Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Projects: Coops, Candles, and Cannons

We've been in our house for a month and a half and are still settling in. Virginia (my totally groovy wife) has been priming and painting like a madwoman. I've been cooking up a storm...nothing like garlic and onions to exorcise the fragrance of the former owners. Okay, Smell is an important variable in home-ownership.

Speaking of which, today I undertook the cleaning of the tiny henhouse that I'd like to eventually turn into a forge/workshop. After two hours of pretty loathsome work I made a dent and also got a sneak preview of purgatory. Several years worth of accumulated chicken droppings approximate a sort of ersatz concrete...not quite cement, not quite organic...definately not fun. I picked the coldest day of the year (thus far) to tackle this task as the molecules would be moving VERY SLOWLY (read "not smell so bad"). If I can salvage this structure, and I'm sure that I can, I'd like to have a space to do some rudimentary blacksmithing (Youtube forthcoming on this subject).

Beyond home improvement, I'm still trying to find time to edit a Youtube movie about the 18th annual Antietam Illumination. This project seems to get pushed further and further back on the rearmost burners.

I'm also percolating a second blog installment regarding the growth of Antietam National Battlefield over the years, especially the physical evidence that remains of recent changes in the park, those of the last 15 years of so. Evidence includes pavement leading to nowhere, abandoned boundary lines, and tumble-down chicken coops.
So now I've come full circle.

In other developments, a new reproduction gun carriage has been delivered to the Burnside Bridge parking area. This beauty is going to be teamed up with one of our rifled tubes (one of those occasionally thought to be "abandoned" by some visitors) in our maintenance yard.


The completed gun will probably be used to represent the position of George W. Durrell's battery during the Ninth Corps attack on the bridge and advance to Sharpsburg.

Yesterday I gave an orientation talk that fairly typifies the winter season at the park. I had just two people, a married couple from Illinois. They asked the best questions that I've ever been asked by visitors. It never ceases to surprise me, how many regular people (neither authors nor bloggers) have a passionate, and open-minded, interest in America's Civil War. Like me, they were Midwesterners, and like me, they had grown up on the prejudices of the historians of the 1950s and 60s.

For my talks these days, I prop up my two photos of Lee and McClellan and remind them that Lee was not the infallible saint that the "lost cause" historians have left us with, nor was Mac the cautious idiot that the historians of the centennial era (Palfrey not withstanding) painted for us. History is always much more complicated, and interesting than the dumbed-down versions, and the American Civil War is one VERY interesting story. They liked that.

I'll keep you posted.


Friday, January 26, 2007

Burnsides Bridge: a new perspective part two

(click on views to enlarge)

Burnside Bridge: two views. Above, September 1862 (Alexander Gardner).
Below, January 2007 (Ranger Mannie).

At the risk of putting too fine a point on this issue, I'd like to add to my recent post regarding the viewscape cut above Burnside Bridge. I went back to the bridge yesterday with a higher resolution camera to capture additional images. It was a beautiful mild and sunny day, and the light at 10:00 a.m. was ideal for a good shot of the bridge.

In this view, approaching the bridge from the Confederate side, look across Antietam Creek and you can see where the viewshed has been cut. The new trail runs along the crest of the hill. An inch above and slightly to the right of the distant howitzer you can just make out a rock outcropping.

That outcropping (as well as the viewshed) becomes even more apparent as you continue to approach it from the Union side of the bridge. It's dead center, just below the crest. That outcropping is actually another quarry-pit where stones were harvested to construct the bridge, just like the similar pits that Toombs' rebels used as rifle pits on the Sharpsburg bank of the creek. This pit came as quite a suprise to all of the rangers as it has been hidden in the underbrush for many generations.

On reflection, it only makes sense that stone was harvested from both sides of the creek to construct the bridge.

Marching up the steep slope, past the new tree stumps, I headed toward that quarry pit. As I hiked up the hill It occurred to me that this terrain that Ferrerro's men came charging down is incredibly steep, which probably gave them an incredible amount of momentum (providing they could retain their footing).

Upon gaining the quarry pit I noted that the floor of it was quite level...a perfect place to set up a tripod-mounted camera. As I turned around to face the bridge I realized that I was standing on the same spot at which Alexander Gardner captured his historic image.

Every day at Antietam brings new suprises.

I love this place, you will too.

