Powerful Storm Spares Witness Trees at Antietam National Battlefield

Fallen tree missed Antietam National Battlefield's historic Dunker Church. Photo by Mannie Gentile via volunteersinparks.blogspot.com.

On June 4, a powerful weather system with severe thunderstorms and a few tornadoes roared through the Washington/Baltimore area, putting the many parks, memorials, monuments, and other treasures of the National Capital Region in harm’s way. When the weather cleared, no National Park System units had been struck by tornadoes, but downed trees and power lines were an area-wide problem. Many units in Maryland and Virginia reported property damage and power outages that compelled temporary closings and cleanup projects.

One of the worst-hit units was Antietam National Battlefield, which is located near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Straight-line winds in excess of 100 mph tore through the Sharpsburg area and battered the park for about ten minutes before moving off to the northeast.

Parts of the park were heavily damaged, with the national cemetery and the northern end of the battlefield taking the brunt of it. But it could have been worse.

Although hurricane-force winds threw down more than 140 trees (mostly evergreens), the storm didn’t topple any of the park’s “witness trees.” These are the venerable trees that were alive on September 17, 1862 when one of the pivotal battles of the Civil War was fought on this ground.

The Battle of Antietam (called the Battle of Sharpsburg by Confederates) is labeled “The Bloodiest One Day Battle in American History.” Twelve hours of savage combat left 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers killed, wounded or missing. The Battle of Antietam ended Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Maryland Campaign (first invasion of the North) and gave Abraham Lincoln the reasonable approximation of victory that he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

The June 4 storm will be remembered for a long time at the park. Outbuildings were really clobbered at the J. Poffenberger and Parks farms, and there was structural damage at the Miller and Roulette farms as well. Battlefield trails, historic roads, and more than 3,000 linear feet of historically accurate fencing were damaged. Even the park’s 78-foot steel flagpole was bent by the wind. Some areas of the park lost electricity and phone service for several days.

Considering the ferocity of the storm, it is amazing that no visitors were hurt and the park was, according to Antietam Ranger Mannie Gentile, “back in business within a few hours.” The Antietam National Battlefield staff performed extraordinarily well in getting the cleanup underway and the park’s functioning restored to a reasonable semblance of normal.

Here is what Ranger Gentile had to say about the June 4 storm’s impact on the park.

No sooner had the storm abated than an army of green and grey descended upon the battlefield. The men and women of the National Park Service immediately began prioritizing tasks and coordinating the recovery. State road 65, blocked by numerous downed trees, was cleared within an hour by park personnel from various divisions working shoulder to shoulder to reopen access to the park.

Within two hours all park and surrounding county roads were open and visitor traffic again flowed unimpeded. Crews worked through the evening to plan a strategy for the following days and weeks of tree removal and structure repair.

Although many beautiful mature trees were damaged or destroyed throughout the battlefield. the "witness trees" those that were here at the time of the battle escaped unscathed.

Entire panels of fencing were shattered by fallen trees, with many yards of worm rail fence at the Sunken Road strewn helter-skelter, reminiscent of and earlier storm in September 1862.

Patrolling park staff were relieved and gratified to discover that damage to monuments and historic structures was minimal. One or two War Department tablets were knocked from their iron pedestals but not broken.

One of the granite "chessmen" that stand sentinel at Philadelphia Brigade Park was, however, severely though not irreparably, damaged by a fallen tree.

Perhaps the greatest loss of large trees occurred in the Antietam National Cemetery. Considering the number of huge trees that came crashing down, it is quite uncanny how not a headstone was damaged.

Where the Park really dodged a bullet was with our historic structures, although there were numerous near misses,[including] …at Dunker Church and …the D.R. Miller house.

The only historic building to suffer significant damage was at the Park or Cunningham farm, where a Civil War era barn had one wall driven in by the high velocity winds.

Removal of downed trees at the Dunker Church typifies the speed and efficiency with which Park personnel attacked the challenge. By noon the churchyard was clear of all debris!

To see numerous storm damage photos, visit

this site.

Be sure to scroll all the way to the end and view the slide show, which has many interesting photos.