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Field trip to Antietam Battlefield

June 21, 1999

Editor's note: We asked our two student interns this summer to take a look at the Tri-State area with tourists' eyes. Through their reports, we hope you might rediscover attractions in our own back yard. This is the first in the series.




Antietam TourBy GREG SIMMONS / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




If you're in the mood to digest Civil War history, Antietam National Battlefield is one of the best places to do it in Washington County, if not the nation.

But there's something to remember when visiting a battlefield: Without a story, it's just a big plot of land with endless trees, corn rows and wheat fields and a few farm buildings and churches pocking the rolling hills. You need some sort of guidance on the field, or you'll get lost, or worse yet, bored to tears.

What the National Park Service does at Antietam is make it easy for just about anyone to come away with a bit of history in their pocket, or at least their head. There's always more than one way to tell the story of the bloodiest one-day battle in U.S. history, and the NPS takes a stab at all of them.

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There are two movies you can see seven days a week, both with realistic battle re-enactments. The 26-minute film is a good overview of the battle's significance to the outcome of the war if you can get past its 1978 soundtrack. This film is shown every day, every hour on the hour .

Narrated by James Earl Jones, the second film has detailed graphic representations of the soldier movement throughout the day of Sept. 17, 1862, in addition to spoken vignettes from individual soldiers. It lasts an hour and is shown once a day at noon.

The museum is small, but anyone who has 10 minutes should check it out; if you have time, you can spend much more than that. In addition to vintage clothing, artillery and medical equipment, you can surf "The Civil War Explorer," which looks like an ATM machine. It will tell you facts about battles and people, but you can also search through its database to find people who served on both sides of the Civil War.

I found 30 Simmons boys in the database, one who shares my father's and grandfather's initials and was from Kentucky, where my grandfather's branch of the family tree sprouts from. (One day, I may research it further, when I have more time on my hands.)

But to actually see the battlefield and be on it is to get the scope of the battle, the war and the people who fought it.

To tour the field, at the very least pick up the Antietam brochure in the visitor center. It will guide you to the three main flares of activity during the battle: Miller's cornfield, the Sunken Road and the Burnside Bridge. Plaques scattered throughout the route give quick synopses of the regiments that fought, and you can get a vague idea of how it all came together.

The NPS also provides a tape-recorded guide to the battlefield, which lasts about an hour and a half and gives the same factual background as either the rangers or the movies, but it can't capture the enthusiasm of the battle.

If you want someone to engage you in the spirit of the battlefield, take a guided tour. The guide will give you synopses of the battles as well as glimpses into the lives of the soldiers and the hourly hardships they faced as the battle unfolded. Park rangers give tours as well as private tour companies.

Rangers also give more frequent 30-minute talks at the visitor center to orient visitors.

If you go to Antietam, you will bring back more than a few mosquito bites. The park service provides enough opportunity for you to spend half an hour there, or a half a lifetime, but you can always learn something new.

--related story

If you go to Antietam

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