Ranger Mannie

Monday, January 22, 2007

Winter comes to Dixie

(Gun of Capt. Tomkins Rhode Island Battery)

Yesterday, as I was driving to the park, the snow started to fall just as I crested Cemetery Hill heading into Sharpsburg. Parking at the Smith House, I began my morning routine. After a vigorous 45 minute walk through the West Woods and back to the Visitor's Center it became clear that this snow was going to stick around for awhile. As the slow winter season day passed, the snow continued to accumulate, not much by Michigan standards (we're talking about an inch here), but, for this region it had folks quite concerned, so much so that the park closed an hour early.

I changed out of my uniform somewhat bemused with the hulabaloo that this light snowfall was met with..

This morning I went in to the park an hour early, so as to get my walk in, and I was greeted by a lovely carpet of light snow, untrammeled save for the wildlife of the valley.

As I hiked from the tower at the Sunken Road to the Roulette Farm, I picked up the trail toward the Mumma farmstead following the ever gurgling spring that flows quite mysteriously from out of nowhere on the Mumma Farm and flows down to the Antietam. In a single glance I could see the bright green grass of spring, the withered leaves of Autumn and the fresh snow of winter.

This battlefield is beautiful in all seasons.

Do come visit...just north of Sharpsburg

Ranger Mannie

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Burnside Bridge: A New Perspective

(Alexander Gardner 1862)

Actually, I guess I should say that an old perspective returns.

As I mentioned in my last post, three new trails are under development at Antietam National Battlefield. One of which focuses on the Union approach toward, and the storming of, Burnside Bridge.

This morning I drove down to the bridge, as I've heard that the fine folks from the Natural Resources Division of the park have been doing a lot of trail work down there, so I wanted to check it out. Just so you know, the talented crew of the Natural Resources Division is responsible for many aspects of the park, especially the one which causes innumerable visitors to exclaim "What a breathtakingly beautiful place!" That's Natural Resources.

From the parking lot (stop 9 on your driving tour) I could see a park truck and four of the Natural Resources folks gathering up brush.

As I looked closer I saw the flashes of the newly cut stumps marching up the hillside that the Federals had come charging down (Ferrero's troops), and it was evident that more than just the trail had been cut.

An expansive and fantastic viewshed has been cleared providing a vista of the bridge from the Union side that hasn't been available since the days of Alexander Gardner...and I got the first modern shot of it.

This trail opens in late spring.

Enjoy the view.

Ranger Mannie

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

My, how you've grown!

Seems that more often than not, what we read about the current state of battlefield preservation is one set of threats after another. The cliche headline invariably reads "Developers and preservationists engage in the second battle of (insert name here)". The pressure of constructing more bedrooms for Washington D.C. commuters, the current passion for enormous single-family homes, and the rapacious bulldozing by unscrupulous developers all continue to threaten America's most significant battlegrounds.

For some good news, reflect upon the quiet and steady growth of the jewel in the crown of the National Park Service: Antietam National Battlefield.

I recently unpacked (we've just moved) the Antietam brochures that I've been collecting since I first visited the battlefield with my father in 1968. A comparison of one to the next, to the next, is both instructive and very encouraging.

This brochure was recently given to me by someone a little older than me. The map of 1948 (reprinted in 1959) depicts a park not much larger than the original authorization of 40 acres, including the National Cemetery. Originally the park consisted merely of the cemetery and the right-of-way along the battlefield road (in blue). This tiny footprint was later slightly enlarged to include the fields south of Burnside's Bridge. Note that the Hagerstown Pike still zoomed right through the heart of the Dunker Church/Cornfield area. Burnside's Bridge was still open to vehicular traffic at this time and the bypass around the bridge did not yet exist. The Cemetery lodge still served as headquarters, museum, and visitor's center. This was the period when the Dunker Church rose again, in its original location, with much original material, just in time for the Civil War Centennial.

The tiny, blue brochure of 1972 (revised 1975), an abbreviated, three-color cheepie reflecting our federal financial burden in Southeast Asia.

But what remarkable changes have occurred; The highway bypass now routes Hagerstown-bound traffic around, rather than through, the park. Similarly, motorists no longer cruised over Burnside's Bridge; a bypass was built to skirt it.

Note the still-skeletal nature of the areas around the Cornfield and Branch Avenue. Otherwise quite a lot of acreage had been added including the Mumma, Piper, and Sherrick farms. By this time the beautiful (and current) "Mission 66" visitor's center had been built. Other visitor amenities included the picnic area near Philly park and a nature trail.

