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.

Finding Antietam: A Guide’s Story, Chris Vincent

This is the eighteenth 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 Chris Vincent shares his story this month.

Chris Vincent

My interest in the American Civil War and the Battle of Antietam, in particular, occurred many years ago when I was told the story of my great-great-grandfather, Henry Vincent. In August of 1862, Henry, who was from Montour County, Pennsylvania answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 300,000 nine-month militia. Henry enlisted in the ‘Danville Fencibles’ which was comprised of men mostly from the Danville Iron Works. Before the end of the month, they were mustered into service as Company A, 132nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and in defensive works outside Washington. Like many Union soldiers at Antietam, this would be Henry’s first time in combat. The 132nd Pennsylvania was one fortunate enough to be brigaded with veteran soldiers as they attempted to take the Sunken Road. They took heavy casualties, but Henry made it through his ‘baptism of fire’ unscathed. According to the county history, “his coat sleeve was completely shot off at Antietam.” Henry would continue to serve with the 132nd and participate in the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. He was promoted to Corporal in March 1863 and was mustered out with Company A on May 24, 1863. Henry returned home to Danville, to become a successful businessman, lawyer, and a father to eight children. He was an active member in both the 132nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Regimental Association and the Goodrich Post No. 22, of the Grand Army of the Republic until he passed away in 1916. Continue reading →

Finding Antietam: A Guide’s Story, Rogers Fred

This is the seventeenth 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 Rogers Fred shares his story this month.

Antietam National Battlefield was the first battlefield I ever visited and remains my favorite. My parents, sister, and I made several picnic trips to the field in the early 1960s. We always went to the same spot in the West Woods.  I recall riding in the car as we drove along the Sunken Road and across Burnside Bridge.  Happily, we can’t do that any longer but, at a tender age, I fell in love with the beauty and history of this sacred place.

My interest in the Civil War started with my Grandfather.  He enthralled me with stories told to him by his grandfather and great uncle, both members of Mosby’s Rangers. He went to school with and was a friend of Mosby’s grandchildren and even met the Colonel himself on a couple of occasions. Visits to Manassas and Gettysburg followed Antietam and I was hooked.

While history is a lifelong interest, I majored in biology at Washington and Lee University and later graduated with a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Virginia Tech. Following the completion of a specialty residency in oncology at the University of Pennsylvania, I’ve practiced veterinary oncology for over thirty years in New Jersey and Virginia.  After returning to Virginia nearly ten years ago, I began volunteering at Antietam National Battlefield first behind the desk at the visitor center then as a Battlefield Ambassador on the field. One of the most fortuitous moments of my life was taking a battlefield tour during this time with the Dean of Antietam Battlefield Guides, John Schildt.  During the tour, we ran across the chief guide at the time, James Rosebrock and I had the opportunity to talk with him about the guide program. By the conclusion of the tour, I knew I wanted to be a guide at Antietam. Three and a half years of study and intense preparation resulted in National Park Service certification as a guide in 2015.

Since then, I have been privileged to work with the members of the guide service – a group of historians dedicated to constantly learning about the battle, sharing that information with other guides and passionate about telling visitors the story of this wonderful place. And that is the best part of being a guide at Antietam; meeting visitors from across the country and around the world, telling them the stories of the men who sacrificed their all here, showing them the terrain and answering questions about this pivotal moment in our country’s history.

A veterinary colleague of mine succinctly summed up my perspective on history and being a battlefield guide. He told me “veterinary medicine is your vocation, history is your passion.” When it comes to Antietam National Battlefield,  that is so true.


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