- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007

Make your way to the battlefield at Antietam, the site of the bloodiest single battle in American history, and you are struck by the sense of difference.

This is no Gettysburg. No visual cacophony of fast-food places and souvenir shops patrol the approaches to the nearby town of Sharpsburg, no traffic jams clog the main street, no competing businesses offer up everything from ghost tours of the battlefield to “homemade” fudge.

Instead, there’s mostly silence.

“We think it’s kind of a nice thing that cell phones and BlackBerrys don’t work particularly well out here,” says John Howard, superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield.

Monday will mark the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, which prompted Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and put an end to the Confederacy’s hopes for recognition by the European powers.

The nearby town of Sharpsburg will commemorate the battle and its own considerable history with a Heritage Day festival on Saturday. And a new battlefield guide program, created by the Western Maryland Interpretive Association in partnership with the National Park Service, allows visitors to tailor a battlefield tour based on their own interests, whether they are visiting Sharpsburg this weekend or another time.

Old scene, new look

If you haven’t been to Antietam lately, you’ll find a wide range of new services, including self-guided trails, better signage, wildlife guides and even podcasts, all designed to get people out of their cars and into the thick of things.

“In a perfect world, the Park Service could cover everything,” Mr. Howard says. “But we simply don’t have a staff large enough to do that.”

Instead, highly trained and carefully vetted battlefield guides can take you where you want to go. Standard tours last a couple of hours, but it’s possible to book a guide for the entire day.

“It’s so compelling to walk the battlefield,” says Rosalyn Davidoff, visiting from Brighton, Mass., with her husband and son, a student at Brown University. The family signed up for a three-hour tour with battlefield guide Randy Buchman.

“It really sent shivers up my spine,” says Ms. Davidoff, who notes that her husband “was” the real Civil War buff in the family. “Now, knowing the bravery on both sides, it’s just incredible that people did this.”

Lee on the march

The statistics alone are staggering: 23,000 casualties on both sides, 12,500 after 2½ hours of fighting. Two times the number of killed and wounded than in any 19th-century U.S. war. Twenty Medal of Honor winners. But statistics alone can’t begin to tell the story.

Picture two sizable cities moving across the countryside and eating along the way. That’s what it was like if you lived in the path of one of the great armies that were headed to Antietam in early September 1862.

If you were like most folk in Maryland, you probably took down your flags, hid your valuables, stored your food and hoped for the best. If you were black, you had an added anxiety; Robert E. Lee’s invading army seized most black people who came their way, whether enslaved or free, and shipped them South into slavery, writes Richard Stevens in “Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery.”

“Lee doesn’t get an enthusiastic welcome in Maryland,” Mr. Buchman says. “The German population here was oriented toward Lancaster, Pennsylvania, not the South.”

But, Mr. Buchman explains, Lee had clear reasons for going into Maryland, including picking up volunteers, influencing the midterm elections, spurring European recognition of the Confederacy and quite possibly, provoking Southern sympathizers in the North to sue for peace.

And not incidentally, he hoped to allow Southern farmers, who had born the brunt of his army’s foraging, to bring in their crops.

McClellan’s luck

Meanwhile, his counterpart, U.S. Major Gen. George McClellan, never the most canny of commanders, knew nothing of all this until some Indiana volunteers found Lee’s plans for Confederate troop movements wrapped around three cigars mysteriously left in a field of clover in Frederick, Md., on Sept. 13.

“It was a one-in-a-million chance,” says Hari Jones, assistant director of the African American Civil War Memorial Museum in Washington. “Who left them is one of those questions that plague history.”

Thanks to information gained from the plans, which showed Lee’s forces strung out between Hagerstown and Harpers Ferry, McClellan moved his troops west to South Mountain, where the Battle of South Mountain was fought on Sept. 14.

It was here that Union Gen. Jesse Lee Reno, for whom the District’s Fort Pennsylvania in Tenleytown was renamed, was killed in action. You can see the Reno monument, erected in 1889 by veterans of his IX Corps, on the way to the battlefield.

