I stood amidst a swarm of people, all gathering in the still darkness, some talking softly to one another, others quietly contemplating the gravity of the moment. Out in front of us, soldiers spoke in hushed tones. How far off were they? 25 yards? 100 yards? Maybe more? The dense bank of fog hanging over the landscape magnified their voices.
Though the darkness made everything around us imperceptible, there could be no mistaking where we stood. Slowly, the light began to illuminate the crowd, though the thick fog kept distant objects to a faint blur. The crowd’s anticipation felt tangible, a spike in the humming of the many conversations while the orange glow of the quickly rising sun lit up the distant mountaintop. Nature’s curtain was rising fast on September 17.
The rangers at Antietam National Battlefield always put on a moving program every morning of the anniversary of our nation’s bloodiest day. This one, though, proved different, all of the pieces having come together to mark the sesquicentennial anniversary of that transformative battle.
While words of the living witnesses to the fighting in David Miller’s 24-acre patch of corn north of Sharpsburg, Maryland rang from the nearby speaker system, cannon boomed to our front and rear. Soldiers in the Cornfield, now lit up by the glowing sun, popped off volleys of musketry. The thick black powder smoke clung close to the ground, interspersed with the heavy blanket of Antietam’s natural fog.
For a program portraying the brutality that gripped this spot 150 years from the second I stood there, it was a beautiful sight. To see the sun crest above the jagged peaks of South Mountain is always a treat. Everything–the soldiers, the fog, the green stalks of head-high corn–becomes apparent. But for the 100,000 soldiers waiting to “pitch in” to the fight on Wednesday, September 17, 1862, it must have been a very unwelcome light.