James Rada Jr., Columnist
As Western Maryland prepares to remember the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam in Sharpsburg, no actual Civil War veterans will be attending. The last major anniversary event for a Civil War battle that saw actual veterans in attendance was the 75th. Antietam’s 75th anniversary was in 1937.
For Washington County residents, the event also represented the bicentennial of the settling of the county and the 175th anniversary of the founding of Hagerstown. The latter events had been originally planned for 1935, but they had been postponed because of the country’s poor economic condition. The money just wasn’t there to plan for a big event.
However, remembering Antietam was not only a big event, but it was a federal one. President Franklin Roosevelt created the National Antietam Commemoration Commission and appointed Maryland U.S. Sen. Millard Tydings to chair it, along with members Maryland U.S. Sen. George Radcliffe, Congressman David Lewis and Gen. Milton Reckord of Maryland, Virginia U.S. Sen. Henry Byrd and Vermont Congressman Charles Plumley. Maryland Gov. Harry Nice appointed a Maryland State Advisory Committee. Park Loy was the secretary and treasurer of the commission and the chair of the Washington County Historical Society, which was responsible for much of the organization of the events.
As the anniversary date approached, estimates were that a quarter million people, including Roosevelt, would be attending the event.
Events were planned over two weeks from Sept. 4 to 17. Some days were themed, like National Anthem Day, Baltimore City Day and Defenders’ Day. At times, the events seemed more appropriate to a county fair with livestock shows and a carnival midway.
Maryland Motorist Magazine described the events this way: “For two weeks it will feature a ‘junior world’s fair’ complete with large-scale historical pageant and, on its final and climatic day, will mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam by re-enacting that famous struggle on the battlefield — following an address expected to be delivered by President Roosevelt. ... The visitor will find many attractions for his attention. A gala carnival midway, a stately museum overflowing with objects of rare historical interest, a series of villages depicting life in foreign countries, a glorious field of flowers on the approach to the Horticultural Hall, a long Industrial Court displaying some of the earliest curiosities and some of the latest wonders in manufacturing, a Travel Building devoted to the visual store of ancient and modern transportation, the Paradise Gardens where all the animals and all the plants will flourish, a Commercial Building where hundreds of nation wide wholesalers and retailers will spread their wares before the world, and finally the great dramatic spectacle ‘On Wings of Time.’”
Twenty-one governors of 29 of the states whose troops fought the Battle of Antietam attended the climactic day that featured the re-enactment, along with Roosevelt. National Guardsmen of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia re-enacted the Bloody Lane phase of the battle. About 1,500 men took part in the re-enactment with 900 of them in the Union army and 600 in the Southern army.
Roosevelt spoke to the gathered crowd across from the Dunkard Church where part of the battle occurred. Sharpsburg citizens presented him with a section of a tree hewn on the battlefield that contained a bullet fired during the battle. Roosevelt told the audience, “In the presence of the spirits of those who fell on this field — Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers — we can believe that they rejoice with us in the unity of understanding which is so increasingly ours today. They urge us on in all we do to foster that unity in the spirit of tolerance, of willingness to help our neighbor, and of faith in the destiny of the United States.”
About 50 Civil War veterans attended the events; most of them in their 90s. Though there were a few thousand Civil War veterans still alive in 1937, less than 100 actually fought at Antietam.
The bitterness of 75 years prior had disappeared and “frequently men who fought for the South were seen arm in arm with soldiers of the North,” according to the Hagerstown Morning Herald. In one memorable picture, Cpl. Bazel Lemley, 94, of the Confederate Army, shook hands with Gen. Benjamin Franklin Red of the Union Army at Bloody Lane where they had tried to kill each other in 1862.