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Finding Antietam: A Guide’s Story, John Michael Priest

This is the fourth 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 John Michael Priest never tires of taking visitors on tours of this pristine battlefield.

When I started collecting material on Antietam forty years ago I had no idea that it would evolve into my first book Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle (White Mane, 1989), and that it would still be in print thirty years later. Antietam Battlefield is a serene, non-commercialized treasure. Visitors often comment on its verdant, undulating hills and its hauntingly beautiful landmarks – the Dunker Church, Burnside Bridge, and the Sunken Road. The wonderful hiking trails, and the wide variety of wildlife – groundhogs, deer, fox, turkey buzzards, hawks, and squirrels – add to the tranquility of the site of one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. history.

I really love giving tours because I have a chance to weave a tapestry of military and civilian history into a visual tapestry of how and why the battle evolved as it did. I approach it from the front-line soldiers’ perspectives by relating how the ground and the atmospheric conditions of that day contributed to the chaos of the battle. I get to talk about the military technology of the day and the military tactics. I also get to discuss Civil War medicine and the American System which Dr. Jonathan Letterman introduced to the army at Antietam.

The battlefield has so much to offer its visitors. Topics which I cover on the field range from farming techniques to tourniquets; Brethren religious practices to dealing with the influx of so many foreigners – predominantly the Germans and the Irish – into both armies; personal hygiene during the Civil War to the diseases which plagued civilians and military personnel alike. The story of Antietam is an all-encompassing narrative of the American experience.

As a guide, I get to drive almost every kind of vehicle on the market and I get to meet individuals from all over this great country and the world beyond it. It is a privilege and an honor to work here. I never tire of going out on the field with our guests.

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