Battlefield's ranger/historian retires

June 03, 2006|by TARA REILLY

In his 25 years at Antietam National Battlefield, Paul Chiles fielded all types of questions from visitors.

Some of them were unintentionally comical.

Did the Civil War battle happen before or after World War II?

Was the Battle of Antietam before or after Gettysburg?

Why were there so many battles fought at national parks?

Chiles, ranger/historian, said the most asked question had nothing to do with the Sept. 17, 1862, battle, but rather, a human necessity: Where's the restroom?

The questions all were part of the job for Chiles, a career he said was fun because he was able to help people by educating them.


Chiles, 57, retired from the National Park Service on Wednesday.

His retirement came about two years early, but it was a move that was necessary in order to help take care of his ailing mother in Nebraska. He plans to split time between his home in Inwood, W.Va., and Omaha, where he was born.

Chiles said he got "bit by the Civil War bug" as a kid growing up in Omaha.

While much of his history lessons in school focused on westward expansion, Chiles was able to work two summers at Gettysburg National Military Park during his college years.

Chiles spent time doing research, talks, tours and demonstrations as a seasonal ranger/historian.

"I had so much fun doing that that, I decided I wanted to make that my career," Chiles said.

After receiving a bachelor's degree in American history from the University of Nebraska in 1971, he served time in the U.S. Army, worked for the Veterans Administration in Denver, and five years as an intake ranger trainee and interpretive specialist at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

What would become his dream job opened up at Antietam in May 1981.

Chiles said he wanted to work at a Civil War park, and "Antietam worked out to be just ideal."

While Gettysburg is more recognized, has more monuments, land and tourists, Chiles said there's something different about Antietam's visitors.

Despite some humorous questions, many know their Civil War history.

"We're not as well-known as Gettysburg, and the visitors that come here tend to be more serious," Chiles said. "They ask better questions. That helps make it fun and interesting."

Chiles said he also enjoyed being able to direct Antietam visitors with family members who fought in the battle to their graves or places where their regiments might have been on the battlefield.

The battle, in which more than 23,000 men were wounded or killed in a day, led to Abraham Lincoln's issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Antietam was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history.

Chiles said the battlefield's pastoral scene is a contrast to its violent history.

"If you remove - in your imagination - the monuments and asphalt and telephone poles, it's essentially what it was like in 1862," Chiles said. "It's hard to believe there's so much wreckage here."

Though Chiles has retired, he is not leaving the battlefield behind.

He plans to work on a book, "Artillery at Antietam," and on a database of Antietam statistics during the battle.

"I'm not going to vegetate in front of the TV, that's for sure," Chiles said.

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