Sunday, September 22, 2013

Antietam: A Battle for Freedom

Antietam: A Battle for Freedom
Daniel J. Vermilya
Rarely in history has the link between the blood shed on the battlefield and the freedom of millions been so clear. At the Battle of Antietam, on September 17, 1862 over 23,000 men fell as casualties in a single day of battle—more battle casualties than had fallen in America’s previous wars combined. Just five days later, on September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation at a meeting of his cabinet. This preliminary document was the result of a long struggle, going back to the very foundation of the country. From the moment that Thomas Jefferson penned those immortal words, “all men are created equal,” a great national debate spread through the nation, attempting to define citizenship, personhood, and freedom. In 1861, that debate descended into war. By the summer of 1862, with casualties mounting across the country, Lincoln realized it was time to embrace a higher goal for the conflict. Something needed to be done about the causes of the war. With thousands of Americans dying on the field of battle, a decision needed to be made regarding the future of slavery in the United States. On July 22, 1862, Lincoln held a cabinet meeting, where he introduced a draft for a proclamation declaring that all slaves in the states in rebellion would be freed under his powers as Commander in Chief. While several of his cabinet members greeted the proclamation favorably, Secretary of State William Seward suggested Lincoln wait for a Union victory before issuing such an important document. Seward believed putting forth such a revolutionary measure amid the setbacks for Union forces on the fields of Virginia would take away much of the proclamation’s power, giving it the appearance of a desperate move rather than a bold act. Lincoln agreed. He held on to the document, waiting for a Union victory.
Lincoln later confessed to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase that at the start of the 1862 Maryland Campaign, he made his decision on Emancipation. When Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River and began its invasion of Maryland, Lincoln made “a solemn vow” that should Lee be stopped, he would “crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves.” While the fate of the nation hung in the balance, and with the eyes of millions upon them, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia clashed near the banks of Antietam Creek on September 17, 1862, in what was the bloodiest day in American history. Two days later, Lee was gone from Maryland, and Lincoln had his victory. He could now issue his proclamation.
            On January 1, 1863, after standing in line for hours to greet the customary New Year’s Day visitors at the White House, Abraham Lincoln retired to his office upstairs in the Executive Mansion. There he would fulfill his promises from September and sign the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation. His hands were tired and trembling from shaking so many hands, and as he prepared to sign the document, as if to reinforce his resolve, he declared, “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.” Lincoln affixed his signature to the Emancipation Proclamation, completing what he would later call, “the great event of the nineteenth century.”
            Emancipation was indeed a great event. While it applied only to those states then in rebellion, and thus left alone slaver in the Border States, it was still a tremendous blow to slavery in the United States. It declared that from that point on, the war would be fought to preserve the Union not as it once was, but as it would and should be, one where all men and women would enjoy the blessings of liberty.
            The Emancipation Proclamation was not a self-fulfilling document. It was an important war measure, but only the first of many steps on the road towards freedom for over four million slaves. More work still needed to be done to secure its promise of freedom. Along with winning the war, a constitutional solution to the problem of slavery was needed; that solution was eventually found in the 13th Amendment. By 1865, slavery was abolished throughout the country, and the union was not only restored, but rebuilt with a “new birth of freedom.”
            In October of 1862, in reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation, Frederick Douglass proclaimed, “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree.” Despite having some reservations about the proclamation’s effectiveness, Douglass knew that history had been forever changed. Emancipation meant, in the words of newspaper editor Horace Greeley, “the beginning of the end of the rebellion; the beginning of the new life for the nation.”
            When Lincoln first decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in July of 1862, he knew that in order for its promise of freedom to become a reality, it would require bloodshed and sacrifice on the battlefields of the Civil War. That is what occurred at Antietam on September 17, 1862, giving Lincoln the opportunity to issue his proclamation on September 22, 151 years ago today. The Battle of Antietam and its relation to the Emancipation Proclamation is a stirring reminder that throughout history, paper alone cannot secure freedom; only the blood, sweat, and sacrifice of soldiers can make freedom a reality.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Remembrance of the Fallen

 Remembrance of the Fallen

Antietam National Battlefield
Alann Schmidt

During the extensive planning for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, we tried to come up with several different events to make the commemoration meaningful.  At some point, I got the idea that it would be a nice thing if we could have a ceremony and read the names of those killed or mortally wounded in the battle.  Park management thought that it would be a good idea, especially when I mentioned that we could make it an interactive event by having visitors participate in the reading.  I was put in charge of the project, and among the many, many other things that we were working on at the time (and believe me, there were many!) I started to put together a list.

