Ted Alexander, the legendary historian at Antietam National Battlefield, retired at the beginning of January after a thirty-five-year career with the National Park Service. I had the chance to sit down with him just before he retired, and this week at Emerging Civil War, we’ll be sharing that conversation with our readers.
CHRIS: So what brought you to Antietam in the first place?
TED: I’ve been interested in Antietam since I was a kid. One of the first battlefields I went to. You know, my mother, she was a single working mom before it became fashionable. She strived to get me interested in reading and then history. So my first trip to a battlefield, I was in about first grade, maybe five or six. She took me to Gettysburg. My grandmother went along—my grandmother on my mother’s side—and grandma always said, “Well, Dad said this. And Dad said that.” “Dad” was her father in the 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade, and he was at Gettysburg.
Well, I kept going. I’d bug her all the time, every weekend, so I’d go there a bunch of times in a year. And then finally she said, “Well, why don’t we go down to Antietam? Why don’t you see that battlefield?” I was about seven years old. I came here and I got the bug.
I’ve had the bug ever since. So that’s over sixty years.
When I was here at first, there was no visitor center. The visitor center was the cemetery lodge. You’d go up the steps into that tower, and there’d be some relics thrown in some cases up there. And if you were lucky, maybe you would see a park ranger, but they were very sparse. They didn’t have a big staff.
Then I was here in 1962 for the last major reenactment on park service property—the Antietam Centennial Reenactment.
Antietam is probably my favorite battlefield, and then next to that is Shiloh, because I went there as a kid in 1958. And Gettysburg is on that list somewhere, of course.
But I feel blessed. I am not as spiritual as I should be, but I do think I was blessed by the Lord to work here when I was a kid. I wanted to get a job as a historian or a park ranger at either at Antietam or at Gettysburg. I got Antietam.
CHRIS: How did you get to Antietam?
TED: Besides divine providence, a very good man, he’s retired now, a good friend by the name of Paul Chiles brought me on. I was working for the Park Service—I have 38 years government service, that’s including my military. I was with Dennis Frye. He’s a good friend, and I credit him with getting me into the Park Service. He hired me as a seasonal at Harper’s Ferry. And then one day he contacted a number of us and said, “Hey, you have just a few days to get your applications in. The Park Service is taking on some full-time people.” And so I did, and I got on full time at the National Mall. I worked at the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial.
I was there a few months and then I put in for a job at Fort Washington. It’s the only permanent masonry fort built to defend the nation’s capital. It’s about ten miles downriver from the city. And I got a job there. I also worked to help develop interpretation for the circle forts—those are the fortifications build around Washington during the Civil War.
A friend of mine had gotten moved to a park he wanted to be at by going directly to the director of the National Capital Region. So I said, “By God, if he can do that, I will, too.” I had a wife and kid at home, and I could see them on the weekend, so I’m going to plead my case. So I went to the director and I pleaded my case, and he shopped around for places up here. Finally, through the help of Paul Childs, who gave me a big plug, he got me up here at Antietam.
I’ve been here for thirty years.
CHRIS: What sorts of transformations have you seen to the battlefield during that time?
TED: I’ve been lucky to see and, to varying degrees, be involved in some of the transformation. Since I’ve been here, you can now walk from the north end of the battlefield to the south end of the battlefield without touching non-Park Service ground. We’ve seen the acquisition in a lot of property. I wasn’t involved in that so much, except occasionally I would write reports for the superintendent on the historical value of certain pieces of land. I would do things like that.
But I’ve seen that. It’s been quite a pleasure to see all that bought up and now we have it.
CHRIS: What are some of your favorite achievements during your time here?
TED: My achievements have been a number of things. I started the speakers series. One staff member said I could try to get guest speakers but they didn’t think anyone would come. (He chuckles.) I started bringing in people like Ed Bearrs, Bud Robertson, James McPherson, Joseph Harsh. We had this speakers series throughout the years, and that was a success. It drew in thousands of people.
I was able to build up our unit files, which you see here. (He turns toward the shelves and shelves and shelves of acid-free file boxes behind him.) We have a file on every unit that was here. Rangers Betty Otto and Paul Chiles established the files, and I added to them with the thousands of pages of material I gathered at all the repositories I’ve visited. I’ve been to repositories from New York City to New Orleans to copy material, letters diaries, to bolster them. I don’t know the exact number. Probably several thousand pieces of paper. Be hard to venture a guess. So I’m very proud of that.
At one time I was the volunteer coordinator here, so in 1991, we won the Take Pride in America Award for our volunteer program, and we were invited to a program in Washington, D.C., and one of our volunteers as representative went to a White House reception. So that was very nice to get that.
So those are some of the things I can think of right now.
I’ve seen a lot done over the years, and I’ve been proud to be part of some of it.
Tomorrow, Ted talks about his work with the Chambersburg Civil War Seminar.