September 17, 1862 was the bloodiest day in American history. In twelve hours of horrific combat, soldiers from the North and the South fought the Battle of Antietam that would claim over 23,000 casualties. Some historians believe that the Battle of Antietam was one of the key turning points of the American Civil War. The battle ended Robert E. Lee’s first Confederate invasion into the north and it led to President Abraham Lincoln announcing the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
But the Battle of Antietam and the Maryland Campaign of 1862 is more than statistics and facts. According to our esteemed local historian, John Schildt, “History is about people and places”. Even though Antietam is one of the most pristine battlefields in the United States it is very difficult to understand the ebb and flow of the battle as you’re standing at one of the park stops. Looking at the fields, the wood lots and the roads, it can be very confusing and you cannot begin to put yourself into the shoes of the soldiers that stood on the very same ground without the assistance of a licensed Antietam Battlefield Guide.
The Antietam Battlefield Guides
The Antietam Guides are a group of historians dedicated to providing outstanding interpretive tours of the Antietam Battlefield, as well as other sites related to the Maryland Campaign of 1862. This is a group of incredibly talented and gifted professionals. Many of the guides are published authors and have written articles for renowned Civil War magazines. They are frequent lecturers at Civil War Roundtables and Historical Societies, as well as historical seminars and on forums, sharing their knowledge about Antietam and the American Civil War. When not giving tours, many guides serve as volunteers at Antietam Battlefield. You may find them at the Visitor Center desk, out on the field as Battlefield Ambassadors, on the Battery B, 4th US Artillery, (Antietam’s living history interpreters), or behind the scenes helping out with park maintenance during the off season. The Guides also support the Save Historic Antietam Foundation, the local organization that works to promote the preservation and restoration of the scenic area in and around the Antietam Battlefield. Guides are frequently out helping clearing brush or restoring a fence line during their work days.
The First Guide and the start of the guide service
The Antietam Battlefield Guides trace their start back to the first battlefield guide at Antietam, Oliver T. Reilly. O.T. Reilly was just five years old at the time of the battle and is said to have witnessed it from a hill near Keedysville where he lived. When he was just 15, O.T. began giving tours of the battlefield. In 1890, he moved to Sharpsburg, where he opened a store on Main Street, selling novelties, battlefield guide books, postcards and Civil War relics. Reilly served as a battlefield guide for seven decades, often taking veterans on tours of the field. The current guide service was founded in 2005 by Stephen Recker in partnership with the Western Maryland Interpretive Association, a non-profit organization at Antietam. In the fall of 2011, Jim Rosebrock became the new Chief of the Antietam Battlefield Guides. Under Jim’s leadership the program envolved and expanded to include other areas associated with the Maryland Campaign. Now visitors can experience the whole Maryland Campaign by visiting Harpers Ferry, the South Mountain Battlefields and Antietam National Battlefield. At the beginning of 2019, Chris Vincent was honored to be selected to succeed Jim as the Chief Guide. Chris looks forward to leading the guides into the next decade with their new parent association Eastern National, which is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit cooperating association that manages the museum bookstore at the battlefield.
Becoming a Guide
Becoming an Antietam Battlefield Guide requires enthusiasm, a desire to learn and much preparation. The standards are high but the rewards are worth the effort. After successfully passing a written exam, guide candidates are paired with a certified guide-mentor to begin preparing for their 3-hour field test. During this phase, candidates become participants in the Battlefield’s Volunteers in the Parks (VIP) program. The experiences of volunteering provides the opportunity to interact with park visitors and get to know the rangers and other volunteers, many of whom are guides. It also affords the opportunity to spend time on the field and to sharpen interpretation skills. Once candidates have completed all their requirements of the Mentoring Phase and feel they are ready, they take a 3-hour oral field test that consists of a 3-hour tour with a National Park Service ranger and the Chief Guide. Upon successful completion of the field test, candidates become NPS Certified Battlefield Guides!
Antietam Battlefield Guides are constantly researching and studying the Maryland Campaign. During the off-season, guides conduct professional development training by exploring seldom visited parts of the field and reviewing other aspects of the battle. Guides can customize your tour to focus on a particular part of the battlefield or a specific unit. If you had an ancestor who fought at Antietam your guide can tailor a part of the tour to those particular areas on the field where your ancestor’s unit fought.
Booking a battlefield tour
The Antietam Guides are booked through the Antietam National Battlefield Museum Store. The guide will drive your vehicle so you can focus on the field areas that the guide is talking about and what they are describing to you. There are currently five basic tours you can take and the cost is based on the number of people in your group.
Highlight Tour (2 hours): This tour is designed for those with young children or people on a tight schedule, and will cover the Cornfield, Sunken Road and Burnside Bridge overlook.
Standard Tour (3 hours): This is the standard tour and includes an introduction to the Maryland Campaign at the Visitors Center as well as stops at the Cornfield, Sunken Road and Burnside Bridge. It is designed for individuals or groups seeking general knowledge of the battle and the battlefield.
Extended Tour (4 hours): This tour is designed for those visitors interested in exploring the battlefield in greater depth. It includes all parts of the Standard Tour however time is built in for additional stops or extended time at the 3 Standard Tour stops.
Antietam Plus Tour (6 hours): This 6 hour tour includes a Standard Tour of Antietam and a trip to one other battlefield, of the visitor’s choice, associated with the Maryland Campaign (either Harpers Ferry or South Mountain). All Antietam Plus tours originate at the Antietam Battlefield Visitors Center.
Campaign Tour (8 hours): The Campaign Tour covers all three battlefields of the Maryland Campaign (Antietam, South Mountain & Harpers Ferry). This tour originates at Antietam and travels to South Mountain and Harpers Ferry to explore the battles that preceded America’s bloodiest day. After touring South Mountain & Harpers Ferry you return to Antietam for the 3 hour Standard Tour.
To book your Battlefield tour, call the Antietam Museum Store at (301) 432-4329. Check the guide biographies on the website. If there is a particular guide you are interested in securing, let the bookstore associate know who you would like to lead your tour.
If you have other questions and inquiries, you can email the guides at AntietamTours@easternnational.org. Follow along on the Antietam Battlefield Guide Facebook page for updates about the programs, what the guides are up to, and information about Antietam National Battlefield.
If your staying at the Inn take advantage of our Civil War Tour Specials and we’ll book one of these outstanding tours with the Antietam Battlefield Guide for you. We hope to see you soon!