The next day, Confederate forces seized the arsenal town of Harpers Ferry, along with 12,419 U.S. troops, the largest surrender of U.S. forces until the capitulation in the Philippines during World War II. Ultimately, Lee decided to concentrate his troops on the high ground near Antietam Creek for a showdown.

Visualizing the clash

What followed is much more than the standard depiction of maneuvers around the familiar elements of the battle: the Dunker Church, Bloody Lane and Burnside Bridge. Even the photographs of Alexander Gardner, who arrived just two days afterward, can’t quite capture the human scope of the story, where the dead lay three bodies deep, “like grass before the scythe.”

That’s where guides like Mr. Buchman come in. He has visitors line up and march across the uneven landscape, showing how difficult it would have been for troops to see each other or know exactly where they were headed.

To parse out the various phases of the battle, he uses examples like “cups and grasshoppers” to help visitors understand why so little seemed to go right — for both sides. The grasshoppers are the small forces of soldiers sent out by commanders to take a particular area: the cups — usually not quite full enough — are the forces their opponents used to sweep them off the stage.

He talks about four “bumps,” — the four main artillery dispositions — to help visitors orient themselves to important stages of the battle.

“Now it all makes sense to me,” says Ms. Davidoff’s husband Marc Hornick, who has spent the bulk of his after-tour time reading a book of personal accounts of the battle he picked up at the battlefield’s bookshop. “It was a real step back in time.”

The human stories

Mr. Buchman usually concludes at the National Battlefield Cemetery, which memorializes the U.S. troops who fell here.

“You really want to make something that people will understand at a human level,” says Mr. Buchman, a pastor at Tri-State Fellowship in Hagerstown. “Some of the great stories in history are right here.”

It’s often these stories that have the most impact on visitors, like misunderstood orders at Bloody Lane, or the Union infantryman trying desperately to save the colors after the regular bearer had been shot down.

“We’re telling tales of humanity, that’s what we’re really talking about,” says Mr. Howard, who notes that Antietam, with the commanders stationed miles away from the action, was much less a general’s battle than some others.

The moral high ground

In the end, Lee retreated under cover of darkness back to Virginia. This “victory” gave Lincoln the impetus he needed to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation just five days later.

While the Emancipation Proclamation freed only those enslaved people in states currently in rebellion, thus ensuring that border states like Maryland would remain in the Union, it shifted the war from one to preserve the Union to a crusade against slavery.

With the U.S. taking the moral high ground, the Confederate cause among the European nations was, for all intents and purposes, lost. So, too was the institution of slavery, as black people throughout the slave states fled to U.S. garrisons and the protection of the Union troops.

“The Emancipation Proclamation has done more for us here than all our former victories and all our diplomacy,” wrote Henry Adams from Britain, where he had accompanied his father, Charles Francis Adams, Lincoln’s minister, to the Court of St. James.

Sharpsburg takes the brunt

The town of Sharpsburg had its own view of the battle — literally — and later had to grapple with the aftermath. Named for a Colonial governor of Maryland and somewhat bustling in the decades before the Civil War, Sharpsburg was home to canal boat captains and middling farmers and a small but significant black population.

In October 1866, black residents of the town laid the cornerstone for Tolson’s Chapel; the building was later used as a Freedmen’s Bureau school and is currently being restored by a group of Sharpsburg citizens.

Other families did not fare so well. The Pry family, whose farmhouse had been used as McClellan’s headquarters and a field hospital, never were able recoup their losses and moved to Tennessee. Today, the family farmstead is operated as the Pry Field Hospital Museum, a branch of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick.

Teresa Kretzer was one Sharpsburg resident who had her own encounter with the oncoming Confederates, says historian Edie Wallace. A staunch Unionist who had little truck with Southern sympathizers, Kretzer had her own way of dealing with the enemy.

