Antietam National Battlefield

The Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg) was fought in September of 1862 and was the culmination of Robert E. Lee’s Maryland Campaign. The park was one of the first battlefields to be preserved in the late 1890s and transferred to the Department of the Interior in the 1930s. While small in scope, the park is famous for the many locations made famous by the battle to include the Dunker Church, Miller’s Cornfield, the Bloody Lane, and Burnside’s Bridge. But in addition to the battle, Antietam also provides an opportunity to teach students about Civil War medicine (with a focus on Clara Barton) and President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

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The Battle:

By the end of the summer of 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had defeated three separate Union Armies and was moving through western Maryland in an attempt to insight rebellion amongst the state’s residents and gain favor with the governments of Britain in France. Crossing at Cheek and White’s Ford, Lee split his army in two, sending one wing to Harper’s Ferry and the other to Frederick.

To reinvigorate the Union Army President Abraham Lincoln reinstated General George McClellan to command of the Union Army in the Eastern theater. Moving slowly, McClellan was able to catch up with Lee west of Frederick and fight a pitched battle at the three gaps (Fox’s, Turner’s and Crampton’s) of South Mountain. After being driven from the gaps, Lee arranged his army in a defensive perimeter around the the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. McClellan would cross a large portion of his army across Antietam Creek in anticipation of the battle to come the following day.

The action at Antietam started early on the north side of the battlefield at the Cornfield, where elements of Union General Joseph Hooker’s Corps assaulted the Confederate left. Attacks and counter-attacks raged in Miller’s Cornfield and the Dunker Church throughout the early morning as both sides committed troops to take advantage of the situation. By noon, the course of the battle shifted to a Sunken Road, where Union troops continually threw fresh troops against a strong position that would take on the name “Bloody Lane”. Eventually, Union forces were able to pierce the Confederate flank and drive the defenders off, only to be stymied by concentrated artillery. By the early afternoon, the battle shifted to the Confederate anchored by a few hundred men along Antietam Creek. For several hours, the Confederates prevented  Burnside’s Corps from crossing the Creek via what would be later known as Burnside’s Bridge, until a pair of Union regiments successfully charged the position. Shortly after, the arrival of Confederate reinforcements from Harper’s Ferry halted the Union advance and allowed Lee to consolidate his army. The Battle of Antietam would eventually result in a stalemate with Lee returning to Virginia and McClellan being relieved of command. More importantly, the battle provided President Lincoln with the impetus to draft the Emancipation Proclamation which called for the end of slavery in those states currently in rebellion.

Visiting the Battlefield:

Antietam is actually quite a compact battlefield and can be toured either by car or on foot. The Visitor’s Center contains a small museum dedicated to the battle and a 30 minute video. Twenty minute Ranger led discussions occur in the Observation Room, which provides a enclosed space for visitors to observe the breadth of the park. Local re-enactors also provide a demonstration on the firing of Civil War cannon. Antietam also hosts a Junior Ranger Program for children aged 5 to 13. I would also recommend the park’s annual Illumination, which occurs the first weekend in December.

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To see most of the battlefield by foot, I would recommend the following four trails:

  • Antietam RememberedWest Woods Trails – The loop begins at the Antietam Visitor Center and loops down to the Dunker Church. From there, hikers can pickup the West Woods Trail. The Woods were the scene of bloody fighting by Sedgewick’s Union Division. You can then complete the loop and return to the Visitor’s Center or join the Cornfield Trail near Stop 5 (The Rock Ledge) to extend the loop.
  • Cornfield Trail – The Cornfield Loop is 1.6 miles long and takes visitors through the early morning portion of the battlefield to include the North and East Woods, the Miller and Poffenberg Farms, and the Cornfield.
  • Bloody Lane Trail – The Bloody Lane Trail starts and ends at the Visitor Center and takes hikers past the Mumma and Roulette Farms. Visitors will then scale the rolling hills up to the Bloody Lane and down the Sunken Road before returning.
  • Final Attack Trail – Linked to the parking lot near Burnside’s Bridge, the trail takes visitors on the undulating terrain east of Sharpsburg where Burnside met the final line of Lee’s Defense. Visitors should also walk down to the bridge itself (when construction is over) to cross over the other side and observe the heights defended by the Confederates.