No sign yet of the Pry House.

Another cost-cutter; the blue (later red) brochure of the 1980s. This fairly muddy map premiers the tour route in use today with stops 1 through 11 just as visitors still encounter them.

The Cornfield and Branch Avenue retained their War Department-days appearance but The Otto House, Pry House, and Roulette Farm had been acquired. The former nature trail evolved into the Snavely Ford Trail.

The Park welcomed the Poffenberger farmstead with this 1995 map. And look at the growth! The battlefield now extends across the 65 to the base of Hauser Ridge. The North Woods is included in the footprint and the West Woods is finally, and securely in Federal hands (get it?). Also note the incremental growth of the Pry house holding. This characterizes the beginning of the "boom time" battlefield expansion.

The 2003 map sees the addition of the fields to the east of the Sunken Road a huge tract extending to Antietam Creek, just as the Pry House acreage now extends westward to the creek.

The Sherrick Farm Trail has been established and land is acquired along Mondell Road nearly to the base of Nicodemus Heights.

Now comes my year (the one of living rangerously). The current map is the 2004 printing. Note the welcome addition of the Cornfield trail.

In 140 years the park has grown from a meager 40 acres to just over 3,000 acres today, and not at the expense of the park's good relations with the surrounding community. The people of Sharpsburg have long embraced the significance of the battlefield. Area farmers have always been agreeable to selling out to the park when they retire from tilling the fields. Many their children still plant and harvest those fields under a very mutually beneficial leasing agreement with the Park.

How ironic that the scene of America's greatest calamity 144 years ago is now such a peaceful and agreeable place, with so many diverse people and interests working toward the same preservation goal.

Hey!...wait a minute...this brochure's not out yet. O.K. just a peek at the new brochure, note the new Final Attack trail. What's more, come April of 2007 three more new trails are slated to open.

In the Antietam Creek Valley lots of good people and organizations are working together, every day, to preserve this battlefield and the memories of those who sacrificed so much for all of us.

Sometimes, growth is good.

Come visit (and save your brochure).

Ranger Mannie

Sunday, January 14, 2007

I digress

I've been getting quite a bit of feedback regarding that photo of me on Harry's Bull Runnings blog. The comments are focused on the wall of helmets behind me.

I have just over 100 combat helmets, all but one from the 20th century. That oddball is a very beautiful 1881 U.S. Cavalry helmet.

I've been collecting helmets since 1972 when some shipmates and I were boonie-stomping on the island of Guam where we were all stationed as young Navy radiomen. We were exploring an area around the village of Yigo ("Jee-go") which was the scene of one of the last stands made by organized Japanese forces.

Crawling on our bellies into a spiderhole cave which was half filled with water, we inched our way about 150 feet into the base of a ridge line. When we got to the source of the subterranean spring we found a Japanese helmet, buckles, teeth and other human remains. There were about six of us cramped in this deep, dark, cool, wet resting place of a Japanese soldier on this speck of an island in the middle of the Pacific. In the beams of our flashlights we started conjecturing about the circumstances that drove this long-ago soldier into the depths of this hillside.

We had our own war going on in those days, and bore none of our fathers' malice toward the remains that shared this space with us. It seems strange, in retrospect, how long we lingered to consider the life and death of a Japanese G.I. from that different war.

(U.S.Navy Radioman Roger Jacobs emerges from cave with helmet and buckle - 1972)
We returned to the surface, taking the helmet with us. Crawling back into the tropical sunshine, all introspection passed and again we were a bunch of jocular, knuckleheads in Uncle Sam's Navy, simply looking for the next adventure. Even so, that time in the cave stuck with us. And when I get together with the one old pal I've still kept in touch with, our conversation often turns to the afternoon of the helmet.

That helmet, now completely out of any historical context, resides here on South Mountain with me. Sometimes, when it catches my eye, I find myself wondering about the life of the young man who wore it to Guam but not back home again.

There is something about the very personal nature of a combat helmet that I find very compelling. Some guy wore it through some very difficult situations and may or may not have made it home again. Helmets aren't grand or dangerous, they've no moving parts, and they're totally utilitarian and characteristically drab. But a helmet suggests to me the thinking person who once wore it into combat; a young G.I. just like many of us were, once upon a time.

