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

1 comment:

  1. Garrett,
    Thanks for the kind words and for joining us on that remarkable morning.