Dunker Church. Sept.1862 by A.Gardner


  Dunker Church. Mar.2007 by M.Aubrecht


Antietam Trip, March 2007 Photo Gallery
By Michael Aubrecht, Photos by Michael and Thomas Aubrecht (3/07)

Following the success of last year's weekend trek to Gettysburg my father and I decided to make our battlefield pilgrimage an annual event. It's a blessing indeed to be able to spend a few days at a Civil War location that does not involve book signings or anything else that remotely resembles work. It also gives me an opportunity to spend some quality time with my dad. This year we chose to visit the hallowed ground at Antietam, which was one of the few fields in the Eastern Campaign that I had never been to. As a bonus, I was finally able to meet one of our favorite blogging-buddies, who also happens to be one of this park's most prolific rangers.

Departing from Fredericksburg on Thursday morning, we were treated to a scenic two-hour drive through the winding back roads that trace the Shenandoah Valley. After passing through the sleepy town of Sharpsburg, we arrived at the entrance to the Antietam National Park and were extremely pleased to see no crowds in sight. This happens on all of our trips and is a testimony to the benefits of scheduling them for the off-season. It's still a few weeks before the tourist stampede starts and we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves.

Stretching our legs, my father and I popped into the Visitor's Center to pick up our usual armload of brochures, maps, and trail guides that are issued by the Park Service. One of the must-have items on these trips is the driving-tour CD that not only allows you to explore and study the most significant areas of the field at your leisure, but also makes a wonderful souvenir that you can take home to enjoy again and again. I can't tell you how many times I have prevented "road-rage" by listening to the soothing narrative of my Gettysburg CD while sitting in gridlock on I-95.

Scanning the Gift Shop, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the newest Civil War battlefield audio tours are being produced and issued by the History Channel. Each one comes with a wonderful guidebook that is filled with detailed maps, photos and other nuggets of information. For those of you with money, you can even upgrade to the DVD edition that features a documentary on the battle. I have three kids, so the audio version was good enough for me.

Shortly after stepping up to the cashier to pay for my selection, I felt a presence behind me and turned to see the smiling face and welcoming hand of a National Park ranger. Looking up, I was very happy to see that it was none other than My Year of Living Rangerously's Mannie Gentile. He and I had "known" each other for quite sometime due to our mutual Internet interests, but this was the first time that I had the privilege of meeting him in person. Now when I say it was a privilege to meet Mannie I really mean PRIVILEGE as the next three days resulted in some of the most exciting, educating, and enjoyable hours that I have ever spent on a battlefield.

After exchanging introductions, Mannie asked if we had a minute and invited us to follow him up into the observation deck of the Visitor's Center. Clearing the stairway, we were greeted with one of the most spectacular views that I have ever seen. Recognizing our reactions, Mannie boasted that Antietam was considered America's most pristine battlefield and there was no doubt in my mind as the uninterrupted view went on for miles and miles. In fact, there was not a single modern structure or sign for as far as the eye could see. It was as if we had stepped back in time and were standing in the middle of nineteenth-century Maryland.

I do have to confess my jealousy, as a resident of the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania area with four major battlefields surrounding me, whose acreage has been repeatedly pillaged by urban sprawl. Antietam has no such problem and they should be both applauded and revered as an example of how to properly protect historically significant real estate.

Now, this is something that is very important to keep in mind when traveling to the Sharpsburg area: When I say that there is no urban sprawl at Antietam, I mean NO urban - and NO sprawl. NO meaning NOTHING. In fact, we had to stay 20 miles south at a Holiday Inn Express and then travel another exit down to eat. With the exception of a couple of inns and a tavern, the town offers nothing remotely franchised or commercial. This however is a small price to pay for preserving the area and there are plenty of artery-clogging choices right down the highway.

Travel Tip #1: Pack some snacks and a beverage when going out to the battlefield. We practically lived off of jerky and nuts and are probably healthier as a result.

Taking an hour out of our schedule to explore the Visitor's Center, we ducked into the site's theater and watched an outstanding short film on President Abraham Lincoln's visit to Antietam. After the movie, we headed downstairs to the park museum that features a nice selection of artifacts. Although the displays are much smaller than you'll find at places like Fredericksburg, the quality makes up for the lack of quantity. I especially liked the five, large-panel panoramic paintings that were done by a participant in the fight who also happened to be a landscape artist by trade. One of the gems on the artifact side is a perfectly preserved dress sword that belonged to none other than Union General George B. McClellan.

