Monday, September 27, 2010

Some Thoughts On An Incredible Week

Daybreak over Antietam Battlefield, September 17, 1862
[Photograph by Dave Maher]
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For as long as I can remember, even from my youngest days, I dreamed of one day becoming a Park Ranger at a Civil War battlefield. The war caught my interest at a very early age, and it has remained a consuming passion to this day. When my family and I would travel to Civil War sites, I remember looking up to the Ranger and thinking, "That must be the coolest job in the world. Definitely something I would like to do when I grow up." Well do I remember the programs delivered by Rangers at Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Chancellorsville, Appomattox and elsewhere, but some especially stick out, including a Pickett's Charge program presented by Troy Harman, and one haunting presentation delivered by a ranger working at Guinea Station, in the small house where Stonewall Jackson died. These were the people I looked up to growing up, aspiring to one day join their ranks. Letters written to Rangers while I was in high school and college inquiring of working with the Park Service were all responded to, and all with kindness and encouragement. Then, in January 2005, after completing my schooling, I filled out an application to volunteer at Antietam National Battlefield, and I still remember the interview I had with Ranger Christie Stanczak, the park's volunteer coordinator. I was taken on and on my first day, I attended a Battlefield-in-a-Box program delivered by Ranger Keith Snyder, which, again, served as one of those never-to-be-forgotten Park moments. And well do I remember the day--it was Saturday, May 20, 2006--when I heard a knock on my apartment door and saw the mail carrier standing there with a manilla envelope. It was an offer letter--a letter I still have, envelope and all--to work as a Park Ranger, GS-5, at Antietam National Battlefield. A lifelong dream was realized.

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2010 witnessed the start of my fifth season at Antietam, and this past September 17th was the second battle anniversary during which I participated in the day-long battlefield hikes. It is difficult to describe how it feels to be there, on the battlefield, on the anniversary, presenting these programs, but it is a humbling experience.

It was a beautiful day. . .the weather ideal for a ten-hour-long, eight and a half or so mile hike. With me that day were Rangers Keith Snyder and Brian Baracz, two of the best Rangers the National Park Service has to offer. Few can convey the meaning of the battle, its significance, and help you connect to a place better than Keith, and there are few, if any, who know the battle as well, and in such great detail, and can make it as clear as Brian. Joining us on the all-day hike were roughly 130 hardy souls, many who have been there before on anniversary.
My thanks to friend and Antietam volunteer Dave Maher for allowing to post some of his pictures below. . .

Sunrise over the Cornfiled

Rangers Hoptak, Snyder, and Baracz preparing for the "Morning in the Cornfield"

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A Large Group of Devoted Antietam Enthusiasts and Scholars
[Photograph by Mannie Gentile]
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Twilight on Anniversary

Darkness Descends on the Sunken Road

Keith Snyder focused this year on battlefield preservation, while Brian and I went through the battle narration. I focused specifically, or at least spent a good deal of time discussing the role of the Stonewall Division and that of the Ninth Army Corps, the soldiers of which had the most difficult assignment of any Union force during the battle, especially when one walks the same rough, sometimes rugged, and everywhere difficult terrain over which they had to attack.

It was a great day, and excepting one very embarrassing moment when I got turned around near Snavely's Ford and pointed in the wrong direction, one I will long remember. Again, it is an awesome feeling to know that there I was, once this kid who dreamed of working at a Civil War Park, helping to lead the hikes on the anniversary of one of, if not the war's most significant battle.

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And, as if this were not humbling enough, a few days later, following a busy anniversary weekend, Ranger Mannie Gentile and I traveled to DC. . .spending some time at the US Navy Yard first, but then heading across the river for an awards ceremony. Ranger Stanczak nominated us for an Excellence in Interpretation Award for our development of the "Become a Civil War Scout" education program. And although we did not walk away with the award, the nomination itself means a lot and is an honor of which I am extremely proud.

Mannie and I near the Barry at the Navy Yard
[Photograph by Mannie Gentile]

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When I was growing up, I looked up to Park Rangers; yet, throughout all of this busy, incredible week, I realized that I still do, only now I have the great honor and privilege to work alongside them at one of the United States' best preserved, most serene National Parks.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Antietam Farmsteads: A Guide To The Battlefield Landscapes

Another battle anniversary at Antietam has come and gone, and this one--my fifth as a Ranger--was one of the most memorable, for various reasons. I will soon be posting some photographs and some thoughts on a great weekend.

But before then, I want to direct your attention to an important new contribution to Antietam's ever-growing historiography. At 144 pages, Antietam Farmsteads: A Guide To The Battlefield Landscape hit the shelves this anniversary weekend. For any student of the battle, this is a must. For anyone hoping to learn more about a Civil War battle's impact on the community, this is also a must. The book was written by two of Antietam's most talented Park Rangers and two super-cool guys: Keven Walker and K.C. Kirkman (and also features a forward by Ed Bearss and an introduction by Ted Alexander). Walker and Kirkman are not only exceptional Rangers, they are preservationists par excellence and their knowledge of the battle, the farmsteads, and their passion for preserving our history come shining through in this new book. Antietam Farmsteads examines eleven of the most important--and most memorable--farms located on the Antietam battlefield, and not only discusses their history before and after the battle, but also explains the battle, farmstead-by-farmstead. Within the pages of Walker and Kirkman's work, you will discover more about such places as the Joseph Poffenberger and Samuel Mumma farm, as well as those belonging to William Roulette, Henry Piper, Joseph Sherrick, John Otto, Philip Pry, and others, and each of their roles in the battle. You will also learn more about the families that resided in these farmsteads.

