This is the nineteenth 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 Jim Smith shares his story this month.
Social media did a good thing for me a few years back when I came across a post seeking new Battlefield Ambassador volunteers at Antietam. One of my three principal pursuits of happiness (Rush shows) had dropped the curtain in 2015. It was time to find a new one. Or double down on a passion that had animated me since childhood: Civil War battlefields. Since I was very young, well before I fully comprehended their carnage, battlefields have resonated with me as places where something important happened, intersections with history. My appreciation of the meaning of our hallowed ground has only grown. I had come to Antietam a number of times over the years, including a visit in the (19)70s, when you couldn’t go north of the Bloody Lane, and another glorious day twenty years later that combined battlefield tramping with a ballgame in Frederick. Antietam was one of those major battlefields I was proud to have “checked off” my list as a student of the Civil War.
But here was an opportunity to get to a new level, to learn and engage with visitors at one of America’s most important historic sites, a place that every American who is able should see at least once. After training—from Antietam rangers and guides laden and generous with information—and accumulating some new resources on the battle, I ventured out on the field with my fellow volunteers, posted at stops along the driving tour. A pristine jewel of the National Park Service, Antietam offers not only its pastoral beauty, but also a sweeping and multi-faceted history—military, political, diplomatic, social, memory. I’d long enjoyed listening to interpreters at historic sites. Being on the other side of that equation has been even more uplifting and inspiring. Public history begets a virtuous circle: visitors ask questions; interpreters answer questions or go in search of answers, which usually leads to more questions. The rich history of the Maryland Campaign of 1862 provides an endless warren of pathways and connections, a countless number of avenues to explore, reaching backward and forward in time. It is a central event of the central event of American history, but in addition to the momentous aspects, there are the individual stories, humbling tales of the extreme human experience that was Civil War combat. Volunteering at Antietam, and later becoming a guide, has been a never-ending challenge to up my game. That challenge will never expire.
Driving past the NPS sign, on my way to give a tour, it’s the proverbial “pinch myself” moment every time. Though perhaps somewhat quiet and reserved in most other settings, I often end my day at Antietam with a raspy voice. It is a singular privilege and honor to try to illuminate a bit of history for those who come to the battlefield. Over the years, more than one skeptic has asked me why study these long ago campaigns. Because Antietam is part of our identity; it tells us something about who we are, just like a family remembrance or photo album does for each of us as individuals. And the stories of all who were here—their service and sacrifice—deserve to be remembered. The Civil War remains relevant. That will not change anytime soon.