“The Confederates tried to make her take down the flag,” says Ms. Wallace, who is putting together the Heritage Day program for the Sharpsburg Historical Society. “So she buried it and set it out again during the battle. People said she was the bravest girl in Sharpsburg.”

Others were more evenhanded. Dr. Augustin Biggs, whose stone house still stands complete with shell hole, tended to the wounded of both sides during the conflict.

“Just about every church in town became a field hospital,” Ms. Wallace says.

BlackBerrys begone

Today, the town of Sharpsburg is quiet, quieter perhaps than it was before that bloody September morning. It has become the most quintessential of American small towns, actively keeping out the fast food and fudge.

“We’ve worked hard at keeping it a small town where people live,” Ms. Wallace says.

So you’ll still see some of the late-18th-century stone buildings when you stroll through town, and you may even get a smile and a nod from the people who live there. Even the alleys are mainly intact with the kind of decorated outbuildings you might have seen in the late 19th century.

Of course, there are a few welcome additions, like Nutter’s Ice Cream, “the best thing about Sharpsburg,” according to Mr. Buchman.

In the end, though, the pull of the past is ever present in Sharpsburg, where even a stroll through the old Lutheran cemetery in town can reveal much about what it was like to live before cell phones and BlackBerrys.

“It’s always been quiet here,” Ms. Wallace says, “and it hasn’t changed a lot.”

Antietam commemoration weekend

If you plan to visit Antietam Battlefield and Sharpsburg, here are a few things to help you make the most of your time:

1. Traveling on U.S. Alternate 40 rather than Interstate 70 will take you along much the same path as some Civil War troops. There are plenty of roadside markers to read along the way, particularly as you approach South Mountain.

2. Antietam National Battlefield, 5831 Dunker Church Road, Sharpsburg. Open from Labor Day to Memorial Day. 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Phone: 301/432-5124. Three-day pass: $4 per person, $6 per family.

Audiovisual program: “Antietam Visit,” an award-winning film, is shown on the hour. Every day at noon, a new one-hour documentary about the battle of Antietam narrated by James Earl Jones is shown in the visitor center theater.

3. If you’d like a tour with a battlefield guide who will go with you in your car or bus, call toll-free at 866/461-5180. You can also book online at www.antietammuseumstore.com. Rates start at $50 for a standard two-hour tour for one to six persons, with additional fees for longer tours or more participants.

4. Special events are planned for the anniversary weekend. Highlights include artillery demonstrations, guided hikes, musical performances and lectures. Click on www.nps.gov/anti/planyourvisit/2007-battle-anniversary-schedule.htm for complete schedule of events.

5. On Sept. 14 at 7 p.m., follow the steps of the Iron Brigade at the Battle of South Mountain. Meet at South Mountain Inn parking lot along Alternate Route 40. Phone: 301/432-8065.

6. Sharpsburg Heritage Day is on Sept. 15, with South Mechanic Street closed to traffic between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Historic craft demonstrations, vendors and food concessions will be featured. Highlights include:

10 a.m. and 2 p.m. guided walking tour “Sharpsburg Hospital Sites after the Battle of Antietam,” $10. All day self-guided tours with tour book, $5.

A series of lectures between 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. at spots around town, including discussions of President Lincoln’s visit to Antietam, newspaper coverage of the battle, and Mount Pleasant, the estate owned by Sharpsburg founder Joseph Chapline.

Music includes performances by Pennsylvania Wildcat Regiment Band (U.S.), the 2nd Maryland Fife and Drum Corps (CSA), the Antietam Women’s Ensemble and a “battle of the bands” following the Remberance Ceremony at noon.

Evening activities include a Pig Roast at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, an Alley Walk with the 2nd Maryland Fife and Drum Corps, and “American Hymns/Appalachian Hoedowns” at St. Paul’s Church.

For more information, go to www.sharpsburghistoricalsociety.org.

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