Thanks to the National Park Service, determined preservation efforts and good fortune, Antietam lives as one of America’s most pristine battlefields. A visit here reminds us that the Civil War not only pivoted American history, but also rendered tens of thousands of individual tragedies. As a student of the war for more than 40 years, I know that books and museums are invaluable, but nothing beats walking the ground where history happened. When I visit a museum or cultural or historical site, I look for a docent or guide to bring it to life, sharing his or her enthusiasm and knowledge. One of our guides can do that for you at Antietam, ensuring that you will leave here with appreciation and understanding of why this place commands our attention and respect. I want visitors to “long remember” their experience at Civil War sites, in large part so you will keep coming back and asking questions long into the future.
How did the war come to what one Antietam veteran called “the incomparable beauty of the valleys of Western Maryland” in September 1862? Over the three previous months, the military outlook in the east had reversed. In early June, a large Union army was right outside Richmond, threatening the Confederate capital. In late August, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia crushed a Federal army just 25 miles from Washington after pushing the war northward that summer. By early September, the Confederates were crossing the Potomac River for the first time, campaigning now on Union soil. That campaign would culminate on this battlefield.
Every American who is able should come to Antietam. Like Pearl Harbor, Ground Zero, Independence Hall and Gettysburg, Antietam is part of our identity, who we are as Americans. The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 was one of the most far-reaching moments of the central event of American history, a humbling, tragic, cataclysmic civil war that killed two percent of the population and devastated communities like Sharpsburg, Maryland. The appalling cost in lives lost or forever damaged – in the two armies and in the local communities – should sober all Americans about our shared history. The men and women and families of the Maryland Campaign deserve to be remembered. I look forward to sharing my passion for Antietam and Civil War history with you in the best possible place: on the field.