This is the twenty-second 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 Mac Bryan shares his story this month.
Growing up a stone’s throw from the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia my family and I often visited the many sights of our Nation’s Capital. Trips to the National Mall with stops at the Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln memorials were a regular summer diversion for me and my favorite museum remains the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
At an early age, Virginia history became all-consuming and luckily it was all around me too. Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg were only a few hours drive away but Civil War history were even closer. Manassas, Fredericksburg, Harper’s Ferry and Gettysburg were typical and frequent destinations for my family.
The arrival of its Centennial in the early 1960’s brought me featured articles about the Civil War in our local newspaper and some of those I still have to this day. On special dates our daily paper ran extended sections teaching me about the battles, the soldiers that fought them and the significant changes to our nation brought about by this brutal conflict.
As a college student I continued to study American history and in particular the Civil War. That’s when I first became aware of the Battle of Antietam; September 17th, 1862, the bloodiest day in American military history. Attending Shepherd College the Antietam Battlefield was just a few miles away and offered a convenient as well as a fascinating story to learn. I was lucky to have a professor who inspired and guided my discovery, igniting a passion for this important struggle on the hills of western Maryland. I was also quite fortunate to have a supportive wife who encouraged my continued study of the American Civil War and Antietam has always been our favorite battlefield to visit with its shady trails and rolling landscape.
After graduation my professional career took me away from the study of the Civil War but it was always in the background. Many years later a chance meeting with a history professor where my youngest son was going to college brought it all back into focus. As social friends we soon discovered our mutual interest in the Civil War and our discussions often traced the many conflicting themes present in the greatest crisis in our nation’s history. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend his personal tours of the Antietam Battlefield where his in-depth knowledge and unique perspective exposed just how impactful this battle really had been on our country. He also challenged many of the traditional themes I had learned about the war and this battle, and because of that, his books remain some of my favorites.
After retirement, I drifted back to my interest in Antietam. I started rereading the books about the battle and the battlefield I had gathered over the 50 years since I first visited there but something was missing. I simply wasn’t connecting the story with the actual events and so I came back to Antietam as a volunteer at the battlefield. That’s where I met others like myself who enjoy the research and critical examination of one of the most important turning points in the Civil War and indeed in all of American history. Columnist George Will once said, “The two most important dates in American history were July 4th, 1776 and September 17th, 1862. The first brought us the Declaration of Independence and the other, The Emancipation Proclamation.”
One of my first assignments as a volunteer was the refurbishing of a section of cannons representing Captain John Tidball’s Battery A, 2nd U.S. Artillery. It can be seen from the Observation Tower at “Bloody Lane,” but in all the times I’d visited I don’t remember seeing it before. It’s a pleasant spot to visit, just a short hike up the trail from the Newcomer House near Antietam Creek and one that would soon bring a significant change in how I studied and came to understand the many aspects of the battle.
It was on one of my visits to that battery that I met an Antietam Battlefield Guide who generously shared his unique knowledge about the man who’s guns I had become intimately familiar. He also recommended I consider becoming a guide myself, a goal I found I couldn’t resist.
Completing the demanding requirements of certification and joining this very special group of historians has been a labor of love for me, rewarding and inspiring at the same time. I’ve been encouraged and supported by the other Guides as well as the National Park Service Rangers at Antietam, both partners in preserving, protecting and interpreting this sacred battleground.
The Battle of Antietam will continue to represent a vital chapter in the evolving American story and it’s important that we remember it accurately. I’m very proud to be a Certified Antietam Battlefield Guide and to have the opportunity to enhance the visitor’s experience of this significant event in our history.