I cannot recommend this book enough. . . click here to order your copy directly from the Antietam Museum Store.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Preparing For The 148th. . .And Some Sad News

It is a common sentiment this time of year; people asking, "Where did the summer go?" It is hard to imagine that here we are, already in mid-September, with Fall just a week away. Of course, this is always the busiest time of the year at Antietam, as we prepare to commemorate the anniversary of the battle. This year will mark the 148th Anniversary of Antietam.

I am excited and honored to say that I will be helping to lead the all-day hikes this upcoming Friday, September 17, 2010. Working at Antietam is very special, and every day I cannot help but think of how lucky I am to be doing what I love and what I always wanted to do. But being out there on the anniversary of the fight, helping to commemorate the lives and sacrifices of those who fought and those who died, takes it to a whole new level. This year, the sub-theme of the all-day hikes on Friday is Battlefield Preservation, a topic which will be addressed primarily by Ranger Keith Snyder. Ranger Brian Baracz and myself will be providing most of the battle interpretation, and I decided this year that my major focuses will be on the Stonewall Division for the morning hike and, during the afternoon, we'll be focusing mainly on Isaac Rodman's division, following his route all the way to Snavely's Ford then up to the 9th New York Monument. Yes, it will be a long day; we will be covering roughly seven miles. But as it was last year, it will be a great thrill and a great honor. I would have it no other way.

Yesterday, Ranger Baracz and I spent the day going over the hiking routes and preparing for the busy weekend ahead. We tramped all over the fields, going to some really out-of-the-way places. Brian was kind enough to take some shots along the way and send them along to be posted here. If you do plan on coming to the Park this weekend, I suppose you can say that these photos are just a sneak peak of what is to come. . .

We began the day atop the Reel Ridge, west of the Hagerstown Turnpike and modern-day Route 65. This photo is looking east toward Elk Ridge and South Mountain (in the far distance). From here, we were standing opposite the entrance to the Sunken Road/Bloody Lane, which you might see in the center background, bordered by the fences. Look also for the Union monuments to the left center, commemorating the troops that attacked the Road. After being driven off the Dunker Church plateau, Colonel Stephen Lee's Confederate artillery pieces were unlimbered on this high ground.

The Reel Barn and House. . .the barn caught fire during the battle.

In the swale of the Reel Ridge; Confederate troops under Lafayette McLaws and John Walker would have used this sheltered position to form up for the attacks against Sedgwick's and Greene's Union divisions, respectively.

A shot of the ground portions of McLaws's Division (Semmes's and some of Barksdale's brigades) would have passed over before striking Sedgwick in the West Woods.

The J. Hauser home (right background), with Hauser's Ridge rising in the distance. After withdrawing from Nicodemus Heights, some of Pelham's guns would have unlimbered here. Firing toward us, they would have helped stall Gorman's leading brigade of Sedgwick's division upon its arrival on the western edge of the West Woods.

Prepare to be blown away by all the great work being done by our Cultural Resources division, here, at the Mary Locher cabin, and throughout the Park. These guys do incredible work in restoring the battlefield to its September 1862 appearance.

Looking west toward the Hagerstown Turnpike, which runs left-to-right across the photograph, from the sheltered position of the rock ledges in the West Woods. From here the 19th Indiana would have fired directly into the rear of Starke's Louisianans along the fence bordering the Pike.

This is an incredible shot. Behind this high ground is where the 9th Corps would have staged for their attacks against the Lower (Burnside) Bridge and the right flank of Confederate army, which was in position on the distant, tree-lined ridge. If you look closely you might be able to see the Sherrick House and Stone Mill on the right, center-distance. Also, toward the left of the photograph, you will see an open field. Through this runs Branch Avenue, and you may be able to see the back of the 51st Pennsylvania Monument.
I have long argued that the 9th Corps had easily the most difficult task at Antietam, and standing here on this high ground, it is readily apparent. Indeed, as I might say on Friday, and certainly not taking anything away from them, but Pickett's men at Gettysburg had an almost walk-in-the-park compared to Burnside's men at Antietam!

Is there anymore an iconic landmark of the American Civil War than the Burnside Bridge?

Here's Ranger Baracz cooling his heels in the waters of Antietam at Snavely's Ford, where Rodman's division would have crossed, around noon on September 17, 1862, just as Burnside launched his final attack on the Bridge.

Yours Truly relaxing in a seat built along the recently reconstructed stone wall that lines the eastern side of the Otto Farm Lane. It was a long, hot day yesterday as we tramped out the route we'll be taking on Friday but, again, I would have it no other way.

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On another and much sadder note, when I awoke this morning, I saw in my inbox a message from friend and Antietam scholar Tom Clemens announcing the death of Dr. Joseph Harsh, one of the leading, if not the leading scholar of the September 1862 Maryland Campaign. I never had the good fortune to meet Dr. Harsh, as I understood he had been in declining health over the past few years. But seldom does a day go by, whether at the Park or while researching at home, that I do not consult his work. In my eyes, Dr. Harsh penned the finest single-volume account of the Maryland Campaign, Taken At The Flood. This is history at its finest. Dr. Harsh's work sets the example and has inspired me over the years to become a better historian, to dig deeper, and to look at things from different angles. His loss will be deeply felt in the Civil War community. It is both strange and fitting that Dr. Harsh passed away this week; and that his funeral is set for Friday, September 17. . . .

To read some of Dr. Clemen's thoughts on the passing of Joe Harsh, click here. Also read Harry Smeltzer's thoughts here.