By Gene Thorp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Some irresistible force always draws me to this haunting place.
As I sip my coffee in the predawn darkness of Antietam National Battlefield, the air is still and filled with the chirping of countless crickets, occasionally broken by the clanking of a cowbell or the distant horn of a passing train. Almost every morning this time of year, a thick fog blankets the landscape, only to slowly melt away with the heat of the late-summer sun. In these rural hills and valleys, ghostly silhouettes of Gothic statues and Civil War cannons materialize through the fading mist like specters.
It was here on Sept. 17, 1862, in the rolling hills of Western Maryland near the town of Sharpsburg, that more than 23,000 Americans became casualties in 12 hours of savage fighting, a single day of loss unsurpassed in U.S. history. In these fields 145 years ago, the Federal army stopped cold a seemingly inexorable Confederate offensive under Robert E. Lee. It gave President Abraham Lincoln the political power to issue a proclamation that started the downfall of slavery.
Away from the crowds of Washington but near enough to make the round trip in a day, this tranquil setting is one of my favorite places to visit. It is here, on a recent Saturday, that I met separately with seven official guides who toured the battlefield with me and told me things I didn't know about Antietam.
The guides program -- run by the nonprofit Western Maryland Interpretive Association -- is in its third year of operation. (To be approved, each guide must wade through an extensive list of books and pass both written and oral exams.) But it's new to this veteran of Civil War literature.
For the next seven hours, I tramped the battlefield, seeing it from myriad perspectives, and unearthed some of the lesser-known tales of this great battle. Here's what I discovered.