Monday, September 17, 2012

A Trip to Antietam for the 150th Anniversary

Today marks the 150th anniversary of Antietam.  A whirlwind of activity has surrounded the Sesquicentennial commemoration of America's bloodiest day.  I wanted to make it to Antietam National Battlefield this morning, but other obligations got in the way.  That being said, I was fortunate to spend my entire Saturday immersed in 150th events on and near the battlefield.  The day was even more special because my Father joined me.  It was only four years ago that he was gravely ill and unable to travel to my bachelor party outing to Antietam.

My Dad and I left early on Saturday and drove straight to the 150th reenactment of Antietam.  We made good time, until we reached the two-lane country road leading to the farm where the event was being held.  For whatever reason, traffic management left a lot to be desired, and we sat in line for close to thirty minutes before finally entering the site and parking.  Even with the long wait, we had enough time prior to the reenactment to wander through sutler's row and tour the encampments.  The weather was pleasant and cool, a far cry from the high temperatures and humidity of last summer's Manassas events.

I had the opportunity to see and hear the 2nd South Carolina String Band before the reenactment.  Their performance of Bonnie Blue Flag was a highlight of the event.
The battle reenactment that I attended focused on Union Gen. George S. Greene's fight to take the area around the Dunker Church.  (Bloody Lane and Burnside Bridge were reenacted at other times over the weekend.)  This event paled in size when compared to the reenactment of First Manassas last year.  Those who witnessed that large-scale reenactment may never be able to look at another one the same way again.  I pondered why this event was smaller.  Perhaps nothing could match the draw of participating in the first major reenactment of the Sesquicentennial.  Or maybe the scheduling of another Antietam reenactment a few weeks before had something to do with it.  Regardless, the Antietam reenactors put on a solid performance, and the artillery demonstration was particularly impressive.  Before long, however, I found myself growing restless to walk the actual ground where the armies clashed, and after another stop at the Civil War "shopping mall" that is sutler's row, we headed down the road to the National Battlefield.

Not everything was faithful to the time period.  These artillery reenactors moved their pieces into position using pick up trucks....

....although some did it the old-fashioned way!
Union regiments on the way to the field.  Unfortunately, the massive power lines overhead provided another reminder of modern times.

Union troops stream past Dunker Church in the distance.  The event organizers constructed a half-size replica of the historic structure for the reenactment.

Union and Confederates battle around Dunker Church and the West Woods.  At this point, the numbers of "dead" and "wounded" were starting to accumulate on the field, but of course, nothing could ever recapture the true carnage of Antietam. 
The National Battlefield seemed even more crowded than the reenactment.  We had to park close to a mile from the Visitor Center, where the National Park Service had set up various displays and living history demonstrations.  I was truly overwhelmed by the multitude of activities available to us throughout the park, but given time constraints, we had to choose wisely.  

After a brief lunch, my Dad and I checked out the detailed paintings of the battle by James Hope in the Visitor Center.  We then stepped inside the real Dunker Church to listen to a lecture on divided Maryland during the Civil War.  Although I was familiar with much of the story, the Park Ranger was an incredible speaker and managed to capture perfectly the complexity of slavery and loyalties in the Old Line State.  As I listened to his speech, artillery fire cause the wooden floor beneath my feet to vibrate, and carried me, however briefly, back to the day of the fight.

Union reenactors file past the Dunker Church after finishing a living history demonstration near the Visitor Center.
My Dad and I decided to do a quick tour of the battlefield.  I've visited Antietam several times before, and I took my first trip there as as a young lad of twelve.  This past Saturday I wanted to visit the hallowed ground once again and just reflect on the meaning of the place.  I will get back for more detailed tours in the future, but this was about "being there" and commemorating a meaningful anniversary with thousands of other Americans.   

We hit all the main stops, including the North Woods, the Cornfield, Bloody Lane, and Burnside Bridge.  We also visited the Pry House, site of Gen. George McClellan's headquarters.  My Dad and I opted to drive rather than take the Park Service shuttle buses.  Good thing.  The long lines at shuttle stops and the scarcity of buses reassured us that driving was likely the better choice. 

The Cornfield, site of intensely brutal fighting on the morning of September 17. 

Confederate infantry demonstration at Bloody Lane.  The National Park Service scheduled several living history events throughout the battlefield.
As always, the tour of the battlefield was a powerful experience.  There is something about that place. I really feel connected to the past when I am there, and this time was no different.  I can't help but tear up when I look at the hills and fields at Antietam.   I am sure others have similar emotions.  Even with all the crowds, I could still sense a cathedral-like quiet as I walked around.

A reproduction of a Civil War ambulance at the Pry House.  The Pry Barn (behind the ambulance) served as a field hospital at Antietam, primarily for the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac.  The National Museum of Civil War Medicine now runs a Field Hospital Museum at the site.
A living historian portraying an "embalming surgeon."  Now I've seen it all.  For the 150th anniversary, the Pry House also hosted several living history demonstrations related to Civil War field medicine.  My Dad even extracted a Minie ball from a "leg" inside the Pry Barn--I will spare readers the picture!

Through a stroke of luck, I arrived at Burnside Bridge just as Park Ranger and fellow blogger Mannie Gentile began an overview lecture on the action occurring at the site.  Mannie's presentation was both insightful and stirring.  I don't think I've ever seen such a captivated audience listening to a Park Ranger.  The National Park Service lectures that I heard on Saturday featured slavery and fight for emancipation as a prominent part of the story.
Looking down at Burnside Bridge over Antietam Creek.  Gen. Ambrose Burnside's men eventually pushed across the bridge when Confederate resistance began to weaken.
After our rapid-fire tour of the battlefield, my Dad and I began our trek back to the DC suburbs.  I reflected on the day.  Americans have chosen to remember Antietam in a variety of ways, from reenactments and living history demonstrations to battlefield tours and lectures.  Not all commemorative activities have equal appeal to all people. But I couldn't help but feel moved that whatever our means of remembering the past, we as a nation haven't forgotten the important sacrifices made outside Sharpsburg after 150 years.


Age of Reason said...

Nice post and pics. Really impressed with the NPS park rangers. My experience is limited but the ones I have listened to are really good speakers and historians...

John Rudy said...

Thanks for stopping by this weekend. Glad you enjoyed the talk in the Dunker Church. I wish I'd known it was you in the crowd! I'm hoping to capture a version of that talk and get it up online soon.

Ron Baumgarten said...

@Age of Reason--Thanks, Rufino. We will need to do a tour together one of these days at Antietam. You'd really like the place. And I agree completely. The Park Rangers at the battlefields are some of our best civil servants!

Ron Baumgarten said...

@John--Glad to be among the visitors at Antietam, and thanks again for your great lecture. My Dad and I really enjoyed it. I should have introduced myself afterwards! And I look forward to seeing the talk on-line.