He’s Spent Decades Wandering Antietam — Here’s What He’s Found

On a baby-blue sky fall afternoon, Richard Clem and I stand among the many stays of cornstalks in a discipline on the previous Otho J. Smith Farm close to the Antietam battleground. The South Mountain vary stretches throughout the horizon to the east; roughly 350 yards away stand giant, trendy farm buildings. A touch of cow manure wafts via the air.

Clem, a wiry octogenarian with a gentle, deep voice, rapidly shifts into storytelling mode…and I like it.

John, I bear in mind popping out right here relic searching, and when the daylight hit the sphere excellent, you may see the glass glistening from the damaged medication bottles from that hospital.” 

Mr. Smith’s barn stood within the hole on the market. This hospital website was a thriller for a few years.” 

“Proper over right here on this hill I discovered that ID disc of that VER-mont soldier.” 

A decade in the past, I related with Clem—a retired carpenter and lifelong Washington County, Md., resident—for a narrative a few Connecticut soldier who was killed by pleasant fireplace at William Roulette’s farm at Antietam on September 17, 1862. We turned quick associates, and no go to to Sharpsburg, Md., is full for me now with out exploring space historic websites with him or listening to Clem’s battlefield tales on his again porch.

Clem enjoys Miller’s Cornfield on a fall day at Antietam. The times when he may choose relics off the bottom are lengthy gone, and his frequent hikes have grow to be extra quiet and contemplative. (Picture by John Banks)

I gained’t neglect the afternoon we examined the ruins of prewar kilns alongside the financial institution of the Potomac River at Shepherdstown, W.Va. (previously Virginia), the place pleasant artillery fireplace killed 118th Pennsylvania troopers on September 20, 1862. 

“You’re an previous man,” his pleasant spouse Gloria kidded him earlier than our trek that day. “Watch your self on the market.” However Clem navigated the hills with the keenness of a 22-year-old historical past geek.

I additionally gained’t neglect the day we visited the grave of Nancy Campbell, as soon as enslaved by Roulette—the person who farmed certainly one of Antietam’s most notorious killing fields. Or the day we spent within the “Nook of Dying” on David R. Miller’s farm, when 5 battlefield trampers marveled as Clem advised them tales.

Or after a lunch at Captain Bender’s Tavern in Sharpsburg, when the ever-generous Clem handed me a present of 4 bullets and a Union coat button that he had eyeballed on the floor of the bottom within the Bloody Cornfield within the late Sixties and early Nineteen Seventies.

Shortly after my return residence from that go to, an all-caps e-mail from Clem arrived in my in-box. Our go to, he wrote, was “A TIME I’LL LONG REMEMBER.”


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Within the late Forties, Richard Clem’s grandmother Betty—then in her 60s—fueled his curiosity within the Civil Warfare. On Sunday afternoons, his father pumped 50 cents’ price of gasoline into an historical Ford for excursions with the household from Hagerstown to the Antietam battlefield. Grandma packed a container with sardines, crackers, cheese, and water for the journeys. Mother sat up entrance whereas Grandma sat within the again with Richard, whom she fondly referred to as “Dickie.” 

Whereas Dad drove over gravel battlefield roads and throughout Burnside Bridge, then open to automobiles, Grandma fed Clem a gradual eating regimen of native historical past—the lifelong western Maryland resident knew individuals who had lived via the battle. She even recalled Civil Warfare veterans visiting Sharpsburg.

“Dickie,” Grandma stated throughout a battlefield journey, “that’s the previous Iney Swain residence there, and he or she advised me again when she was nonetheless alive that there have been wounded troopers in her barn from the state of Massachusetts.”

At Bloody Lane, the place the household ate lunch, Grandma recounted what locals had advised her in regards to the battle. “Even months after the battle, individuals would slip right here on swimming pools of dried blood,” she’d inform Dickie. Typically the reality could have been stretched a bit.

On the return journey to Hagerstown on the Sharpsburg Pike, the Clems handed the location of Dunker Church, the long-lasting battlefield landmark that had collapsed in a windstorm in April 1921. Solely a pile of bricks from the unique church remained. Clem remembers when it was the location of a gasoline station and a comfort retailer that bought ice cream, beer, and sandwiches. Within the early Sixties, the church was rebuilt on the location with most of the authentic bricks.

“Grandmother didn’t perceive precisely what occurred throughout the Civil Warfare,” Clem says, “however she knew and spoke nearly prefer it was reverent to her. Typically she’d even tear up.” 

Years later, Clem and his brother Don found the thrill of trying to find battlefield relics. Many of the battlefield was in personal fingers then. So, on afternoons after work, Clem rode in his brother’s four-wheel drive jeep to Antietam, the place they might eyeball relics within the fields—with a farmer’s permission, in fact. 

