On September 18, 1862, Alonzo Quint, a chaplain for a Union infantry regiment, looked at what remained on the battlefield near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Chaplain Quint had seen other fields of battle, but this one was different. The day before sounds of almost continuous fighting between the armies of Generals Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan shook the ground for twelve hours. Casualties were being totaled in such numbers the chaplain felt unfathomable.
Alonzo Quint began his journal entry on the evening of September 18th with these eight words: I cannot describe the battle of Anitetam Creek. Perhaps, it was upon reading those words that I first took up the challenge to envision the events of the day that Chaplain Quint found difficult to describe. The intensity and close proximity of the fighting between the Antietam Creek and around the town of Sharpsburg meant that everyone in those fields on day of battle was vulnerable. To look now at the rolling terrain on the pristine and well maintained Antietam National Battlefield, it is still possible to comprehend that vulnerability. It is not possible to replicate their mortal fear or excitement. It is very important, however, to see where they fought from their vantage point.
An evolving process…
No matter how much one has studied a battle, it can be difficult to grasp its complexities when standing in the footsteps of the soldiers. Classroom sessions and seminar lectures are no match for being on a field of battle. Maps and battlefield markers are very helpful only if they are understood in proper context. Monuments are impressive but silent connections to some of those who fought. Images taken just days after the fighting are evocative and even gut-wrenching, but are limited to giving us only a glimpse of the carnage.
Understanding a battle is an evolving process. The serious historian and guide must not only be fully versed in what has been recorded in words and images about a battle, but must be willing to challenge conventional assumptions when necessary. The battle of Antietam is my primary focus. I have studied it for more than thirty years, always with a measure of humility and awe. To recount accurately the soldiers’ story on their field of battle is my motivation. Everything must be placed in a framework of time, terrain, weaponry and leadership. Ultimately, and with much fretting over the details, a concise and coherent picture of the events of that mid-September day in 1862 is formulated.
Much was at stake…
The Battle of Antietam is not a bedtime story and certainly does not lend itself to the genre of sappy made-for-television entertainment. However, the battle cannot be told in somber or hushed tones. Consider that in this campaign a young corporal from Indiana finds Confederate marching orders wrapped around cigars. During the battle a Union brigade commander from New York promises to give whiskey to some Pennsylvanians if they are able to capture a bridge. One Confederate general gathers two hundred soldiers and leads a desperate charge with a musket in hand to seal a breach in the line of battle, while another marches his troops relentlessly for seven hours to bring needed reinforcements.
Much was at stake in September 1862. Personalities mattered. Decisions mattered. The soldiers fought with tenacity and a sense of urgency. More than 23,000 casualties is testament to that. The outcome of the battle was felt in national capitals and homes across America. My effort as a guide is to make the events of the battle immediate and convey its relevance felt then and now.
Connection to the war…
As a native son of the “border state” of Maryland with lineage to Virginia, I have always lived in the vicinity of Antietam National Battlefield. Inevitably, living in this region that can be called the crosshairs of the great conflict of 1861-65, a connection to the war developed. Many hours spent on the battlefield have been advantageous in helping understand how the battle was waged. Walking the battlefield with excellent National Park Service rangers and picking their minds has given depth to what I have studied. Ultimately, I have found that it was with the dirt and sod of the battlefield under my shoes that I could even begin to understand what the soldiers endured.
I undertake each tour with the responsibility to correctly tell the soldiers’ story without deifying or vilifying anyone. I have conducted hundreds of tours of the battlefield with individuals and groups who range from Civil War novices to military officers and authors. Visitors from Europe, Canada and Australia have toured the field with me. Regardless of the level of knowledge or interest an individual brings to the battlefield, I want each person who tours Antietam with me to understand and appreciate what transpired in September 1862 here in Maryland. I have come to recognize the importance of the battle of Antietam, not only as a military endeavor, but a significant human event; an event that continues to resonate in its importance.
William is a lifelong resident of the Sharpsburg area. He and is wife, Carolyn, live “just behind Confederate lines” near the battlefield. You can book a tour with him by calling the Antietam Museum Bookstore at 301-432-4329 or 866-461-5180. Of course, you can email William at: firstname.lastname@example.org
William offers the following Specialty Tours: