This is the fourteenth 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 Kevin Pawlak shares his story this month.
Antietam was not the first Civil War battlefield I visited. Nor was it my second. It wasn’t the third, either. In fact, it poured during my first two trips to Antietam. Due to the weather, they weren’t my most cherished visits to Civil War sites.
Since my trip as a nine-year-old to Gettysburg, where my family toured the battlefield led by a battlefield guide, I wanted to lead tours of Civil War sites. That goal ebbed and waned during my middle and early high school years. But by my junior year of high school, I knew that history, specifically Civil War history, was calling me.
Being born and raised in western New York, I had to look south to find a university in the heart of the Civil War. Naturally, Gettysburg College became a school to consider. I had been to Gettysburg countless times and remember touring the campus, looking up onto Oak Ridge, and thinking how neat it would be to live within walking distance of a battlefield. But my parents encouraged me to consider other schools to have options.
Truly by accident, I stumbled on Shepherd University, a school ten minutes from the Antietam battlefield. I enjoyed the school on my first visit, which brought me back for a second. On that return trip, my family and I drove a different route to Shepherd and we passed right through the Antietam battlefield. Antietam was not the purpose of our visit so we sped by. All I remember of the battlefield then is zooming by the 15th Massachusetts Infantry monument in the West Woods.
Though it was not within walking distance of Shepherd like the Gettysburg battlefield was in comparison to Gettysburg College, Shepherdstown, Sharpsburg, and the Antietam battlefield hooked me. When it came time to pick my school, I chose Shepherd.
Beginning my sophomore year, I explored the sites of the Maryland Campaign and visited the South Mountain and Antietam battlefields during the September anniversaries. During one of the Antietam tours, I met recently appointed Chief Guide Jim Rosebrock. He told me of the Guide program and of the opportunity to volunteer for the National Park Service at the battlefield. Naturally, I leaped at both chances and was fortunate enough to pass the Guide exam.
Since I became a Guide in August 2012, Antietam and the Maryland Campaign have enthralled me for reasons I still cannot quite explain. Perhaps it’s the intrigue of the story–the Confederacy nearing victory, the Union trying to stave off defeat, and all against the backdrop of Abraham Lincoln waiting to announce the war-altering Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Or maybe it’s the beauty of the land, which closely resembles how soldiers saw it in September 1862. The people there, too–the Park Rangers, volunteers, visitors, and my fellow Guides–make Antietam a unique and special place. Antietam’s human element never ceases to impress me either, as I continually learn more incredible stories of the soldiers and civilians who experience America’s bloodiest day firsthand. It is likely all of the above and more that continually draw me to the rolling hills and now silent woodlots outside Sharpsburg, Maryland.
Regardless, I think it’s truer to say that I did not find Antietam. Antietam found me. And I’m glad it did.