My friend Derek and I arrived at Antietam on the afternoon of September 16. We had already missed many of the festivities, but we were determined to spend the next day on the battlefield, exploring and remembering what happened that day, 150 years ago. I tracked down a few park rangers and questioned them on the “Sunrise in the Cornfield” program, scheduled for 6:30 AM. After I figured out where to meet, I asked how early we should be there and one ranger said, “I doubt there will be many people there. It’s early.” I questioned another and he shrugged, “We don’t know if we should expect 20 or 200 people.”
We got up early and arrived at the park at 6:20 to see a long line of brake lights. The place was packed. We parked and began the trek with hundreds of other people to the spot where the Battle of Antietam began. An eerie fog covered the field.
On the north end of the Cornfield, there were several rangers holding three-ring binders along with an amp and a microphone. They waited as more people continued to stream across the cornfield.
The program began and we huddled around the rangers as if they were priests of old, sharing the words of the gods. They emphasized that the program that morning was all about the men who fought on this field. The rangers then read from their binders, taking turns to speak only the words of participants from the battle who recorded their experiences in letters and journals. The sun continued to rise, as the soldiers’ words described the hell that unfolded 150 years ago.
The crowd was mostly made up of tourists, but reenactors in blue and grey were there as well. These men came from the north end of the battlefield, the same area where Joe Hooker’s corps attacked from that morning.
As the rangers continued to speak, Confederate reenactors began firing their rifles in the field next to us. In the distance, we could hear Union artillery firing as well.
We then marched back to the south end of the field. From the position where the Confederates were firing their rifles, the gun smoke mixed with the thick humidity to form a cloud over the cornfield. As we continued to walk, we all turned our heads to take notice of the unnatural site.
On the south end of the Cornfield, the rangers continued to read the words of the soldiers and we listened intently.
The whole experience lasted roughly 45 minutes with about 350 spectators in attendance. One ranger stated that it was the most moving experience he had been a part of at the park. The experience was solemn and moved me in a way that I will never forget.