Civil War Trust Resources:

The Civil War Trust has a ton of resources on the Antietam Campaign. There is a battle app, which provides insight into the different phases of the battle beyond what the National Park Service provides. Prior to leaving for the battlefield, I would recommend that students watch the Trust’s Animated Map, which provides a visual of the battle combined with reenactment video.

Books:

There are a surprising number of books for young children about Antietam. To get young children into the battle, I would recommend The Battle of Antietam: The Bloodiest Day of Battle, by Larry Hama, which is a graphic novel of the Antietam Campaign. Because  of Clara Barton’s connection to the battle, I would also recommend picking up one of the many young reader biographies for the Angle of the Battlefield. Magic Treehouse’s Civil War on Sunday also features Jack and Annie traveling back in time to meet Barton. Finally, Amazon.com also has a kid’s introduction to the Emancipation Proclamation from Ian D. Fraser.

For older students and adults, I would recommend the following texts:

  • Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam by James M. McPherson – McPherson’s work focuses more on the stakes of the battle and the eventual diplomatic outcome, when Great Britain removed its tacit support to the Confederacy. At 215 pages, Crossroads of Freedom provides a great overview of the battle.
  • Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears – Probably my favorite Antietam work. Landscape Turned Red provides a blow-by-blow account of the battle and is very representative of Sears’ style to engage the reader.
  • The Maryland Campaign Volumes I to III by Thomas G. Clemens & Ezra A. Carman – This really is the definitive work on the Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam. For those wanting to dive into the width and breadth of the campaign and have the time to read over 1,500 pages. The volumes are available in both hardback and Kindle versions.
  • The Maps of Antietam by Bradley M. Gottfried – My father in law and a great friend have both purchased this book and I am glad that I have been able to reference it on our visits. The book is filled with almost up to the minute maps showing the movements of the armies as back and forth of the battle took place.

Website: Antietam National Battlefield

Know Before You Go: The short trail from the Visitor’s Center to the Dunker Church is well maintained, while others are across uneven dirt paths. Bathrooms are located at the Visitor Center, but at no other locations around the battlefield. Food options at the Visitor’s Center are limited to a few small snacks and water. There are a number of taverns and small restaurants in town, but if your kids have been extra good, I would recommend Nutter’s Ice Cream at 100 East Main Street.

Location: Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Hours: The Visitor Center is open daily from 9AM to 5PM daily, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. The battlefield is op

Admission: Admission is $10 and covers one vehicle.

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George Washington’s Birthplace National Memorial

On our way home from a recent camping trip to Fredericksburg, I made sure that stopped at the George Washington’s Birthplace National Memorial. Unlike his homes at Ferry Farm or Mount Vernon, which contributed to the lore of Washington, the birthplace site at Pope’s Creek serves as gateway to understanding the world he grew up in. The settlers of Tidewater Virginia developed a unique society reliant upon riverine transportation to ferry crops and handmade goods out and imported goods from England in. Slaves would have worked among large fields of tobacco and corn in between forests. The plantations along the Chesapeake Bay would become the homes of a new landed gentry perpetuating itself through intermarriage, slavery, and civil service.

The site at Pope’s Creek was originally settled by George Washington’s great-grandfather in 1657. The Washington family’s expansion. Built before 1718, the original house was expanded throughout the 18th century by George Washington’s father Augustine into a ten-room house known as “Wakefield”. Washington was born at Pope’s Creek on 22 February 1732, according to the Gregorian calendar. Washington and his family would later move to Home Farm or Ferry Farm south of Fredericksburg in 1738. A fire and flood on Christmas Day, 1779 would unfortunately destroy the house and it would never be rebuilt. Outside the Memorial House is a chalk outline defining the footprint of the original house.

