Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Antietam Autumn

Fortunately, my wife and I have the same days off, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Our "weekends" in October found us camping up on South Mountain. This month we'll be hiking Antietam National Battlefield every Tuesday. Today was our first outing and the weather couldn't have been better. We had been experiencing some pretty gloomy and chilly days but today was all bright and cloudless, with temperatures in the low 70s...perfect for hitting the trails.

We started at the trailhead for the Cornfield trail overlooking the Poffenberger Farm. Following the trail east toward Mansfield Avenue we encountered a sure sign of fall - soy beans being harvested. With the leaves rapidly thinning out we looked back to the west and got a great view of Nicodemus Heights which, like many of the features of the battlefield, is usually obscured by foliage. As the leaves continue to fall this is a great time of year to achieve a better sense of the lay of the land.

Turning south we Skirted the East Woods, General Mansfield's jumping-off point. We got a nice view of the mortuary cannon that marks the spot where his minutes-long combat career instantly ended. At this point we veered off the trail and turned down the Smoketown road to visit the Mumma Farmstead.

From the Mumma springhouse we joined the trail to the Roulette Farm. While picnicking in the front yard of the Roulette House, I regaled my wife with the story of Mr. Roulette who, during the battle, would occasionally emerge from the safety of his cellar to cheer on the Union troops who were surging through his yard and fields toward the Sunken Road.

We cut across the Roulette Farm lane and marched toward the Sunken Road, concealed behind ridges with only the top half of the observation tower revealing its position for us. Cresting that hotly contested ridge just 60 yards north of the Sunken Road we descended into the road itself and followed Richardson Avenue back to the Visitors Center to chat up the Rangers and volunteers on duty and to refill water bottles.

Leaving the visitor's Center we hiked up the Dunker Church road passed the Maryland Monument and the blazing Maples outside Philly Park.

And back to the Poffenberger farm to visit the good rangers from the Cultural Resources Division who have been working hard all season to restore one of the historic outbuildings (which I will detail in a future posting).

It was a vigorous hike, a beautiful day, with perfect company, at the best possible place.

Antietam National Battlefield, come for the color, stay for the story.

Off-duty Ranger Mannie

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Teachable Moment, at Antietam

(illustration by Norman Rockwell)

The Ranger parked the van in front of the National Cemetery. After a great two-and-a-half hour tour the restroom at the cemetery was a much-welcomed resource.

Moments later, with a clear mind, the Ranger surveyed the familiar surroundings of Antietam National Cemetery; the Autumnal hardwoods putting on a fantastic show of color, the rows and arcs of headstones gleaming in the late afternoon sun, and the visage of "Old Simon", the monumental Union Soldier who stands sentinel day after day. All so comfortably familiar, except, what's that racket? Did the Ranger hear a belching contest in progress as well as raucous youthful voices shouting the words "fart" and "smart" in unison? It all seemed so...so...inappropriate. The Ranger saw that the hallowed grounds were being visited by forty-odd Boy Scouts as well as their adult leaders.

Recognizing what educators call the "teachable moment", the Ranger adjusted his "Smokey Bear" hat and put on his "I mean business, monkey-boy" sunglasses and strode purposefully toward a gaggle of about ten Scouts who were performing a Rockette-style kick line on top of the cemetery wall. Each of the Ranger's strides covered about 36 inches, and he rapidly closed with his target.

As the Ranger closed at attack speed, the adult Scout leaders sensed impending embarrassment. In a fruitless attempt to get the Scouts off the wall the adults requested "Hey, c'mon fellas, no, really. We mean it this time".

The Ranger arrived on the scene and planted his feet on the cemetery wall. "Gentlemen" he boomed, "may I have your attention please?"

The boys froze, fart joke dying in mid-punch line. They directed their upturned faces toward the Ranger. The adults fumbled for words which wanted to sound something like "yeah, ahh, we were just going to tell them..."

"Boys" the Ranger began, "This looks like an opportune time for a Ranger-talk, one of the hallmarks of the National Park
Service. Welcome to the Antietam National Cemetery."

The Scouts were silent, transfixed, and vaguely embarrassed.

"These hallowed grounds", continued the Ranger, "are the final resting place of over 4,776 American men who sacrificed their lives to insure our freedom. The young men buried here, not much older than you, gave their lives on this battlefield so that all of us today could enjoy the freedoms of democracy. These men, Scouts, died for you and me, so that we could be free Americans".

So far so good. The Ranger continued...

