Antietam’s sound and fury, without its carnage

September 15, 2012

As the musket and cannon fire died away Saturday and the wind blew the smoke from the battlefield, people strained to catch the distant notes of taps echoing in the sudden quiet.

The battle was over. For a second, all was still. Then the “dead,” who were strewed in terrible rows across the rocky ground, got up, dusted themselves off and headed back to their camps.

It was, mercifully, only the illusion of battle that unfolded on a 400-acre cattle and pig farm north of here Saturday. And it was “fought” only in remembrance of the monumental clash — the real Battle of Antietam that happened here 150 years ago Monday.

The sprawling morning reenactment, which simulated only part of the actual battle, was one of the opening weekend events held around the historic site to mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War’s bloodiest one-day battle.

The Sept. 17, 1862, clash, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg, left 23,000 soldiers from both sides killed, wounded or missing — much higher than the toll of Americans during the World War II D-Day landings in Normandy.

By one account, as many as 6,500 men, including three generals on each side, were killed or mortally wounded here.

The battle, 17 months into the war, is generally considered a tactical draw but a strategic victory for the Union. The Confederates had crossed into Maryland seeking to gain foreign recognition and new recruits and to influence upcoming Northern elections.

But the roughly 40,000-man Southern army was pummeled by about 86,000 Federals. The Rebels, having gained few recruits and no major foreign recognition, retreated back across the Potomac River. The battle along Antietam Creek gave President Abraham Lincoln enough good news to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which declared millions of Southern slaves free as of Jan. 1, 1863.

Over the weekend, hundreds of reenactors, many on horseback or hauling copies of Civil War artillery pieces behind pickups, gathered at the farm about three miles north of the historic battlefield amid the hilly farmland west of Frederick.

Many parked their cars, donned period clothing and eagerly left behind the turbulence of the 21st century for that of the 19th.

They pitched tents in tracts of blue chicory, purple clover and the occasional cow chip. They cooked bacon on open fires and drank coffee from metal cups.

Then, as the morning sun filled the valley, menfolk shouldered their weapons, fell in and — to the sound of the fife and drum and the call of the bugle — marched off to the battle.

As the boys in Yankee blue or Confederate gray came tramping down the dirt paths, their feet raised clouds of dust. And the men and their muskets cast eerie shadows on the ground as they marched past, just as they must have long ago.

The morning clash reprised the savage fighting that occurred in 1862 around a tiny, white-washed house of worship called the Dunker Church, named for its full-
immersion Baptist congregants.

A white wooden copy of the church, with a door and windows painted in, was erected on a hill on the reenactment area for effect. (Another part of the battle was simulated Saturday afternoon.)

On a gorgeous late-summer morning, with brown cornstalks standing in surrounding fields, hundreds of onlookers crowded onto bleachers and lined wire fences to watch the fray around the church.

At 9:30 a.m., Confederate artillery clattered into position as dozens of cannon were hauled down a dirt road behind trucks.

Ten minutes later, a long line of Confederate infantry came along. They were followed moments later by a column of dusty Yankees, marching to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” with huge flags rippling on the breeze.

The “battle” opened with ear-splitting artillery fire. The cannon belched flames and white smoke, which occasionally formed giant smoke rings, but no projectiles. Then the ranks of opposing infantry traded volleys of musket fire, and rival cavalry charged each other with drawn sabers.

The muskets were not loaded with bullets, but the foot soldiers were careful to aim high enough so that no debris could strike their foes. And the cavalry sabers clanged, but did no apparent harm.

During the engagement, many men fell, simulating the killed and wounded. Not far from the battlefield a simulated field hospital, had mock wounded men on an operating table, beside piles of “amputated” arms and legs.

The reenactors said they pursued their hobby often from a love of history, an admiration for the deeds of their forebears and a yearning for something they said seems to have been lost with the passing of the decades.

Al Stone, 68, of Hinton, W. Va., a retired private investigator, portrayed Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Rebel army. Like the real Lee, Stone looked distinguished in a white beard, gray coat and tan, broad-brimmed hat.

“The dedication,” he said. “Think about marching for 17 miles in a matter of six, seven, eight hours. Then, when you get here you don’t have a chance to stop and rest for a minute. You literally load your guns and go right in and start fighting.

“That’s dedication,” Stone said, “whether they wore the blue or the gray.”

Kent Schod, 47, a hospital emergency management specialist from Ranson, W.Va., who was portraying a Confederate medical officer, said he reenacted because he loved history and the atmosphere of the past.

“From a medical standpoint, you saw more death and injury here in one day than any day up to that point,” he said of Antietam.

He said he reenacts as a way of “remembering where we came from so we don’t do it again.”

“War is never good,” he said. “But we learn so much from it. The sacrifices that are made by individuals are sometimes forgotten for the big picture. And it’s good to get back.

“The values, the morals, the way of life that we’ve lost in our society today can be taught and experienced and lived here,” he said.

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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