This is the twelfth 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 Matt Borders shares his story this month.
When it comes to my involvement with Antietam National Battlefield I can honestly say it grew out my love of Civil War history as a whole. I got hooked on this history when I was nine years old, after a family vacation that had included a stop at Gettysburg National Military Park. I was fascinated by the idea that the country had torn itself apart and had managed to, albeit imperfectly, stitch itself back together. This was the point I began to understand the power of these historic landscapes to relate to visitors and to tell their stories.
I devoured pretty much anything Civil War-related through high school, aided by a best friend who was easily as big a nut as I was. It was during this period I got involved with reenacting and living history, portraying Union artillery up in Michigan. It was a good hobby and gave me the briefest glimpse into what the Civil War might have been like for the men in the ranks. It was also at this time that I began to consider a career in history.
After a brief stint in pre-Vet, I registered as a history major at Michigan State University. I was fortunate to have a variety of supportive professors that not only encouraged my passion for history but challenged me to look at the larger context of history, how the American Civil War plays into American and indeed world history as a whole. Those lessons stuck with me and along with my interest in the historic landscapes themselves, I cast about looking for a summer internship or job that could aid in this. Thus in the summer of 2002, I got picked up as an intern at Antietam National Battlefield.
I thought I prepared myself pretty well. I read the classic works on Antietam and had a good idea of the flow of the battle. It was only after getting here and working with the rangers and volunteers that I realized just how little I actually knew about the campaign and how the battlefield terrain dictated the movements and positions of the armies. I had a lot to learn!
At that time the Antietam Battlefield Guides did not exist as they do now. During my internship and subsequent summers in 2003 and 2005 as a seasonal ranger, the guide program existed as an informal list kept behind the front desk of the visitors center. When guests asked about a private tour, they were encouraged to call the numbers on the list themselves. A number of our best known and revered guides were on that original list!
By 2005 I knew I wanted to be involved in battlefield preservation and interpretation. I succeeded in getting my Masters from Eastern Michigan the following year and in 2007 my wife and I moved to Maryland to allow me to chase National Park Service jobs and the Civil War. I was fortunate to work in DC for six years at this time, but the commute from Frederick, Maryland into Washington was very draining. It was through volunteering as both a Battlefield Ambassador and a living history volunteer at Antietam that I was able to recharge. By reconnecting with my friends at Antietam I learned that the Guide program formalized in 2006 and was looking for new guides.
I waited until 2012 to take the guide test and come to find out I got to take it twice! That year the guide program was undergoing some changes and the test was being reformatted as well. I took the original test and then was given the new test as well to see how they compared. I was fortunate to have assigned to me as my guide mentor the Chief Guide at the time, Jim Rosebrock. Jim was a great mentor for me as we both have a deep interest in terrain analysis and the use of the landscape during the battle. I passed my practical exam in October of 2012 and have been guiding since.
The Antietam Battlefield Guide program has allowed me to meet and work with some of the best historians of the Maryland Campaign. The guide gatherings, hikes, and sharing of research have developed a real sense of camaraderie that I continue to enjoy. It was through the guides that I was able to publish my first book, Faces of Union Soldiers at Antietam, with fellow guide Joe Stahl. In addition, my many friends and colleagues among the guides have been supportive of my writing and research both about the Maryland Campaign and beyond. In 2019 I was deeply humbled to have been selected at the Dr. Joseph Harsh Research Grant recipient. I have my fellow guides to thank for that by encouraging me to apply for the grant and assisting me with materials as I dove into the project.
Since becoming a member of the Antietam Battlefield Guides it has been my pleasure to engage with thousands of visitors to Antietam National Battlefield. No matter how many times we do this, each tour brings its own questions, comments, and challenges. This keeps the story of the Maryland Campaign fresh and interesting. Each guest has their own thoughts and comments on the field. To help pull those questions out, to nurture that curiosity and to guide folks of all interest levels through these fields and farmlands is truly my pleasure. As we say in the guides, “See you on the field!”