Cantering across the field like a ghostly horse, the mist lifts slightly and unveils the bridge across Antietam Creek. In the quiet of the morning light, the battle sounds can almost be heard, but they’re drowned out by a joyous voice:
“Dad, look! There’s the bridge. That’s the one in the poster on my wall!” A child’s energy flashes across the dew-damp grass towards the Burnside Bridge.
While America reminisces about the War Between The States from 150 years ago, my thoughts go to the battlefield bonding between father and son almost 20 years ago.
Following months of Lego-based battlefield layout, watching re-enactors in skirmishes and listening to battle strategy as understood by a ten year old, my son and I spent the most important week of our lives together with history on hallowed battlefields in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Adjoining Sharpsburg, Maryland, Antietam National Battlefield sits between Fredrick and Hagerstown in the crook of I-81 and I-70 just north of the Virginia-Maryland state line. Even today, Antietam represents the largest single day loss of American lives in history. A turning-point in the war, it was the starting point in a week with my 10 year old, Civil War-buff son.
This was our first family foray with one parent and one child, and it opened the door to more such excursions. Michael and I jointly planned the routes and the battlefields. His ownership of the trip filled each day with anticipation as we moved around the rolling hills west of Washington, D.C. More important, we shared tour guide duty. His interest in the battles themselves provided narrative as we followed the roads and trails used by the Blue and the Gray.
The mist hung like a curtain cutting visibility to the present, providing a backdrop allowing imagination to see the troops marching across the cornfield. Civil War cannon are sited in several locations where artillery was set during the bloody battle. Being a typical 10-year-old, Michael sighted down the cannon, pointing out that it was aimed at the edge of the woods. Then he climbed on. Sitting on the cannon, he stared across the field lost in his own thoughts. Jumping down, he turned to me and said, “Thanks, Dad. This is neat.”
It wasn’t so much where we were going as much as it was letting Michael take ownership of the trip. He chose the battles that were of greatest interest to him. I know in at least one case, the battlefield selected, The Wilderness, was picked for its name as much as it was for its historic importance. We started our first day south of the Mason Dixon line with Antietam and then followed the road over the mountains into Emmitsburg. From there, we turned north to the trip highlights, Gettysburg National Battlefield — and the next installment of our adventure together.
Eric Jay Toll is a travel writer living in Scottsdale, Arizona. During their childhood, he dragged his two children (sometimes kicking and screaming) from one coast to the other and parts of Canada. His blog, For Whom The Toll Bells, is at EricJayToll.WordPress.com. Eric’s travel writing appears regularly as the Four Corners travel writer on Examiner.com. He has been published in USA Today, LiveStrong, Trails, and Golflinks and is a regular contributor to eHow.com. He is an avid camper, an accomplished chef and not bad with a camera. His son, Michael, turned 29 in May 2011.