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Antietam Battlefield a rare, unspoiled brush with history

| Sunday, Sept. 5, 2010

During the Civil War, a principal goal of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, on two occasions, was an invasion of northcentral Pennsylvania.

Lucky for us in Western Pennsylvania.

It means it's an easy three- to four-hour drive from Pittsburgh to a Civil War battlefield of surpassing significance.

There is Gettysburg, of course, but also Antietam in western Maryland, where the boys in Blue and Gray clashed in September 1862.

Located a mile from sleepy little Sharpsburg, Md., Antietam is famous as the single bloodiest day in American history, when nearly 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured.

It's also the battle that prompted President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Barely qualifying as a Northern victory, Antietam provided just enough political cover for Lincoln to take the momentous step of transforming the war from a struggle to preserve the nation into a war to free the slaves, as well.

A 20-minute drive from Antietam is Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where the abolitionist John Brown tried but failed to spark a slave revolt in 1859. The scene of Civil War clashes, Harpers Ferry is a quaint, historical village made all that more agreeable by the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, which flow past its banks.

The rivers are favored by canoeists and white water tubers.

Antietam and Harpers Ferry are perfect one- or two-day vacation locales. Close enough for a morning drive, they are far enough from the 'Burgh to give the illusion of a real trip.

Anne Gittins, an equestrian photographer from Mt. Lebanon, and her boyfriend, Nelson Eads of Richmond, Va., said they discovered Harpers Ferry last year and thought they would give Antietam a try.

The couple had just strolled across Antietam's Burnside Bridge, which it took Union soldiers three hours to cross after the most horrific fighting imaginable. One Union soldier recalled that so much blood flowed at the bridge Sept. 17, 1862, that the "landscape turned slightly red."

Gittins and Eads, on the other hand, were unscathed and smiling.

"It's just a wonderful place," Gittins said of Antietam, which is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. "It's interesting and educational."

Antietam is a rarity. Though it hosts 750,000 visitors annually, the battlefield and surrounding countryside are unspoiled by the rampant commercialization of many historic sites.

"Rightly or wrongly, we are considered the anti-Gettysburg," said John Howard, the 17-year veteran of the park service who oversees the Antietam battlefield.

Howard said visitation is up 7 to 10 percent over last year, a result, he thinks, of people gearing up for next year's 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Yet, he said, the park never seems crowded, even on "commemoration weekends" when park attendance swells to as many as 30,000 a day.

This year's anniversary begins Sept. 17, and continues through Sept. 29.

With seven full-time and five part-time park rangers on duty, Howard said the goal is to provide as much one-on-one help as possible.

"That's always our goal," Howard said, "and I think we do a pretty good job."

Howard estimated 60 percent of park visitors take one of several ranger-led tours. While there are a variety of one-hour and two-hour tours, the granddaddy of all tour takes places every Sept. 17, Howard said.

That day, rain or shine, a park ranger conducts an all-day excursion of the battlefield. Starting just after dawn, at the exact time that Union forces moved out through the Corn Field in the direction of Confederate soldiers at the Dunker Church, the tour proceeds hour-by-hour in step with actual events: the Corn Field in the morning, Bloody Lane in the afternoon and Burnside Bridge in late afternoon.

The total-immersion, all-things-Antietam tour requires stamina and commitment. It also requires that tour members bring their own lunch. Some 120 people attended last year's tour.

That same weekend, visitors will be able to take in concerts by the Wildcat Regiment Band, playing Civil War-era tunes, and witness living history demonstrations of artillery and infantry fire.

At Pry House, which served as headquarters for Union Gen. George McClellan and is now operated by the nonprofit National Museum of Civil War Medicine, re-enactors will show what life in camp and at headquarters were like as well as how a Union field hospital functioned.

According to Howard, another big date at Antietam will be Dec. 4. Illumination Night features a five-mile long procession of candles, one for every battle casualty.

The superintendent suggested that before coming to Antietam visitors check the Antietam-National Park Service website and click on the calendar of events and things to do sections.

"People can also call the visitors center," Howard said.

There is an attempt underway at Antietam to get visitors out of their vehicles and to take in the battlefield on foot as much as possible. The park service has cleared walking trails that measure a mile to a mile-and-half or a little more in length. Inexpensive, but expertly done walking trail brochures are available at the park gift shop (printouts are available online).

The brochure-guided, sneakers-on-the-ground tours offer visitors a superb opportunity to experience the battlefield in new and unique ways. The Cornfield Trail (the brochure subtitle is the apt "September Harvest of Death") follows the route Union soldiers took in their morning approach to Dunker Church.

Around every bend in the trail is an unfamiliar sensation, a vivid reminder of the battle.

A visitor brushes past a planted cornfield and imagines the clip of hot Confederate metal reducing the tall stalks to stubble.

On the right is the high ground on which Union artillery was wheeled into position on that fateful day. The change in topography is surprisingly slight, barely discernible as a military advantage to the untrained civilian eye.

And then between an opening in some trees 200 to 300 yards ahead is a smallish-looking building. It is -- yes, wait ... yes it is -- Dunker Church. Between this spot and that church, hundreds gave their lives.

Howard said on his drive to work each morning he stops his car and walks some portion of Antietam battlefield.

"It's a great time to reflect," he said. What he reflects on are the sacrifices of the men who fought here and the results of the battle -- nothing less than a turning point in American history: The slavery issue decided in favor of the black man, the chains of the slaves broken and the dawning, slight at first, of a bright new future.

Antietam, he said, is a place where "you can re-create your soul."

