Sunday, July 22, 2012

Visit to Shepherdstown, WV and Antietem

I'm in Shepherdstown, WV this weekend, a real gem of a town for our state whose small towns are usually described as depressed and people as hardscrabble. This town, only an hour from D.C., with a three block main street of small shops and a small state university, can't avoid the designation of quaint and historical, and the people on the streets either prosperous or young and hip. My wife and I came to see a couple plays being presented this month during the Contemporary American Theater Festival which premiers new American plays during the month of July. We've seen two: the scripts have been excellent, the acting superb, the topics challenging. This is the first time I've attended; I've never been a theater buff, but I'll be back.

Yesterday, a steady drizzle having settled in preventing us from riding our bikes the thirteen miles to Harper's Ferry on the C&O Canal as we'd planned, we went to the nearby Antietem National Battlefield across the Potomac in Maryland. It was, our friend Marie told us, the best preserved Civil War battlefield of them all. She should know, she is a historian who worked for the National Park Service.

The visitor's center is small, modern, and pleasingly blends into and follows the contours of the landscape, most of it built into a hill a couple hundred yards from Dunker Church (ironically, a pacifist sect), around which most of the heaviest fighting took place. The 1/2 hour film, narrated by James Earl Jones (will there ever be a better voice for narration than his?), did a good job of laying out the context for the battle within the Civil War, not only in terms of troop movements and strategies, but in terms of the issue of slavery and Lincoln's decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The film employed some techniques of documentary filmmaking, showing re-enactors in their camps, on the battlefield, finding Lee's lost invasion plan that gave General McClellan a leg up on the southern forces.

One take-a-way I got from the film that I've either never known or have forgotten (surely it's mentioned somewhere in Ken Burns' Civil War mini-series, which sadly is the most comprehensive treatment of the Civil War I've engaged in--I've never read any of the many histories available) was a scene in which crowds of liberated African-Americans, whole families included, were following the Union Army everywhere they went, according to the narration in numbers as large or larger than the armies themselves. And they wanted to fight, to participate in this war to free their people. Marie told me of a twenty-year battle that historians in the National Park Service fought to get the battlefield parks and memorials to even mention the issue of slavery as a cause of the Civil War against the resistance of Southern advocacy groups that could almost be called "slavery deniers." Apparently, they want to paint their ancestors in the best light possible, as fighting for any number reasons: defending their homeland or their honor, states rights, being anti-federalist, defending the Constitution, you name it, but don't call it slavery.

Around 3:30 p.m. after reading every description of the murals in the small, but fascinating exhibit of Captain James Hope's paintings of the battle made after the war from battlefield sketches he'd produced, the rain finally stopped and we rode our bikes along the eight-and-a-half mile road through the battlefield which most people drive and some walk. I highly recommend taking this tour by bike. We had only an hour-and-a-half, unfortunately, before having to return to get ready for dinner and a play, so didn't have time to stop and read many of the plaques and informational markers along the way. But experiencing the rolling Maryland countryside on the site where over 23,000 men lost their lives on a horrific day in 1862, gives one a perspective that I don't think you get staying in your car.

Without making this sound too much like a tourist promotion  for Shepherdstown, I highly recommend a visit. I plan to come back and explore the area more, enjoy the restaurants, the nearby Harper's Ferry National Historical Park (I've been there before, but it's worth several visits), and of course, the plays in July. Okay, this does sound like a tourist promotion--hey Jefferson County, how about twenty cents a word?