Remembering Antietam: Commemoration and Preservation of a Civil War Battlefield

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2005-03-11

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Abstract

Civil War memory has been the focus of a great deal of scholarship in recent years. A large percentage of this attention has been directed toward one battlefield--Gettysburg, which has come to represent remembrance of that conflict as a whole. This study of Antietam battlefield, however, reveals a very different commemorative experience than the one found at Gettysburg, suggesting a more nuanced Civil War memory at work in the United States than found by looking at Gettysburg alone. The Battle of Antietam remains, to this day, the single bloodiest day in American history. Yet, Antietam's location within the slaveholding, Union border state of Maryland resulted in a conflicted and ambivalent remembrance of that battle on the part of local inhabitants, the state, and national veterans' organizations. This ambivalence shaped the commemorative landscape at Antietam, and was reflected within it.

The first objective of this study was to document the formation of the commemorative landscape at Antietam battlefield up to the 1960s, within the larger evolution of Civil War memory. A major factor in this landscape's development was the fact that, unlike other early battlefield parks, the federal government acquired very little land at Antietam. Paradoxically, this contributed greatly toward Antietam's successful preservation under present-day standards.

The second objective was to define the local community's role in shaping the landscape at Antietam. Because it remained in private hands, community members exerted a great deal of influence over Antietam's commemorative landscape relative to other battlefields. In fact, elements within the Sharpsburg community consistently resisted or undermined the authority of those seeking to impose a commemorative overlay on Antietam battlefield.

Situating Antietam battlefield within the larger discourse and politics of Civil War memory was the third objective. The complexity of remembrance at Antietam first manifested itself with the creation of Antietam National Cemetery, and the struggle between Maryland and the northern states over early memory of the battle. This contrasted with the clear message conveyed by Lincoln at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, and set the stage for the different paths of remembrance taken by the two battlefields.

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