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While working in Washington D.C. as a researcher in the National Park Service's Park History Program, I had a chance to make a day trip to the Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Of particular interest was Burnside's Bridge, the stone span crossing Antietam Creek that became a focal point of the fighting on September 17, 1862. Ever since I first read in my high school history textbook the account of Union troops funneling across this narrow bridge and directly into the waiting guns of the Confederates on the opposite bank, I had been fascinated by the drama of that scene and wanted to know what it felt like to stand on that bridge.
Burnside's Bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places, which means you can cross it at your leisure for years to come. I stood there over the water, took some photos, and was on my way, satisfied that I had experienced the vista as the infantrymen might have. Only after my visit, as I read primary source accounts of the battle, did I realize that my focus on the bridge led me to overlook a feature likely more important to the average Union soldier that day: the otherwise unremarkable stone wall that leads up to the bridge. Indeed, as one veteran of the battle recalled in the New York Tribune, “The bridge was no more noticeable than any other portion of the creek on our left wing. Some trees intervened upon our left of the bridge immediately down upon the creek, but the approach down the hill on our side was bare in all directions and exposed to the view of the enemy's gunners.” Here was evidence that Union soldiers, desperate for cover as they approached the creek, would have been far more interested in that rock wall and the shelter it afforded than the bridge itself.
Along the very route I had walked to visit the famous bridge, I had passed in ignorance of that wall. In so doing, I substituted my own interest for that of the historical actors. Fortunately, a friend captured this photo, and I was later able to appreciate what I had been too busy to consider the day of my visit: that scores of the stones in that wall today are the very same ones that shielded the heads of Union soldiers from Confederate bullets one hundred and fifty-three years ago.
Walking in history’s footsteps -- whether it be through a National Park or in the course of my research at Michigan -- is always a humbling but rewarding experience.