The weekend of October 15th was an incredible weekend for anyone who was a member of the Antietam Institute and attended their inaugural 2021 Fall conference at the Shepherd’s Spring Retreat Center in Sharpsburg, Maryland.
President Chris Vincent and company pulled off an exceptional round of speakers and complemented it with an invigorating few days of tours at Antietam National Battlefield, encapsulating some of the forgotten moments of the battle. The speakers who provided rich interpretations of the bloodiest day in American history ranged from park rangers of the National Park Service, in keynote speaker Dennis Frye, Dan Vermilya and Bob Gottschalk, to licensed battlefield guides at Antietam, including Dr. Rogers Fred, Jim Buchanan, Laura Marfut, Kevin Pawlak, Jim Rosebrock, Dr. Tom Clemens and Bill Sagle. Words cannot describe the knowledge that these particular individuals have on the battle and the time and effort that they put into the conference. Their love and passion for Antietam National Battlefield and what occurred on September 17th, 1862, was transparent and put on display for those who attended the first Antietam Institute Fall conference.
- Dan Vermilya, Eisenhower National Historic Site
- The presentation was titled, Teetering on Disaster: The Condition of the Army of the Potomac and its Leadership During the Maryland Campaign. Almost immediately, Dan Vermilya denounced the popular narrative of the ineffectiveness of the Army of the Potomac during the Maryland Campaign, and instead, very convincingly, went on the offensive that in fact, the Army of the Potomac was demoralized following the Peninsula and Second Manassas Campaigns and forced McClellan to have to completely rebuild his once Gibraltar of an army to even a fraction of what it once was six months prior. The core that McClellan uses to build the Army of Potomac back for the Maryland Campaign is comprised of remnants of Pope’s army that was defeated at Second Manassas, as well as what was used during the defeat on the Peninsula. The fighting force that he assembled would stand and fight together for the first time in September of 1862, and that was a strong point in Dan’s argument. How can an army overcome an opponent’s momentum if there is no unified cohesion? The new Army of the Potomac consisted of the First, Second, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, and the Twelfth Corps. The army faced straggling to an extent that had never been seen yet in the war, the condition of the men was poor at best, they were being led by new and green commanders, and finally, there was the question of leadership. The popular narrative that the Army of the Potomac was this uniformed killing machine is absolutely false and Dan stated his case very articulately, that it was in fact, the Confederates who had the upper hand in terms of leadership and momentum. His final point was that through all of these odds, McClellan, who receives nothing but harsh criticism, warranted or not, devised an immaculate plan on the days of September 16th and 17th, 1862, facing immense challenges against the red-hot Confederates and accomplished his mission of driving them across the Potomac and out of Maryland.
- Dr. Rogers Fred, Antietam Battlefield Guide
- Dr. Rogers Fred complimented Vermilya’s talk, describing the other side of the battlefield for September 17th, 1862. His presentation was entitled, The Army of Northern Virginia During the Maryland Campaign: Command + Decisions. Fred, a lifelong Virginian, made it abundantly clear that the aim for the Confederates was to make the Union use their resources and affect their political situation. It was paramount that if the Southern cause could damage the Lincoln administration and threaten the safety of the inhabitants of the North, that the political strength of the Confederacy would feed off of that and become the dominant nation in North America. In addition, on the Maryland Campaign the Confederates wanted to destroy the conduits of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, collect Northern food and supplies, and militarily, they wanted to employ a turning movement. This differs from a lot of popular history that Lee wanted to invade the North. Dr. Fred argued that this was not an invasion, but rather a turning movement. Unlike the relationships within the Army of the Potomac and with President Lincoln, there was a high level of trust in the Army of Northern Virginia, which resulted in more cohesion that carried down to the brigade level. They were collectively, a more experienced fighting group. Dr. Fred pointed out that 61% of infantry regiments had fought in major battles up to this point, which was the complete opposite to what we had been told by Mr. Vermilya just moments prior about the Army of the Potomac soldiers. This perspective really created an interesting dimension, looking at an incredibly tumultuous time for the Union army that had no momentum and was relying on fresh green troops to repel a veteran army and all of the cohesion to push McClellan all the way to DC. As Dr. Fred continued though, this is not what transpired. He quoted the famous E.P Alexander, saying that the condition of the army was ragged, the matter of shoes, clothing and food was worse at this time than anytime even after the battle of Antietam. The commissary lacked supplies and had inadequate methods of transportation, there was a lack of quality ordinance, lack of wagons, and because of the Union blockade of Southern ports, Confederate uniforms couldn’t be replaced with incoming wool, leather acnd shoes that they had been hoping for. As he concluded his presentation, he gave out some numbers that really helped the attendees gain a clearer picture of the loss of life at Antietam. The Army of Northern Virginia entered the campaign with a regimental average size of 360 men and left the battle with an average of 116, which is 32% of what they entered with. Another interesting statistic that Dr. Fred presented was that 30-50% of the brigade commanders were lost; so just like the Peninsula Campaign, there was just as much disorganization and lack of ability to coordinate around the field. With all of this in hand, morale remained high, and although the Army of Northern Virginia was pushed back into Virginia, Dr. Fred refuted popular narratives that perhaps their spirits were broken and argued that they were running on as much of the high on September 18th as they were coming off of Second Manassas. His biggest take-away was that the result would have been a lot different had the straggling been less and had they not sustained as many losses with the fraction of the army that they engaged.