By this time, the daylight was just beginning to fade, so we headed outside to get a few photos of some nearby monuments before the sun had set. These included the Dunker Church, Maryland Monument and several Confederate artillery pieces that were lined up on the Center's lawn. Much like Gettysburg, there are plenty of monuments that dot the field, but what really makes Antietam special is the sheer number of cannons. The battle was referred to as "artillery hell" and they have one of the largest selections of field pieces in the country.

After taking a few snapshots (I ended up taking 254 in four days), we headed back to the hotel with the intent of touring both the battlefield and National Cemetery first thing in the morning. Before turning in for the night, I spent a few hours reading up on the battle and forming a mental list of hot spots and markers. In the morning, we grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed back to town.

Before I recap our tour, I'd like to outline a very brief overview of the battle for those who may not be familiar with it. I myself was woefully ignorant of the significance of this fight and have since come to appreciate it even more as a result of our visit.

The Battle of Antietam was fought on September 17, 1862 near the quiet town of Sharpsburg, Maryland and was the first major battle in the American Civil War to take place on northern soil. It was also the sight of the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with almost 23,000 casualties. Captain John Taggert of the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves summed up the day when he said, "No tongue can tell, no mind conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed this morning."

After pursuing Confederate General Robert E. Lee into Maryland, Union Army Major General George B. McClellan was forced to launch attacks against the Army of Northern Virginia, which was stationed in defensive positions beyond Antietam Creek. This task was especially challenging for the commander, who was sometimes called "Little Napoleon," as his standing orders from the Commander in Chief were to drive the Southern forces out of Maryland while simultaneously keeping the Federal army positioned between the Confederate invaders and Washington DC. In layman's terms, the grand Army of the Republic had to pivot "on one foot" much like a basketball player, while taking on a force that had been practically unbeatable since the war had begun.

Lee's invasion was originally intended to serve several purposes. These included: 1. Taking the fight OUT of Virginia in order to give the battle-weary citizens of the Old Dominion a break. 2. Strengthening the ever-thinning Confederate army by recruiting loyalists from the border-state. 3. Posturing a forward-deployed force with hopes of wreaking havoc on strategic targets including the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Despite having a copy of Lee's plan (General Order 191) as well as a significant superiority of numbers, McClellan's attack failed to achieve any concentration of mass, resulting in a three-phase bloodbath that his adversary was able to counter by shifting forces to meet each challenge. This stalemate resulted in a death toll that was staggering. Union General Joseph Hooker described the remnants of the now infamous cornfield when he said, "Every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they stood in their ranks a few minutes before."

Although the battle was tactically inconclusive, it did have enough of a consequence to give President Abraham Lincoln the confidence to announce his Emancipation Proclamation. In addition, the inability of the Confederacy to successfully defeat the Federals on their own ground negated the possibility of an alliance with the British or French governments. In essence, the Battle of Antietam "officially" shifted the focus of the War Between the States from an abstract political conflict over state's rights, to a more explicable cause to end the institution of slavery. It also prevented the Confederate States from balancing the scales of logistics with foreign aid.

Another significant result stemming from the Battle of Antietam was the fact that it was one of the first military engagements to be photographed immediately after its conclusion. One of Mathew Brady's men (Alexander Gardner) managed to arrive on the field before the gravedigger details started to bury the dead and he was able to capture some of the most shocking and macabre images of the day. These were later put on display at Brady's gallery in New York and were instrumental in dulling the deceitful romance and pageantry of the war effort. For the tourist, these images are priceless as they really help you to recognize and identify some of the more important areas on the field. For reference, I had borrowed a Time-Life book from our local library entitled "The Bloodiest Day," and over the next few days I was able to find most of the exact locations that are depicted in Gardner's photos.

Getting an early start on Friday morning, we traveled past the battlefield to the town, stopping at the National Cemetery. Much like the day before, we had the entire place to ourselves and the only other person that we saw was one of the park rangers who appeared to be taking some kind of inventory. The cemetery at Antietam is absolutely beautiful from the castle-like entranceway structure that was designed by Paul Pelz, to the forty-foot sentinel in the center who is affectionately referred to as "Old Simon."

