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Monday, March 30, 2009


Drive from I-81 to Sharpsburg, Maryland and enter the quiet pastoral beauty along the Antietam Creek. There, on Sept. 17, 1862 beauty became a carnivorous beast, and within a few hours, 23,000 boys lay scattered against and atop one another, packed so thickly that avoiding stepping on them was a challenge. The South called this the battle of Sharpsburg, but for most of us it is known as Antietam. The battle was a draw, and those who lived were to fight each other again.

The Antietam Battlefield is part of America’s hallowed ground. The National Park Service maintains it and instructs visitors about the sacrifices made here as each side fought to preserve its ideology. The Visitor Center is an educational mecca where we first listen to U.S. Forest Service Ranger Gentile’s interpretative lecture.

As is Rob and my experience at other National Parks, the Ranger presentation is enthusiastic, artfully presented, and full of details that spark our imaginations. As he points through the walls of glass in the presentation room, the rolling hills and fields are suddenly peopled with soldiers, drummers, and standard bearers advancing. As he speaks we begin to understand the mental processes of Generals Lee and McClellan as well as the challenges that caused the best made plans to go astray.

After the Ranger presentation, we watch a video about the battle, and it adds information to our growing understanding. Through the video we gain more perspective in terms of area and strategy. The Visitor Center also includes a museum, and there we see artifacts of the men who participated in the battle. We see a photograph of young Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. who fought here long before he became a Supreme Court Justice. Additionally, we learn about the medical help available at the time. Knowledge of sanitation was still decades away, and more men died of infection than of the wounds themselves. Injuries to the head, chest or stomach area meant almost certain death. Injuries to the limbs meant amputation. Many of the doctors who participated in the war on either side had never done amputations before, and the numbers were so horrific that the word "sawbones" was coined, and often outside the medical units were limbs heaped in alarming piles.

Each new fact reinforces what we already know--war is horrible, and the destruction of lives is inevitable. The ground drenched in the blood of soldiers is hallowed ground.

We bought a cd driving tour of the battlefield. Following its path, we gain additional perspective. Imagine standing at the edge of a 30 acre cornfield with the corn stalks still standing. The soldiers begin the battle marching between the rows. At the end of the battle several hours later, exploding shells, bullets and men have totally destroyed the cornfield. Standing at the end of the field, now returned to its natural state peaceful and serene, I am reminded once again of the horror of that day. It is at once moving and terrifying.

As we follow this tour, we see monuments dedicated to the different participants--very often erected by the states that sent them to battle. We view a monument to Clara Barton who began her great work here--a Massachusetts volunteer who delivered supplies to the soldiers and who nursed them. The monument to her includes a Red Cross, symbol of the organization she founded. Another positive result was the development of an ambulance system to evacuate the wounded more efficiently. Between Antietam and the Battle of Fredericksburg a mere ten months later, the time taken to remove the wounded was cut down by DAYS. It took almost a week to separate the wounded lying among the dead at Antietam.

Let yourself flow with the story, and the history and the horror of this battle comes alive. These were 23,000 Americans killed in only hours. More than one hundred years of historical analysis suggests that the outcome of the war was really solidified at this battle. Lee had hoped to advance into Maryland, a Union state, to show the Confederate strength and to play upon the war-weariness of the North. He had hoped his victory would convince both England and France to recognize the South's independence and to enter in some manner on the Confederate side. Although he eventually fought at Gettysburg, Lee never had another real opportunity to win in the North, and he never won the European countries primarily because of the South’s stand on slavery. Of course he couldn't foretell the years and bloodshed still to come, but to me, standing in this place, the waste and sacrifice is illuminated.

Some might not call this a "vacation," but visiting the places where American history was made has always been moving and enlightening experiences. Carol, Rob, and I spent about four hours at Antietam, and we still did not get a chance to see everything. I highly recommend this visit, and I guarantee you will come away a more enlightened individual.

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