FRIEND”
September 17 is the 156th anniversary of the greatest single day battle loss in American history. Over 23,000 Americans destroyed each other near Sharpsburg, MD. For this fateful anniversary, I would like to share a letter from my personal collection. It is the finest description of the field post-battle I have ever read.
Mary Hoffer of Mount Joy, PA was a 16-year-old young lady who visited the battlefield with the father and her uncle on October 2, 1862. She wrote a very vivid and detailed description of her visit to a friend on October 27.
The letter is transcribed exactly as written complete with spelling and punctuation errors. I created several paragraphs for ease of reading. Mary’s descriptions are vivid and exact. Her mention of the specific accoutrements of soldiers shows quite a good knowledge of these items, which she may have learned from her uncle and father on the day of their visit. Mary was well-educated and well-written. Mary’s comments about the appearance of the Confederate soldiers are poignant and memorable. She had a genuine interest in the battle which perhaps was due to the earlier drafting of several of her cousins. Mary visited the Antietam battlefield on October 2, 1862, just two weeks after battle and on the very day Lincoln and his party arrived in Sharpsburg from Harpers Ferry. Mary and her party did not wait to see President Lincoln.
This sword handle is from the battle of Antietam and part of the collection of Dennis Urban.
From the description given in the letter it’s possible to speculate on the areas of the field Mary visited. Coming from Hagerstown they probably first stopped at either the J. Poffenberger farm or the David R. Miller farm, which is just north of the famous cornfield. Both of these farms had small orchards adjacent to the farmhouse. The reference to the burial of “248 soldiers in the orchard” may be the best clue to this specific location. Since soldiers were buried near where they fell, the 248 could be either Union or Confederate soldiers buried on the David Miller farm.
The 1868 publication A Descriptive List of the Burial Places of the Remains of Confederate Soldiers, Who Fell in the Battles of Antietam… compiled at the behest of Maryland Governor Bowie, refers to the burials of large numbers of unknown on the D.R. Miller farm but does not specifically reference the number 248 or burials in the Miller orchard. There were no specific mentions of burials on the J. Poffenberger farm. The burned brick houses probably refer to the Mumma farm and buildings. The rebel “breastwork of rails” likely refers to the area of the sunken road. The sharpshooters tree could be the Confederate positions around the Burnside Bridge. Mary also visited the Dunker Church and the Grove farm where Lincoln reviewed the troops and met with General McClellan. Because Mary’s uncle had been to the battlefield several times, her tour was complete and thorough. The group stopped to talk with and get information from both Union and Confederate soldiers.
The draft to which Mary refers is probably the national draft signed into law by Lincoln on July 17, 1862 which encompassed all able-bodied men between 18 and 45 and established state quotas based on population. The civil war database lists quite a few Hoffer and Engle (maiden name of Mary’s mother) soldiers from Lancaster and Hanover counties who enlisted prior to September 1862. The complete letter follows below.
— Dennis Urban
Knoxville Civil War Roundtable
Mount Joy. Oct 27 1862.
My Dear Friend.
I suppose you almost thought I was not going to fulfill my promise I made when I left your place, but I could not possibly write sooner. We arrived home safe and sound a little over two weeks ago, being gone near two weeks. I enjoyed my visit very much.
We did not get to the battle field on Wednesday as we expected. We came to one of my Uncles living seven miles from Hagerstown, on Wednesday morning and our intention was to visit the field that day but they persuaded father to stay until Thursday morning and then they would go with us. We were very glad afterwards that Uncle was along, because he had been down several times and therefore knew best where the most was to be seen. It is indeed a place worth seeing.
The stench coming from the dead horses with which the ground was covered, made me feel quite sick at first, but I was soon used to it; After we were there a while I did not mind passing within three or four yards of a dead horse that had been lying three weeks in the sun. There were still a great many wounded rebels their and a few Union Soldiers that could not be moved. The first effect of the battle we saw was at a farm house, where the battle must have commenced. The house and barn and all the out buildings that could be used, were filled with wounded men and the garden and a great many tents behind the house were full. I did not get out of the carriage, because it was morning and they were getting their wounds dressed. I saw one lying in the
garden with his both legs off below the knee, and had nothing over him but the sky.
A contemporary drawing of the Battle of Antietam by combat artist Alfred Waud.
There was a Union Soldier their, told us that they buried 248 soldiers in the orchard and a lot belonging to that house, that had died their since the battle and there were still some yet that could not recover. Father was all around the place and saw them all, he saw two rebels that were dying, that were not seriously wounded, but they would not leave the bandages on the wounds, they said they wanted to die, the one even tried to kill himself that morning. I saw one walking. I saw one walking about with the right side of his face bandaged and upon inquiry found he had the half of his face shot off by a piece of a bomb shell. It took off half of his nose and mouth and his cheek and he was able to eat and speak. While we were their a lot of ambulances arrived, to take off the rebels could be moved, they are all paroled and will be sent to Dixie
After we left that house we saw nothing but ruined fields, fences and houses, at some places there was nothing left of the large brick farm houses but the bricks and ashes and the fences torn down, a person could drive out of the fields where they wished, and they were tramped as hard as the pike and soldiers clothes, knapsacks, haversacks cartridge boxes, tin plates, cups canteens, bullets, whole bombshells and pieces, caps, cartriges, army crackers, torn papers, dead horses, and soldiers graves all over them. The Union Soldiers were all nicely buried, with a board at the head of the grave, giving the name, company & regiment the person was in, some had neat little fences around them and some a large flat stone layed on them by their comrades, which how much they love their brother soldiers. The remains of a great many were taken up by their friends and taken home, we met a great many wagons going too and from the battle field with coffins.
The rebels are all buried in long trenches and nicely covered that is those that were buried by our men, but we saw some that the rebels buried, they had their heads knees and feet above the ground, not exactly their heads but the skulls were their yet. I saw the breastwork of rails put up by the rebels, and the tree the rebel sharpshooter was shot off of while picking off our officers, and the church riddled with bullets, some large enough for me to creep through, that is without hoops.
I could tell you of a great many more things I saw but time will not permit. We were also through the camp near Sharpsburg, there are a great many wounded soldiers their and they nearly all look very clean and comfortable, several that had one arm shot off were able to walk about again. I always had an idea the rebels must be horrid ugly, but I was not a little surprised to see some of the handsomest young men with the wounded that I ever saw, one quite young looking boy especially that had both his feet off.
The President, Gen McLellan and some distinguished officers were their that day but we could not wait till they arrived, but we saw some ten or twelve thousand soldiers in a large field waiting for them. I must now stop writing about the battle field or you will fall asleep while reading it, and maybe when you are done you cannot take and sense out of it. The draft has created a good deal of excitement around here, there were a good many of my cousins drafted. Our town has given four more volunteers than its quota and therefore there was no draft needed here. I hope their are none of your friends drafted. I must now close hoping to hear from you very soon. my best respects to all my friends.
Truly your friend
Mary E. Hoffer
Mount Joy, Lancaster Co. Pa.