With biking and hiking trails he might have said re-create the body, as well, although that might more properly belong to Harpers Ferry, a short drive from Antietam through the bucolic countryside of Western Maryland and the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

Not that Harpers Ferry is short on history. Perhaps because it is more confined than Antietam, Harpers Ferry appears to have been taken over by the Park Service. The friendly, green-clad public servants seem to be everywhere.

They have a lot to highlight: The C&O Canal, the brainchild of George Washington. The struggle, just a day or two before Antietam, between Northern troops under Col. Dixon S. Miles and Southern troops led by Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. (Overwhelmed Union forces surrendered, but not before Miles was mortally wounded.)

As important as these are, they pale in comparison to John Brown's 1859 raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, the trigger to a whole lot of what happened between 1861 and 1865. Brown's goal was a slave insurrection. He succeeded in getting himself hanged (at nearby Charles Town, W.Va.) and sparking a political firestorm.

Whether Brown was a terrorist madman or a visionary humanitarian is still being debated today, in books and academia as well as within the confines of John Brown's Fort at the bottom of the steep hill where Harpers Ferry is anchored to the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

The rivers are wide and smooth-running, and on suitably warm afternoons, play host to an assortment of river-worthy craft.

Antietam Battlefield

When: 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m. daily through Sept. 25; 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 26-May 2011. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

Admission: $4 for a single; $6 for a family; $20 annual pass

Where: A mile outside of Sharpsburg, Md.

Details: 301-432-5124 or

Key facts

• The bloodiest day in American history: Union dead, 2,108; wounded, 9.540; missing, 753; together representing 25 percent of those in action. Confederate dead, 1,546; wounded 7,752; missing, 1,018; representing 31 percent of those in action. Total casualties both sides in 12 hours of conflict: 22,719

• Number of battlefield monuments: 96. With 19, Pennsylvania has the most monuments in the park

• Size of park: 3,000 acres plus; more than 60 percent of the battlefield has been purchased since 1990.

• Six generals were killed or mortally wounded on the field of battle, including three Union -- Maj. Gen. Joseph King Fenno Mansfield, Maj. Gen. Israel Bush Richardson and Brig. Gen. Isaac Peace Rodman -- and three Confederates -- Brig. Gen. George Burgwyn Anderson, Brig. Gen. Lawrence O'Bryan Branch and Brig. Gen. William Edwin Starke.

Tours and films

• Audiovisual program: A 26-minute film, "Antietam Visit," is shown on the hour in the visitors center theater. The exception is noon, when an hour-long documentary narrated by James Earl Jones is screened.

• Auto tour: Audiotape or CD programs are available at the visitors center/museum store for a self-guided, 8 1/2-hour vehicular tour of the battlefield.

• Interpretative programs: Talks are conducted daily by park rangers. Visitors should check at the visitors center for a daily schedule.

• Personalized tours: These richly textured tours are available by calling the visitors center and asking to speak with Antietam Battlefield Guides, a nonprofit partner of the Park Service. The tours conducted by experienced guides are approximately 2 1/2 hours long and can be tailored to suit special interests.

Upcoming events

• Sept. 17-19: Antietam Anniversary Weekend will feature special battlefield hikes, two musical concerts, living history artillery and infantry demonstrations, presentations on Civil War medicine and the home front.

• Sept. 25: The living history Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery, will take to the field for demonstrations of loading and firing cannons. The 3rd Maryland Infantry will conduct a musket fire demonstration. The following day, Parker's Battery will perform the cannon demonstration.

• Oct. 2-3: The 20th New York Infantry will re-create the life of a Civil War soldier, including weapons and battle tactics plus a look at camp life.

• Oct 23-24 and Oct. 31-31: The 6th Wisconsin Infantry (the first weekend) and the 31st Virginia Infantry will take a look at camp life and the battlefield experience.

• Dec. 4: The annual Memorial Illumination starting at 6 p.m. Living history, barn and house exhibits will be conducted before the Illumination until 5 p.m. at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum.

Staying overnight

Sharpsburg, Md., has no hotels or motels but two bed & breakfasts: The Inn at Antietam on Main Street next to the National Cemetery, and the Historic Jacob Rohrbach Inn, also on Main Street, close to Gen. Lee's headquarters.

Prices for one of five suites at the Inn at Antietam range from $120 to $185 a day. Owners and proprietors Charles Van Metre and Bob Leblanc are old show business hands and promise a deliciously good time with a full breakfast. "People come back time and again because they tell us it feels like home," Van Metre said.

A night at Rohrbach Inn runs between $136 to $192. According to Rohrbach's Inn's Joanne Breitenbach, the five guest rooms are drenched in history. Built in 1804, it is believed Rohrbach Inn was used as a field hospital during the battle. In July 1864, Jacob Rohrbach was shot to death by Confederate raiders inside the house. Rohrbach was the only Sharpsburg civilian to die due to hostile action during the war.

Harpers Ferry is home to Laurel Lodge Bed & Breakfast, Jackson Rose Bed & Breakfast and The Angler's Inn Bed & Breakfast.

Nearby Shepherdstown, W.Va., features the Bavarian Inn and the Thomas Shepherd Inn

A variety of national chain hotels are located throughout the region, including along I-81 in nearby Hagerstown, Md.

Dining out

Not Sharpsburg's strong suit. A few local bars populate the downtown, including Captain Benders Tavern. For a quick snack, check out Battlefield Market, which serves up fries, sandwiches, chicken dinners and the like, and is situated a few hundred yards from the main entrance to the battlefield.

Many locals recommend dining four miles away in Shepherdstown, with its eight or so restaurants, including the Stone Soup Bistro, Three Onions, the Yellow Brick Bank and the Press Room.

For its size, Harpers Ferry is well-stocked with small, locally owned eateries.

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