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“Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” Vol. XII, No. LXIX, February, 1856, p. 291. New York: Harper & Brothers

In the 1920s, the Wakefield National Memorial Association was formed in restore the property. Before the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth, the Memorial Association constructed the brick Memorial House, which is a replica of a typical upper-class house of the period. The bottom floor contains a dining, drawing and bedrooms with period furniture (none belonging to the Washingtons). The upper floors contains four bedrooms, with the children’s room of particular interest to young visitors.

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The best part of the National Memorial is actually walking the grounds and visiting the out buildings. The grounds contain a kitchen house, a Colonial Herb and Flower Garden, a blacksmith shop, and various farm buildings to include tobacco barn, pig styes, horse barns and chicken coops. The livestock, poultry and crops are heirloom 18th century varieties and 18th century farming methods used on the working farm.

The Visitor Center is simple with a smattering of artifacts recovered from the original house site. A fourteen minute video runs frequently outlining the history of the Washington family. Other sites around the park include the 1896 Memorial Obelisk, the Family Burying Ground, and a mile-long nature trail.

 

The Memorial has a great junior ranger program that is geared towards younger students. Instead of focusing exclusively on Washington’s life, the program is rooted more in the life on a plantation in the early 18th Century. Unfortunately, short shrift is paid to the role that slaves played in the development of the plantation.

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Website: George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Know Before You Go: The grounds are well maintained and accessible along gravel paths. Access to the house is via a set of stairs without a ramp. Bathrooms are located at the Visitor Center, near the Memorial House and near the picnic ground.

Location: Washington’s Birthplace is located at 1732 Popes Creek Road in Colonial Beach, Virginia 22443.

Hours: The Visitor Center and Historic Area is open daily from 9AM to 5PM daily, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day.

Admission: Admission is free.

Fort McHenry – Battle of Baltimore

Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore Harbor, sits among some of the most hallowed ground in America. Although not notable for the loss of life (only four defenders were killed) like Gettysburg or Pearl Harbor, it is far more famous because what its defense inspired among a still very adolescent nation.

The action at Fort McHenry was part of a much larger Battle for Baltimore that occurred in mid-September 1814. Following the Battle of Bladensburg and subsequent burning of Washington, Maj. General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane’s invasion fleet moved further up Chesapeake Bay to attack the city of Baltimore. On September 12th, Ross landed the main British army at North Point and was met by an advance guard of American soldiers and militiamen along the North Point Road. In a sharp action that day Ross was killed, but the British carried the field, forcing the Americans back to the defenses protecting Baltimore. Prior to the larger attack on Baltimore, Col. Arthur Brook took command of the British ground forces and marched within two miles of the city.

To augment the ground campaign, an attack by the British Navy was necessary. What stood in the way was Fort McHenry and a number of smaller works protecting the entrance to the harbor. The British bombardment of Fort McHenry commenced early on 13 September and lasted some 25 hours. Maj. George Armistead, the fort’s commanding officer, estimated that somewhere between 1,500 and 1,800 shells and rockets were fired by the fleet. Because of the types of weapons used by the British, the bombardment fleet could sit well outside of the effective range of the fort’s guns. A sortie of British landing craft were sent under the cover of darkness to attack Fort McHenry, but they were driven back by a combination of American guns, defective barges and poor reconnaissance.

The bombardment continued throughout the early morning until 7AM on September 14, when the British fleet departed. Aboard a truce ship in the harbor was a Washington lawyer named Francis Scott Key who was seeking the release of a friend captured at the Battle of Bladensburg. Key was able to view the hoisting of the Fort’s garrison flag in the morning light. This inspired him to write a poem entitled “Defence of Fort McHenry,” which was published three days later and soon set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heave.” Later, the poem and tune would become the America’s National Anthem.

