Tuesday, July 22, 2008

With a Little Help From Our Friends - SHAF

As with any  success, teamwork is involved.  At Antietam National Battlefield that teamwork occurs daily between the talented, professional, and dedicated park workers, our neighbors, enthusiastic volunteers,  and preservationist groups.  Here is such a success story:

SHAF - Save Historic Antietam Foundation, friends in deed.

The Joseph Poffenberger Farm
July 12, 2008

(an extended version of an article from the July 2008 SHAF Newsletter)
By Antietam NBP Ranger Mannie Gentile,
photos by the author

Find yourself on the Northern edge of Antietam National Battlefield.Your feet are planted on Mansfield Avenue, the saplings of the newly replanted North Woods are at your back, highway 65 is a long shout off your left shoulder, and directly in front of you is the Joseph Poffenberger Farm. Usually it’ll be just you and the cows with the occasional visitor momentarily stopping nearby while listening to the audio tour before continuing toward the east.

The Poffenberger house

The acreage of the Poffenberger Farm is some of the most charming of the battlefield, very rolling with the usual rock ledges, hills and swales dominated subtly by a commanding ridge just beyond the majestic Pennsylvania bank barn. The house is perched on high ground affording those who, long ago, lounged on its front porch a delightfully detached view of the old Hagerstown pike.

The view from that porch in the wee hours of September 17, 1862 would have been altogether different; both eerie and disconcerting.

In the predawn murkiness of first light an onlooker from that front porch would have had the impression that the ground itself was moving, slowly and lethargically at first, accompanied with occasional bursts of coughing. And as the gloom just began to barely lighten in the eastern sky the ground would seem to roil as dark spectral shapes, by the thousands, arose and began to stumble into formation as orders rang out in the early hours and the long roll was sounded on countless field drums.

This was the last morning for many of the men of Hooker’s First Corps of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. The last evening prior to this last morning was spent by these nearly 8,600 men on the grounds of the Joseph Poffenberger farm where they passed the damp darkness in bivouac – camping without shelter or, in this instance, cooking fires. These men would be the spearhead of the Union effort on this historic day. And the silent buildings of the Poffenberger farm that remain to this day would bear witness to the passing of the First Corps.

Later that morning the farm would again play host to Union soldiers, as terrified and battered survivors of Sedgwick’s Division, fresh from the so-called “Disaster in the West Woods”, would seek shelter, succor, and solace among the gentle swales of the farmstead.

Some of those men would receive aid from a volunteer nurse from Massachusetts; that nurse would provide the last kind voice heard by many of those young men.

Joseph Hooker was there, Sedgwick was there, Meade was there,  Clara Barton was there and, this morning, I was there.


The armies have moved on, time has moved forward, but on the grounds of the Poffenberger farm it could all have happened a week ago, or a week from now.  Although today, while the buildings still stand and comprise the most intact of the original battlefield farmsteads, much work must be done to preserve them. 

Acquired by the park fairly recently, the farm is in its second year of a five-year initiative to restore it to its 1862 appearance.

This is the old farm road (soon to be restored) that once connected the Joseph Poffenberger farm to the Hagerstown Pike.

The trace is still very evident - if you know where to look.

Already the wagon shed and wash house have been stabilized and restored with rebuilt 
foundations, replaced timbers, and a fresh coat of white wash.

(The Cultural Resources crew takes a breather and patiently pause for my pestering photography)

Original fence lines are again graced with post and rail fences.

And now the effort is on to restore that magnificent barn as well as the  house.

The Barn

One of the things that makes this Pennsylvania bank barn unique from others in the region is the semi-circular stone wall that encloses the barnyard.

Although disassembled, to a large degree, in the intervening years, all of those original stones have been quietly residing in a turf covered mound on the east side of the barn, eventually to see the light of day again as that remarkable wall is again restored to its original elegant simplicity (pardon the redundancy there).

This nearly $400,000 effort, undertaken by the Park, is being actively supported by the Save Historic Antietam Foundation.  A $10,000 gift from SHAF will go toward the painting of the Poffenberger house.  Stabilized and painted, the house will provide a “scene setter” for the restored farmyard and outbuildings presided over by that incredible barn.