On the floor, simply south of Bloody Lane, Clem discovered his first bullet—a fired, Union three-ringer. He nonetheless has it. “In the event you discovered 4 or 5 bullets, that was an excellent afternoon,” Clem remembers about these early hunts. After a tough rain within the Sixties, he eyeballed 18 bullets behind Dunker Church.

Throughout a relic hunt on the website of the Otho Smith Farm, the situation of a Union post-battle hospital run by Dr. Anson Hurd, left, Clem excavated an ID disc, proper. It had been carried by Corporal William Secor, the one man of the 2nd Vermont to die at Antietam. (Picture by John Banks)

Later, the Clem brothers found the thrill of trying to find artifacts with steel detectors. Their pastime was an obsession. On leisurely walks with Gloria, Clem usually stared on the floor, fixated on what Civil Warfare-era steel would possibly lie beneath the floor.

Over time, the brothers unearthed roughly 30,000 bullets and different artifacts in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Years later, they bought greater than 12,000 of these bullets to artifact sellers for a buck apiece. Clem gave many away.

However these hunts had been by no means enterprise for Clem, who hung up his steel detector for good a number of years in the past. In a pocket book, he documented most of the artifacts recovered, noting their location and different particulars. For Cracker Barrel and Gettysburg magazines and The Washington Occasions, Clem wrote deeply researched tales about his most outstanding finds. And he continues to share his huge native historic data with others.

Most of Clem’s relic hunts had been a brief distance from his Hagerstown residence in Washington County, the place brigades of troopers in each armies fought and camped from 1861-65. Hundreds of bullets and different artifacts turned up in U.S. Military sixth Corps camp websites in a farm discipline throughout the street from his home. In his yard, Clem unearthed his first U.S. field plate and 50-60 bullets.

On the Otho Smith Farm, Clem and I stroll steps from the place Alexander Gardner arrange his digital camera in September 1862 for a collection of outstanding pictures. Right here, on the division hospital for U.S. Military Maj. Gen. William French, docs, volunteers, and others cared for lots of of Antietam wounded from either side.

Two photos Gardner shot on the farm intrigue me most. In a cropped enlargement of 1, an unidentified man—undoubtedly a wounded soldier—rests in a makeshift, hay-covered tent. One other exhibits 14th Indiana regimental surgeon Anson Hurd standing amongst wounded.

Clem and I usually marvel in regards to the heart-rending scenes that performed out right here.

“Nearly each hour I witnessed the going out of some younger life,” recalled nurse Elizabeth Harris about her service on the farm. 

On the point of dying, a blue-eyed soldier—a “mere youth” with a “full, spherical face”—captured Harris’ coronary heart. “Maintain my hand until I die,” he advised her. “I’m attempting to consider my Saviour; however consider my mom and father; their hearts will break.”

On a wonderful, fall day on the Smith Farm in 1991, Clem unearthed a brass identification disc—roughly the dimensions of 1 / 4—underneath 5 inches of earth on a cedar-covered ridge. The uncommon discover was an obsession for Clem, who has recovered three different soldier ID discs whereas relic searching—a feat equal to Babe Ruth hitting 4 grand slams in a sport.

Canine tags weren’t issued to Civil Warfare troopers; as a substitute, they bought their very own “tags” wherein that they had their names and models stamped. No soldier wished to be forgotten if he fell in battle or from illness. Letters, diaries, pictures, and ID discs usually aided burial crews within the identification of soldier stays.

Clem’s dogged analysis introduced the proprietor of the Smith Farm disc again to life. It belonged to 2nd Vermont color-bearer William Secor, a corporal, and the one soldier in his regiment to die at Antietam. Maybe he was certainly one of Harris’ sufferers.

Utilizing a small hammer and lettered dies, a sutler most likely hammered Secor’s identify and regiment into the gold-plated disc. It might have value the soldier 25 cents for a pair—one for him, one other to ship residence.

Secor stood 5-foot-6¼, with blue eyes and brown hair. From Halfmoon, N.Y., he enlisted in neighboring Vermont. He was 21 and single. On September 17, 1862, Secor was mortally wounded at Bloody Lane—an previous sunken, nation street throughout the battle and the place the Clems picnicked many years later.

A condolence letter Clem found from Secor’s commanding officer to his stepfather shed additional gentle on his final day on Earth.

“I noticed the Chaplain that was with him in his final hours, and he stated that it may be of comfort to his associates to know that he lived with a hope in Christ and was resigned to his destiny,” Lieutenant Eugene O. Cole wrote. “As a soldier, there was none higher.”

Clem believes U.S. Military comrades transported Secor to the Smith Farm together with numerous different casualties. He seemingly was buried on the ridge with others. Maybe their stays nonetheless relaxation there. Secor’s ID disc could have fallen out when his stays had been disinterred for reburial in New York.

Earlier than our go to to the farm ends, Clem pulls from his pocket the small disc. And so an Antietam story comes full circle. I’m half-tempted to ship Clem my very own all-caps e-mail: