This year marks the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the American Civil War. The Union victory at the Battle of Antietam turned back the southern invasion of Maryland and created the positive political situation Lincoln needed to deliver the Emancipation Proclamation.
This September 12, 13 and 14th reenactors from all 50 states and 5 foreign countries gathered at a large farm very near to the original site to remember and recreate this important battle. I heard estimates of 18,000 reenactors and 30,000 spectators. I could not dispute those numbers; I assure you there were plenty of each. The event was undeniably the largest reenactment in history.
The site included many acres of living history encampment and 3 separate battlefields. The large number of participants required the event organizers to combine 2 of the battlefields into 1. Neither was large enough alone. The resulting space looked to be about a full square mile.
Three segments of the battle were reenacted: Hooker's attack through the cornfield, the Union attack on the sunken road and A.P. Hill's attack. Spectators enjoyed various demonstrations between the major battles including medical demonstrations, religious services, a Snake Oil salesman show and two large cavalry battles.
The Cornfield attack started before dawn in a heavy fog, so we didn't see much of that battle. The highlight for us was when a small company of Union infantry flanked a large Confederate gun battery. The Yankees quickly formed line and delivered a volley that dropped an entire gun crew.
A.P. Hill's attack was the first fight we saw. It was incredible. The lines seesawed back and forth across the field until A.P. Hill's reinforcements arrived and pushed in the Union left flank. The attention to detail was of the highest order; when a unit volleyed, soldiers from the target unit immediately fell. Very often, a less enthusiastic but, unwounded soldier would help a wounded comrade to the rear. Several other wounded were brought to the surgeons for mock surgery.
The climax of the weekend was Sunday afternoon when the fight for the sunken road was reenacted. Unit after unit of Yankees stepped over the crest of the hill only to be driven away by the Confederate volleys. Twice the Union troops were able to break into the Confederate line but, were driven back. Finally, the Yankees got on the southerners' flank and delivered several volleys down the road. It was the beginning of the end and after a period of hard fighting the Confederate line had been driven out of their position and back to their artillery.
Each battle lasted between 2 and 3 hours. During each there was an incredible amount of shooting; lots of noise and smoke. Troops would move back and forth across the field, over walls and fences, and around trees. Incredibly they were able to keep safety as their first priority without diminishing the quality of the show.
I was amazed at the high level of professionalism the reenactors presented. The units looked great; very authentic. Walking through the camps you felt as if you had stepped back into the 1860s. The battles were flawlessly scripted and executed. Circumstances of the actual historical battle were closely followed.
Next year they will be celebrating the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg during the first few days of July. Plans are being made to do a full scale recreation of Picketts Charge among other battles.
I found the reenactment at Antietam to be unique, awe inspiring and great fun.