Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Beacon of Peace: Antietam's Dunker Church

Beacon of Peace: Antietam's Dunker Church
Alann Schmidt

One of the most unique features of any Civil War battlefield is Antietam’s Dunker Church.  Along with the Burnside Bridge, the church is one of the park’s most identifiable landmarks.  Located just across the street from the visitor center, folks certainly see the building, but most don’t realize that it has a very rich history all its own.  German Baptist Brethren (known by the nickname “Dunkers” in reference to their practice of full immersion baptism) began arriving in central Maryland as early as the mid 1700s, and by the early 1850s enough had settled in the Sharpsburg area to support their own meetinghouse.  Built along the Hagerstown Pike on land donated by Samuel Mumma, the church was ready for service in 1853.  For nearly a decade, Dunkers along the serene Antietam creek led quiet, productive lives, but all of that was about to change.

A textbook case of wrong place at the wrong time, the Dunker Church was located on a ridgeline that the outnumbered Confederates used to establish a prime defensive position, which in turn made the building a reference point for waves of Union attacks.  A whirlwind of savage violence swirled all around it throughout the morning of September 17, 1862.  This house of worship, dedicated to the principles of peace and goodwill, would ironically end up being in the middle of the worst part of the worst battle our country has ever seen.

The results of the battle of Antietam were staggering, with over 23,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or missing; the most casualties in one day, in one place, in the history of the United States of America.  Horrific scenes of the battle’s aftermath, such as this famous early photograph by Alexander Gardner, show the devastating impact on the participants, as well as the physical damage to the Dunker Church.

Activity would continue to take place at the church in the days following the battle, as it was used as a gathering place for soldiers (as seen in this newspaper sketch by Alfred Waud), for emergency medical care, and even allegedly as an embalming station.  For a time, local Dunkers considered never returning to the church, believing it had been defiled by the battle.  After more than a year of debate it was finally decided to repair the church and return it to active service.

For just one day of battle, it would take residents a very long time to return to their normal routine.  The practical impact of feeding over 100,000 soldiers and being the site of heavy, destructive fighting left the farms and their resources in shambles.  For months homes were filled with wounded men needing care and fields were filled with soldier’s graves.  Despite these substantial challenges, somehow the locals persevered and almost all those families still live in the Sharpsburg area today.

One thing that would never be the same in Sharpsburg was the simple fact that it was the scene of one of the biggest events in American history.  Folks came from all around to visit the battlefield, and veterans came back for reunions and to dedicate monuments.  Pictured here are members of the 125th Pennsylvania Regiment (who experienced their first battle action in the West Woods) posing in front of the Dunker Church at their reunion in 1888.

As time passed and America came together to fight in several world wars, the Civil War began to be romanticized in popular memory.  Postcards such as this one show a quaint, picturesque Dunker Church welcoming tourists.  In reality, time was slowly passing it by.  The local Church of the Brethren (by then they had changed their official name) congregation built a new church in downtown Sharpsburg in 1899 and activity at the old battlefield meetinghouse slowed considerably.

In contrast to the previous postcard, this was what the church area actually looked like in the early 20th century (I call this photo “Where’s the Dunker Church?”)  After Rev. John Otto died in 1916, services stopped being held, as well as regular maintenance and upkeep.  Structural damage from the battle continued to deteriorate and be a concern, as was the practice of tourists chipping bricks out of the church walls as souvenirs.  The West Woods was cut down, greatly altering the area’s appearance, but the biggest change was yet to come.

Finally, on April 24, 1921, a large windstorm swept through the area and flattened the church.  Having neither the money to repair it nor even the practical need for it, the local congregation deeded it back to the Mumma family.  The property was sold at auction to local grocer Elmer Boyer, who salvaged what building materials he could from the pile of rubble, stored them in his shed, and then sold the property again.

The new owner, Charles Turner, built a frame structure on the original church foundation and operated the new building as a lunch counter and souvenir stand.  Early reports complained that the stand was an eyesore, and certainly much different in appearance and spirit than the church that stood there during the battle.  Many efforts over the years to buy the property back and correct the situation failed, and eventually locals came to accept the fact that the old Dunker Church was gone for good.

In 1951, a state highway proposal to widen the Hagerstown Pike that threatened the original church site motivated the Washington County Historical Society to action.  They finally raised the money to complete the sale, the frame structure was removed, and the property donated to the Federal government.  However, due to the Korean War funding was not available to initiate any new projects, and for a decade only a bare foundation and small sign marked the site of the Dunker Church.  Again, it seemed only a monumental occasion would get the church back.  Luckily, one was on the way.

Many large events were planned for the Civil War Centennial, and during the preparation Maryland Governor Millard Tawes learned of the Dunker Church situation and allocated funding for it to be rebuilt.  Park historians and architects came up with the plans, and amazingly Elmer Boyer still had the original building materials stored in his shed.  Contractors got to work in the fall of 1961, and by the next summer the church was re-dedicated and back in its original position on the Antietam battlefield.

However, just because the church was back did not mean the work was done.  The surrounding area had significantly changed in appearance, as this photo from the 1970s shows.  Over the years several land tracts were acquired by the park, the West Woods was replanted, and the National Park Service put substantial effort into restoring the battlefield landscape.  Today, the historic site is one of the most pristine in the nation, and the area around the church looks much like it would have in 1862. 

In the end, the Dunker Church is an essential part of not only Antietam National Battlefield as a place, but also in park’s ability to properly present all sides of this amazing story.  The building is important to orient visitors to the field and follow the progression of the battle action, but it also highlights the civilian experience and the huge impact the battle had on them.  Most of all its biggest value is tied to the biggest impact of the Battle of Antietam.  When you have such an enormity of human loss, it can’t help but take on a solemn, spiritual tone.  Despite the obvious hardships it has been through, it is ultimately a good thing to have this church there in the middle of it all.  To be able to go in, sit on the hard benches, look out the windows and just see trees, it really is like a step back in time.  It really helps you to get into the proper frame of mind, to really get the proper perspective, and appreciate the sacrifice, the loss, the impact, and what it all means to our country and to each of us.  Antietam’s Dunker Church is very important, unique, and meaningful not only to Civil War history, and not only to Church of the Brethren history, but quite simply to American history. 

On a field shrouded with smoke, the church alone was the only visible landmark.  And so, this Dunker Church stood out as a beacon by which commanders took their direction and men found their way through the smoky chaos of battle.  May it stand in peace as it did in war, as a beacon to guide those searching their way through the darkness.  May it stand throughout all ages as a symbol of mercy, peace, and understanding.”
                                                                                Maryland Governor Millard Tawes
                                                                               Re-dedication of the Dunker Church, 
                                                                                                Sept. 2, 1962

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