This is the thirteenth 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 Buchanan shares his story this month.
I first became involved as a Guide at Antietam National Battlefield through volunteering. After some rounds helping out at the Visitors’ Center desk, I started walking the fields more and more. A couple other volunteers started doing the same and after awhile three or four of us explored the fields together, comparing notes, asking questions, and enjoying the beauty that the field has to offer. These informal excursions usually involved food, and eventually breakfast or lunch at the local eatery called the Red Byrd was added to the itinerary. As volunteers, we also started posting ourselves at particular stops on the tour route. I chose to set up shop at Stop 5, the Philadelphia Brigade Park.
I did so for two reasons. First, the shade offered by the abundant trees at that part of the field kept me comfortable as I set out my camp chair, foldable table, and waited for visitors to amble by. In those days (about 15 years ago), posting at Stop 5 meant that maybe 15 visitors would come by in a six-hour period. Sitting there, I would see folks coming down from the Cornfield heading south along the Hagerstown Pike. They would slow down at the turn off to the Philadelphia Brigade, idle for a few seconds, and then continue on to the Sunken Road. Bus caravans wouldn’t even bother to slow down. It was a lonely volunteer post. But it gave me time to read and that was the second reason. Time spent reading under a maple tree pulls you chapter by chapter, article by article, into the Antietam narrative. At first occasionally and then regularly other volunteers would join me in the shade as the afternoon grew late. They would join the camp with their own foldable chairs and we would go into the early evening puzzling the mysteries of the field.
Over time, visitors to Stop 5 started to increase. I think the publication of Marion V. Armstrong’s book on the 2nd Corps at Antietam may have had something to do with a new-found interest of that part of the field. At any rate, visitors on a typical Saturday tripled. Eventually my camp colleagues stood for and passed the Guide test and being a follower type, I went down the same path.
Becoming a Guide meant adding new stories well beyond those I knew from my readings in the shade of the West Woods. I am now part of an amazing group of men and women that truly lives up to the meaning of the word “Guide.” This community of historians are masters of the field, its history, its topography, its streams and swales, woodlots, and meadows. They research endlessly, discovering long-lost letters and diaries in out-of-the-way archives and, once found, they share their knowledge and insights openly. Their devotion to helping visitors experience the events of the day is their mission. I am honored and humbled to be part of such a community of good cheer, intelligence, and comradery. Ultimately the greatest honor is to be given the chance to try and help keep alive the memory of those that have walked these fields before us. If we listen carefully we can hear them still.