War transforms a landscape. It turns peaceful farm fields into battlefields and burial grounds. Homes and churches become riddled with shot and shell and serve as hospitals in the gruesome aftermath. Some of those landscapes and buildings were forever altered; some paved over by modern development and others torn down. Others survive as a symbol, a silent reminder of war’s horrors. Antietam’s Dunker Church is one such symbol, according to authors Alann Schmidt and Terry Barkley in September Mourn.
Former National Park Service historian at Antietam Ted Alexander writes in the book’s Foreword, “Antietam’s Dunker Church competes with the Alamo and Shiloh Church as the ranking house of worship in our military history.” Schmidt and Barkley set out to tell the whole story of this historic icon.
September Mourn picks up the story of the Dunker Church well before the building was erected along the road between Sharpsburg and Hagerstown, Maryland in 1853. For the authors, the story of the church is not just about the humble building itself but about the people who worshipped there, as well.
The German Baptist Brethren, as the Dunkers are formally known, started in Europe in 1708. Schmidt and Barkley follow Dunker migration into western Maryland and ultimately to Sharpsburg. The inner workings of the construction of the Dunker Church and its religious practices are explained in detail. Of particular value is the authors’ ability to tie the Antietam battlefield landscape to the church, mentioning local families’ connections to the white-washed brick church. They also locate for the reader the seldom visited Dunker baptism site in the Antietam Creek and the place where the bricks were baked that constituted the church’s famed walls.
Two chapters in the book place the church in the context of the Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam. But, as the book rightfully shows, the story of the church goes well beyond that eighteen day period. Much of the book is dedicated to telling the rest of the church’s 165-year story, including local efforts to renovate the church following the battle, its collapse in 1921, and subsequent efforts to rebuild the church that became a symbol of peace. September Mourn carries a reader all the way to today, covering the church’s role in such recent events as the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial commemoration.
“As strange as it may sound,” the authors’ write, “if it hadn’t been for the Battle of Antietam, the Mumma Church probably would have remained in obscurity save for its divine service as a House of the Lord for the Brethren” (125). Schmidt and Barkley have written a short, palatable history of the church that is worth the time to read. Inside, readers will find military, social, religious, and preservation history. Give it a read. It will make your next trip to the Dunker Church all the more special and meaningful, understanding what that simple edifice has been through and what it means to thousands of people today.
Alann Schmidt and Terry Barkley, September Mourn: The Dunker Church of Antietam Battlefield.
Savas Beatie, 2018.
Footnotes, Appendix, Bibliography, Index, Maps.