FREDERICK, Md. -- Long after the guns fell silent at Antietam, the earth yielded up gruesome reminders of the bloodiest day of the American Civil War: bodies, bones, buttons and entire severed limbs – one of which is now the focus of intense study at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
A Sharpsburg-area farmer is said to have found the human forearm while plowing a field two weeks after the 1862 battle.
Officials at the museum in Frederick, Md., are trying to learn more about the limb in hopes of verifying that it's a relic of the Battle of Antietam and exhibiting the well-preserved specimen during the battle's 150th anniversary in September.
The muddy-looking right forearm, with skin and hand attached, was donated anonymously to the museum earlier this year, said Executive Director George Wunderlich. It had been displayed for several decades at a private museum in Sharpsburg in a glass-topped, pine case with a placard reading, "Human arm found on the Antietam Battlefield."
Though there is little hope of identifying the young man who lost it, Wunderlich said forensic experts may be able to discern his nationality and whether the arm was, as Wunderlich suspects, torn from his body by a bullet or artillery round.
"Being able to put the story of this unknown person before this country is very important to us," Wunderlich said. "His remains will tell a story that will relate us back to his sacrifice. This was what they gave for what they believed. If done properly, it's a very poignant story."
The unidentified farmer who found the limb put it in a barrel of brine, according to Thomas McGrath's 1997 book, "Maryland September: True Stories from the Antietam Campaign." The farmer reportedly gave it to a Boonsboro physician, who is said to have more permanently preserved it with embalming fluid.
The arm eventually ended up in a private museum that was sold in the 1960s to John G. Ray Jr. After Ray died in 2001, his widow had the museum's contents sold at an auction, according to battlefield historian Ted Alexander.
Alexander grew up nearby and remembers seeing the arm on display.
"It was quite an attraction," he said. "It was macabre and something to see as kid."
The arm's owner was probably a small man less than 20 years old, said William Gardner, a former Marshall University forensic medicine instructor who examined it in March.
Since the elbow joint is undamaged, with no surgical saw marks, the arm was likely removed somewhere between the shoulder and elbow, he said. The forearm skin and tendons appear to have been violently twisted.
The battlefield's history and geography offer clues about how a solitary arm could end up buried in a farm field.
"That entire battle took place in people's fields, their yards," Gardner said.
The pivotal clash on Sept. 17, 1862, left more than 23,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing in the war's bloodiest one-day battle. Historians say some were blown to bits by the furious gunfire. Many were buried were they fell, their shallow graves crudely marked for their eventual removal to cemeteries.
Some remains were never retrieved. In 2009, a battlefield visitor found bone fragments and uniform buttons of an unknown soldier from New York state. But it's rare to find bones still covered with skin.
"It is really an impressive piece," Gardner said.
Museum curator Lori Eggleston said she's keeping the arm dry and handling it as little as possible on the advice of experts at the Mutter Museum, run by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
Wunderlich said he hopes to have a Smithsonian Institution forensic anthropologist examine the arm for clues about the owner's diet and origin.
Battlefield Superintendent Susan Trail said the arm can't be displayed at the Antietam visitor center because the National Park Service generally forbids displaying human remains. But she said the medical museum could display it at the Pry House, a field hospital site that the museum runs on the battlefield.
"I'm sure the museum will do a very nice job with what they do with it," Trail said. "When you think about it, it's pretty awful what happened here – and you just multiply it many, many times over."