- The Washington Times - Monday, November 27, 2000

Over two unseasonably warm September days almost 140 years ago, 45,000 armed men waded through the Potomac River into Montgomery County, Md., looking for a fight.

Twelve days and 70 miles later, they found it.

On Sept. 17, 1862, near Antietam Creek, 26,000 men were killed or wounded in the darkest hour of Maryland's history and the bloodiest single day of the Civil War.

Now the state's Office of Tourism and Development is putting perspective on the circumstances that led to the confrontation by blazing a trail that will recreate that meandering first invasion of the North by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia.

"The stories on the back roads are the stories of the humans, what the young soldiers encountered, the impact on the towns," says Marci Ross, resources development manager for the Maryland Office of Tourism and Development.

The trail, called "Antietam Campaign: Lee Invades Maryland," is intended to capture the story behind the battle.

It will begin at White's Ferry in Poolesville, about two miles from the point where Lee entered the state, travel on roadways that are descendants of the paths taken by the Confederate army, and end in Sharpsburg at the site of the Battle of Antietam.

Susan Soderberg, author of "A Guide to Civil War Sites in Maryland," is one of about 10 historians contracted to develop a unified presentation of interpretive markers at 33 sites along the trail.

Ms. Soderberg says this is "something that's been needed for a long time" because people who've lived here all their lives don't realize what happened in their own backyard.

She has identified 260 Civil War sites across the state, some of which are visitor-ready and some of which are not. It is hoped that linking the sites will create trails that reflect chronological and historical events that occurred during the Civil War in Maryland.

Signs featuring a red bugle will guide motorists to 33 sites along the road route, such as Best Grove, where Lee's Special Order No. 191 detailing the Confederate battle strategy was found by a Union soldier wrapped around three cigars, tipping the balance of the coming conflict.

Other interpretive markers will follow the march through Montgomery County, Frederick County, the city of Frederick, Washington County and the city of Hagerstown.

The markers are about 2 feet by 3 feet, placed about 34 inches off the ground. Referred to as "pedestal signs," they contain maps, graphics and about 250 words apiece on the significance of each site.

In addition, 11 waysides will take advantage of mostly pre-existing parking areas and, according to the proposal, "compel the traveler off of the highways to tour byways and visit sites where events actually occurred."

Ms. Ross says the travel market is "ripe for this kind of tourism-enhancement project," noting that the trail will allow tourists to stray from some of the waysides on foot, by water or bicycle toward other attractions.

Maryland is modeling its trail design after Virginia's extensive network of Civil War trails and hopes to integrate them with others in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

Mitch Bowman, executive director of Virginia Civil War Trails, a nonprofit group, says his organization has overseen the placement of markers like those to be used in Maryland at 199 sites across Virginia and built 50 vehicle-accessible waysides in the last five years.

He says Maryland's Office of Tourism and Development came to Virginia with its idea for the trail, liked Virginia's design, and the organizations decided to work in partnership since many of the campaigns spill across their borders.

Five Civil War trails are laid out already in Virginia, three of them in chronological order. Lee vs. Grant and Lee's Retreat can be traveled back to back, their combined 77 stops punctuating a 234-mile route.

But Mr. Bowman says this is just the beginning. Markers for 50 additional sites have been funded and have yet to be built in Virginia.

"What we want to do is create an absolutely seamless travel experience for the visitor," Mr. Bowman says. He says people don't care what county they're in, but they want to follow a good, sound story line.

Also planned for Maryland are trails that recreate Gen. Lee's invasion and retreat from Gettysburg, Pa., as well as John Wilkes Booth's flight from Ford's Theatre after he assassinatedPresident Lincoln in April 1865.

But aside from the historical value, the trail is expected to bring people to places in the state that wouldn't normally be considered tourist destinations.

Andrew Johnson, president of the city commissioners of Poolesville, described the trail in a public meeting as "an opportunity to not only increase educational awareness, but also to provide economic stimulus for people who maybe don't understand as they travel through the area the historical significance."

Beallsville, Md., resident Frank Jamison will have an interpretive marker located on his property and sees the value both as a real estate agent and as a Civil War buff.

"If this gives the opportunity for prospective clients to pull on my lot, read about the Civil War and get enthralled with the area, they don't have to look far to find a Realtor," Mr. Jamison says.

In fact, Mr. Bowman says that heritage tourists stay longer and spend more in Virginia than others do.

He cites a Department of Economic Development survey, which estimates that Virginia's Civil War car route brings in $66 per day per person in tourism funds, compared to the $42 per day per person from what the department terms other "pleasure-seeking visitors."

The Antietam trail project will cost about $1.1 million "to put the trail into the ground." Of that, $689,530 comes from an award of highway enhancement funds from the Department of Transportation. The Office of Tourism and Development will cover the rest of the cost.

The first markers are expected to be placed around the summer of 2001, with completion timed to coincide with the 140th anniversary of the battle of Antietam in September 2002.

But in a larger sense, the trail tourists will follow doesn't just end at a battle site.

Five days after Lee's invasion was turned back in Sharpsburg, Md., a heartened President Lincoln was inspired by the Union victory to issue a warning, declaring all slaves in the states of rebellion would be freed.

While the war would drag on for more than 2 and 1/2 more years, on Jan. 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

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