Friday, September 18, 2009

Some Thoughts On Antietam's 147th Anniversary

Antietam: 2009 Battle Anniversary
(All-Day Hikers)
{Photo from Craig Swain's To The Sound of the Guns}

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Yesterday was the 147th Anniversary of the battle of Antietam, and a truly memorable day for me. I have had the great privilege to serve at Antietam for the past four years and I have had many an incredible, inspiring, and humbling moment on the battlefield. I still remember my first tour, my first Illumination, turning thirty at the Burnside Bridge. . .but yesterday, for the first time, I helped lead the all-day, battle anniversary hikes. The day began at 4:00 a.m. when I woke to a light drizzle. The hour-long drive was eerily quiet; it seemed I was the only one on the road. When I arrived at the battlefield at 6:00, I was the first one there. It was dark and foggy, the rain still falling, and all was quiet. To describe what it was like to witness the first gray lights of dawn on the battlefield on the anniversary of the battle is impossible. My colleagues, Rangers Brian Baracz and Keith Snyder, arrived a short time later and we prepared for our first hike, Morning in the Cornfield. The rain picked up, but it did not deter a crowd of nearly seventy from turning out to walk through the historic cornfield as Keith related the story of the fight, and Brian and I read first-hand accounts penned by those who survived the bloodletting. A somber mood prevailed for the duration of the program. The rain finally ended and after an hour-long break, we all convened once more at the New York State Monument, ready for the eight-hour, eight mile hike before us. In the morning, I was charged with telling the story of Edwin Sumner and the men of his Second Corps. We followed in the footsteps of Sedgwick's Division into the West Woods, then French and Richardson at the Sunken Road, all the while tramping over the same ground and at the same time of day during which the action occurred. Brian took the lead in telling of the First and Twelfth Union Corps and the Confederate troops in the Cornfield and Sunken Road; Keith told the stories of those who received the Medal of Honor for their distinguished gallantry. He also read aloud the list of Confederate soldiers who were chosen to be included in the Roll of Honor. The afternoon witnessed us hiking the southern portion of the field. Brian narrated the actions of the Federal Fifth Corps and the struggle for possession of the Burnside Bridge; I took the lead in telling of the Ninth Corps's final attack and its repulse at the hands of A.P. Hill, while Keith continued to pay tribute to those who went above and beyond the call of duty. The day ended at 5:15 in the National Cemetery, an exhausting day, but one I will always remember. Every now and then, I am reminded of just how fortunate I am to be doing what I love; to work at America's most pristine, best preserved battlefield park, honoring those who fought and those who died while presenting the story of the battle and interpreting its significance to the story of this nation. Yesterday was one of those times. As long as I live, I will remember helping guide the battlefield hikes on the anniversary of the battle for the very first time.


Nyogtha said...

The first (and last time, but not for long) I was there I was just breath taken. I went there on a trip with my parents and my great uncle who is our family historian, we went there after our three day stay in Gettysburg for the 144th anniversary of the battle. I am the great great great nephew of George B. McClellan. We went there and I had such a heavy feeling in my chest, especially at the sunken road (since I am of Irish decent and born in the south, both sides of the coin). I loved that place so much, it was over cast and kinda just added to the feel of it all.

Marker Hunter said...

John, You and the others gave an excellent tour. There is something special about being on the field on the anniversary. This was my second of these and I hope to continue in years to come.

Jim Rosebrock said...

I echo your sentiments. It was a terrific hike. Thanks to you, Brian, and Keith for all your preparation. It was enjoyed by all! You are right about having a role at Antietam. For me as a volunteer, it is a great privelege to work there and get to know the likes of you and all the other dedicated rangers there. My hat is off to you. Thanks
Jim Rosebrock

dehbird76 said...


This was my third anniversary hike, and I probably enjoyed it more than any other. I had never hiked the southern portion of the field (except, of course, for Burnside Bridge); walking that ground certainly opened up a whole new Antietam for me. Personally, I enjoyed your mini-bio of Burnside and his hard lot in life. It was great to get a more human perspective of the oft-blamed general. Thank you so much for your hard work and dedication. I very much look forward to next time! -Dylan

John David Hoptak said...

Thanks, all, for your kind words.
Jim: We need to plan a day for a tramp around Gettysburg!
Dylan: Glad you enjoyed my depiction on Old Burn; like I said, he was one of those guys that if something could go wrong, it typically did. . .and the ground down there is incredible.

B. Forbush said...

You are all very lucky that you were able to be there. I re-traced the path of Hartsuff's Brigade on a visit to the battlefield in 2005. It was a bitter cold day in early March, and there were pockets of snow on the ground, but it didn't diminish the thrill of being there, in the very footsteps of the men I knew so much about. I would love to do the same thing on the actual anniversary of the battle.