Finding Antietam: A Guide’s Story, Brad Gottfried

This is the twenty-first essay in our monthly series “Finding Antietam – A Guide’s Story.” Each month, we’ll feature the story of one of our guides and what sparked their interest in Antietam and the Civil War, and why they became an Antietam Battlefield Guide. Antietam Battlefield Guide Brad Gottfried shares his story this month.

Brad Gottfried

My interest in the Civil War began as a youth—probably when I was about 10 years old. I was too young to digest more factual books on the war, so I concentrated on picture books, such as the big American Heritage book on the Civil War.

Growing up in Philadelphia, the Gettysburg battlefield was the closest to my home. I would visit frequently, but when I was able to drive, I made my first trip to the Antietam battlefield. I always felt a special connection with these fields and returned as often as I could. I earned my degrees, started a family, and took jobs in the Midwest. A decade passed without visiting the battlefield. My family drove back to Philly for a wedding and I saw the sign to the battlefield, so we got off Route 70 and headed to the Visitors Center. One of my lasting memories is my five-year-old daughter in tears when she saw the movie. She got it. She understood what these men sacrificed and it moved her deeply. I was proud that it was not merely a superficial experience for her.

As a trained scientist, I study things, and after I earned my doctorate, my studies mainly involved biological topics, but with a family, it became easier to study something I could do at home. That launched my study of the Civil War. Fourteen books later, I am still learning, but now concentrate on map studies and, of course, Antietam.

Brad giving a tour in front of the Dunker Church

After retiring in 2017, I looked around for things to do and noted that I could be an Antietam volunteer.  I joined and also became an Ambassador.  It was just a natural progression to become a guide. I now return to the battlefield frequently. Yet, I never lose my awe of what it must have been like to fight on that blood-soaked day for something these men deeply believed in. Walking the fields never becomes common-place or routine and I learn some new perspectives every time I visit. There are so many stories, so many things to learn, that it would take a life-time and more to truly understand the battle. As a life-long student, Antietam has become a wonderful teacher.

Finding Antietam: A Guide’s Story, Laura Marfut

This is the twentieth essay in our monthly series “Finding Antietam – A Guide’s Story.” Each month, we’ll feature the story of one of our guides and what sparked their interest in Antietam and the Civil War and why they became an Antietam Battlefield Guide. Antietam Battlefield Guide Laura Marfut shares her story this month.

My introduction to Antietam began as a young girl living in nearby Hagerstown, when our family would pile in the car for family trips to the battlefield. My father, a WWII Navy veteran, was probably more interested in history than he thought his young daughters would want to hear, so instead we climbed the observation tower and played around the Dunker Church and Burnside Bridge. Years later, with a dose of high school history and hikes through the battlefield with my Explorer Post Scouting friends, I started to feel a tug that there was something special about Antietam. My friends felt it too, which led us on a late-night mission into the Sunken Road to detect whatever historical presence we thought we’d detect, though our nervous chatter over expecting to be expelled by a park ranger at any moment turned the event into something less somber than planned.

With college, ROTC and Army assignments, years passed without visiting Antietam, but I felt that tug again while stationed at Fort Hood, Texas in the 80’s.  A friend loaned me a copy of William Frassinito’s book, Antietam: A Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day, which compared photographs taken while the dead still lay where they fell, to the same fields I had traipsed with my family and friends. While growing up, I remembered articles in the Hagerstown newspaper about the community’s fierce resistance to development around the battlefield. As a result, Antietam is one of the most well-preserved and restored battlefields you’ll find.  That’s something I hadn’t realized before, but the images in Frassanito’s book nearly took my breath away. You don’t have to use your imagination to see the battlefield through the eyes of those who fought there in 1862.  Continue reading →

Finding Antietam: A Guide’s Story, Jim Smith

This is the nineteenth essay in our monthly series “Finding Antietam – A Guide’s Story.” Each month, we’ll feature the story of one of our guides and what sparked their interest in Antietam and the Civil War and why they became an Antietam Battlefield Guide. Antietam Battlefield Guide Jim Smith shares his story this month.

Social media did a good thing for me a few years back when I came across a post seeking new Battlefield Ambassador volunteers at Antietam. One of my three principal pursuits of happiness (Rush shows) had dropped the curtain in 2015. It was time to find a new one. Or double down on a passion that had animated me since childhood: Civil War battlefields. Since I was very young, well before I fully comprehended their carnage, battlefields have resonated with me as places where something important happened, intersections with history. My appreciation of the meaning of our hallowed ground has only grown. I had come to Antietam a number of times over the years, including a visit in the (19)70s, when you couldn’t go north of the Bloody Lane, and another glorious day twenty years later that combined battlefield tramping with a ballgame in Frederick. Antietam was one of those major battlefields I was proud to have “checked off” my list as a student of the Civil War.

But here was an opportunity to get to a new level, to learn and engage with visitors at one of America’s most important historic sites, a place that every American who is able should see at least once. After training—from Antietam rangers and guides laden and generous with information—and accumulating some new resources on the battle, I ventured out on the field with my fellow volunteers, posted at stops along the driving tour. A pristine jewel of the National Park Service, Antietam offers not only its pastoral beauty, but also a sweeping and multi-faceted history—military, political, diplomatic, social, memory. I’d long enjoyed listening to interpreters at historic sites. Being on the other side of that equation has been even more uplifting and inspiring. Public history begets a virtuous circle: visitors ask questions; interpreters answer questions or go in search of answers, which usually leads to more questions. The rich history of the Maryland Campaign of 1862 provides an endless warren of pathways and connections, a countless number of avenues to explore, reaching backward and forward in time. It is a central event of the central event of American history, but in addition to the momentous aspects, there are the individual stories, humbling tales of the extreme human experience that was Civil War combat. Volunteering at Antietam, and later becoming a guide, has been a never-ending challenge to up my game. That challenge will never expire.

Driving past the NPS sign, on my way to give a tour, it’s the proverbial “pinch myself” moment every time. Though perhaps somewhat quiet and reserved in most other settings, I often end my day at Antietam with a raspy voice. It is a singular privilege and honor to try to illuminate a bit of history for those who come to the battlefield. Over the years, more than one skeptic has asked me why study these long ago campaigns. Because Antietam is part of our identity; it tells us something about who we are, just like a family remembrance or photo album does for each of us as individuals. And the stories of all who were here—their service and sacrifice—deserve to be remembered. The Civil War remains relevant. That will not change anytime soon.

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