157 years ago, photographers Alexander Gardner and James Gibson first exposed their camera’s lens to the Antietam battlefield. The scene was still raw–Union soldiers and their campfires behind the Army of the Potomac’s lines.
Once the Confederate army vacated its positions around Sharpsburg the next day, Gardner and his assistant ventured onto the battlefield proper and immortalized Antietam’s carnage.
Perhaps without photographs like these and countless others, Antietam might not be as well-remembered or documented as it ultimately is. Thus, when Arcadia Publishing approached me about completing a book in their Images of America series on Antietam National Battlefield, I knew that the topic was a fit for the series. However, the more involved I became with the project, the realization hit me that images have been a part of Antietam’s history since 1862, not just in that year (how could I not have realized that?).
Using over 160 images for assorted repositories and collections, I set out to tell the entire story of the battlefield and its transformation from September 17, 1862, to September 17, 2012. Along the way, I uncovered some fascinating aspects of the park’s history that were new to me, thanks to the help of my colleagues and friends. Just a sampling of those are:
- Antietam National Battlefield is a preservation gem today but it was far from that at certain points in its history.
- There was a second battle of Antietam fought on September 12, 1924, only this time with tanks, airplanes, and machine guns.
- Just like any Civil War battlefield, veterans fought over monuments and memory, including one dispute that reached the desk of President William Howard Taft.
All of this showed me truly that images are worth a thousand words, and more! And that is coming from someone that does not consider himself a Civil War photography guru. But most importantly, I realized the importance of images in perpetuating the existence of places like Antietam National Battlefield. If it was not for Gardner and Gibson setting up their camera along the Hagerstown Turnpike, on the Dunker Church Plateau, or in front of the Burnside Bridge, who knows where our knowledge of Antietam would be.
So, the next time you visit a historic site, even if it is not your first time there, do not be afraid to play tourist and snap some memorable scenes from your trip. You never know what they may tell us about that particular place in the future!