As some of you might know from reading my bio (which I admit needs to be reworked), I’m interested in military history in general and the American Civil War (1861-1865) in particular. With the Civil War bicentennial in progress, it’s easy for anyone with even a slight interest in events to get caught up in rediscovering an era that changed the face of America. Thanks to Dan and some other Postcrossers; I’ve even started a Civil War postcard collection. Today’s post is thus a break from France and Japan and a trip across time and the Atlantic Ocean. Anthony and I have been fortunate enough to visit several Civil War sights and battlefields–Antietam, Gettysburg, Jamestown (featured in the Peninsular Campaign) and even Fort McHenry (better known for its role in the War of 1812 and the birth of the Star Spangled Banner). Today, I want to take you with me to a small town in western Maryland.
Despite two World Wars, several armed conflicts, and the advent of modern terrorism, September 17, 1862 remains the single bloodiest day in American history. At the end of the day, 23,000 Americans were killed, wounded or missing in and around the small farming town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Battle of Antietam or Sharpsburg was one of the turning points of the American Civil War and a part of the Maryland Campaign of 1862. (Depending on which sources you look at, the battle is named for the town, Sharpsburg, or the closest river, the Antietam.)
In the fall of 1862, Southern General Robert E. Lee sought to bring the war north for the first time. His goals were multiple–bring the war to the Union, bring Maryland, a Union state but divided in its loyalties, into the Southern ranks, gain supplies, and perhaps most importantly influence the upcoming Union elections. Lee and the South were riding a string of victories and he sought to capitalize on their successes by heading into Maryland with his confident troops. Following battles in South Mountain and Harper’s Ferry (captured by “Stonewall” Jackson), Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia met U.S. Major General George McClellan and his Army of the Potomac on the fields of Sharpsburg. Over 100,000 men fought during the one-day battle. While neither army withdrew from the field during the 12-hour long battle, the next day Lee withdrew his army back across the Potomac River into Virginia ending his first Northern invasion. President Lincoln used Antietam to launch the Emancipation proclamation–after Antietam the war was no longer just to preserve the Union but to end slavery as well. I won’t go into the details of the battle itself here, there are far better and more detailed websites for that.
Anthony and I visited Antietam along with Elise at that time 6 months old. The U.S. National Park Service maintains Antietam National Battlefield and cemetery. Admission is $4/person or $6/family, a real bargain when you look at all the Park Service offers to visitors. (You could easily not pay, however, cheating the park service seems a very pathetic act!) A car is a necessity–there is no public transportation available to the battlefield. We started our visit at the Visitor’s Center. You can pay for your admission here, get a park map and get oriented. The Visitor’s Center includes a small museum containing paintings of the battle and various artifacts–I would tend to call it a large exhibit–a gift shop, a theater and a conference/lecture space with a great view of the battlefield. The theater offers two programs. The first, Antietam Visit, is a 26-minute overview of the battle and President Lincoln’s visit to General McClellan at Sharpsburg. It is shown ever half hour during the day except at noon. The film is a reenactment of events with actors playing the roles of Lincoln and McClellan. Short, concise and well-done, the film easily sets the mood for the visit. Antietam Documentary a longer one-hour documentary as the name suggests is shown at noon. Narrated by James Earl Jones, it gives a more in-depth view of the battle and its political and military context. We ended up watching both films. I preferred the second for the simple reason that it was more detailed. While the films do depict the war, I didn’t find anything objectionable in them for an older child. Obviously, if you are visiting Antietam with your family, you are aware that you are visiting a battlefield and not Disney World. (Elise was a baby at the time and spent the two films nursing.)
Better than the documentaries, however, are the Park Ranger talks and guided visits. All talks are free! We chose a lecture on the aftermath of the battle. Our Ranger used stories, pictures, and photocopies of primary sources to bring the battle’s aftermath to life. The armies’ departure didn’t bring a close to the battle for the residents of Sharpsburg. Their homes and farms were destroyed, every available building for miles around was turned into a hospital and the dead bodies and animals remained to be buried. We looked at claims submitted by local farmers seeking to recoup their losses from the US government. Military historians sometimes forget or gloss over the civilian cost of war and our lecture was a well-presented reminder of the whole human cost of war. Elise was not as interested in the talk as we were but she was able to run around the entrance hallway while we took turns standing by the door. Between the films and the talk, we spent a fair amount of time in the Visitor’s Center. I don’t feel like this was a waste of time as it allowed us to walk the battlefield full of knowledge. The Visitor’s Center also has excellent bathroom facilities worth using before you leave. If you’re visiting with children, you can also pick up Junior Ranger packets (under-6, 6-8, 9-12). The packets mix history, questions and activities for your child (and you) to complete while visiting the battlefield. When your child has finished, they can turn it into a Park Ranger in exchange for an official Junior Ranger badge!
Our lecture ended with an invitation to follow our Ranger on an auto tour of the battlefield. You can visit the battlefield on your own by following the stops on the park map and reading along. A podcast is also available for download bringing the battle alive to anyone with an MP3 player. We chose to follow the Ranger; I’m a big fan of the human touch and they often point out anecdotes that don’t make it on to podcasts or written guides. Along with several other families/cars, we stopped at each official auto car stop and the Ranger explained the key actors and events of the main stages of the battle. Seeing the terrain in person, gives you a different feel than simply reading about it in a book. Perhaps the most striking example of this was Burnside’s Bridge. Standing at the bridge and looking up the hill, you have to wonder what the men were thinking when they were ordered to attack! This is one of those moments you can’t get in a history book. Military groups still tour the battlefield regularly. While a car is necessary to see the entire park, it would be a shame to come out and not walk around. The Park Service has multiple trails letting you explore various parts of the battle in more detail. The trails range in length from a short 1/4 mile loop starting and ending at the Visitor’s Center to two almost 2-mile long trails near Burnside’s Bridge.
Even families with small children can manage the 1/4-mile paved and stroller friendly walk while anyone in basic shape can handle the other nine walks which start at various places around the park. We managed three walks, including the paved one, with Elise in a baby carrier and weren’t out of breath. Considered an eyesore by some, the US Army observation tower offers a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield and is worth the climb–some say for the view, others say because it’s the only way you can look out and not see the tower! Another way to see the battlefield is with a bike. While not an option for us with Elise, I was rather jealous of the people exploring the park on their bicycles. Finally, a visit to the cemetery reminds one of the human cost of the war. We’re not historically ready for Lincoln’s Gettysburg address but Antietam’s ground is just as hallowed for me. Five years after the battle, it was a different president, President Johnson, who inaugurated the National Cemetery with the words, “When we look on yon battlefield, I think of the brave men who fell in the fierce struggle of battle, and who sleep silent in their graves. Yes, many of them sleep in silence and peace within this beautiful enclosure after the earnest conflict has ceased.” Their sacrifice at Antietam kept the Union in the war and helped lead to the end of slavery in the United States; they did not die in vain.