Monday, September 17, 2012

150 years ago right now...

I've been thinking a lot about how historic sites allow you to time travel. Setting foot on the field, or in the room, where history happened gives you a real, visceral link to that history. I can't even count how many places have given me chills, where I could feel the incredible gravitas of the moment. Louisa May Alcott's bedroom at Orchard House. The stockade field at Andersonville. Notre Dame in Paris.

For me, the connection is stronger on anniversaries, which may be why we make so much of them. Today is the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest day in American history: the battle of Antietam. I woke up this morning at 7:00 a.m., opened my eyes, and thought that precisely 150 years ago, my great-great-great-grandfather, Captain Richard Gustin, was leading his regiment, the 12th Pennsylvania Reserves, through the cornfields at Antietam.

Cornfields at Antietam, looking south.

I've always felt an affinity for Richard - as evidenced by my two-week Civil War trip and my years of on-and-off research into his life. He was an extraordinary man. Having now walked in his footsteps, it means the world to me that I can close my eyes and easily picture that cornfield, the fence at the road where the Confederate forces held their ground, the dells and trees of the small shielded part of the field where the regiment eventually fell back.

Other end of the cornfield, looking back north.

Ahead, the trees where the 12th Pennsylvania and others took cover after the morning's fighting.

That's what we're ultimately looking for, isn't it, in interpreting historic sites, and to a certain extent, in history museums? That bone-deep connection to the past? I spend so many of my waking hours trying to foster that moment in others that when I can take a step back and experience it for myself it's really special.

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