At 3 a.m. on the rainy morning of September 17, 1862, a young captain in the 20th Massachusetts wrote his parents in Boston. The conflict that was sure to come as the first light struggled through the overcast clouds was very much on his mind. “Very probably we shall [fight] in a few days and if we do, why I shall go into it not trying to shirk the responsibility of my past life—I have lived on the track on which I expect to continue travelling if I get through—hoping, always, that though it may wind, it will bring me up the hill once more.”
The young captain was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and before the day would end he would, like thousands on that day, enter the ranks of casualties. Surviving, he would live into his 90s but he never forgot that day and spoke about it at Memorial Day events for the rest of his life. Across the field that night thousands of boys penned similar letters to friends and family, left them in the care of sergeants to forward to Savannah, Philadelphia, Richmond, and Boston and hundreds of places in between.
Who were these young men (and in some cases young women) who met on this verdant Maryland field situated along the Antietam Creek? What brought them here from the small farms and villages of places like Cleveland County, North Carolina or the mill towns of the Mumford River Valley southeast of Worcester, Massachusetts? What gave them the courage to stand in the face of near-certain death? What did they feel? What did they hear? What did they see?
As we move across this pristine battlefield, this national treasure, you will learn about the two great armies who met on this ground to determine the future of this country. You will learn about the stories of those who were here that day. You will be introduced to the great leaders of that day, their successes, and their failures. You will visit the farmsteads, hills, ravines, creeks, and bridges where incredible acts of heroism took place, where fates were determined, and lives forever changed. You will learn about the men and women who rushed to the field from distant cities and small towns to help when and where they could. You will learn about brothers in arms who fought together and brothers who fought one another on opposite sides. You will learn about the ties that bound many together—by kin, as neighbors, or as friends.
What you will take away from your visit is a new found appreciation for the individual soldier who stood here over 155 years ago and what they did that late summer’s day that helped shape this nation’s destiny.
I am a semi-retired instructional designer and live in Washington, D.C. where I was born and raised. I grew up in a neighborhood near Ft. Dupont and Ft. Davis–two of the Civil War forts that ringed the city of Washington. Although overgrown then with weeds and brambles, they provided neighborhood kids with a ready-made playground that took on a new meaning as we grew older and came to understand why they were built. I have been pursuing the narrative of the Civil War since then. Part of this pursuit is inspired by my great grandfathers who fought on both sides in the Civil War. One, a Captain in the 72ndPennsylvania, was wounded in the West Woods. And so I joined the Antietam battlefield ambassador program over a decade ago to try to better understand his experience there. He has, since then, led me much further and, in his own way, introduced me to a profound narrative of courage, giving, and sacrifice by those who stood on this ground not so long ago.