Another wonderful feature is the tombstone index that is posted in a large binder at the front gate. Flipping through the book, we were able to find some familiar surnames. Although I am only a third-generation American, my wife's ancestry "may" have had participants in the war. Finding her maiden name, we proceeded to walk the aisles while pausing to photograph some of the more interesting monuments and graves. One headstone in particular (near the extreme rear of the field) stood out, as it was obviously brand new and surrounded by a plethora of American flags and wreaths. Upon closer inspection, we saw that it belonged to a fallen enlisted destroyerman named Patrick Howard Roy. This young sailor from nearby Keedysville was killed aboard the U.S.S. Cole when it was attacked by terrorists in October of 2000. Pausing to say a prayer for the sailor, we then set out to take the driving tour with our newly purchased History Channel CD in hand.

Now, I am intentionally NOT going to give away the driving-tour, as I am afraid of spoiling it for those of you that have yet to visit Antietam, but I will say that there are 11 stops (9 with audio commentary) that include the Miller Cornfield, Bloody Lane, Mumma Farm, Burnside's Bridge and more. The narrative was exceptional and the sound effects were far more striking than those that were originally offered on cassette tapes in the 1970's.

Travel Tip #2: Turn your stereo bass down, as the sound effects are extremely realistic.

Needless to say, we photographed everything in sight and although the weather was a tad dreary, it remained pleasant nonetheless. As evening approached, I felt that I had a decent understanding of the events of September 17th, which prepared me for the walking tour that was scheduled for the following day. The ONLY disappointment on Friday was the fact that two of the off-site attractions, "The Battle Of Antietam in Miniature" and the "Civil War Hospital Museum" were both closed.

The following afternoon we went back to the Visitor's Center to attend the inaugural battlefield tour of the 2007 season courtesy, of our favorite ranger. After assembling with 20 or so other people on the observation deck, Mannie took centerstage and started his briefing by outlining the state of the war up to September of 1862. He continued with a thorough background on the battle's major participants and I was especially pleased with his portrayals of Generals Lee and McClellan. As Mannie continued to talk, he literally had the crowd hanging on his every word, which was a blend of history and humor. After his 30-minute introductory lecture, we all headed out to our vehicles to follow him caravan-style to three major spots on the field. These included The Cornfield, Bloody Lane, and Burnside's Bridge. At each stop Mannie walked us out to the specific areas and proceeded to paint a vivid portrait of the courageous soldiers and the carnage that took place there.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Ranger Gentile's tour was the human element that he injected into every story. Mannie has a real gift for descriptive speaking and his presentation put an actual "face" on the battle. The level of intimacy in his narratives really made you feel like you knew the people that he was talking about and you had been there with them. He made a point to remind us on several occasions that these were ordinary people - just like us - who did extraordinary things.

As with the driving-tour, I am NOT going to give away Mannie's secrets, but I will say this… it was the BEST 2 1/2 hours that I have ever spent with a ranger on a battlefield. In fact, Mannie's tour made the ENTIRE trip worth it and I thank him for his knowledge and hospitality.

Travel Tip #3: These tours are regularly scheduled during the season and each one takes approximately 2 to 2 ½ hours. I recommend taking a separate trip out to the field if you are interested in photographing the monuments, as once the walking-tour begins you'll want to concentrate on the ranger's lecture. It also moves at a relatively quick pace, so you won't have extra time to snap pictures before jumping back in your car and moving on to the next stop.

After concluding his lecture and receiving a well-deserved round of applause, Mannie was gracious enough to remain on the bluff overlooking Burnside's Bridge to answer our questions. I appreciated the fact that he went out of his way to add some extra information regarding my beloved General Stuart and also to invite my father and I to attend a special hike to Nicodemus Heights (the site of JEB's artillery which is located on private property) that was taking place the following afternoon. Unfortunately we were unable to participate. He also directed me to the locations of some monuments that were off the beaten path, including a spectacular equestrian statue of General Robert E. Lee that would have been completely overlooked were it not for his input.

The next day, before departing for Harper's Ferry and then home, we made a point to return to the Visitor's Center to bid farewell to Ranger Gentile in person and snap a few pictures in front of the giant photo of Dunker Church that adorns the front wall of the lobby. Looking back, I can honestly say that Antietam has moved toward the top of my list of favorite battlefields and Mannie has definitely taken the #1 spot as my favorite tour guide.

If you have not been to Antietam, drop whatever you are doing and go there. The tourist season has not quite started yet and the crowds are nowhere in sight. I promise that it will be a weekend that you will not soon forget.


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