The Maintenance and Cultural Resources Divisions of Antietam National Battlefield are moving ahead with both care and enthusiasm on this very challenging undertaking. Craig Cartwright, head of park maintenance, is emphatic when he says that he enjoys “the challenge of restoring such a valuable and historic structure”.

The work continues apace with three highly skilled maintenance personnel detailed to the barn project, and already the progress on the site is remarkable.

Piers have been installed to take the weight of the structure as old rotted timbers have been removed and newly hewn replacements have been carefully set and pegged into place.

Wherever possible the original fabric of the structure is preserved through a skillful "marrying" of original timber to new.

And soon, thanks to SHAF the repaired and repainted Poffenberger house will also be restored to its 1862 appearance, again a welcoming beacon, though this time not to weary soldiers, but to history loving visitors.

Restoration of the house

For me, this former home is one of the most evocative on the battlefield. Signs of a prosperous and , I'd like to think, happy, life are all around.

The house itself is that, typical of the era, and quite lovely "el" shape that you see throughout the valley.

One can just imagine trying to catch cool nighttime breezes on the upper porch during sultry summer nights.

Close inspection reveals quickly some of the challenges to be met by the park through the generous SHAF donation. I selected a few camera positions to revisit after the work is finished for some before and after shots, which I imagine, will be most satisfying.

These will be the three angles I'll revisit during the process:

Insect and weather damage to the siding,

Missing and damaged elements on the front porch as well as the scraping, priming, and painting that will need to occur,

And the repairs to the roofing.

The front porch, though quite dilapidated today, was the natural welcoming point for the house. And on a morning as sunny as this one was, and from a distance, it still looks incredibly inviting for the visitor or passerby.

The closer one gets however, the more evident becomes the sagging profile, with structural and cosmetic work to be done.

The peeling paint and damaged millwork will be repaired, replaced, and repainted through the financial largess of SHAF and the elbow grease of the NPS, to restore this welcoming portico to its former cheeriness. 

Perhaps my favorite place on the entire farmstead is one of the most understated and most overlooked; the gate and walk up to that front porch. 

One can only imagine the procession of countless callers, peddlers, guests, mourners, and celebrants that traveled that path through the generations of the family dramas, joys, and tragedies that animated the house and surrounding grounds.

As I made my way through the gate and up that walk today I was very much aware of all those who had gone before me - suitors, soldiers, and bearers of a variety of tidings. 

Happily, for this house and a generation of future visitors, SHAF has insured that those tidings will be very good ones for a very long time.

Come greet a new day for the Poffenberger Farm.  I’ll meet you on that porch...

just north of Sharpsburg.

Ranger Mannie

SHAF has been preserving and protecting historic sites related to the Battle of Antietam, the Maryland Campaign, and other Civil War activity in the region since 1986. We need your help to keep it going.   You can visit the SHAF website by clicking here or by visiting:


Anonymous said...

Mannie, yet another very nice informative thought provoking and well photographically documented post. Here I sit in a patrol car on my laptop at 4:24AM in central Florida listening to sheriff's deputies in the next district over trying to locate armed robbery suspects and looking out for a suspect vehicle possibly entering my area. But where I want to be is there walking through that gate on a beautiful western Maryland day, and up that path, so that I too can sit on that porch. Wish I could be there to help with scraping and painting and to enjoy all that is Antietam!


Mannie Gentile said...


And retirement's what...22 months away?

Best wishes,


Anonymous said...

19 months and 8 days :)

.. and yes, I'm planning my escape!


Anonymous said...

I can't wait to get back.

John C. Nicholas

Anonymous said...

It is hard for me to explain why I find it so exciting and interesting to visit historic sites. However, seeing you sitting on that porch thinking about all the visitors that came up the path nailed it.

Thanks for the great post.


Mannie Gentile said...

Thanks Rich.

And John, it'll be great to have you back.


The Ebon Swan said...

Is there much information regarding the Poffenberger family? I'm related to the Poffenbergers/Puffenbergers a fairly good ways back in the tree, and I think they may have been in that area.

Just curious. :)


Mannie Gentile said...


There's zillions of Poffenbergers in the area, though I don't have any biographical information on them. A good place to start would be the local history room at the Washington County Free Library.