Sunday, November 30, 2008

Antietam 146th Anniversary Commemoration, Part 1

With the upcoming Illumination program on December 6, my thoughts return to the 146th Battle Anniversary Commemoration at Antietam National Battlefield. The anniversary program offered opportunities to explore lesser known areas of the battlefield and to develop new perspectives on famous aspects of the battle such as the fighting in the Cornfield or at Bloody Lane. The park’s historians guided a series of two hour hikes during the weekend of September 13-14, and the entire team conducted an all day hike of the battlefield (with a break for lunch) on the actual anniversary of the battle, September 17. I participated in a number of these hikes, and I am grateful to rangers Brian Baracz , Mike Gamble, and Keith Snyder for making this one of my most memorable and rewarding experiences since I first began touring battlefields so many years ago.

I arrived early on September 13 packing bottled water and my usual assortment of maps – Trailhead Graphics contour map with monument locations, a selection of views from the Carmen-Cope maps detailing troop movements, and the Bowlby map, which identifies crops planted in the area at the time of the battle. The weather was perfect – cool and clear with an early morning fog blanketing the valley along Antietam Creek, much as it would have been in September, 1862.

Keith Snyder led the first hike of the morning, focusing on artillery at Antietam with an emphasis on the morning action in the Cornfield – an appropriate introduction for the battle known as “Artillery Hell.” Keith reviewed the role of artillery in general and the specific tasks of members of the gun crews as an introduction. As we stood on the ground occupied by S.D. Lee’s battalion, Keith noted the field of fire of Lee’s guns, and their exposure to the big Federal twenty pounders lining the ridge across the Antietam. On our way to the Cornfield, we stopped at an unlikely place, or so I thought – the junction of the Mumma Farm Lane and Smoketown Road. No fewer than a dozen batteries of both sides occupied this area during the course of the battle. While this ground appears unimposing from a distance, it commands a clear view of the Cornfield area, much of the Bloody Lane, and parts of the West Woods.

Moving on to the Cornfield, Keith discussed the positions taken by several Federal batteries in and north of the Cornfield itself. From here, these batteries dueled with Lee’s guns and swept the corn with canister and shell as infantry of both sides struggled for an advantage. Standing where commanders fought their batteries in one of the most desperate battles of the war conveys the advantages of observation and clear fields of fire that even slight elevations provide on the battlefield. Antietam requires direct experience of the ground for a full understanding of the battle. Maps often represent the area bound by the East, West, and North woods as gently sloping farmland, but there are numerous examples of subtle changes in the terrain that offer significant military advantages (and disadvantages).

Keith’s last stop was the position of Campbell’s Battery near the Hagerstown Road, represented by a single gun surrounded by corn in summer and almost invisible. Here General Gibbon stopped to adjust the fire of his old Regular Army battery. And here Sergeant Herzog, with a mortal wound in his abdomen, dispatched himself with his pistol when told he could not survive more than a few hours. Keith has a particular talent for bringing the human dimension of the conflict to life with gripping stories like this, and also demonstrates a tremendous respect for the men who fought at Antietam and the sacrifices they made.

(Next Up: The Irish Brigade at Bloody Lane with Ranger Mike Gamble and the Middle Bridge with Ranger Brian Baracz)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Pamplin Park

The men of the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac waited in the chill dampness of an early April morning for the signal to begin their all out assault against Lee’s lines southwest of Petersburg. For them, though they could not know it, this was to be the last great struggle against the vaunted Army of Northern Virginia. One week later, forced to abandon Petersburg and Richmond, Lee’s army, decimated by the breakthrough at Petersburg and the disaster of Saylor’s Creek, reached Appomattox Courthouse to find their path to safety and supplies blocked by Union cavalry, with infantry close behind.

Pamplin Park, a privately funded historic site located on the site of the Sixth Corps breakthrough near Forts Gregg and Whitworth, features an interpretive trail at the site of the assault, a fortifications exhibit, recreated camp structures staffed by costumed interpreters, field and farm exhibits at the restored Tudor Hall Plantation, and the acclaimed National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.

The soldier museum features exhibits on numerous aspects of a typical soldier’s experience, including camp life, training, equipment, and medical treatment. In one room, visitors face a life size video of a regimental firing line. The command to fire rings out and the room is filled with noise and the whir of bullets – simulated by jets of compressed air firing from the walls as smoke fills the screen in front and the command to reload echoes above the din. At the beginning of the tour, I chose a soldier to follow through the war as I progressed through the exhibits on the museum. The extracts from memoirs and letters specific to each soldier provide a unique experience for each visitor. During my visit, I learned how a certain private (I don’t wish to spoil it for anyone) escaped from a prisoner of war camp after his capture and decided he had had enough of war and returned home. I did not have time for the film in the museum, which purports to be a gritty, realistic portrayal of soldier life and the horrors of war.

Leaving the museum, I headed straight for the fortifications exhibit. Made of realistic synthetic materials to preserve the exhibit, the fortifications reconstructed here include a rampart, ditch, abatis, and chevaux de frise. The rampart terminates with an artillery platform complete with embrasure where uniformed reeanactors demonstrate artillery drill several times per day. Reconstructed cabins and other camp buildings lie just beyond the fortifications exhibit. Reenactors also staff the camp and will readily answer questions about life in the siege lines at Petersburg.

The park also houses the Breakthrough Museum, the gateway to the interpretive trails tracing the course of the Confederate works where troops of the Sixth Corps finally broke Lee’s lines on April 2, 1865, forcing the evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond. A short film describes the action, and the museum also displays Don Troiani’s Medal of Honor, which captures the moment when Captain Charles Gould of the 5th Vermont Infantry vaulted over the ramparts of the fortifications – claiming the distinction of first man into the rebel works. He suffered three wounds and was later awarded the Medal of Honor.

Gould’s regiment approached the rebel lines along the course of a ravine cloaked in early morning mist. The remainder of his brigade crossed open ground gently sloping down toward the Confederate position. The men gripped their rifles and strained for a glimpse of the opposing lines in the early morning mist, awaiting the inevitable storm of musketry and canister from the desperate rebel defenders. But Lee’s forces had been stretched beyond their limits. The Federals pierced the lines in several places almost simultaneously. Nearby, General A.P. Hill hastily departed from a meeting with Lee to determine the situation in his front. He would be dead within the hour, not far from the ground preserved today by the park (a marker erected on the spot where Hill was killed is still accessible). A podcast for the battlefield trail is available on As I was touring with a friend, I did not take advantage of this, but I’m hoping to take advantage of other podcasts for yours I am planning in the Spring.

While I did not spend any time touring Tudor Hall Plantation, also on the grounds of the park, I noted several items of interest. Costumed interpreters staff the home and farm buildings, and demonstrate the tasks of everyday life in the nineteenth century, including planting and tending crops.

Few sites offer the range of interpretation Pamplin Park provides. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and will visit again the next time I travel to Petersburg. Plan to spend the better part of a day touring the park, especially if you want to take in the soldier’s museum and film.