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No large-scale Battle of Antietam re-enactment plans for sesquicentennial

April 09, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com
  • Confederate troops fire at advancing Union troops during a 2002 re-enactment of the Battle of Antietam.
Herald-Mail file photo

Editor's note: It has been 150 years since the first shot of the Civil War was fired at Fort Sumter, S.C. In observance of the beginning of hostilities on April 12, 1861, The Herald-Mail has prepared a package of stories about how that conflict affected those who lived in the Tri-State area during those times. The first stories are being published today and Monday. The package will culminate with a special section in Tuesday's newspaper.


Is it possible the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam could come and go next year without the thunder of hoofbeats, clank of bayonets and the sights of thousands of re-enactors in blue and gray marching through  Washington County fields?

Not only possible, but likely, according to local historian Dennis Frye, who said he had not heard of any large-scale Battle of Antietam re-enactment plans for the battle's sesquicentennial in September 2012.

Frye said he did not anticipate anything on the scale of the public re-enactments that were staged in 1997 and 2002, which each attracted about 13,000 re-enactors and as many as 100,000 spectators.

"If anybody wanted to do something at Antietam in 2012, they're already way behind," he said.

Planning for the 1997 and 2002 re-enactments began about two and a half years before each event, he said.

Frye, now chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, chaired those two re-enactments, which were nonprofit events coordinated by the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites in 1997 and the Antietam Commemoration Committee in 2002.

Thomas B. Riford, president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Liz Shatto, director of the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, said they had not heard of any public re-enactments planned for Antietam in 2012.

"We are putting more emphasis in general on emphasizing the product that's available 365 days a year, rather than putting a lot of effort into sort of a one-time, big blowout event," Shatto said. "But if a partner organization came forward and had the wherewithall and the interest, we certainly would do what we could to make their project known."



Land challenges

One obstacle to staging a re-enactment today is finding suitable land for it, Frye said.

National Park Service policy prohibits re-enactment on the battlefields themselves, and much of the nearby farmland used for the 1997 and 2002 re-enactments has since been developed.

"Our bloody lane battlefield is now a data processing center, and the union campground is now a satellite facility," Frye said.

Staging a large-scale re-enactment requires an "enormous" amount of land with space for not only battles, but encampments, parking and support services such as food and toilets, he said.

The 1997 and 2002 re-enactments used nearly 1,000 acres of land on Rench Road, south of Hagerstown.

"It would be a real challenge to find a large property in Washington County of 1,000 acres that has very good access to the interstate and could facilitate all of the logistical requirements of a massive public re-enactment," Frye said.

The National Park Service prohibition against re-enacting on battlefields was put into effect in 1962 after a 100th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Antietam because of the amount of damage the event caused on the historic land, Frye said.

"Basically all battlefields are cemeteries without stones, so the National Park Service believes they're sacred ground — hallowed ground — and that they should be commemorated, but not re-enacted upon," he said.

Another obstacle to re-enactments is their cost, according to Thomas Clemens, a history and political science professor at Hagerstown Community College.

"It counts on someone talking a financial risk because you put a lot of money in up front and if bad weather or anything else happens, then you lose a lot of money," he said. "There's nobody interested in sticking out their neck these days."



More politicized

Clemens said he thought cultural factors had also played a role in curbing some of the enthusiasm for re-enactments.

"Re-enactors are, from my experience, aging, like the rest of the population, and you don't see nearly as many young people as you did, even in the 90s and early 2000s," he said. "I think that there's just sort of a change in culture to some extent."

Amid a shifting political climate, the attractiveness of Civil War re-enacting is becoming more controversial, Clemens said, citing a column last spring in which writer Leonard Pitts criticized Confederate "apologists and battle flag fetishists" for sweeping the issue of slavery under the rug with "heritage not hate" rhetoric.

"The idea of the confederacy as a defender of slavery is becoming much more of an inflammatory issue than it was eight, 10 years ago," Clemens said. "I don't think that's a big factor in the lack of re-enactments, but it's another thing to keep in mind. People are just a little more politicized about it than they used to be."

Clemens also pointed out that the recent large Antietam re-enactments were staged at a time when the United States was not involved in any overseas wars and suggested that years of prolonged military engagement might have dampened the public's appetite for seeing battle restaged.



Learning opportunities

Those factors aside, Clemens and Frye both said they continued to view re-enactments as valuable educational opportunities to study one of the most significant events in our country's history.

"I felt the ones that were done here ... were excellent learning opportunities, but I just don't see anybody out there that's going to be able to do it on that scale right now," Clemens said.

Frye said re-enactments were no longer part of his focus in his current position with the National Park Service, but he supports them in general, if done properly.

"If someone else determined to present a re-enactment of Antietam, I would demand that they meet the extremely high standards that we established in 1997 and 2002, and basically repeat that experience for both the public and the re-enactor," Frye said.

Clemens said he thought it would have been a "nice touch" to stage a re-enactment on the 150th anniversary of the battle, when more eyes are focused on Antietam than have been in decades.

"It is a shame that it's not going to happen, but there's not much I can do," he said.



Planned events

Even without a re-enactment, there will be plenty of opportunities for Antietam visitors to enrich their understanding of the battle on the anniversary and during the months leading up to it, said Ed Wenschhof, Antietam National Battlefield's chief ranger and acting superintendent.

"We're going to have quite a few living history demonstrations where we do artillery and infantry demonstrations," Wenschhof said. "We just don't show any two-sided conflicts on the park land."

Wenschhof said the park has a committee working to line up extra programming for the sesquicentennial, including speakers and living history programs.

On Sept. 14 through Sept. 17, 2012, rangers will guide visitors on hikes of the battlefield ground in real time with events of those days, according to an event calendar.

The day of the battle, Sept. 17, will be commemorated at the battlefield with events such as a moment of silence at noon, hourly cannon firing from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the reading of the names of the dead in the National Cemetery, according to the calendar.

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