Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Changing the trajectory of American Freedom

After spending Thursday and Friday at Harpers Ferry documenting the 150th Anniversary of the battle to capture the town, on the night of Friday the 14th I officially moved to the hotel in Shepherdstown from whence we would cover the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Antietam. I captured a lot of special moments over the course of the commemoration, but here are some of my favorites.  



Saturday the 15th began with me checking in with the admin folks and then embarking on the first of what be four in-depth hikes of the battlefield that I documented.  I was the only photographer on this particular hike which means that This Album,the first to be posted on Saturday, consists entirely of my photographs!
Robert Hodge, of "Confederates in the Attic" fame
During this program I learned a great deal about the fighting around the cornfield during the first phase of the battle.  I had volunteered to go on these 3 hour in depth hikes for precisely this chance to expand my own knowledge through the interpretation of some of the most knowledgeable rangers at Antietam.

I greatly enjoyed each of the programs I attended and even got to do some of my own interpretation when visitors asked me questions about the battle. If you wear a Park Service uniform to these programs people like to ask you questions! It was fun to get to directly interact with visitors, something I do not get to do too frequently these days.

These are a few of the visitors I captured during ranger programs.




 And here are a few of my favorite ranger action shots.  

Even Rangers need refreshment

Ed Bearss on the walking tour
I also had the pleasure of attending a walking tour by the legendary historian Ed Bearss, who despite being 89 years old, was still leading tours of the battlefield! I was amazed at how fast he could move!

The attendance for each of the tours was impressive. The Ed Bearss walk had over 400 people, the Cornfield Program had over 500, and the all day battle walks on the actual anniversary of the battle on Monday began with over 600. Here are a few pictures to give you a sense of the crowds present for each of these programs.

More than 600 people joined us for the all day hike on the actual battle anniversary

Gathering on the side of the cornfield from whence the Union I Corps first launched their attack
The weather was absolutely perfect throughout out the commemoration which made my job as a photographer a lot easier and more enjoyable. Antietam is a beautiful battlefield and there are no shortage of picturesque vistas.  
The Cornfield
Looking across the field toward "Bloody Lane"
Burnside Bridge
Monument to the 8th Connecticut on the Final Attack Trail
During the commemoration more than 450 living history volunteers were onsite to portray various different units and tell their stories all over the battlefield. While their role during the Cornfield Program was the most profound and impactful for me, I enjoyed seeing and photographing them throughout the weekend. 

The 6th Wisconsin charges toward the Cornfield
Union infantry advancing toward "Bloody Lane."

On Monday, in addition to the ranger led and living history programs there were also special ceremonies near the visitor center and in the National Cemetery. During the first Dr. James McPherson addressed the crowd for the second time after giving a joint lecture with Ed Bearss the evening before. McPherson is widely regarded as one of the premier Civil War historians (as is Bearss) and I jumped at the chance to get to hear him speak about Antietam.  

James McPherson signs autographs

The commemoration officially ended with a special closing ceremony in the National Cemetery.



I was blessed to be a part of capturing the story and sharing it with others. One of the most significant moments that I got to be a part of was telling the story of  Ranger Dan, whose  great great great grandfather was killed at Antietam. Dan read his name as a part of the ceremony of remembrance at the cemetery.
Ranger Keith Snyder
We received a plethora of positive feedback over the course of the event. One of my favorite responses actually came in the form of a Blog in which one of the visitors praised our team and referenced me personally. 

If you haven't had enough of my pictures from the event, this album of my Civil War Photography includes photographs from Richmond, both First and Second Manassas, Harpers Ferry, and the sesquicentennial of Antietam.

It was a weekend I will carry with me for the rest of my life. What happened at Antietam helped to change the course of the war and the trajectory of American freedom. It was a great honor for me to be  part of its commemoration. Ranger Keith Snyder captured it well at the beginning of the all-day battlefield hike on Monday: "What happened here redefined American Freedom, saved this nation, and set the standard for all mankind."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Prelude to Freedom: Commemorating the Battle for Harpers Ferry

I have a pretty unique job. I get paid to do things that I love doing and that most people don’t get to do. Now I know not everyone is the history nerd I am, but I feel like the Civil War is one of the historical events most recognized for its defining role in the formation of this country. The purpose of my job is to help people understand this significance and to connect the disparate elements of the war together into a more cohesive narrative. When I started this job in March we were already focused on preparing for the Maryland Campaign, the pinnacle of military action in the Eastern theater of the Civil War in the summer of 1862. The 150th anniversary of that campaign officially ended a few days ago on September 19, the anniversary of the Confederate Army of Northern  Virginia’s retreat across the Potomac out of Maryland and back into Virginia.

Two days before Robert E. Lee’s invasion came to an end the bloodiest single day in American history played out on the fields between and surrounding Antietam Creek and Sharpsburg, MD.  The sesquicentennial of the Battle of Antietam was the single biggest commemoration of 2012 and would have, on its own, been a profound experience. But this commemoration was further enhanced by falling in the context of other action occurring during the campaign, particularly in Lee’s attempt to capture the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry. Our office was tasked with covering, not only the events occurring at Antietam, but also those at South Mountain and Harpers Ferry as well. In order to do all this we left our office in Manassas on Thursday morning, September 13 and did not return until Tuesday, September 18. Much of that time was spent on the Antietam Battlefield and more on that experience can be found in my postings on The Cornfield and Changing the Trajectory of American Freedom.

Before I got to Antietam I spent two and a half days in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, helping to document the commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the three day battle (September 13-15) which culminated in the largest surrender of US troops (12,500) in the history of this nation, a record that remained until the American surrender to the Japanese on Bataan and Corregidor in 1942. 

