This is the first of an 8 day trip we took through American history sites in 2013.
We drove south across the western ends of New York and Pennsylvania, heading for Martinsburg, West Virginia. This was our first trip to ever take us this direction through the rolling hills of the Alleghenies. It was beautiful country and we enjoyed staying off the main highways. Our first day would start at the Antietam National Battlefield.
This is the single bloodiest day in U.S. history. We’d visited the site before, cursorily, driving east towards a big city a few years ago. Today we were going to spend longer and were fortunate to happen on a ranger program that ended up setting a very high standard for the rest of our trip.
Perhaps the most valuable benefit of visiting a battlefield is to see the actual landscape. It is hard to really picture what the soldiers saw and why certain decisions were made. National Park Service Ranger Kevin Snyder was just starting a 2 hour tour of the battlefield so we thought we’d sit in and listen.
This was outstanding. He led us out onto the grounds and discussed the setting. It was sterling storytelling, and he used a bin of ropes and wooden bridges – and a trio of children volunteers – to layout the general setting of the battlefield. We moved from one location to another – the Cornfield, the Bloody Lane, and Burnside’s Bridge – learning about the elements of this single day battle. Snyder has been interviewed in relation to the 150th anniversary of the battle, last year, both on NPR and on C-SPAN. You can get a sense of his style but it made 2 hours in the baking sun go by very quickly, and a confusing battle became a bit easier to understand.
What did we learn?
- How easy it would be for one part of a division to go one direction and another to go a different direction and not be able to see each other on the rolling hills;
- That Burnside’s Bridge runs into a steep bluff, which was not the sense you get from famous paintings;
- Leaders can set good and bad examples – Lee riding up and down the line, Longstreet working a cannon with his officers because there was no-one else to do it, McClellan hanging back at his headquarters – and those lessons aren’t limited to a battlefield.
This visit to Antietam – mostly thanks to Ranger Snyder but also because it’s extremely well-preserved and documented – is one of the many reasons that I love the National Parks Service. You’ll notice, as this trip progresses, that we took advantage of site after site managed by the NPS.