The 60-foot-tall Observation Tower at Antietam National Battlefield represents the development of a tourism infrastructure for commemorating this key Civil War conflict. The Battle of Antietam took place on September 17, 1862 in the agricultural landscape around Sharpsburg, Maryland. Although the military outcome was a draw, the Battle of Antietam was a catalyst for the Emancipation Proclamation, in which President Lincoln declared all slaves in rebelling states freed on January 1, 1863. Starting in 1890 the U.S. War Department instituted a preservation and tourism plan for the battlefield. Much of the surrounding land remained in private hands, while the U.S. government acquired narrow right-of-ways to build a series of tour roads and provide access to key landmarks such as Dunker Church, Lower Bridge (Burnside’s Bridge), and the “Bloody Lane.” The “Antietam Plan” approach to battlefield preservation was in contrast to the major land acquisition that took place a few years earlier for Gettysburg and Chickamauga battlefields.
In addition to moving visitors through the landscape on tour roads, the War Department sought to create an elevated vantage point for panoramic views of the battlefield. Observation towers were popular additions to many military battlefield parks, but typically were more utilitarian, cast-iron structures rather than the substantial limestone tower at Antietam. Built in 1896, the Observation Tower was located next to the infamous “Bloody Lane” battle landmark, a sunken farm lane that became the site of heavy Confederate casualties during a flanking maneuver by the Union troops. Local contractor Jacob Snyder built the original version of the tower, which terminated in an open observation platform with high parapet walls. Eight bronze directional plates, cast from melted-down cannons used at the battle, were mounted on the parapet walls to identify battlefield landmarks. When the pyramidal tile roof was added to the tower in 1909, three of these plates were removed to accommodate the corner piers.
Visitors to Antietam Battlefield, including Civil War veterans, tourists, and military recruits taking part in training exercises, used the Observation Tower to experience a bird’s eye view of the landscape. In 1933, Antietam and all the War Department national military parks were transferred to the National Park Service (NPS). The Observation Tower continued to serve as a battlefield tourism amenity located along the tour road at an important battlefield position. This section of the battlefield was again reaffirmed as a key focal point in 1962 when the National Park Service built a new visitor center nearby as part of the Mission 66 park infrastructure improvement initiative. Designed by architect William Cramp Sheetz Jr. of Philadelphia and the NPS Eastern Office of Design and Construction, the elegant Modernist visitor center includes fieldstone walls and an observation platform offering sweeping views of the remarkably preserved battlefield landscape. Likewise the Observation Tower—a striking landmark from the first generation of War Department battlefield tourism development—still provides unparalleled views of Antietam National Battlefield and punctuates one of its most evocative features.
Hall, Susan C., “Antietam National Battlefield, Observation Tower,” HABS No. MD-934-A, Historic American Buildings Survey, 2009. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.