Friday, September 29, 2006

"Help, I'm on a pedestal and I can't get off!"

Yesterday I had this conversation with a visitor (with a Carolina accent) regarding the soldiers of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Visitor: "Where these guys stupid?

Me " How do you mean sir?"

Visitor: "What kind of education did the rebs have?"

Me: " well sir, I'm sure that it varied from man to man".

Visitor: "Well, with the way they fought, seems to me they had had the hearts of lions but were stupid as piss-ants"

Me (lamely) : "Well sir, though I wasn't there, I'm sure that these men were as intelligent as you or I".

I guess the most common comment that I get from a wide variety of visitors is the old standard "Why did they fight that way?" often followed up with "Were they stupid?".

The question is framed in such a way as if to imply that the soldiers of the Civil War were somehow a species inferior to us. Not nearly as sophisticated as we are, and certainly less adept at reading the tour map as we are.

Ouch, What a way to treat the people who have gifted us with our history.

I often respond to the question of why soldiers fought in straight lines, standing up, 50 yards apart from each other, by explaining that tactics followed technology, and the breechloader would eventually lead to a different type of warfare. Usually this clicks with visitors, which is a nice teachable moment. But still, I'm often struck by the lack of empathy that many people today have toward the soldiers of the Civil War.

Have we become so reliant on GPS, cel phones, and e-mail as to expect that two tired, bewildered armies - arriving on ground unknown to either side would perform as if they had all of our modern advantages? That's both shortsighted and funny (sometimes).

Recently at the Sunken Road, a visitor gestured to the Roulette Farm lane (which intersects the sunken road) and scolded: "Well why didn't the Yankees just come up through there?". I responded with "Sir, five minutes ago, did you know of the existence of that lane?...neither did the Yankees. Imagine how the outcome of this battle could have been altered if either side had dropped by the visitor center first." This gets a laugh.

Judging the actions and motivations of Civil War soldiers against the context of our 21st century experience does a great disservice to those men, blue and gray, who fought in that war. It seems to dehumanize them, make them somehow less than we are.

An equally dehumanizing disservice is done when the World War Two Generation is marketed as "the greatest generation". Somehow removing that generation from others, elevating those men and women above those earlier generations or those yet to come.

I like to remind visitors that all of our soldiers, past, present, and future, are as brave or as cowardly, as noble or as petty, as funny or as humorless as we are. To pretend otherwise is to cheapen the efforts of those who have given us our history as well as those who will continue our history.

Let's take our heroes down off their pedestals and remind ourselves that the heroes are among us right now, some with degrees, some without, some with great virtues, others without.

American History is made by Americans, warts and all.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

What Must the Neighbors Think?

Today, Ranger John and I took a busman's holiday. We two rangers had the day off, so we took a fun day trip to a variety of Civil War sites in Maryland and the D.C. area. One of our visits was to the beautiful Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick Maryland. This is the final resting place of such luminaries as Francis Scott Key, Barbara Fritchie, Thomas Johnson (our first governor), and the remains of hundreds of Confederate soldiers.

Unlike those Confederates interred at Rose Hill Cemetery in Hagerstown, who lie in eternal repose under the flag of the State of Maryland, ( these rebels bask in the glow of the Confederate battle flag, several dozen Confederate battle flags in fact.

The remains of these soldiers, now long gone to their celestial reward, lie right on the fence line which seperates the cemetery from the neighborhood.

As I walked the very long line of those rebels who participated in armed conflict against our nation I had to wonder:

"How do the black residents of this neighborhood feel about this ostentatious display of rebel heritage?"

That always seems like a timely and interesting question.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

POV: Antietam National Battlefield

Here are some shots not seen before of the Cornfield area of Antietam National Battlefield. I hope you enjoy this unique perspective...I sure did!

Cornfield Avenue looking east toward the 1st Maryland (U.S.) Battery

Cornfield Avenue looking east with beautiful South Mountain in the far distance

The east end of the Cornfield looking toward the original (though reduced) East Woods

The Bloody Cornfield

And now it can be revealed...

Never pass up an opportunity! Every day at Antietam brings new surprises.

Ranger Mannie

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Battle Anniversary 2: faces of living history

As the sun was setting on September 16th I recorded some of the people who help bring history to life during Battle Anniversary Weekend

Monday, September 18, 2006

Antietam: 144th Battle Anniversary, part 1

What a remarkable weekend.

The rangers were primed and prepared, the visitors were brimming over with enthusiasm and purpose. Our tour and hike participants, many, seasoned veterans of earlier anniversary hikes, gathered in the early morning fog, greeting each other with smiles and nods. The hikers, young and old, consisted of a mix of true pilgrims and folks who just happened to be travelling through the area. As the cooperative fog began to lift, much as it did that very day in 1862, the Antietam battlefield revealed itself as it has on 143 previous anniversaries of the battle. And the hikers stepped off - forward...into the past.

Visitors were hushed, rangers were earnest, all ears seemed to be tuned to far away echoes as the early morning curtain of mist was drawn back. The magic portal of Battle Anniversary was again opened, allowing all of us to briefly glimpse the red landscape of the Antietam battlefield in mid September.

Rangers Lead the Way!
Seasoned Rangers, Keith and Brian lead visitors on the early morning Cornfield hike. Keith, a master storyteller, often simply let the quiet of the moment do the speaking. It was a morning of goosebumps and revelation.

Ranger Brian is stoked as his Sunken Road hike participants ready themselves for the journey back to the lost opportunity of the Bloody Lane.

