Between May 13 and May 23, 2013, I co-taught a study tour of Civil War battlefields with a colleague. While this was the sixth time I have offered this study tour for undergraduate students, I decided at the outset that I would use this opportunity to gather information about orchards on Civil War battlefields. I was aware of the “famous” peach orchard where many men died on the field at Gettysburg, and was aware of a few other references to battlefield orchards, but was surprised at the abundance of information I uncovered on the eleven day trip. This is the third in a series of blog posts on battlefield orchards.
An Army marches on its stomach.” This old adage, commonly attributed to Napoleon, was certainly one every Union and Confederate soldier understood. Soldiers spent a great deal of time thinking about their stomachs: what last went into them, and what might next go into them. Even when rations were plentiful, they were nonetheless dependably monotonous—salt pork, hard tack, and desiccated vegetables were standard fare. When opportunities arose to satisfy their stomachs with something different, soldiers could go to extraordinary lengths to seize them. This truth was perhaps no more dramatically demonstrated than at Sharpsburg, Maryland in the Fall of 1862, on the bloodiest single day of the war. The battle of Antietam has long been remembered for the fierce fighting which occurred in the cornfield, the West Woods, along Bloody Lane, and at Burnside’s Bridge, but actions that day in the Piper Orchard were also worthy of commemoration.
The Piper apple orchard sat on a hill just south of the Sunken Road, where on the morning of the battle Confederate forces were entrenched in what appeared to be an impregnable defensive position. But once flanked by Union forces, the Sunken Road quickly became a death pit now memorialized as Bloody Lane. To the South of the Sunken Road on a hillside resided the Piper cornfield and orchard, and it was to this ground that Robert E. Lee sent a division of 4,000 men in an effort to rescue their trapped comrades. While this high ground allowed the Confederates to fire upon Union forces north and west of the Sunken Road, it also left the soldiers in that orchard terribly exposed to both Union artillery and rifle fire. Caught at the highest, most exposed part of the orchard, Georgia’s 22nd Infantry hunkered down, as minie balls flew over their heads and canister shot rattled the apple trees around them. Private W.B. Judkins, a member of that Georgia regiment recalled “the company was in the thick of the fight there in the apple orchard and cornfield. The ground was covered with apples where we fought, shot off the trees.” Judkins himself was wounded by schrapnel, but he and his fellow Georgians wasted no opportunity and instinctively grabbed as many fallen apples as they could.
Later that afternoon, the focus of the battle shifted south to Burnside’s Bridge, but the scene near Bloody Lane and the Piper Orchard was far from peaceful. Confederates continued to use the high ground of the Piper farm and orchard to fire upon Union forces now firmly in control of the area around Bloody Lane. At this point, seizing the high ground of the Piper Orchard had no strategic importance, so Major Thomas Hyde was a bit shocked to receive orders from Colonel William Irwin to send his 7th Maine regiment—diminished by earlier fights to only about 200 men—to take the Piper Orchard from a Confederate force at least four times as large. The Maine men did so, but soon found themselves pinned down in the hilltop orchard, with no support coming from other regiments behind them. Thomas Hyde remembered “how the twigs and branches of the apple-trees were being cut off by musket balls and were dropping in a shower.” Another member of the regiment recalled how “bullets, men and apples were dropping on all sides.” Nonetheless, in a fight so fierce that Captain John B. Cook declared it was in the Piper orchard that he “learned how thickly bullets could fly,” the fearless and hungry men of the 7th Maine were reaching up into the branches of the trees to gather apples.
When the fighting finally ended that evening, more than one in three of Georgia’s apple-gathering soldiers were casualties, while Maine’s second-harvesters lost more than half their regiment.
The Piper Orchard at Antietam, like the Sherfy Orchard at Gettysburg, survived the war but not the century. When the Congress acquired the battlefield at Antietam and established a national park, there were no more apple trees on Piper hill. In 2002, as part of a wider effort to restore National Battlefields to their pre-battle landscapes, Antietam National Battlefield replanted 6.5 acres in apple trees, selecting 19th century varieties; five years later, they planted an additional 13.5 acres, this time including some modern disease-resistant varieties. Protecting the young orchard from the ravages of deer has been a challenge, and today about half of the trees in the orchard are surrounded by sturdy deer-proof fencing. Slowly but surely, the Piper Orchard is returning to something looking a bit like its 1862 appearance.
A detailed description of the 7th Maine’s fateful charge into the orchard can be found here. For a thrilling description of the entire battle, including the experience of the Georgia 22nd in the Piper Orchard, pick up Richard Slotkin’s The Long Road to Antietam. More about the efforts of Antietam staff and volunteers to restore the Piper Orchard can be found here and and also at the Save Historic Antietam Foundation website.
Excellent, detailed maps of the entire battlefield, including the locations of the Piper and other orchards can be found in Bradley Gottfried’s The Maps of Antietam.