Much like other fortifications along America’s East Coast, Fort McHenry has undergone significant changes in its history. The 1814 Upper and Lower Water Batteries have been moved closer to the Fort and bristle with Civil War-era Rodman canons. A reconstructed Water Battery does provide some insight into the outer defenses of the fort. The Sally Port has been strengthened with a brick guardhouse instead of the wooden walkway extending that extended to the ravelin. At the time of the bombardment, the barracks were only one-story and not the two-story structures that you see today.

Some of the places of interest throughout the National Monument include:

  • Visitor’s Center: The visitor’s center has been recently renovated and incorporates a number hands-on activities for children. Kids can compare their heights to the size of Star Spangled Banner, find their favorite version of the National Anthem, examine a reproduction of a Congreve Rocket, learn about some of defenders of the Fort, and follow the history of Francis Scott Key. The highlight is a ten minute video (shown on the hour and at half past) on the Battle and the authoring of National Anthem.
  • Shore Battery Reconstruction: Although many of the cannon at Fort McHenry are from the period of the Civil War, the reconstructed shore battery provides a glimpse into the types of cannons used to defend against the British Navy.
  • 1814 Barracks: One of the primary stops for the Junior Ranger badge is the 1814 Barracks, which houses displays on the history of the fort through the ages, a multimedia overview of the Battle of Baltimore, and a reproduction of the living quarters for the common soldier defending the fort. Unfortunately, only tables and bunks populate the barracks.
  • Powder Magazine: Although enlarged after the battle, the powder magazine is stocked with powder barrels. Outside there are a number of canons that children can view.
  • Commanding Officer’s Quarters and Guardhouse: The Officer’s Quarters features a mock-up of Maj. George Armistead’s quarters, with an electronic map focusing on the Battle of Baltimore. Visitors then move through the barracks where they can view a presentation on the making and history of the Star Spangled Banner after the battle. Before exiting, you are taken past the guardhouse, where a reproduction of the flag is stored.

Junior Ranger:

Both M1 and M2 took part in the Fort’s Junior Ranger program, which is for 5 to 13 year old students. The Fort McHenry Activity Booklet is broken up into easy, medium and difficult program. We decided to go with the easy portion, which is still pretty difficult and may require the assistance of parents to assist in answering many of the questions in the visitor center. The NPS provides black and white copies of the booklet, which can be difficult to read. I would recommend printing out the required pages at home an bringing them along. You can determine the required pages, by looking at the top of the page red for easy, white for medium, and blue for difficult.

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Pre-Prep:

There are a great number of resources available for students to take advantage of prior to visiting Fort McHenry. Their is a great overview of the Bombardment of Baltimore in the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast. There are also a number of children’s books that focus on Francis Scott Key and the authoring of what would become the National Anthem. Among them are Step into Reading’s Francis Scott Key’s Star-Spangled Banner and Rebecca Jones’ The Biggest (and Best) Flag That Ever Flew, which recounts the story of the flag’s maker Mary Pickersgill. 

Know Before You Go: The majority of the grounds are accessible via paved or brick walkways. There are bathrooms at the visitor center and inside the center barracks in the fort. A gift shop that sells some of the books listed above is located in the visitor center. A number of living history (seasonal) and talks are provided by the park staff, so check the site’s calendar before heading out.

Location: Fort McHenry is located at the tip of Locust Point at 2400 East Fort Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21230. Baltimore Bus #1 is the only public transportation option and stops at the main gate. From there it is about a 100 yard walk to the Visitor Center.

Hours: The Park is open daily, with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Hours are from 9:00 to 5:00 PM.

Admission: Admission to the park is $10 for those 16 years and older. Children 15 and under are free. Purchase of admission allows free entrance to the site for the next seven days. A yearly pass is available for $40 and provides admission for three adults. Educational groups can seek a waiver to the fee.