Originally I just had the names from the rosters of identified Union burials in Antietam National Cemetery, and then I added the rosters of identified Confederate burials from Washington Confederate Cemetery in Hagerstown, Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, and Elmwood Cemetery in Shepherdstown, WV.  This led to the quick realization that only a certain amount of soldiers killed in the battle were buried in the area.  In addition to the many buried as unknowns, there would have been some taken home, some buried near hospitals, in private and church cemeteries, and many other situations that would cause this list to be far from complete.

I drafted a short notice to be posted on our park website and Facebook site asking for help from the public, hoping that if folks had knowledge and (hopefully) documentation on soldiers that were killed or mortally wounded in the battle but for whatever reasonwere not buried here we could also add those names to the list.  I received responses from all over the country – from Wisconsin, Louisiana, New York, Texas, South Carolina, Alabama, Indiana, Maine - literally dozens of people emailed me with information, greatly enhancing our list.

Thankfully, my notice also caught the eye of Brian Downey, founder of Antietam on the Web. (  Turns out he was also working on a comprehensive database of soldiers killed at Antietam, and he graciously offered to let me use his research for our list.  This was a remarkable gesture, and helped considerably, for now all I had to do is compare his list with mine and add them together to make the master list for the event.  He even continually sent me updates as he found more information, and has the ongoing list posted on the blog section of his website if you want to take a look.  

As time passed and the anniversary drew closer, I started to get concerned since several visitors were very excited to participate in the reading and contacted me wanting to be guaranteed the opportunity to read their ancestor’s name.  I still wasn’t quite sure how to carry out the public participation part; we could just have a master list and have folks go up and read, but what if someone didn’t want to stop (very likely) what then – would I have to continually stand there to awkwardly move them along?  Or what if everyone that showed up wanted to read only names from Massachusetts for example, and I would have big problems about who got to read what.  Thankfully, at some point I thought of separating the list into small sheets of ten to twelve names and just giving each person a sheet to read.  That way it kept things moving, everyone got an opportunity, and you could still read as many times as you wanted.

People still kept calling, nervous about what time they should arrive to get their place in line, just exactly how was this going to work, rightly skeptical when I just told them to show up, we’ll make it work.  Truth is, I didn’t know if it was going to work, I had no idea how long it would take, how visitors would react to the process, how smooth it would go, etc. etc.  In the planning process for the entire 150th event it was necessary to come up with a schedule, and my reading needed to fit that schedule.  When should it start?  How long will it take?  I simply estimated by guessing at the speed of how many names would likely be read per minute, then per hour (by simply saying some out loud and timing it) and came up with approximately 4 hours to get through the total of over 3400 names.  The program was scheduled for 3 p.m., with hopes that it would be wrapping up near 7 p.m.  By that time everything else for the day would be over, and it would be just starting to get dark.  In addition, we planned a short closing ceremony for 7 p.m. to wrap up the anniversary.

I had several other duties and programs that weekend, and that anniversary day specifically, notably the very effective “Voices from the Cornfield” program at dawn.  I was still adding names to the list the night before the event, and didn’t print out the final list (335 pages!) until the morning of the 17th.  I made two copies of the list and placed them in big binders, one to hand out, and one for me to follow along.  As I arrived at the cemetery, several visitors and hopeful participants were there early, waiting on me.  Ranger Isaac Foreman and volunteer Frank Bell were there to help organize the line and pass out the names, a huge help for me.  I tried to make sure everything was ready.

At three o’clock, a special ceremony began the event.  Rev. John Schildt offered the invocation, Superintendent Susan Trail welcomed the crowd, the West Virginia Air National Guard provided the colors, the U.S. Army Quintet provided music, and nationally known and respected historian Ed Bearss offered comments on the meaning of the event.  As I stood there distracted, all I could think about was if the time frame would fit, whether the procedures would work, and how things would go.  I think the world of Mr. Bearss, but as I worried about the time, it seemed like his speech would go on forever.

