This is the sixth 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 Stephen Recker studies many different aspects of the Battle of Antietam, including the battlefield’s first guide.
The first guided battlefield tour I ever experienced was led by Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide Gary Kross in July of 1996. I knew little of the Gettysburg battlefield, but that foggy morning on McPherson’s Ridge as Gary described the Confederate advance from the west, I nervously expected the rebels to burst through the mist and attack us where we stood. Impressed and inspired, I decided that day to leave my job producing multimedia for Apple Computer and start work on an interactive tour called Virtual Gettysburg.
Fast forward a few years and I found myself living in Maryland doing research for Virtual Antietam, which ultimately became a book titled Rare Images of Antietam. With much of my sleuthing time spent at the Antietam National Battlefield, I got to know Bob Casey, the head of the battlefield’s non-profit association, and he asked me if I would start a battlefield guide service at Antietam. Fast forward fifteen years and the Antietam Battlefield Guides are going stronger than ever.
O.T. Reilly was the first Antietam guide. He witnessed the battle from a hill above Keedysville, and spent his long and fruitful life giving tours to famous generals, selling relics out of his shop on the Sharpsburg square, and documenting the history of post-war Sharpsburg in the local papers. I recently won a grant to scan all fifty years of his voluminous output. It will form the basis for my upcoming book on Sharpsburg, as O.T. Reilly saw it.
My favorite tours are the ones where I tromp the field with rare photographs and relics from my collection. Last year I led a tour for the National Civil War Museum and brought along Medal of Honor recipient and Irish Brigade veteran Samuel Cole Wright’s bullet-laden walking stick that he had carved from a piece of the Bloody Lane fence that “shattered in his hands” as he tore it down that fateful day in 1862.
Another uncommon tour that I gave recently followed George McClellan from the port at Alexandria, past the Fairfax Seminary, Upton’s Hill, Chain Bridge, Lafayette Square, Fort Reno, Rockville, Marameade, and ended where any truly epic tour ends, at Nutter’s Ice Cream Shop in Sharpsburg.
But, like coming home from a long journey, when I settle back into a more ‘standard’ tour that begins by looking out over four states from behind the Antietam visitor center, and winds through the Cornfield, the Bloody Lane, and the Burnside Bridge, I never fail to be drawn in by the unmatched beauty of America’s most pristine battlefield, and the epic tale of America’s bloodiest day, as my guests and I stand nervously waiting for the Confederates to break through the mist.
This is the third 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 Tom Clemens began his love of the battlefield and the Maryland Campaign four decades ago when he moved to Washington County.
Growing up in Baltimore County during the Civil War Centennial, I was always fascinated by Civil War history, and moving to Washington County in 1978 only elevated that interest. I began volunteering at Antietam in the summer of 1979 and was immediately captivated by the beautifully evocative landscape and the remarkable level of preservation for that time. With friendly and accommodating National Park Service staff, I soon felt like part of the family. While places like Gettysburg attracted more people, I knew Antietam was a special place.
As I began to seriously study the battle other aspects of it became apparent to me. Although book-length studies of the battle existed, there was still much to be discovered. Many old myths and misperceptions lingered. My friend and fellow historian Brian Pohanka was the first to encourage and guide me on my path to discovering more about Antietam, and the men who fought and bled there. One of these myths or misperceptions he made me aware of was that Gen. George B. McClellan was not the bumbling fool most historians believed.
I thought there was more about Antietam that needed to be told. Civil War historian and professor Dr. Joseph Harsh, who I met in 1990, greatly enhanced this belief. I was privileged to not only have him as my academic advisor but also to read and critique the manuscript of his trilogy on the Confederate strategy in the Maryland Campaign. His passion for Antietam inspired me to edit and annotate Ezra Carman’s massive manuscript history of the battle. Carman served at Antietam as the commander of the 13th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry and Antietam’s first official historian.
The more I studied Antietam the more captivating it became to me. So many aspects of the campaign, the war, and politics were decided at Antietam. Lee’s first invasion of the north was defeated, ending perhaps the best chance for Southern independence; the intervention of foreign powers was eliminated by Lee’s failure; and McClellan’s victory allowed President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Antietam can thus be seen as arguably the turning point of the war. After forty years of studying Antietam as a volunteer, guide, and historian there is still much to discover. Sharing these discoveries with our visitors is one of the greatest privileges and joys of my life.