Reenacting Antietam: Fighting As Family Once Did

Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's Battle of Antietam, one of the bloodiest battles of any war. At the battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md., some of those reenacting the battle have family members who were there for this pivotal moment in history.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's Battle of Antietam, one of the bloodiest days of any war. In honor of the sesquicentennial, the battle site is hosting a slew of events commemorating the fight. Reporter Jacob Fenston went to Sharpsburg, Maryland, the site of the battle, and brings us this report.

JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: It started just before dawn.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUGLE PLAYING)

FENSTON: As the bugle sounds in the still-dark morning, men rustle out of their canvas tents, pulling on dusty and worn wool jackets. They take up their rifles, drilling before the morning battle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Forward, march.

FENSTON: These are Civil War reenactors - about 4,000 of them, gathered on this rural field about 70 miles north of Washington, D.C., the site of that bloody, day-long battle that took place 150 years ago. Many of the reenactors have traced their family trees all the way back to the Civil War. Some even have ancestors who fought at Antietam.

DANIEL FLORA: Yes, I had two of them.

FENSTON: That's Daniel Flora.

FLORA: Forty and 36 years old, joined up fairly early in September, and about 15 days later, they were here. So, Antietam would have been their first battle.

FENSTON: Today, Flora is part of the same regiment his ancestors fought in, the 7th Ohio infantry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: First battalion load.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNONS FIRING)

FENSTON: On the real battlefield that day, the Union eked out a victory, but there were more than 22,000 casualties. That staggering number was a wake-up call to Americans. It was clear this war wasn't going to end quickly. Civil War scholar and Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust was at Antietam this weekend. She says one immediate result of the battle was President Lincoln's emancipation proclamation just five days later.

PRESIDENT DREW GILPIN FAUST: He needed to release it from a position of strength and to say this is something we do because we're strong, and not have it look like a last desperate effort to somehow win the war.

RIC BURNS: There is no more transformational battle in the war than Antietam.

FENSTON: Filmmaker Ric Burns has a new documentary coming out on the Civil War. He says Lincoln freed the slaves in part to offset the mounting casualties, like those at Antietam.

BURNS: So, if you offer to emancipate African-Americans in states under rebellion, they'll come flooding north in even greater numbers.

FENSTON: Antietam is one of many Civil War battles being remembered this year. Next year, this will continue with the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest year of the Civil War, 1863. For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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