Then, all the sudden, I stopped in my tracks, as Ed told the crowd what a wonderful opportunity this was, to recognize those lost, and that he wished he had an opportunity to recognize those fighting beside him that died in WWII.  He told about the incident when his team was ambushed on January 2, 1944, leaving him severely wounded, and then he read aloud his fallen comrades’ names.  Wow!  I suddenly stopped worrying and finally realized what I was doing, what I was part of, what this means.


Susan, Ed, and a military honor guard then placed a wreath for all those buried as 
unknowns, then I explained to the crowd how the reading would go.  I asked those wanting to read to get in line to the left of the rostrum, get a sheet, and take their turn.  We would read the names by state alphabetically, starting with Alabama.  That instant, at least three dozen people got in line, and I don’t think it ever got much shorter than that throughout the event.  Ed read the first sheet, then one by one visitors went through the line and read the names.

Isaac handed sheets out to the people in line, so they could familiarize themselves with pronunciations (I saw several practicing and asking for advice), or even trade with those looking for a specific name.  At no time were there any disagreements, disruptions, or problems, everyone was so respectful.  I stood at the top of the rostrum steps, directing folks to the podium and following along with the list.  It was terrific meeting so many of the people that I had corresponded with before the event.  So many were so appreciative, hugging me, thanking me - I can’t imagine a more fulfilling job or a more fulfilling day.  Several folks made a special mention to the crowd, with pride, when it was their ancestor’s name they were reading.

I directed folks to leave by the other side of the rostrum, and most went around and through the line more than once; a couple of ladies went through more than ten times.  It didn’t seem to matter where anyone’s particular allegiance was, they read for all states, respecting all that sacrificed.  To simply keep the line flowing, I had folks just keep the sheets after they read, and I suddenly noticed something I hadn’t thought of.  As I looked out across the cemetery I could see visitors walking with their sheets, finding the graves of the names they read.  Talk about making a connection.  I wonder how many left with the goal of finding out more about those soldiers.  I thought to myself, maybe that’s the first time in 150 years anybody ever specifically visited some of those graves.  Maybe it’s the first time since the roll call after the battle that someone even said some of those soldier’s names.

My good friend Ranger Dan Vermilya often mentions his great-great-great grandfather Ellwood Rodebaugh, 106th PA, in his battlefield presentations, as Private Rodebaugh was killed in action in the West Woods.  Dan hoped that he would make it back to the cemetery to read Ellwood’s name, but wasn’t sure when his hike would be finished.  I specifically kept the sheet with his name out of the stack, ready for Dan in case he arrived in time.  It looked like he wasn’t going to get there, so I thought that I would read the sheet for him.  It wouldn’t be the same as if it was Dan, but I hoped it would be good enough.  Then, suddenly, at the last moment, in came Dan, and I surprised him with the sheet.  He stepped up to the microphone, and added yet one more special element of this amazing day.
As the sun slipped away, and more folks gathered in the cemetery as the hikes were all completed, (and we were starting on the Vermont section) I turned to Isaac and optimistically said, “I think we are going to make it OK on time.”  As the last reader went past me and read the last names from Wisconsin, I stepped to the podium and announced that the reading was complete and that we would shortly begin our closing ceremony.  As I stepped away I looked at my watch and it said 6:56 p.m.  Hopefully, to the visitors, it looked like I had planned it that way, but I had no idea what actually was going to happen, or how things possibly could have turned out so well.

For the closing ceremony I made a few prepared comments and then read the poem “Bivouacs of the Dead”.  Our living history volunteers provided a 21 gun salute, played taps, and it was over.  As I hugged the rangers that gathered around me, I was overwhelmed with emotion, and am still even now as I go over it again in my mind.  This event, this commemoration, this memorial, was not about me, it is in every way about the fallen, but I am proud that I pushed for this, planned it, and carried it out, and that it turned out so well.  I will never forget that day in the cemetery, for the rest of my career, for the rest of my life.  Even though I have worked at Antietam for 12 years, this gave me a new perspective on the cost of this battle, and that each lost was not a statistic, but a specific person, and one that, on this day at least, was not forgotten.  Ed Bearss said that this will be the next wave of battlefield special event, that in a few years every park will be reading names, following our example, just like so many places now do illuminations similar to ours.  I sincerely hope so - for the attention it brings to that aspect of the battle stories, for those that get to participate in the readings, and especially for those who gave their all in service to their country -  May they rest in peace.