The Dunker Church is no stranger to those familiar with the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862). Antietam is an iconic battle, known for it being where Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was turned back in its first invasion of the North in a battle that saw the highest number of casualties in a single day in the whole of the war. But how much do you know about the church itself? In one of the great ironies of the Civil War, “in the middle of this whirlwind of violence stood the small white washed building founded on the principles of peace and dedicated to the brotherhood of all men.“
This is a tight history of a single artifice on a major Civil War battlefield. Despite its narrow focus, it is an easy and delightfully interesting read. It describes the spiritual journey of a small German pacifist religious sect — separate in their own trajectory, but part of a much larger historical meme — and how their journey intersected with a violent sweep of history when war overtakes them. Schmidt and Barkley tell their story — who the Dunkers were, how they came to be, and how this small church, caught up in a battle in a war over slavery, both of which (war and slavery) its congregation considered abominations, became one of the three most iconic churches in US military history (the others being the Alamo Mission and the Shiloh Meeting House).
It begins with the construction of the church, its layout and furnishings, and typical congregation activities as well as the Brethren themselves. There is a concise summary of the overall battle (plus an appended more detailed description – a “tactical overview” – of the action immediately around the church), followed by an interesting discussion of local impressions in the days immediately preceding and following the battle, as well as activities in and around the church itself during the battle. It contains interesting vignettes, such as the loss of the Dunker Bible and its return, and the accompanying story of Brother John T. Lewis’s roll in its return.
Schmidt and Barkley don’t stop with the battle’s end. They go on to tell of the repair of battle damage, the various battlefield markers and memorials, unit reunions, and the church’s ultimate demise in the early 1900s. Following its collapse during a particularly fierce windstorm in 1923, the battlefield was left with only the church’s foundation until it was rebuilt and rededicated on September 2, 1962, just a few days short of the 100th anniversary of the battle.
Alann Schmidt spent 15 years as a park ranger at Antietam National Battlefield. Terry Barkley has served as an archivist and museum curator at Bridgewater College in Virginia, a Brethren-related institution. Together they have produced a marvelous description of this church, its people, and its place in history. Well written, full of rich detail and visuals throughout, this is a big “little” story of how we, as individuals and institutions, can and do get swept up in events beyond our control and yet somehow endure. Enjoy!
Your reviewer is Emil L. Posey, former Vice President of the TVCWRT, now continuing to support by being part of the Stage Crew. His work history spans almost 45 years of military and civilian service to our country. He retired from NASA/George C. Marshall Space Flight Center on December 27, 2014. He has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Hood College, Frederick, Maryland; is a former president of the Huntsville chapter of the National Contract Management Association, and is a life member of the Special Forces Association. He is also a member of Elks Lodge 1648 (Huntsville, AL) and the Tennessee Valley Genealogical Society. He is a dedicated bibliophile, and is a (very) armchair political analyst and military enthusiast.