SHARPSBURG, Md. (April 24, 2015) - Frigid gusts of wind chill and numb my face as I tread through a field of tall, dead grass along the banks of the Antietam Creek in Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland, camera in hand.
I turn as a distant cadence is shouted from the approaching Marines, from Marine Corps Air Facility Quantico at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.
“Here they come,” I said to Michael Hancock, the facility's safety officer and Pfc. David Staten, the other combat correspondent, who accompanied me on this hike.
We got a head start to catch the perfect photo of the Marines crossing the Burnside Bridge.
While searching for this photo, I found something much more personally important. I am standing on the same ground, where more than a century ago tens of thousands of Americans on two sides of bloody civil war began to clash at the Battle of Antietam.
Staten and I joined on an almost eight-mile-long hike and battle study about the conflict at the Antietam National Battlefield.
We embarked on the hour-and-twenty-minute-long journey from Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, north to the park, battling the gridlock of National Capital Region traffic, all without spilling a drop of my coffee.
We arrived at around 7:40 a.m. leaving the congestion of the highways behind us, trading them for an isolation of rolling green hills and deserted farmland.
Around this time in the morning on Sept. 17, 1862, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker and the Union Army began battering Maj. Gen. Thomas J. ‘Stonewall' Jackson's Confederate positions along the Miller Cornfield, which we later hiked through.
Volleys of Union artillery fire kicked off the bloodiest one-day battle in American history.
We spoke to Sgt. Andrew Meyers, who helped organize this hands-on professional military education and unit cohesion building event. After we spoke we made a final gear check and stepped off.
Above and Below - Marine Corps Air Facility Quantico personnel, from Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., hike through Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, Maryland April 24, 2015. The hike and battle study was a professional military education opportunity and unit cohesion building event. The Battle of Antietam was the first invasion of the North by Confederate troops during the Civil War and the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Eric Keenan)
The Marines picked up their packs and made their way into the park. At this same time 153 years ago, a brother verse brother battle raged between Union and Confederate soldiers.
The Marines snaked through cornfields, past historic barns and homes, stopping at the occasional monument for water and a short presentation about the battle.
One such stop at what was known as ‘Sunken Road,' we learned that in about three hours of combat, nearly 5,500 soldiers were killed or wounded as Union troops fought to push back the dug-in Confederates. This road is now known as ‘Bloody Lane' for obvious reasons.
The cadence died out as the Marines drew closer.
Paralleling the creek, my gaze honed in on the water. I tried to imagine the Battle of Antietam blazing all around me.
The 500 Confederate sharpshooters would have been holding off the Union soldiers that clung tight to the trees for cover and concealment on the bank of the creek.
Grown men scream, fall, bleed and fight as smoke rises, blocking out the afternoon sun. The smell of black powder from cannon and musket fire is so heavy it almost burns their nostrils. Bodies float face down in the water.
I snapped back to reality. The serenity of the day only broken by occasional distant conversations and the sounds of the creek flowing as the Burnside Bridge came into sight.
I sprinted ahead to get a photo. My lungs were burning from the cold air as I moved rapidly across the bridge and up a steep hill.
When I reached the apex, I turned and got in position. The Marines had made their way onto the bridge and stopped, facing inboard. I snapped a couple photos and made my way back down.
I couldn't hear the lesson on the bridge from my position. I would later learn through some research that by 1 p.m., Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside and his troops, who had been fighting to cross the Antietam Creek since the morning, finally pushed the Confederates back across the bridge and up towards Sharpsburg, Md.
A part of American history, although bloody, took place all around me. A simple bridge, which couldn't be more than 200 feet long and 30 feet wide, marked the deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands, of men, who fought for the America they wanted.
Aside for the usual sarcastically motivational remarks and guttural barks and ‘err's, the park was silent, only the seemingly continuous howling winds pierced the hallowed ground we walked.
We took our final stop for a chow break and we were off on the final stretch to the buses, which would take us back to the visitor center. The Battle of Antietam came to a close as the Union surrounded the Confederates on three sides. The following night, Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered a retreat back across the Potomac River. The Union would stand the victor.
Staten and I got in the van and started driving out of the park. I took one last look around. What I saw was a large stretch of hills, farms and monuments a peaceful and awesome sight. It was difficult to see it as it was more than a century ago.
Every strand of grass, stone in a wall and gravel on our path held history. The blood and sweat of nearly 23,000 Americans was spilled drenching the 3,230 acres of land.
Hiking the hallowed grounds was humbling. I had goose bumps and this time it wasn't from the bitter wind.
By U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Eric Keenan
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