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Thousands expected to honor those who died in Antietam battle

September 17, 2006|by CANDICE BOSELY

WASHINGTON COUNTY - It began at dawn on a foggy morning 144 years ago today.

The Battle of Antietam, on Sept. 17, 1862, raged for 12 hours and left 23,000 soldiers killed, wounded or missing.

It ended with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee retreating from Maryland back into the south and, five days later, President Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect the following January.

Today, to mark the anniversary of the single bloodiest day during the Civil War, several discussions and ranger-led hikes and car tours will be held at the battlefield. No re-enactments of the battle itself are planned.

John Howard, superintendent of the battlefield, said that to mark the anniversary, as many as 25,000 visitors might come to the park this weekend. Typically on a weekend day, about 2,000 to 3,000 people stop by the visitors center.

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Howard had a few words of advice for visitors.

"Walk on the ground that the soldiers walked on," Howard said. "Turn off your cell phone and your Blackberry and just think about what it was like to be a stranger in a place where someone was trying to kill you."

During the battle, tens of thousands of soldiers were fighting for what they believed in, regardless of whether their uniforms were blue or gray.

Remembering those individual soldiers, rather than thinking of the battle in terms of large armies, is important, Howard said.

"We don't want them to be forgotten," Howard said of the soldiers, "because what they did here was important and gave us the country that we have now."

Americans' interest in the Civil War continues, in part, because of the war's proximity, Howard believes.

"This is a war that is easy for any citizen to touch," Howard said.

Unlike with World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam, visiting Civil War battlefields requires only a few hours of driving for those on the East Coast.

The Civil War is unique in that it was started, fought and ended by Americans. Before the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at the courthouse in Appomattox, Va., on April 9, 1865, everyone involved was an American, Howard said.

What now are battlefields were, in their day, often places where people simply lived or farmed.

"Many people, thank God, never have to see one (a battle). They never have to see a battlefield," Howard said.

Except for those preserved battlefields, of course, where men fought and died, and where this country, in a sense, was reborn nearly 150 years ago.

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