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.
As my Army career progressed, so did my interest in military history, especially the Civil War. However, the 9/11 attacks put a hold on time to think of anything else. I was on my way home from the Pentagon that morning when the plane hit the opposite side of the building from the National Military Command Center where I worked. From that time on, I was involved in crisis management and counter-terrorism for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including two tours in Afghanistan, until my retirement in 2014.
In the middle of that stretch of time, I attended the U.S. Army War College; during which my class participated in a Staff Ride at Antietam with tour guide Mike Priest. On the bus returning to Carlisle, Pennsylvania at the end of the day, my classmates and I concluded that Mike had the best job in the world.
Twelve years later, after retiring from the military and teaching high school for three years, I finally Googled “How to Become an Antietam Tour Guide,” and took the first steps. From the beginning, the support from the guide team and NPS staff was unbelievable, and still is. My classmates and I were right about Mike Priest having the best job. There’s nothing like sharing Antietam stories, especially the personal experiences of those who fought there, with visitors who already feel that tug, as well as those who might feel it for the first time.