Our National Cemeteries: Antietam National Cemetery and the Private Soldier

The Private Soldier Monument, a 44 foot-7 inch tall behemoth of a stone soldier (of which the soldier measures in at 30 tons, 21 feet and 6 inches tall), stands guard over the nearly 5,000 graves of American war dead in Antietam National Cemetery. His hands clasped on his musket, he appears ready to defend the solemn graves lying in the 11¼ acre cemetery.

The soldier gazes down and to the right from his perch, gazing over the individual headstones and slightly beyond, looking north toward the homes of the Union soldiers resting under his watchful eye. Beneath his feet, carved in stone, the simple but moving epitaph reminds visitors why thousands of soldiers’ graves lie in front of them: “Not for themselves, but for their country.”

It is impossible to miss the Private Soldier when entering the gates of Antietam National Cemetery. He represents all the soldiers whose only statue is a small headstone etched with their name and state.

The Private Soldier monument stands at Antietam National Cemetery. (Kevin Pawlak photo)

Despite the efforts of local civilians and Union soldiers to bury the remains of the fallen in the immediate aftermath of the battle of Antietam, their work could not fully erase the scars of a battle’s aftermath cut into the western Maryland landscape. “The eye rests upon something to remind the traveler of that awful day of carnage,” said one Union soldier passing through the battlefield two years later. Farmers resuming their plowing and planting constantly churned up the shallow graves scattered across their land. For Sharpsburg to return to some sense of normalcy, something had to be done.

Maryland stepped in and passed legislation to establish one cemetery outside Sharpsburg. On March 23, 1865, the bill passed, and the state purchased the ground for the cemetery. Northern states kicked in funding to aid the effort. By September 17, 1867, the cemetery was ready for its official dedication. President Andrew Johnson spoke that day to devote the ground he stood on to the memory of the fallen buried there. All told, 4,776 Union soldiers rest within the stonewalls of the cemetery.

On May 30, 1869, following the dictates of General Order No. 11 passed the previous year officially nationalizing Memorial Day, Sharpsburg’s citizens gathered at the town’s train station, marched down Main Street, climbed the western slope of Cemetery Hill, and carefully placed flowers at each headstone. One participant in the ceremony “resolved that, on next ‘Memorial Day,’ should their lives be spared, they would return again to strew flowers over the graves, and renew their vows of devotion to the memory of the sacred dead.” Sharpsburg’s citizens have publicly observed Memorial Day ever since. Rather than flowers, a small American flag adorns each grave.

Antietam National Cemetery stopped active operations and accepting burials in 1953. Yet every time I visit, I find a new story to tell, a new soldier to remember, and am faced with the reminder that beneath each headstone rests a fallen patriot who gave his all, as the Private Soldier reminds us, “Not for themselves, but for their country.”

3 Responses to Our National Cemeteries: Antietam National Cemetery and the Private Soldier

  1. Poor battered Sharpsburg. Still recovering from the profound effects of the Antietam campaign, its citizens found it in their collective hearts to create a moving permanent remembrance for Union dead from the battlefield. They did have a less eloquent President to honor the opening of the cemetery. Thanks for the story, Kevin.

  2. It is a very moving experience to visit that cemetery. Your piece does an excellent job conveying that. There is also a sad and poignant element to that cemetery. The handful of gravestones off to the side by themselves. They caught my attention by clearly being set apart intentionally. When I realized they were black soldiers from WWI it hurt. I try not to succumb to presentism because it’s unfair and largely self-serving. But I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that these men who gave their lives for their country were segregated even in death. A little grace would have been nice. Thank God for progress.

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