Originally, the weekend of September 7-9 was the weekend I and members of my family had planned to take part in the event Maryland, my Maryland, a reenactment commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battles of South Mountain and Antietam. But those plans had to change due to some unforseen circumstances. However, since we had already made the trip up, we decided to make the most of the weekend and tour a few of the Civil War sites in Maryland and Virginia on the way back home. This turned out being one of the greatest weekends I can remember. Here is part one of our trip, when we toured the Antietam and New Market battlefields on Friday, September 7th.
My Dad, my Uncle and I arrived at Antietam National Battlefield around 9 that morning. It was a beautiful day to tour the site. Sunny, and a little bit on the warm side. We did the usual stuff in the Visitor’s Center first. Watched the documentary film narrated by James Earl Jones (Fantastic piece. Wish I had been able to purchase a copy of the film while there), looked through the exhibits, and walked through the gift shop before taking the driving tour of the battlefield.
What is amazing about Antietam is how pristine the battlefield is. Except for the number of monuments, historical markers, and the 8.5 mile tour road, there is very little to take away from the beauty of the site, and like Gettysburg, you can feel an energy to the place. It reminded me of the keynote address Stephen Lang gave at the Dedication Day ceremony in Gettysburg last November. In Rome, the history seems to be buried under the modern city, with places like the Coliseum surrounded by the modern sounds of traffic and other noise. Not so at Antietam. When touring the site, you feel the history that is around you. You can close your eyes, and almost hear the sounds of men marching, fighting, and dying at places such as the Miller Cornfield, the West Woods, the Sunken Road, and the Lower Bridge. The past is very much alive at Antietam, and you can feel the presence of those 23,000 men who fell there. It is truly a moving site to tour.
For me, one of the areas that stood out on this trip was the West Woods. This is the part of the battle where the Confederates made a heroic stand after Federals pushed them out of the Cornfield. What made this stop worthwhile to me on this trip is knowing that I have a personal connection to this part of the field. Amongst the Confederate troops who fought in the West Woods was the 49th North Carolina Troops. My three-times Great Grandfather, Elijah W. Marlow, was a member of Company A. His unit was right smack-dab in the middle of this battle, where Confederates turned the tide of the First Phase of the fight at Antietam. You could feel a family connection there, walking where some of the heaviest fighting took place, knowing that my ancestor fought there in defense of his home and family. I’ll never forget this part of the trip as long as I live.
Of course, it is always something to walk in the middle of the Sunken Road, now forever known as Bloody Lane. While this was not the bloodiest part of the battle (The Miller Cornfield claims that prize), 5,500 men became casualties during the fighting over the road. It is very surreal to walk the sunken road, knowing very well that, at the time of the battle, this road became full of Confederate dead and dying, with the bottom of the depression drenched in blood as if it had rained red. It’s just difficult to imagine how much death and destruction took place in and around this little place. Then, when we walked to the top of the tower there, looking over the battlefield, it was again hard to imagine all this beautiful land was once the site of the bloodiest single day in American history.
While at the Sunken Road, we ran into some of the guys from our reenacting group. We talked for a bit, let them know we wouldn’t be there for the reenactment of the battle, but at least we got to see each other before heading out. One of the things I love about reenacting is the camaraderie we have as a group. Also got to meet a friend of mine from Facebook that I’d never met in person, and got to talk with him a couple of minutes before heading on. It was great to have this accidental meeting with the guys to let them know how we were, and wished them the best in the event.
The last part of the trip that was memorable was crossing the Lower Bridge, now called Burnside Bridge. While there, I got to see the monument to the 21st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Now, while I have no personal connection to the 21st Massachusetts, this is the Federal unit our group reenacts as on occasion. From that vantage point at the monument, you could look back at the bridge, and the bluffs overlooking it on the other side. Georgians held those bluffs during the battle, and Federal troops tried in vain to cross this bridge to drive them off. I couldn’t help but think how worthless it was to send men across that small bridge, where you could only send a company at a time, each time the attack being repulsed. You could just see the fruitlessness of such tactics, and wonder why anybody would order such a thing. Then, the answer comes to mind: Burnside. They eventually crossed Antietam down stream, and were able to drive them from this part of the field, until A.P. Hill’s counterattack drove them back.
Antietam is truly a remarkable place to visit. Like Gettysburg, it is a tranquil place where ugly things happened. The memories of those men who fought and died there are preserved for all time, and the knowledge that family fought there makes it all the more special. I look forward to the day when I can visit again, and recall the sacrifices made by the soldiers in Blue and Gray along a quiet stream near Sharpsburg, Maryland.
After eating a good lunch, we traveled down I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley toward the New Market battlefield. For those unfamiliar, this was the site of the May 15, 1864 battle where Confederates under John C. Breckenridge defeated a larger Union force under Franz Sigel. It was at this battle that 257 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute fought alongside battle-hardended Confederates, and helped carry the day. We didn’t have a lot of time to really tour the site, but we made the most of it. We started at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, the visitor center there. What impressed me about the museum is how much they have there to see. We started with the film “The Field of Lost Shoes,” which tells the story of the battle of New Market, and the actions of the VMI Cadets who fought there. It was a very moving piece, and told the personal stories of those cadets who fought and died there, and helped win the one of the last great Confederates victories in the Shenandoah Valley. The Museum there is also remarkable, with all the artifacts that help tell the story of Virginia at war. It was truly impressive, and I give a lot of kudos to the Virginia Military Institute for running a first-rate museum there.
The battlefield tour was neat. The Bushong farm was really impressive to walk around. The Bushong family hid in the cellar of their house there while the battle was fought, and their home became a hospital for wounded soldiers in the aftermath. We also viewed the main field over which the Confederates charged. It is called the “Field of Lost Shoes” today. The battle was fought in a thunderstorm, and the ground became so saturated, that the VMI cadets lost their shoes in the mud, yet still charged against the Federal troops, driving them from the field. It was a truly awe-inspiring place to be. Sadly, unlike Antietam, the quiet sounds that permeated that battlefield could not be found here. I-81 cuts right down the middle of the battlefield, and the sounds of highway traffic could be heard the entire time. It is hard to connect personally with the past here, as the sounds of the 21st Century dominated it. Still, it is a very beautiful piece of land, and is definitely worth visiting again and again.
After visiting the battlefield, we traveled on to Lexington, Virgina, where we got a hotel, and had dinner before calling it a day. It was truly a remarkable day for us. Visiting two major Civil War battlefields was truly memorable, and I look forward to returning to these sites again in the near-future.
In part two of this series, I will talk about our tour of Lexington, Virginia the next day.