- Laura Marfut, Antietam Battlefield Guide/Antietam Institute Board Member
- Laura Marfut is on the board for the Antietam Institute, and more importantly is a retired U.S Army colonel of 32-years. Her presentation was on the second in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, General James Longstreet. Laura did an exquisite job of highlighting Longstreet’s military career up to September of 1862, which included graduating 54th out of 56 at West Point, brevetted twice in the Mexican-American War and then finally resigning his commission in the U.S Army in 1861 to become an officer in the Confederate Army. He gained attention at the First Battle of Manassas in July of 1861 and then further distinguished himself at the Battle of Williamsburg ten months later during the Peninsula Campaign, before his first setback in the Civil War at the Battle of Seven Pines a few weeks later. What was so admirable about Laura’s presentation was that she didn’t exclusively focus on Longstreet’s military career, but rather his attempts of salvaging his reputation following the Civil War, which aligned with the theme of the Conference: “New Perspectives on Antietam. Longstreet was largely blamed by Lost Cause participants for supporting Republicans during Reconstruction, as well as suffrage for African Americans. These last two points cannot be undervalued in today’s society and Laura was very articulate in making these points distinctive. Furthermore, she made it known that Longstreet was incredibly respected during the wartime effort and used the example of the relationship between he and Robert E. Lee. Her argument was that Longstreet was seen as reliable and due to his performance at Antietam, he gained the nickname as Lee’s “warhorse”. Lastly, Longstreet in return admired Lee so much that he even named his son after him, which debunks any notion of a tumultuous relationship between the two following the Battle of Gettysburg.
- Jim Buchanan, Antietam Battlefield Guide/Antietam Institute Board Member
- Jim Buchanan finished off the first day of speakers by speaking about one of my favorite generals of the entire Civil War, General Edwin Sumner. Jim, like Laura, highlighted Sumner’s life and military career up to September 1862. One of the points that he touched on was that he was not a graduate of West Point, but rather Milton Academy in Massachusetts. He joined the U.S Army as a lieutenant in 1819, rose to become a captain of the First Dragoons in 1833 and then the commandant of the U.S Cavalry School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1838. When he fought in the Mexican-American War, he received two brevets at Cerro Gordo, as well. One of the best points that Jim made during his presentation was noting the closeness of the relationship between Sumner and Abraham Lincoln due to their similar views on enslavement and the fact that Lincoln respected Sumner as a military officer. This relationship between the two would inevitably cause a rift between Sumner and McClellan, as the rivalry between McClellan and Lincoln is well documented and culminates with the 1864 Presidential election. Jim made a point that because of his age Sumner had a hard time getting along with other commanders within the Army of the Potomac, specifically those within McClellan’s “posse”; it also didn’t help that he didn’t attend West Point and was not a member of the heralded Aztec Club. Something that I really appreciate Jim pointing out as Sumner’s legacy was that he had the power to inspire those around him, he was loyal to those around him and demanded respect, he was a “by the book” type of officer and oozed personal integrity. In summary, Jim proved that, unlike McClellan, Sumner was an ultra-aggressive commander, which was shown by the conduct of his men.
- Kevin Pawlak, Historic Site Manager at the Ben Lomond Site and Bristoe Station Battlefield in Prince William County, Virginia, Antietam Battlefield Guide and Antietam Institute Board Member
- Jim Rosebrock, Former Chief of the Antietam Battlefield Guides, Antietam Institute Board Member
- Kevin Pawlak and Jim Rosebrock started day two of the Antietam Institute Fall Conference by taking us out to the battlefield to learn about the events regarding the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac at the Middle Bridge on September 17th, 1862. The two gentlemen tackled the misconception that the Corps, led by General Fitz John Porter, was inactive during the bloodiest day in American history. Instead, they showed the attendees the challenges that these soldiers faced, being incredibly spread out, fragmented across the field. Lastly, they also spoke of McClellan’s game plan and how it was executed better than expected, which is why Lee’s forces were driven back to Virginia. Jim’s commentary on how McClellan repeatedly shifted his men to attack Lee’s left flank really stood out, and helped us appreciate the importance of McClellan’s tactics at Antietam.
