“Brother against brother” is a common term used to illustrate the often divided loyalties of families during the Civil War. This division was common in border states like Maryland, which claimed both Union and Confederate 1st Maryland Infantries. In fact, the two regiments fought each other in Front Royal, Virginia, where a soldier from the Confederate side captured his own brother, who was serving in the Union army. I have to wonder how that letter home to mother landed.
Fast forward 154 years, where my blended regiment of five children are often separated by doors and screens, and a ten-year age span. It can be difficult to find things that capture the interest of all the children, who range in age from five to 15. Quarantine has certainly had them spending more time together, and they are unified in the creation and care of their Animal Crossing island, but with spring break looming I knew it was time to unite them in a different way. So, I shoved them all in the minivan and drove them to visit a Civil War battlefield.
For our spring break day trip, we chose Antietam National Battlefield, located in the quiet town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The park is spread over five square miles, and there is a road that takes you around to significant locations.
The Battle at Antietam is known for being the bloodiest day in American history, which appealed to our older two kids, 15 and 12, who are into video games and gory things. Delving into the finer points of the fighting and answering questions like, “is there still blood in the ground?” keeps them interested and engaged. (The answer is yes, by the way; there is still blood in the soil along “Bloody Lane,” where over 5,000 soldiers were killed over the course of four hours.)
Bloody Lane, or The Sunken Road as it is also called, is a beautiful, peaceful stretch of trail that belies the horror that took place there a century and a half ago. At the end of the lane is the Observation Tower, built by the War Department in 1897 to allow for panoramic views of the site, tablets sharing details of the battle, and an impressive monument to the Irish Brigade. This is a good place to get out and let the kids look around, and the various historical markers afford ample opportunity for your new and aspiring readers to sound out words.
My favorite spot at Antietam is Burnside Bridge, located near the end of the driving tour. The bridge was built in the 1830s and crosses Antietam Creek. To access the bridge, you can park in the designated area and take a short hike down to the water. It’s the perfect spot to pause and reflect on what you’ve learned. When we get to the far side, I point out a tree, known as The Burnside Sycamore, standing at the corner of the bridge and the creek bank. This tree, which was around 15 years old during the fighting, survived heavy action and artillery shells and towers tall over the bridge today. This “Witness Tree” is a living example for the kids of perseverance and a really cool reminder that nature is sometimes the best connection we have to the past. We all sat for a moment in the quiet, listening to the creek bubble along, and I took advantage of the fact that this spot is perfect for a group photo.
As we piled back into the van, it began to rain. The older kids pulled their cellphones out, and the other kids asked for snacks. My partner drove slowly as we passed small monuments and markers on the way out, and we named the states represented by each. We marveled at how far from home so many traveled to fight and die in this unassuming town tucked into the western side of Maryland, not so far from our own backyard.
Lead Photo: Jenn Metcalf