Friday, October 13, 2006

Antietam: The Ties that Bind

Yesterday was one of those days that cause me to appreciate, even more, the significance of Antietam National Battlefield, and its role in continuity and commemoration.

On Thursday, just as they have since the 1870s, a large group of Army officers arrived at the visitors center. They were participating in the traditional "staff ride" - viewing the Antietam battlefield through the eyes of soldier/scholars.

Antietam was among the first five original War Department parks, essentially open-air classrooms for the instruction of army cadets and junior officers. The curriculum in the late 19th century focused on leadership, especially leadership in smaller units led by captains and lieutenants.
Today, in these times of the "Army of one" the lesson remains the same - leadership - pure and simple.

Led by ranger Keith, the group yesterday was from the Pentagon. We are just as likely to get officers from the Army War College, West Point cadets, or midshipmen from Annapolis (our state capital!). At the rate of about five groups per month, these staff rides have been a steady rhythm at the park since the earliest rides, when horses were still involved.

This tradition continues right alongside the family visitors, the buffs, the bus tours, the picnickers, the scout groups, the veterans organizations, the Church of the Brethren outings, the jogging clubs, the equestrians, and so on and so forth. Over the intervening generations the uniforms, the genders, and the ethnicities of the officers have changed but the fundamental lesson plan has remained the same - leadership.

This is simply another manifestation of the relevance of this park, that its original audience, the military, continues to rely on it to provide a fundamental instructional foundation for young officers. The lessons of both greatness and of mediocrity abound on these fields. Let us all hope that these lessons can make a difference for these youthful Pelhams, Pogues, and Pegrams, and that more lives can be saved than spent because of what they learn here.

In addition to soldiers on the field, yesterday was also graced by the presence of sailors. Enlisted men and women of the United States Navy, resplendent in dress blues, thronged to the Antietam National Cemetery to pay tribute to one of their own, a fallen enlisted sailor, destroyerman Patrick Howard Roy. An earlier posting noted the internment of this young sailor from nearby Keedysville, killed aboard the U.S.S. Cole in October of 2000.

Many, if not most, of the sailors attending Roy's memorial ceremony yesterday were still in school when Patrick Roy lost his life aboard his destroyer. On this day, however, they all joined together as shipmates for one hour, as they have every October since Roy was laid to rest on the battlefield where he was once a youthful volunteer.

I wondered; how long will this tradition continue? As memory fades and national priorities change perhaps the headstone of Patrick Roy will be forgotten. And his headstone will become as weathered and unvisited as the hundreds of thousands of others all across our country.

But then I remembered...

April at Antietam National Cemetery brings the continuity of commemoration, provided by the schoolchildren of the Valley, touching, cleaning, and reading. Remembering the nearly five thousand Americans buried there. Life celebrating life every Sharpsburg springtime.

A celebration of continuity and commemoration...just up the hill from Sharpsburg.

Come pay your respects, in an incredibly beautiful setting.

Warmest regards,

Ranger Mannie

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