- Dr. Tom Clemens, Founder and president of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation, Inc, retired professor at Hagerstown Community College and Antietam Battlefield Guide, Antietam Institute Board Member
- Steve Stotelmyer, U.S Navy veteran, co-founder of the Central Maryland Heritage League, Antietam Battlefield Guide
- Through rain and wind, we battled on to the famed Burnside’s Bridge and Final Attack, where the attendees were split into two groups for a more intimate experience. Dr. Tom Clemens led the Burnside Bridge crew and showed us the often overlooked viewpoint of the Confederates on the bluffs above the Bridge. He told us of seldom heard experiences of the Georgians and how they were able to hold off the entire IX Corps for as long as they did – until Union troops led by General Rodman found another crossing point over the Antietam Creek and overwhelmed Toombs’ men. Following the Burnside Bridge tour, we then were escorted to the site of the Union Final Attack, led by Mr. Steve Stotelmyer who gave us a close perspective of the 23rd Ohio Infantry: the regiment of future U.S presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley. One story in particular that I personally had never heard before was one on McKinley, who was said to have been giving out rations to his fellow comrades while under fire. McKinley’s actions caught the attention of his superior, Rutherford B. Hayes; creating a strong relationship between the two. I was immediately reminded of the spot in Winchester, Virginia near my home where a plaque is dedicated to those two men becoming Masons together immediately after the Civil War while Winchester was still occupied by the United States Army. Steve continued to show us the route by which Burnside’s men marched after taking the Bridge before being halted by Confederate General A.P Hill’s Light Division that had just arrived at the field from Harper’s Ferry after paroling the 13,000 men who had just surrendered a few days prior. This was an incredible experience for me and for the rest of the attendees who had never visited this location.
- Dennis Frye, Former Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
- In his keynote presentation, Dennis Frye made a compelling argument that the Battle of Antietam was a distinct Union victory, for the sole reason that McClellan and company drove the Army of Northern Virginia out of Maryland and eliminated the threat of further invasion into the North. While spreading this popular message that was a common narrative throughout the weekend, Dennis stated his reasonings as to why he felt that General McClellan was dealt a bad hand following the end of the Peninsula Campaign and Seven Days Battles. He felt that the blame of failure was warranted on both McClellan and Washington. Inevitably the reason why both sides couldn’t create a holistic relationship was that McClellan did not react well to the Emancipation Proclamation and wanted to use the Army of the Potomac as a vehicle to preserve the Union, rather as one to establish freedom for the enslaved. Where Dennis drove his presentation home was claiming that many supporters of McClellan had wished he used the Army of the Potomac to initiate an insurrection on Washington and overthrow the central authority to assume the executive powers. While the audience audibly gasped, Dennis used primary sources to support his argument and declared that one of the general orders that he wrote immediately following the rumors of him following through with this possible insurrection saved America by dismissing any possibility of him invading his own country for his own selfish reasons. This was an exciting presentation by the always colorful and animated Dennis Frye.
- Bill Sagle, Antietam Battlefield Guide (ret)
- Bob Gottschalk, Former Seasonal Park Ranger at Antietam NBP, Gettysburg NMP, Harpers Ferry NHP, Valley Forge NHP and Richmond NBP
- Bill Sagle and Bob Gottschalk closed out the fabulous weekend on an incredibly windy Sunday morning talking about the earlier stages of the battle, Bill covered the Union perspective, while Bob did so on the Confederate front. We visited popular sites such as the West Woods and the Cornfield and learned about intimate experiences from both sides, particularly from Hookers’ Corps and his opponent in Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Some could say that the Institute saved the best for last by visiting these two specific sites, which could be disputed by the other immaculate spots on the battlefield that we visited previously, but one thing is for certain and that is that Bill and Bob put the cherry on top with some of the stories that they told. Both perspectives were similar in the way that they relayed the casualties due to the ferocity of the two armies. As someone who hasn’t visited the Cornfield since I was a child, this was certainly a treat for me and the end to a perfect weekend.
- This weekend was the result of a lot of hard work and dedication over the course of the last year putting this together. In all of my years studying the Civil War and attending conferences such as this, I don’t think I have ever been surrounded by such kind and passionate individuals as with the Institute. A group with one goal: which is to preserve and spread the history of the 1862 Maryland Campaign. I want to give a very gracious thanks to Chris Vincent, Brad Gottfried, Jim Rosebrock, Laura Marfut, Jim Buchanan, Mac Bryan, Kevin Pawlak, Gary Rohrer and everyone else who is involved in the Antietam Institute for allowing me to be a part of something so special like this. This internship is a dream come true for me, and all of the individuals who thought of me as a good fit for this position have truly given me a place to feel welcome, and for that I cannot thank you all enough. Thank you for a heck of a first Fall Conference and let’s get ready for the Spring Symposium in 2022!