(Photo credit: Antietam battlefield interpretive sign, cannons, and Dunker Church, courtesy Ron Cogswell, Flickr Creative Commons)
Antietam is one of those scenic sites that can be so darned beautiful, especially when the weather’s pleasant, that it’s hard to fathom the horrors that ensued there 151 years ago. And it was an absolutely gorgeous afternoon when we visited the park in May 2010.
This September 1862 battle is one of the best-known Civil War clashes outside of Gettysburg. Part of Robert E. Lee’s Maryland Campaign, it was the first major battle of the Civil War to take place on Union soil. It was also the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with about 23,000 casualties. The Battle of Antietam (known as the Battle of Sharpsburg in the South, after the nearby town) represented the end of Lee’s Confederate invasion of the North that summer and led to Lincoln’s preliminary emancipation proclamation a few days later.
In contrast with, say, Gettysburg’s modern visitor center, Antietam has a resolutely early 1960s-era visitor and interpretive center. It’s a low building in the High Modernist style, and from a distance it almost looks like a Frank Lloyd Wright creation. The center was constructed in 1962 and emerged, like many of the park service’s buildings, out of the Mission 66 program. Despite its low profile the building does stand out a bit, as it’s positioned close to the Dunker Church (a key point of the battle), on a high point of a ridge that was controlled by Confederate forces. If the center were being built today it likely wouldn’t be located at such a key spot in the battle (and I believe there are efforts afoot to replace it with another center at a different location). Still, the covered observation deck surrounding the center provides a wonderful vista of the battlefield.
This deck came into its own for our ranger-led orientation tour, which was excellent. (As a rule, rangers at the Civil War national park sites really know their stuff.) Our ranger, Joe, was wheelchair-bound. However, the flat surface of the observation deck allowed him to circle with ease around the margins of the interpretive center, pointing out and interpreting many of the battle’s and the site’s key features, including the Dunker Church and the nearby Maryland and Pennsylvania monuments.
Inside the visitor center was nice enough, albeit dated in that classic park service way. (I actually like that retro early 1960s look and feel—it’s very Mad Men.) The center’s facilities include a movie theater that showed a 25-minute film, “Antietam Visit,” about Lincoln’s visit to Union commander Gen. George B. McClellan and the battlefield. Honestly, the film was not the best part of the experience. It was a pretty cheesy effort, probably made in the mid-to-late 1980s. It had everything you don’t want in an interpretive film: a schmaltzy folk song, badly directed battle scenes that went on way too long, and awkward narration. There were seemingly endless shots of Lincoln’s wagon being pulled through the forest, to the soundtrack of some folky dirge. It was hard for my wife and I to suppress giggles.
After the visitor center we did the obligatory auto tour, driving round to investigate the three key phases of the battle, running from north to south: the Cornfield; the Bloody Lane; and the Sunken Road. All were very poignant, as was the Dunker Church; it recalls the horrific photo of Confederates killed in battle in around that church—the photo that is now used on the cover of the NPS guide to the park. Another point of interest was the Burnside Bridge, over Antietam Creek—now just as picturesque as the rest of the area, even though it was a particularly bloody site. This was where Burnside’s Union forces kept hammering away at Confederate defenders, at huge cost, before finally winning the bridge, only to be driven back by a surprise Southern counterattack.
At the end of the day, the battle was a tactical win for the North, as the Confederates withdrew and left the Union holding the field. It was, however, ultimately inconclusive. Although McClellan sort of “won” Antietam, he failed to pursue Lee’s forces to grind them down. McClellan’s hesitation to use his massive Union armies aggressively was a chronic condition, which eventually led Lincoln to replace him. Still, the “victory” at Antietam was enough to convince Lincoln that he had enough credibility to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
Antietam National Battlefield. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/ancm/index.htm
Mission 66: Modern Architecture in the National Parks. Available at http://www.mission66.com/anti/index.html