On August 30, our very own Kevin Pawlak celebrated his 8-year anniversary as a Licensed Battlefield Guide (LBG) at Antietam National Battlefield. With the anniversary of the battle coming up later this month, we decided to talk with Kevin a little bit about his work at Antietam and what it is about America’s bloodiest day that continues to capture his imagination.
What attracted a guy from western NY to Antietam in the first place?
Being so close to Antietam while attending Shepherd University meant that I visited there often. I looked at schools close to other Civil War battlefields but there was just something about the Shepherdstown-Sharpsburg area that drew me in. I still can’t really explain it but it felt like the right place for me to be. It’s a great area, as are the people who live there.
What made you decide to become a LBG at the battlefield?
My interest in the Civil War began when I was nine years old on a family trip to Gettysburg. My parents hired a Licensed Battlefield Guide for a few hours. I can hardly remember what he told me that day, but I was hooked and knew that I wanted to give battlefield tours when I grew up. During the 2011 anniversary events at Antietam, I attended one of the battlefield hikes and struck up a conversation with then-Chief Guide (and now good friend) Jim Rosebrock. He told me about the Guide program. I began volunteering at Antietam National Battlefield shortly thereafter and applied to take the test in early 2012.
What process did you have to go through to become licensed?
It was not an easy process. For starters, people who want to become Guides at Antietam also had to volunteer at the park. That was my first step and helped me become familiar with the park and battlefield. I fondly remember many days sitting at the Visitor Center desk talking about the ins and outs of Antietam with the park rangers and other volunteers. Then came the written test: a 300-question exam that had to be completed in about three hours. Once I passed that, there was a mentoring and training phase I had to endure before reaching the field exam. The field exam consists of taking a certified guide and a ranger on a tour of the battlefield as if they were two everyday visitors to the park. Thankfully, I passed!
Once you passed the test and joined the club, I suspect you didn’t just stop learning about the battle. What did you do to keep furthering your knowledge?
I’ve never stopped learning about Antietam and the Maryland Campaign, and I probably learn more every day. Before officially becoming a guide, I read most, if not all, of the secondary literature about the campaign as well as the standard primary sources like the ORs. Once I passed the field exam, I began diving much more into other primary sources–letters, diaries, and unit histories, to name a few. I continued volunteering at the battlefield, attending battlefield hikes and talks, and got to know a lot of the other guides better, each of whom is happy to share information they have learned in their time as guides.
What’s been the coolest part about being a LBG at Antietam?
The best part is by far the people I have met and come to know as colleagues and friends. The Antietam Battlefield Guides are a small but incredibly knowledgeable and cordial group. It’s amazing to be part of a group of people that have so much collective knowledge on the battle and campaign and the Civil War in general. We are always sharing new facts or new interpretations with each other and debating what we have found. It’s been a real pleasure to be a part of the guide program at Antietam.
Do you have a particular story or incident that has stood out for you in your time guiding?
Being a guide during the battle’s Sesquicentennial was really special. I was able to participate in a lot of the programming the NPS conducted and help out with several programs. I’ll never forget that week for the rest of my life. It went fast, but it was an incredible moment to be a part of.
What’s the value of a LBG versus just having a buddy who’s read a lot about the battle show you around?
One advantage we have, if you will, is our familiarity with the battlefield itself. Living close to the battlefield, walking the ground, driving the roads, and looking at the monuments many days in a week really provides a lot of perspectives and a great level of familiarity with the battlefield and its stories. An example that comes to mind is one of my colleagues finding a ravine near the Burnside Bridge that Union troops used as their avenue of advance to reach the bridge itself. It is covered by trees today and does not appear on any maps. But it’s that familiarity with the minute details of the field that stand out.
What’s next in your Antietam career?
More research and more writing, to be blunt. There are several research projects I have that I hope to turn into books, including a study of the Army of the Potomac in the Maryland Campaign (that project, while underway, is still a ways off in the future). Beyond that, though, continuing to show visitors the battlefield and share the stories of the men who fought there and the civilians that suffered through it all and why the Maryland Campaign is an important turning point in the Civil War.