Back to Antietam Re-enactment: Thousands of Civil War buffs will commemorate the 135th anniversary of the bloody battle in Western Maryland.


September 11, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

There wasn't a lot worth celebrating 135 years ago in the tiny Western Maryland hamlet of Sharpsburg.

By the end of the day on Sept. 17, 1862, more than 23,000 men were killed, wounded or missing on the battlefield that would forever after be known by the tiny creek that flows along its eastern edge: Antietam.

Confederate forces, under Robert E. Lee, and Union forces, under George B. McClellan, fought to one of history's bloodiest draws, both sides ending the day effectively where they started. And while the Union could at least claim a moral victory -- Lee's planned invasion of the North had been thwarted -- the cost was incredibly high.

"It was the single bloodiest day in American warfare," notes John Howard, superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield. And that's a distinction it has retained ever since, through three more years of the Civil War, through more than half-a-dozen succeeding wars, through countless "improvements" in weapons of mass destruction.

What a difference the passing years can make.

This weekend, 12,000-plus Civil War-soldier wannabes will converge on a nearby farm to commemorate the Battle of Antietam (the National Park Service doesn't allow such events on its grounds). Re-enacters from nearly every state in the union, as well as a handful of foreign countries, will play to crowds of visiting schoolchildren and tourists. They'll dress like soldiers, arm themselves like soldiers and live like soldiers. They'll restage three of the battle's most famous, and bloodiest, encounters.

And this time, nobody is supposed to get hurt.

Visitors will have the opportunity to do far more than watch the mock combatants have at one another. They'll be allowed to wander through the soldiers' encampment and talk with the re-enacters, maybe learn something about medical practices and what life was like as a Civil War soldier. A sutlers' village, filled with merchants selling reproductions of 19th-century items, will be open for business. A regimental string band will perform. And a civilian camp will feature antique farming equipment, a display from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and demonstrations by civilian re-enacters portraying members of such Civil War-era groups as the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Christian Commission and Ladies' Aid Societies.

The weekend is slated to begin at 9 a.m. Friday, as troops parade through Hagerstown to the Washington County Confederate Cemetery (where a memorial service will be held) and then to the re-enactment site.

The highlight of the three-day commemoration should be the three battle scenarios. The first is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday, duplicating Confederate Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill's afternoon attack on the Union lines. Hill's troops, which had been marching all day from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., halted a Union advance and probably saved the Confederacy.

At 6: 30 a.m. Sunday, the deadly encounter in the Cornfield will be staged -- about an hour later than the actual battle, during which Union and Confederate forces slaughtered each other for nearly 4 1/2 hours.

Finally, at 1: 30 p.m., the battle along the Sunken Road (also known as "Bloody Lane") will be played out. The two sides lost nearly 4,000 men here alone.

"It looks like it's going to be a heck of an event," says Howard. "They're being very realistic and specific about the terrain and the grounds. . . . I don't think people could find a better event like this to attend."

That sentiment is shared by the people who'll be doing the play-acting, which begins at 9 a.m. tomorrow, when the re-enactment site opens to the public.

"I've never known a more enriching hobby," says Chris Chesnut, captain of the Confederate 1st Maryland Infantry Battalion, Company A. "When you are studying a portion of old history, just reading about it and watching movies about it . . . isn't enough. You want to live it, to really get a grasp of it."

Chesnut, a chef and food service manager from Glen Burnie, has been traveling the circuit for four years, participating in about 15 re-enactments a year -- at first, he says, simply to learn more about what the war actually looked like. "I had studied the Civil War for a long time. I'm also an artist, and I hope someday to become a Civil War artist. So I got into [re-enactments] for professional purposes, but got caught up in the hobby far more than I ever expected."

Doug Petit, who will be part of a busload of re-enacters traveling to the Antietam events from Wisconsin, agrees that the enthusiasm of his fellow hobbyists is infectious. He, too, started with a modest interest in the Civil War and that period in history.

"You just kind of get caught up in it after awhile," he says. "It's always been a period in history that intrigued me the most. If the war had gone differently, we would look much different today as a country."

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