This past weekend, September 14-16, the National Park Service at Antietam National Battlefield celebrated and commemorated the sesquicentennial of Antietam. I was fortunate to be able to attend the commemoration on Friday morning and the some closing remarks on Sunday evening.
It was a beautiful sunny day as I pulled into the Visitor Center parking. Tents covered the lawn in front of the Visitor Center with two large trailers for the Virginia and Pennsylvania Civil War Road Show. There were many spectators and I was excited to be a part of history.
The superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield Susan Trail opened the ceremony beautifully. She was followed many state representatives who gave testimonies of how the Civil War shaped America. Maryland Senator Chris Shank addressed the crowd, saying we should “remember and celebrate history”. Then Maryland delegate Neil Parrott also took the stage, saying that the Antietam Battlefield was sacred ground. Also present was Gettysburg College alumni, David Dunn, and the Pennsylvania Historical Society’s Civil War Road Show. Dunn thanked the National Park Service, saying that the road show and the Antietam battlefield will help us “better understand” the war.
Dr. James Robertson closed the commemoration. He spoke on the effects of the Civil War on the human experience and casualties on both sides. He also addressed the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued after Antietam. Stating that the Proclamation was a “social revolution” he indicated that there is often much focus on military actions in the war and perhaps not enough on the social history of the war. The war changed the nation; to Robertson, we have national memories.
Sunday evening I returned to the National Park Service to hear James McPherson and Ed Bearss speak. A large crowd surrounded the main tent, many living historians floating around the edges. James McPherson began his talk with the history before the battle. McPherson stressed the importance of a victory on northern soil for the Confederacy. He also concentrated on George McClellan’s failing confidence. McClellan was overly careful at Antietam, and did not follow up the engagement. McPherson described Antietam as a “northern triumph” and that the battle had long-term consequences. He discussed the Emancipation Proclamation and how the document made Antietam one of the first turning points of the war. The battle clearly changed society and changed the nature of the war.
Ed Bearss took the stage humorously indicating that Antietam was the “spoiled step-child” of the Civil War. In a booming, commanding voice, he balanced McPherson’s points on General McClellan by discussing General Robert E. Lee. He informed the audience of Lee’s condition during the battle of Antietam, something I had never heard of before. Lee had his arms in slings due to a sprain and fractures in his hands. Even with his injuries, Lee stayed on the battlefield. Bearss, like McPherson, criticized McClellan for being slow and also for not being present on the battlefield. According to Bearss, McClellan did not have the same control of his army as he was miles away from the battlefield. Lee, on the other hand, was always on the battlefield and in control of his commanders.
Overall, both McPherson and Bearss agreed that Antietam was essential and should be considered the first turning point of the war. They both addressed the importance of the ground we were standing on, and their words filled the audience with a connection to the past. After they were both finished, the crowd erupted in applause. Like myself, many stood and showed their appreciation for the speakers, but also for the men who lost their lives there. It was a well put together weekend by the National Park Service for the community. I came home from Antietam feeling like I had not only appreciated history, but also, that I experienced it.