"Because of the sacrifices of these young Americans, we cherish this cemetery as a place of respect, and reverence. Can someone give me a word that describes respect and reverence in a National Cemetery?"

It was clear that this was not a rhetorical question.

"Quiet?" volunteered a Scout.

"Outstanding! you are quite correct young Scout. This cemetery is a place of quiet contemplation of the deeds of the young men who are buried here. Now I'd like you to share this story with your fellow Scouts who were not able to benefit from our brief discussion here upon this wall. And by that, I don't mean, simply telling your fellow Boy Scouts to 'shaddup' in the cemetery, but to be a little more thoughtful about it, remind them about the sacrifice of those who rest here."

The Ranger paused, and surveyed his youthful audience with the eye of a teacher, and continued. "Now I know that thoughtfulness is not in the nature of boys, but it is... (he paused, shooting a glance to the scoutmasters)

... in the nature of young men.

Have I made myself clear?"

Eager nods of universal assent.

Then, turning to the adult leaders, the Ranger closed with a simple "Enjoy your visit".

As the Ranger walked back to the van he strode past many other Scouts, frolicking, shouting, and generally goofing-off. These, obviously, were the Scouts (and leaders) who hadn't benefitted from his impromptu Ranger talk.

The Ranger hoped that those ten apostles upon the cemetery wall would spread the word for him.

Be Prepared...for the teachable moment.

Ranger Mannie

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

Monday, October 09, 2006

Button Counting Through the Ages

A shortsighted aspect of the way many enthusiasts view the Civil War and the reenacting hobby is with the mania of absolutism:

"All Civil War soldiers wore heel plates" is as silly as "No Civil War soldiers wore heel plates".

Variations can include:

- Pony tails
- spectacles
- brass hat trimmings
- jacket linings
- thread count (!)

and on, and on, and on.

Gosh, its such a monolithic approach to what was, after all, an army comprised of a bunch of freewheeling democrats (note lower case "d").

When I read Civil War reenacting publications, which go to great lengths to promote accuracy in impressions while at the same time ridiculing "farby" inaccuracies in costume, I've gotta laugh.

Now I've never been a reenactor but...

If I were to do an impression of, oh...say a U.S. Navy destroyerman of the Vietnam era I think I'd trick myself out in tailor-made Seafarer dungarees, a duty belt with a holstered Colt 45 "slabsides" and two extra clips, an oversized belt buckle sporting the four "sparks" of the radioman, a slapped together paper admiral's hat, and a well-worn pair of flip flops. And don't forget the totally goofy goatee (facial hair for those still too young to grow a full beard).

Regulation? No way. Authentic? You betcha...ask anyone who was there.

(The rich variety of U.S. Navy uniforms 1970 - 1974. Okay, I admit that the dagger and underpants hat are a little farby.)

I think G.I.s in my generation, my dad's generation, or the Civil War generation have always craved the tailor-made, the non-regulation, the distinctive and rakish look of the non-issue uniform. It's every G.I.s way of asserting his or her independence within such a big and dehumanizing organization.

A lighthearted tribute could be paid to Civil War soldiers if hard-core reenactors would lighten up on their disdain for the so-called farbs, and acknowledge the authenticity of less than "perfect" uniformity...just as every actual soldier, sailor, marine, and centurion has for many a bygone millennia.

At ease.


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Antietam dew

Simple pleasures mean a lot. This morning at Antietam National Battlefield the heavy dew left behind ordinary things turned beautiful.

A closeup of the seed head of some field grass reveals diamonds. Zoom out to the context of the beanfield in front of Tompkin's Rhode Island battery, and the diamonds become just another wet, beautiful morning on the battlefield.

Come enjoy Autumn, just above Sharpsburg.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Bruce Catton: an appreciation

The Civil War's master storyteller responded to the fan mail of this (once) nine-year-old reader with a friendly letter and a complimentary copy of "This Hallowed Ground". With his light touch and his affinity for all things Michigan, he helped start me on a journey that continues to this day.

As a Civil War historian, author, and storyteller, he left behind very large shoes to fill.

Take a few weekends to revisit the classics, by Bruce Catton.

Happy reading,


Monday, October 02, 2006

Caution: Images in mirror may be cooler than they appear.

Here's one simple picture to atone for the wordiness of my last post.

I took this picture after seeing the image of the sunken road tower in my rearview mirror. To navigate the tour route backwards would provide a whole new set of perspectives.