Though much less well known than the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Harpers Ferry was a critical piece of the Maryland Campaign, and without it Antietam would never had happened. It was very special to be a part of telling this story and honoring those who struggled over this ground 150 years before.
Ranger Stan leads the students in saluting the flag
I photographed numerous events at Harpers Ferry over the time that I was there, but some of the highlights included the events you see pictured below. One of the more unique programs consisted of two classes of 5th and 6th grade students leaving their respective schools, which happened to sit almost directly on the positions occupied by the Union and Confederate forces during the battle, and marching toward a meeting point in the middle. Each student was given a slip of paper about a particular soldier who served in either the Union 126th New York or Confederate 2nd Virginia regiments, two of those who saw action contesting the ground they were marching over. When they reached the meeting point the two classes shook hands in a sign of reconciliation and shared the stories of the soldiers they represented. It was a significant tangible symbol of honoring and remembering those who had struggled so valiantly over the same ground they had just walked. 

On our way up to Maryland Heights

I spent a significant portion of September 13 hiking up to the site of the fighting for Maryland Heights, overlooking the town of Harpers Ferry and one of the keys to the Confederate success. I had read about the importance of the heights and the fighting that took place there, but had not actually climbed up the trail before. It gave me a much deeper appreciation of both the importance of the site and what occurred there exactly 150 years earlier.

Harper  Ferry Chief Historian Dennis Frye

I also had the privilege of accompanying the chief historian of Harpers Ferry on a special Bus Tour around the battlefield.

View of the Potomac River from Camp Hill in Harpers Ferry

I thought I knew a fair amount about the battle going into the commemoration, but after listening to these programs I have a much wider perspective and understanding.

President of Harvard
Wildcat Regimental Band
The commemorative events also included a concert by the Wildcat Regimental Band, special lectures from historians including the President of Harvard University, and a living history presentation of the surrender and parole of the Union garrison on September 15.

 For more pictures of these events Click Here.



Confederates awaiting orders to parole the Union prisoners

Some of the events continued after dark. Harpers Ferry is a different place after the sun sets and I especially enjoyed the opportunity to  appreciate it on Thursday night when we slept right in the center of the historic town.
Lanterns lit for a lantern led tour

Torches lighting the central road through town
It was a fun event to be a part of and I greatly enjoyed the chance to spend some more time in Harpers Ferry. It is a beautiful town and area and has connections to all sorts of American history. It is definitely one of my favorite places to spend time here on the East coast.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Battle Comes to Life

It was a little after 6:00 in the morning as we arrived on the battlefield. I had estimated that we would have 350 people come out for the program, but we soon discovered that the true number was over 500. Why did so many people join me out on the battlefield so early in the morning? Because they wanted to experience history in a remarkably tangible way. It was at that moment, exactly 150 years ago, in that very spot that the first shots were heard on what would become the bloodiest day in American history.

What followed was one of the most surreal and significant moments I have ever encountered in my study of history. This was no mere recounting of historical events. This was something much more. The program consisted of nine rangers, not delivering a summary of events, but reading the words of the men who were actually there that morning. That alone would have been powerful, but as they read these words we stood on the very ground that had been contested so hotly in the early morning hours of September 17, 1862 – the infamous Cornfield.
Me in the Cornfield in September 2010

The last time I visited this spot the corn was not there. It usually isn’t because it is a part of a crop rotation, but several years ago the farmer who still plants and tills this land took steps to ensure that, not only would corn grow in the field this year, but that it would be the same height as it was 150 years earlier. So we found ourselves standing on the very edge of this cornfield listening to the words of those who struggled so desperately to control it even as the sun began to rise through the mists of early morning.

The sun begins to rise through the cornfield

My supervisor photographing the sunrise with his I-Phone
Then, suddenly, the voices of the rangers were overwhelmed by another sound. It was the booming of cannon, coming from the Confederate position atop a nearby ridge. Then Union cannon answered from the North Woods, the very positions the respective batteries had occupied during this phase of the battle. An eerie feeling of being caught in the middle of something few people had ever seen quickly spread through the crowd. 

Even as it did so the nearby corn began to rustle and suddenly commands could be heard and the figures of gray and butternut clad figures began to emerge from the cornstalks and take up firing positions against the fence rails. As these men began to fire toward the very location where the Union I Corps had advanced 150 years previously it was as if we had been transported back in time and were actually watching the battle begin to unfold. I have never experienced anything like it. 

Wishing to honor those who had struggled on this field rather than to make a spectacle of their sacrifice the living historians portraying both sides did not fire directly at each other or pretend to take casualties, but they didn’t need to. One needed only the faintest threads of imagination to expand what we saw playing out before us into what it would have looked like that morning as thousands of men played out this dramatic contest in this very spot.
Visitors capture the sun as it rises
Even as the Confederates finished firing the black hats of the Union 6th Wisconsin regiment of the brigade that would soon be known by the sobriquet of the “iron brigade” came over the horizon. These men rapidly advanced toward the cornfield and soon passed through it as their forbearers had done. As the sun rose over the fields of Antietam the gun-smoke hovered over us and all who were present knew that they had witnessed a profound manifestation of the importance of remembering our history and the actions of those who came before us.

This moment was, without question, not only the highlight of my weekend, but the single most transcendent moment I have ever experienced on a Civil War Battlefield. 
The sun rises over the Cornfield

Confederates file out of the cornfield in the morning sun.
For more pictures of The Cornfield, including some of those I took, follow this link to the album on the  Antietam Facebook Page