Battle of Antietam relived

December 19, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

SHARPSBURG - A cable TV series looking at the science of battle - you might call it "CSI: Civil War" - will feature the Battle of Antietam on Monday.

The Antietam episode of "Battlefield Detectives" is scheduled to air Monday at 8 p.m. on The History Channel.

"The Antietam programme in essence attempts to answer a single question: Why were so many casualties inflicted on a single day?" producer-director James Millar of Granada Television in Manchester, England, wrote in an e-mail interview last week.

Considered the bloodiest day in American history, the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, left 23,110 dead, missing or wounded.


The Antietam show is part of a Civil War doubleheader on Monday. The second half, another episode of "Battlefield Detectives," will be about the Battle of Gettysburg, also during the Civil War.

The eight-part series began on Nov. 12 with an examination of Operation Market Garden, during which "[t]housands of Allied troops landed in Arnhem, Holland in the hope of ending World War II by Christmas 1944," according to The History Channel's promotional material.

Other "Battlefield Detectives" episodes have been about the Revolutionary War, the Mexican-American War and World War I.

"Like all of the Battlefield Detectives programmes Antietam attempts to shed new light on (a) well known-battle by studying it from a rigorously scientific point of view," Millar wrote.

"Historians play their part but this programme is not attempting to be a revisionist history. It's in effect a kind of anatomy of a Civil War killing field that draws upon the expertise of archaeologists, pathologists, ballistics experts, geologists, as well as historians.

"There are a number of scientific tests in the programme including an examination of the impact of the Minie bullet on the human frame and a survey of the very particular terrain around Sharpsburg that was so conducive to the high casualty rate of September 17th, 1862."

"This story has never been presented in this fashion," said Dennis Frye, a military historian from Sharpsburg.

Frye said he helped research the material during preproduction, was interviewed at the battlefield and his home during production and reviewed the script during postproduction.

The show touches on technology, weapons, land, medicine and more, Frye said.

A forensic anthropologist talks about the actual bones of a soldier and the wounds he had. A demonstration compares the capabilities of different muskets.

"It effectively and dramatically shows the evolution of firepower," Frye said. "The changes were more subtle and slower in the 19th century from the rapid changes of today - but there were deadly results."

Stephen Potter, the regional archaeologist for the National Park Service's National Capital Region in Washington, D.C., said Granada Television filmed him and his staff for more than three days.

Park Service archaeology employees scoured Antietam National Battlefield for artifacts, then brought them to a lab in Landover, Md., to analyze them.

Potter said the researchers focused on the movements of the 7th Maine at Piper Orchard, southwest of the sunken country road known as Bloody Lane.

He said artifacts give clues. For example, a spot littered with unfired bullets could be where soldiers stopped to spray the enemy with gunfire.

In the frenzy of war, soldiers dropped bullets, uniform buttons, canteen stoppers and other small items of clothing or equipment, Potter said.

By noting soldiers' positions, experts can study how the lay of the land affected the battle.

Monday's show "personalizes the horror of Antietam," Frye said. "It's not a blood-and-guts presentation, but it does explain why there was so much blood and guts.

"It's graphic, it's poignant and when you see it, you'll never forget it."

Frye - the chief of interpretation, education and cultural resources management at Harpers Ferry (W.Va.) National Historical Park - was an associate producer for the movie "Gods and Generals," part of which was filmed in Washington County. He also has helped organize re-enactments of the Battle of Antietam.

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