Civil War Talk Radio: October 16, 2009

Air Date: 101609

Subject: Antietam National Battlefield

Web Site:  Antietam National Battlefield

Guest: Ted Alexander, Chief Historian at Antietam

Summary: Ted Alexander, the Chief Historian at Antietam National Battlefield, talks about his job and the site he has loved since he was a boy.

Brett’s Summary: Note: I missed part of the first segment this week.  I’ll fill in this first portion of the post once the archived version of the episode is placed online.

The second battlefield Ted’s mom took him to was Antietam, and that trip began a lifelong love of the site.  From that time he wanted to be a Park Ranger at Gettysburg or Antietam, and unlike many, his childhood dream came true.  Dennis Frye hired Ted into the National Park Service, and after several jobs in Washington, D.C., he arranged a transfer to Antietam.

Gerry asked Ted exactly what about Antietam affects people so much, and he replied that the lack of commercialism is at the forefront.  Antietam, unlike Gettysburg, is not as geared towards the “one time visitor” type of tourist.  The battlefield is very low key when compared to Gettysburg.  He also mentioned Shiloh as a comparable battlefield to Antietam.

Interestingly, Gerry’s first visit to Antietam sparked HIS interest in the Civil War.  When Ted first started at Antietam the Park Service did not own all of the land.  The Antietam battlefield was established in the 1890s by the U.S. War Department.  In order to deflect criticism of expenditures for the original park, plans were put in place to use the battlefield as a classroom for the military.  Two plans were weighed.  One was to create a park with the emphasis on the word “park”, which involved buying a lot of land.  The other plan was to purchase a minimum of land with roads leading to key points which would have tablets.  The second plan was originally followed, and more land was not added until the 1960s.  In the past 20-25 years, says Alexander, the Park Service has aggressively sought additional acreage.

Gerry asked Ted if Antietam is under developmental pressure, and he indicated it is not nearly as bad as the battlefields such as Manassas which are much closer to Washington, D.C.  Ted told a story about how rural the drive was to Manassas battlefield in the 1960s, and how much it has changed since then.  His goal is to maintain the most pristine and well preserved Civil War battlefield in the country.  Gerry mentioned Shiloh and Perryville as similarly pristine battlefields. Sailor’s Creek is another example of a battlefield which has not been too threatened with development.

Talk shifted to the battle of Antietam as the second segment progressed.  Gerry asked Ted if he believes, as some other historians do, that Antietam is more important than Gettysburg.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ted does believe Antietam is more important than the better known battlefield to the northeast.  He discussed the numerous Confederate “incursions”, as he calls them, in the fall of 1862, and how each of them failed.  He went on to note the importance of these invasions in that European recognition may have followed a successful result, and  that never again would the Confederacy be able to mount such a large scale offensive action against the Union.  The offensives were poorly coordinated with each other, and the combined offensive was more an accident than as a result of any overall plan.

Gerry next asked an important and often discussed question about the seemingly large number of desertions and failures to cross the Potomac River in the Army of Northern Virginia before and during the Antietam Campaign.  Ted pointed out that the Antietam Campaign was a continuation of the Peninsula and Second Bull Run Campaigns from the summer of 1862.  These men, mostly veterans, were simply exhausted and could go no further at that point.  The loss of Lee’s special orders were also discussed.  Ted feels that it was “one of the greatest flukes in American history” and that the results were somewhat overrated.  Although the orders gave McClellan some idea of where Lee’s forces were, the information had a very quick expiration date.  Ted believes McClellan did a lot of the right things during the campaign to pin Lee’s army at Sharpsburg.

As the third segment opened, Gerry asked Ted if the famous places such as the Sunken Road and Dunker Church which have remained realtively unchanged to the present day adds to the battlefield’s charm.  Ted answered in the affirmative, including Burnside’s Bridge as another famous landmark at Antietam.  Talk turned to the Blue and Gray soldier sets of the 1960s and the representation of Burnside’s Bridge in one of those sets.

Gerry asked Ted about the fighting around Burnside’s Bridge.  Ted went over the various attempts to cross the bridge by the Federals, noting some met with disaster before the Northern soldiers finally got a foothold.  Alexander firmly believes that crossing Antietam Creek via fords was not a practical alternative.  Gerry next asked if McClellan had attacked left, center, and right at the same time, would the Army of Northern Virginia have been destroyed.  Ted started with the standard caveat that historians do not like to speculate about what ifs.   He did like McClellan’s early decisions in the battle.  The next question concerned McClellan’s failure to put in his reserves, specifically the V Corps, near the end of the day.  Alexander believes the effectiveness of a V Corps attack has been exaggerated by armchair historians.  He pointed out the heavy casualties this corps suffered at Second Manassas less than three weeks before and that newcomers were extremely green.  Famous myths discussed included that Antietam Creek ran red with blood, Bloody Lane was filled with blood up to men’s ankles, and that the Confederate horse artillery on Nicodemus Hill was stationed there all day long.

THe hour ended with Ted recommending several books on Antietam, including Murfin’s Gleam of Bayonets, Sears’ Landscape Turned Red, Joe Harsh’s Taken at the Flood, and Armstrong’s Unfurl Those Colors.  Gerry aksed Ted if he has ever thought about a book length account of Antietam.  He has thought about it, and he hopes to do so one day.

Civil War Talk Radio airs most Fridays at 12 PM Pacific on World Talk Radio Studio A. Host Gerry Prokopowicz, the History Chair at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, interviews a guest each week and discusses their interest in the Civil War. Most interviews center around a book or books if the guest is an author. Other guests over the years have included public historians such as park rangers and museum curators, wargamers, bloggers, and even a member of an American Civil War Round Table located in London, England.

In this series of blog entries, I will be posting air dates, subjects, and guests, and if I have time, I’ll provide a brief summary of the program. You can find all of the past episodes I’ve entered into the blog by clicking on the Civil War Talk Radio category. Each program should appear either on or near the date it was first broadcast.

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