Monday, February 19, 2007

Sneak Peak. . .The New Union Advance Trail at Antietam

I am having the time of my life as a ranger at the Antietam Battlefield. Honestly, a dream of mine has come true. I've been traveling to Civil War battlefields since I was kid, and I remember thinking "it must be the coolest job in the world to be a park ranger." I especially remember being twelve years old and being a part of Ranger Troy Harman's Pickett's Charge tour at Gettysburg; I remember one of the greatest ranger interpretations I ever heard at Guinea the house where Stonewall Jackson died. The ranger dramatically telling the story of Jackson's final days and last moments in that room, with the steady ticking of a clock on the mantle. Even before I graduated from college and even before I finished with my master's program, I've applied for ranger positions. I have a file with about two dozen rejection letters...and then, last May, I received the certified letter in the mail and I knew what that meant: a life's dream had come true.

Every day I spend at Antietam is great, and I stop to think quite often about how lucky I am to be working there and to be working alongside some of the best rangers the National Park Service has to offer.

In addition to providing talks and tours, one of the best things about the position is helping interpret the battle for years to come, and this past month I was honored by a fellow ranger when he asked me to help develop the walking trail brochure for the new Union Advance Trail at Antietam.

My good buddy and colleague, Ranger Mannie Gentile, has documented in his excellent My Year of Living Rangerously blog the progress of this new trail, and I highly encourage anyone who has not yet seen his blog to do so at:

Ranger Keith Snyder (one of the very best at any National Park) and I have worked together to create the trail text and brochure, and today I received in my mail a copy of the first, rough draft.

This new trail will tell the story of the 9th Corps's attempts to carry the Burnside Bridge, and Keith and I resolved to use this trail and brochure to help correct the general belief that Burnside was a bungler at Antietam. One of the most frequently asked questions at the park is: Was Burnside an idiot? I try to remind the visitors that Burnside had an incredibly difficult task in carrying that position given the nature of the terrain and the poor intelligence he received from higher up. There was no possible way a large-scale attack could have occured there; instead the ground permitted only small, regimental size assaults, which seriously hindered chances of success. I also point out that Robert E. Lee was no fool, and if he believed the bridge would have been as easily taken as many today believe, he would have assigned more than just a skeletal force of Georgians to defend it. I also remind them that Burnside's plan was to create diversionary attacks at the bridge, to keep the Georgians pinned down while 1/3 of his command (Rodman's Division) was sent downstream to cross the creek at a more favorable spot and outflank the Confederate troops on the high bluffs and rifle pits west of and looking down on the bridge. And if the visitor is not yet convinced, I add that the water at the creek was too deep to be waded to any effect and that one of the first attempts to carry the bridge (Captain John Griswold's, leading Company A, 11th CT) failed when he attempted such a crossing. And if the visitor still thinks Burnside was an incompetent officer, I point out that he led the only, yes, the only, Union attack at Antietam that was more than one division in strength, and that he had come very close to smashing Lee's right flank late that afternoon had it not been for the timely arrival of A.P. Hill's men from Harper's Ferry.

Keith and I are hoping, then, that Burnside will be given more credit, and are hoping that the new Union Advance Trail and brochure will help correct the general impression of, in my opinion, a much maligned Civil War figure.

The new trail will have six stops. Each of the Union attacks on the bridge, including the one led by General Nagle of the 48th PA, will be explained. So when you make your way to Antietam this spring and this summer, be sure to take advantage of this, and the other new trails that we are opening at the battlefield.

The cover of the Union Advance Trail brochure features the excellent artwork of Don Troiani.

See you at Antietam!

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