Ranger Brian's Sunken Road hike snakes off into the distance, tracing the long, long, Union line. This was a morning when even the most jaded arm-chair general was humbled by Brian's demonstration of the overarching power and authority of the terrain in determining the outcome of this battle.

Yes, a remarkable weekend. I'm so glad to have been a part of it.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Battle Anniversary (click here for details)

Just a reminder:

Antietam National Battlefield 144th anniversary!

Lots of great programming will be available this weekend. For a complete schedule go to:

In addition to the regular slate of weekend programs there will be the highly acclaimed ranger-led hikes as well as living historians presenting the Saturday evening "Torchlight Tours".

Hope to see you there.


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The rapidly changing face of Civil War country

Thanks Joni Mitchell...

One of the things that I like best about Antietam is the way the battlefield remains in context with the surrounding countryside. Its often difficult to tell where the park ends and private property begins, the land remains as rural and agricultural as it was in 1862. Unlike our sister park to the North, where historic ground butts right up to a motel, tee shirt shop, or ghost tour franchise, at Antietam there are few of these jarring moments at the meeting places between "then" and "now".

But just over the hill, Boonsboro way, they are marching closer. Like big,goofy, ungainly floats in search of a parade, these gigantic monuments to conspicuous consumption are making their way toward us, a foot, an acre at a time.

All over Washington County's countryside you see them rising up. Big, ridiculously big, single family dwellings, the wannabe country estates of beltway refugees, seeking the very country life that these big ugly developments are destroying by acres every single day.

Like farmland devouring machines with palladian windows they gobble up the landscape. Here comes the neighborhood!

You don't know what you've got 'til its gone.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Antietam Fog: as much revealed as concealed

This morning the Great Valley was wrapped in a thick blanket of cool fog. I immediately knew two things:

a. I'm never going to be able to find the driveway to the park in this.


b. There's going to be some good photo opportunities at the battlefield.

I was right on both counts.

Antietam National Battlefield is beautiful in all conditions, heavy fog is no exception. The fog turns the monuments into ghostly low-contrast spectres looming out of the moist mist, and every spiderweb becomes like jewelry.

By ten in the morning the magic show was over, and the sun came out on yet another brilliantly beautiful battlefield day.

Plenty of summer left, just north of Sharpsburg.

I'm no expert...anymore.

When I was in second grade I was a Civil War expert. Ask anyone. Back then, in my rural Burt, Michigan, two room school, most of the kids were oblivious to the Civil War centennial, let alone American history. I, however had seen the John Wayne movie "The Horsesoldiers" and I could draw cool Civil War guys (still can).

By 4th grade I was still the Civil War "go to" guy, heck, I had the plastic soldiers, the Life magazine series, the autographed book from Bruce Catton, and the upcoming trip to Gettysburg.

By highschool things started to change. My hitherto unquestioned CW expertise ran afoul of freshman history class. I actually had to know things beyond the captions. In my teens I faced my hubris, I was no Civil War expert, I was just a kid geeked about the Civil War.

With the passing of my favorite expert, Bruce Catton, I saw that others quickly vied to take his place and today there are innumerable authors and scholars who will volunteer themselves as the heir apparent experts on the subject of the American Civil War. And bless 'em all.

Now, at 54 years of age, I'm delighted to find myself at Antietam National Battlefield leadng tours. I'm resigned, quite happily, to the fact that I'm no Civil War expert. Instead, I'm just a good storyteller. And as Bruce Catton taught us; our history is taught best through good stories.

Do come join me some time.

Ranger Mannie

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Perfect Ending to a Perfect Season

With the passing of Labor Day, Antietam National Battlefield goes to winter hours and a somewhat reduced programming schedule. It was my privilege to give the final battlefield tour of the summer season yesterday. It was a fine day to explore the battlefield. The weather was perfect with temps in the high 70s, a very slight breeze and sunny.

74 visitors joined me for the 2 hour ranger-led tour of Antietam. Everything was clicking, people were enthusiastic and participatory, even the teenagers were engaged. Everyone was happy to be there, no one more so than me.

As the crowd thinned out following the tour (when I hang around to answer questions) a tall, young man held back until he was the last visitor on the heights above Burnside Bridge.

Now most battlefield visitor questions have a ring of familiarity to them: "Why did they fight that way?", "Why didn't they blow the bridges?", or "Where did they bury everyone?". This last visitor, however, had a question I'd not been asked before.

"Were you my sixth-grade teacher back at Crestwood Middle School?"

This would have been around 18 years ago when I was an enthusiastic student teacher at a middle school in West Michigan.

"Yes, I guess that must have been me".

He introduced (or reintroduced) himself to me and we had a very jolly time catching up on the news of my former homestate and old teaching colleagues, as well as his career and the twists and turns that our lives have taken since last we met. We agreed that we'd both done very well for ourselves, he - Alan- as a corporate computer guy and I as a park ranger. As we were talking I searched my memory banks trying to conjure up an image of Alan as one of my sixth graders way back then. This towering young man speaking with great poise and authority bore no resemblance to any of those goofy knuckleheads that I'd enjoyed teaching so long ago. Hard as I tried I just couldn't recall him as an eleven-year-old. But despite all of the growth, passing years, course corrections, and evolving circumstances, one thing hadn't changed:

he spent those two battlefield hours as my student and I, as his teacher.

There is a symmetry to be found here, just north of Sharpsburg.