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Dunker Church at Antietam Battlefield - Then and Now

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The American Civil War ripped a nation apart with ongoing conflict, physical destruction and loss of life. Cities and towns in many states saw first-hand the horror of a war that most had initially assumed would end quickly. Instead it dragged on for years.

Sharpsburg, Maryland is the location where the Union and Confederate armies met on Sept. 17, 1862. A farming community located along Antietam Creek, many civilians were forever impacted by the devastating events that occurred that day. One structure, Dunker Church, found itself right in the middle of the fiercely-fought Battle of Antietam. Today the church is a part of the Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland.

Dunker Church’s Early History

In 1851 a man named Samuel Mumma donated land so a church could be built upon it. The church, ready for service in 1853, became known as the “Dunker Church”. The Dunker movement began in the early 18th century in Germany. According to the National Park Service (NPS):

“The peace treaty that ended the Thirty Years War (1618 –1648 ) recognized three state churches. Dissenters were persecuted and forced to meet in communities where some degree of tolerance prevailed. In 1708 the denomination was formed with the baptism of eight believers by full immersion. The name Dunker derives from this method of baptism.” 1

Other titles (perhaps more officially) the church has been called by is Dunkard Church. However, the proper name for this denomination was German Baptist Brethren and, in 1908, it officially became known as Church of the Brethren. But during the 1850s in America, it was called “Dunker”.

During its first 10 years about a half-dozen local families came to the Dunker Church to worship. Their beliefs were aligned with those of the German Baptist Brethren, believing in simplicity in both daily lifestyle and in worship. During the Civil War they refused military service for either side, believing in the brotherhood of man, and they were opposed to slavery.

The physical structure of the church supported the philosophy of simplicity. The church structure itself was not decorative and the decor did not have stained glass, crosses, a steeple or other attributes many other churches possess.

Dunker Church (2012)
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

I took this photo of Dunker Church in December 2012.

Dunker Church interior
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Restored interior of Dunker Church (July 2014).

Dunker Church During the Civil War

Despite their opposition to both slavery and the war, the Dunker Church was not able to keep out of the fighting. Instead, it was in the middle of the bloodiest single-day battle of the Civil War. NPS suggests Dunker Church "ranks as perhaps one of the most famous churches in American military history" due to the role it played in the Civil War.

As the fighting between the North and South raged on, Dunker Church suffered a large number of bullet holes in its walls, was used as a temporary medical aid station and experts believe it may also have been used as an embalming station after the battle was over.  

The Battle of Antietam saw approximately 23,000 people wounded, killed or listed as missing. It is difficult to ascertain how many died. A man named Alexander Gardner took 70 photographs starting two days after the battle. He worked for a man named Mathew Brady who owned a photography gallery in Washington, D.C. The photographs Gardner took after the battle showed the devastation.  At this time, photography was still in its infancy and those photos were the first time the ugliness and horror of war were brought to the public’s eye.

Dunker Church Antietam 1862
Credit: Public Domain image accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Caption on photo: "The Dunker Church to the north of Sharpsburg, Maryland marks where one of the bloodiest battles in American history would begin at dawn on September 17, 1862. Here, both Union and Confederate dead lay together on the field." https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DunkerChurchAntietam1862.jpg

As for Samuel Mumma and his family, his home was the only one located on the Sharpsburg battlefield that was intentionally destroyed. The 15-member family evacuated as the fighting started and they came home two days later to find their home gone. The Confederate Army had burned it to the ground to keep the Union Army from placing sharpshooters in the home. It was the only deliberate destruction of civilian property during this battle and the Mumma's claim for reimbursement from the government was denied because the Confederates were responsible for the destruction.

The Mumma family rebuilt their home one year later.

Mumma family home
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

The Mumma farmhouse as it looked in July 2014, having been built a year after the Battle of Antietam.  Only one building of the original farm still stands. The original house and outbuildings were destroyed during the Battle of Antietam by fire.

Post-Civil War and 20th Century

After the battle, services at the Dunker Church were interrupted for two years. For a time residents considered not reopening the church at all. However, the church was repaired and services did resume in the summer of 1864. Regular services continued until 1916 when the church's pastor died. By this time the church had deteriorated, souvenir hunters had removed bricks from the building and its overall upkeep had been neglected.

In May 1921 Dunker Church would cease to exist. That month a storm devastated the Dunker Church and the structure sustained a heavy amount of damage, crumbling to the ground. A local resident named Elmer G. Boyer bought the property, salvaged what was able to be saved from the church and stored these remnants of the building in a shed. He then sold the land.

A Church is Rebuilt

According to NPS, the new owner built a home on the original foundation. Later a lunch counter, souvenir shop and a gas station would all stand on the site where Dunker Church once quietly stood. In the 1950s the land was acquired for preservation by the Washington County Historical Society. As the country was preparing to commemorate the Civil War Centennial, the organization donated the property to NPS.

The salvage that had been made 30 years earlier was remarkably still in storage. At this time those materials stored were brought out and used in the reconstruction of the Dunker Church. By mid-20th century a replica church had been rebuilt and it was re-opened. The woods were also restored. Today the church is included as part of the Antietam National Battlefield and is open to the public. The land surrounding the church looks much like it would have in 1862.

Dunker Church (2014)
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

The Antietam National Battlefield is open year-round, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

[ Related Reading: Burnside Bridge at Antietam Battlefield - Then and Now ]

"Beacon of Peace" sign in front of Dunker Church
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved
Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam
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Location of Dunker Church

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302 W Main St, Sharpsburg, MD 21782, USA
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Bibliography

  1. "Who Were the Dunkers?." U.S. National Park Service. 11/02/2016 <Web >
  2. "Historic Photographs by Alexander Gardner." U.S. National Park Service. 11/02/2016 <Web >
  3. "Antietam Battlefield - Mumma Farm." U.S. National Park Service. 11/02/2016 <Web >
  4. "The Dunker Church." U.S. National Park Service. 11/02/2016 <Web >
  5. Alann Schmidt "Beacon of Peace: Antietam's Dunker Church." Antietam Journal. 8/01/2013. 11/02/2016 <Web >

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