Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Memorial Day Battlefield Tour

This summer will mark my third at Antietam National Battlefield, although it still seems like just yesterday when I first came on board. With the weather at last realizing that we are, indeed, in the midst of spring, the park's visitation has increased and it is safe to say that we are back in the full "swing of things." This past weekend was an especially busy one at the park. It was, of course, Memorial Day Weekend, and the weather was perfect. There was a full schedule of programs and presentations, including the season's first ranger-led, two and a half hour long, battlefield tours. This is easily my favorite program to give and, as we are fond of saying, it is the best way to see the field and learn about the battle. Last summer, I provided an even sixty of such programs, with the most memorable on September 17, the battle's 145th Anniversary.
When I arrived at work on Saturday, I discovered that I would leading the battlefield tour on Monday, Memorial Day. Because it has been many months since I last presented the battlefield tour, I feared that I would be a little bit rusty. I thus spent the ensuing two days getting reacquainted with the themes, the anecdotal stories, and the necessary preliminaries, i.e. making sure the park's van had plenty of gas. Monday arrived and found the park buzzing with visitors. By 10:00 a.m., the overflow parking lot was already filling up. I knew I would have a large group. Then, around 1:25 p.m., I made the first announcement: "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Antietam National Battlefield. This is just a reminder that coming up in a few minutes we will begin our two-hour long, ranger-led tour of the battlefield. To learn more about the Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam, please make your way to the Observation Room for this two-hour long battlefield tour." After another such announcement, I grabbed my photographs of Lee, McClellan, and A.P. Hill and headed on upstairs. The observation room was crowded, and although I've delivered hundreds of presentations to groups both large and small over the past three years, I could not help but get a little nervous. But after the customary "Good afternoon" and "I'd like to welcome you once again to the park. . .," I was right back in full tour mode.
There were about 80, maybe 85, visitors on the tour, following behind me in about 30 vehicles, as I made my way to the Cornfield, Sunken Road, and Burnside Bridge. Now, over the years I have had my share of inspiring and truly memorable moments. . .last summer's tour on the battle's anniversary for one. But yesterday witnessed another. There was a reflective, even somber mood among the group, as those in attendance realized they were at the Antietam National Battlefield--the scene of America's most sanguinary and bloodiest single-day battle--on Memorial Day. Then, at 3:00 p.m., just as my group settled in the Sunken Road, the time had arrived to observe the nation-wide moment of silence. "Ladies and Gentleman, this being Memorial Day, the National Park Service asks that we join together in a moment of silent remembrance as we reflect upon the service of those men and women of the American armed forces who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms while serving in the line of duty."
It was a profound moment. . .unlike any I have ever before felt at the battlefield.


Anonymous said...

Hoop-ti-da!!! Back in business. Glad you had a great program John. I got to do the cemetery program in the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg on Memorial Day. What a thrill. See you soon!

John C. Nicholas

John David Hoptak said...

We're all waiting for you to come on back from "that other battlefield. . .45 miles or so northeast of Antietam." Did anything important happen there?