As all of us Civil War hipsters know, functional helmets came long after the ACW. The G.I. of the war that we study had headgear that protected him only from the sun and rain. The steel helmet is a quantum leap in the protection and welfare of the soldier, sailor, or Marine who wears it. I guess there's something very optimistic in the nature of the "tin lid"...everybody's entitled to hope that he, or she, is going to make it home alive.

I share their hope.


Ranger Mannie

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Winter Season

The holiday season, with all of the family groups visiting the park is now past. The Park rangers now have the opportunity to start catching up on tasks that have been deferred through the busy season of spring, summer, and fall. A variety of projects are underway over this very productive winter. New trails are being cleared and the accompanying brochures are in production, new programs are being written, living history groups are getting scheduled for the big 145th battle anniversary next September, and the Junior Ranger and teacher packets are being redesigned...that's where I come in.

One of the talents that lurk in my resume is that of "cartoonist". I've been cartooning since highschool. I've been able to utilize this talent in museum settings, clasrooms, and newspapers. Now, I've been tapped to illustrate our junior ranger workbooks as well as our teacher packets...the pleasure is all mine.

I'll post these illustrations soon, until then, here is one drawing that I did in response to a request to "make a better picture of a park ranger."

The result is, I hope, not too self-indulgent, but I think you'll recognize him.

Best wishes,

Ranger Mannie

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Who'da thunk it?

A year ago today, I visited Antietam National Battlefield, for the first time as a resident of the area.

My wife and I arrived from snowy Western Michigan to our apartment in Hagerstown on January 2 and spent the next few days waiting for our possessions to arrive . A day and a half went by and I just had to get to Antietam; the bright light that brought this moth to Washington County in the first place. The place that we had pulled up roots to be near was just 14 miles down the road, and there was no time like the present (so to speak) to go make sure that it was actually there.

I arrived at the park around four in the afternoon with only about an hour of daylight left. I got out at the tower on Sunken Road and cut through the field toward an isolated field piece. From that position I surveyed the park and my future prospects.

We literally "picked up and left" Michigan. Reactions from many of our friends ran from concerned to horrified. They'd ask: "Do you guys have jobs lined up out there?" To which my wife would cheerfully reply: "Nope, but Mannie knows where he'll be volunteering!"

And so it was.

I volunteered at Antietam, and worked as a substitute teacher. Virginia (my wife) got a job as a bookseller and continues to pursue her career as a fine artist.

And today, exactly one year later, with our own little house on South Mountain and a happy life, I'm the Ranger who lowers the flag at the end of each day at Antietam National Battlefield. Who'da thunk it?

Take a chance on your dreams.

Sleep tight,

Ranger Mannie

Poffenberger wagon shed: needs work

Over the course of the spring, summer, and through the very late fall, I watched as the folks from the Cultural Resources Division took the Poffenberger wagon shed on as a stabilization project...they really had their work cut out for them.

When I first encountered the shed it had a huge tree growing out from one wall and half- dozen woodchuck holes had the foundation askew.

The Joseph Poffenberger farmstead is an outstanding cluster of original buildings along the jumping off point for Hooker's 6:00 a.m. advance toward the Confederate positions near Dunker Church. Saving these significant buildings was a priority for the park this season.

First things first. Establishing square...

and shoring up the structure so it doesn't expire on the operating table (talk about "intensive care").

Timbers were selected...

and new sills and beams were hand-hewn.

Great care was taken to utilize as much of the original materials as possible.

Historic mortar mixes were used in the restoration of the stone foundation.

New stones where cut by hand but the historic facing stones had been numbered to allow them to be...

carefully placed back into their original positions.

Slowly the shed began to get square again,

as new materials were married to the old,

using techniques that the centuries could not improve.

(hold your breath)

A foundation corner before...

and during the restoration process.

K.C, Keven, and Travis are only three of the many talented and dedicated professionals who preserve Antietam National Battlefield as a living legacy for generations of future Americans.

Their attention to detail and commitment to utilizing original materials and techniques is evident throughout the project. It's really been a treat to watch them work over this very productive season.

Deteriorating boards are replaced with siding cut in the manner of...

the 1860s. Slowly the look of the shed regains its appearance as the men of the First Corps saw it on the early morning of September 17, 1862.

Those men are long gone, but thanks to the efforts of skilled rangers and artisans, the shed that many of them strode past as attackers, or returned to as battered wounded, remains to march into the future.

History is with us everywhere, at Antietam National Battlefield.

Ranger Mannie