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Frye: Lee's plans never involved a battle at Antietam

June 16, 2012|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • Ernest "Stringbean" Lehman swings hard at a vintage-style baseball as he and teamates from the Mechanicsburg Nine warm up for a game Saturday at Hagerstown City Park. The Nine's opponent did not show, so the team demonstrated the differences of baseball in its infancy and the game of today.
By Kevin G. Gilbert

History is not only the record of what happened, but also what did not, and in the case of the Battle of Antietam, the Army of Northern Virginia did not invade Pennsylvania.

The sesquicentennial of the Sept. 17, 1862, battle is approaching, and Dennis Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry (W.Va.) National Historical Park, explained the significance of the days before the battle during a lecture Saturday at City Park. It was one of many events for First Call Weekend, which runs through today.

“In September 1862, nobody knew who was going to win,” Frye said. “History is really easy when you know who wins and who loses,” said Frye, author of a new book about the period, “September Suspense: Lincoln’s Union in Peril.”

Six days before the battle, Gen. Robert E. Lee arrived in Hagerstown with the intention of crossing the Mason-Dixon Line and threatening Philadelphia.

“The country that was nearest vanquishment was the United States,” Frye said. “The nation that had the momentum ... was the Confederacy.”

The invasion never came off because Lee was waiting for General “Stonewall” Jackson to take the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry, Frye said. The garrison, which threatened Lee’s supply lines, held out for a few days — long enough for Union Gen. George McClellan to move into place and force the battle, he said.

Lee’s plans “never involved a battle at Antietam,” Frye said. Despite Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania 10 months later, Frye believes Antietam was the “apex of the Confederacy.”

It has been written that war is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror, and First Call Weekend featured one way soldiers fought off that boredom — base ball.

It was two words in the Civil War, said Joe Houck, a short scout (shortstop) with the Mechanicsburg (Pa.) Nine of the Mid-Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League. His is one of 17 teams that play ball the way it was 150 years ago.

It is recognizable as the antecedent of today’s national pastime, and baseball’s popularity took off during the Civil War as soldiers played the game during long periods spent in encampments.

Some rules have changed, Houck said. Catching a fly ball was an out then as now, but it also was an out if caught on the first bounce, Houck said. An infield hit that rolled foul still was a playable ball, he said.

Home plate in those days looked like a plate. In the game played Saturday at City Park, home was a metal disc pegged in the ground, Houck said.

The vernacular of the game also was different, with players and fans punctuating good plays with shouts of “Huzzah,” “Great ginger” and “Well struck,” Houck said.

Adele Air, director of education at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, told visitors about another aspect of soldiers’ lives — their diet, which consisted largely of salt pork and hardtack augmented by available vegetables and fruits.

As for the moments of terror, there was the field hospital, and Greg Susla, a volunteer with the Museum of Civil War Medicine, told visitors that the common image many have is of men writhing in pain under a surgeon’s knife or saw.

“Ninety-five percent of surgeries were done under anesthesia — chloroform or ether,” Susla told visitors. During the Civil War — the bloodiest in the nation’s history — more than 8,600 gallons of chloroform were used, he said.

First Call Weekend resumes Sunday with a 10 a.m. tour of Rose Hill Cemetery with historian Steve Bockmiller. Also at 10 a.m. will be a nondenominational church service at Hager House and exhibits. There also will be music, exhibits, lectures and demonstrations throughout the day.

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If you go...

What: First Call Weekend
When: Today, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where: City Park, Hagerstown

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