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Antietam's 135th - A jump start for the imagination

May 14, 1997

My oldest son, now in his teens, was about 5 when we first took him to see the Antietam Battlefield. As the family walked toward the observation tower for a more panoramic look around, my boy inspected the well-kept grounds, the rail fences and the big monuments and shook his head in disbelief.

"Are you sure there was a battle here? It doesn't look like there was."

No amount of explaining could convince him that day, but coming this September, there will be something that should give his imagination a jump-start.

It's the commemoration of the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. And if you're coming, don't expect the usual speeches and short ceremonies that usually accompany such events. This event, set for Sept. 12-14, will be bigger.

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How much bigger? A lot bigger, according to Dennis Frye, president of the Hagerstown-based Association for Preservation of Civil War Sites. And though more than 10,000 Civil War reenactors from all over the world will participate in the event, Frye says emphatically that it will be much more than a restaging of the battle.

"We don't want to call it a reenactment, because we want a very broad family-type audience," he said.

For those who want to see history in action, however, there will be three restaged segments from the battle on the Artz farm on Rench Road. The will include the engagement in the Cornfield, where shells flew so freely that afterward the standing corn looked as if it had been mowed down by a machine, the encounter at Bloody Lane, where bodies were stacked like cordwood afterward and Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill's assault on the forces of Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

This last fight was the turning point of the battle, Frye. Hill had marched his men 17 miles from Harpers Ferry in just seven hours. Burnside's forces, fresh from taking the bridge that bears his name, were preparing to cut Gen. Robert E. Lee's line of retreat. Hill's forces attacked, and in two hours of fierce fighting, drove Burnside back.

Interesting stuff, but that's not all that visitors to the commemorative weekend will experience, according to Frye, who said citizens will also have the opportunity to meet "People who do what we call living history."

Appearing in authentic costumes of the times, these folks will discuss the lifestyles of the people they're portraying, along with demonstrating how historic tools and other implements were used. There will be demonstrations of cavalry and infantry and something known as the Sanitary Commission.

No it isn't the Civil War equivalent of the county sewer agency, Frye said, but a Red Cross-type organization that ministered to the wounded on the battlefield.

There will also be a vendor area, staffed by people dressed as the peddlers of that time, Frye said, adding that they'll have merchandise of the type that would have been available in the 1860s - some of it authentic and some reproductions.

Exact times will be announced as September draws nearer, but the tentative schedule calls for the event to kick off Friday, Sept. 12 with a march from Long Meadow to Hagerstown's Public Square. Following a ceremony in the square, the marchers will proceed to a ceremony at the Rose Hill Cemetery, where many Confederate soldiers are buried.

Fourth and fifth graders from local schools will be bused to the Rench Road site on Friday, Frye said, followed by the opening of the entire site Saturday. The Hill/Burnside engagement will be held that day.

On Sunday at 5:30 a.m., the recreation of the battle in the Cornfield will begin, followed by church services, after which will come the reenactment of Bloody Lane. The weekend's events will be over at about 4 p.m.

If you're not a Civil War buff, you might ask yourself why anyone should get excited about commemorating a brutal, bloody event that took place more than a century ago.

"I've been asked that question thousands of times overt the 20 years I've been involved with Civil War history," Frye said.

"We don't study death and killing, but rather those things that come about as a result of war - leadership, decision-making, sacrifice and honor, all the things that make us wholesome human beings."

I have often thought that citizens too seldom remember the sacrifices of those who've gone before us. and I agree with Frye that events like this one remind us that life wasn't always as easy as it is now.

For more about APCWS, call 301-665-1400. For a package of information about the commemoration, call 1-888-248-4597.

Bob Maginnis is the Herald-Mail's editorial page editor.

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