Burnside Sycamore – Witness to History

During a trip to visit family in Maryland this summer, I took a side trip to Antietam National Battlefield, a National Park Service protected area along Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg, Maryland. It commemorates the Battle of Antietam that occurred September 17, 1862, during the American Civil War. It is regarded as the bloodiest day in United States history, with a combined tally of 22,717 dead, wounded or missing.

There, I visited the Burnside Bridge, and next to it found the Burnside Sycamore, a tree that was there during the battle. I was happy to note it is being cared for today:

“As a young tree, the Burnside Sycamore witnessed the battle of Antietam,” reads a sign at the bridge. “It still stands more than one hundred fifty years later and remains a favorite landmark for park visitors. You can help preserve and protect this living relic by appreciating it from afar. The fence here is to keep foot traffic from the base of the tree. This will help reduce soil compaction and stream bank erosion that threatens the health of the Burnside Sycamore. Let’s do our part to preserve this tree for future generations.”

The Burnside Sycamore and the Burnside Bridge. Confederates held the hill at right, while Union forces attempted to take the bridge from a field at left. Photos by Don Staruk.

So what did the Burnside Sycamore witness?

Crossing over Antietam Creek, the bridge played a key role in the Battle of Antietam when about 500 Confederate soldiers from Georgia, under General Robert Toombs and Henry Benning, for several hours held off repeated attempts by elements of the Union’s IX Army Corps, whose leader was Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, to take the bridge.

According to a Wikipedia description, the first attempt was by Col. George Crook’s Ohio brigade, partially supported by Edward Harland’s brigade of Rodman’s Division, but the Ohioans got lost and emerged too far upstream. The 11th Connecticut Infantry found the bridge, and engaged the Georgians. After taking heavy casualties, the 11th Connecticut withdrew in all haste.

The second try to carry the bridge was by the 2nd Division’s 1st Brigade under James Nagle – the 2nd Maryland & the 6th New Hampshire Infantry rushed to the bridge via a nearby farm road but were stopped by the Georgia sharpshooters before getting halfway to the bridge. Toombs’ 450 Georgians held off 14,000 Union attackers.

Finally, the 51st New York Volunteer Infantry and the 51st Pennsylvania Infantry, from Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s brigade, attacked from the field on the Union side of the creek, stopped briefly at the walls near the bridge to duel with the sharpshooters and then charged and seized it, but not before the attack had been delayed for several hours beyond what had been expected.

After the war, the U.S. Government acquired the bridge and adjoining land. Foot traffic is still allowed across the structure. It remains one of the most photographed bridges of the Civil War.

The Burnside Sycamore now sits behind a fence. It also can be seen in the picture on this marker, taken at about the time of the battle, just left of center between the wall and the bridge.

A takeaway from my visit to the bridge and the many other battle sites at Antietam was the number of states represented by soldiers during the battles that day, commemorated on monuments throughout the park.

This month, on September 18, as part of the Saluting Branches: Arborists United for Veteran Remembrance events being organized by Rainbow Treecare, hundreds and perhaps thousands of arborists and other tree care workers and companies will volunteer a day of service to care for trees in National Veteran Cemeteries across the country, possibly including Antietam National Cemetery. Hats off to all those volunteers.

Don Staruk is editor of TCI Magazine.

Send Tree News Digest items to editor@tcia.org

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