SHARPSBURG, Md. — Cutting through a cornfield where soldiers were literally blown to bits on the bloodiest day of the Civil War, a hiker spied something near a groundhog hole: fragments of bone and a metal button, clotted with red clay.
He brought the remains to the visitors center at Antietam National Battlefield, where they were turned over to experts who made a stunning discovery: They belonged to a Union soldier from New York state.
The remarkable find 146 years after the soldier died is a reminder that the battlefield at Antietam is "ground that was basically changed forever by what happened on it," park superintendent John Howard said Thursday.
Many of the nearly 3,700 soldiers killed in the pivotal 1862 battle were buried in nearby cemeteries five years later, but the New York soldier's remains were overlooked until now.
The handful of bone fragments, iron uniform buttons and U.S. belt buckle help bring into focus the story that battlefield rangers strive to tell.
"These armies were made up of people, of men who fought here," Howard said.
The soldier's identity may remain a mystery. Howard said he was young, probably between 19 and 21, based on the condition of teeth in a recovered jawbone. A National Park Service archaeologist and Smithsonian Institution anthropologist were the ones who confirmed he was a soldier.
And he apparently was no fresh recruit. Five iron buttons found along with textile fragments included some from a coat issued in New York and others bearing the "Excelsior" slogan of federal uniforms, an indication that he had served long enough to replace the lost originals.
The soldier could have served in any of 24 New York regiments that fought in the field where fierce small-arms and artillery fire obliterated cornstalks and men alike. About 23,100 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or declared missing at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862. Days later, the dead were buried less than 3 feet deep in the rocky soil, marked by crude wooden headboards.
Five years later, most were dug up and reburied — the Union soldiers at the Antietam National Cemetery and the Confederates in nearby towns.