Hiking tours help history buffs imagine Civil War hardship

It is ironic that the Battle of South Mountain is often overshadowed by its successor, which took place in a flat field.

Although the Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest one-day battle in American history, it may have never happened without the conflict that occurred three days before and about seven miles away, according to Andrew Rowand, a seasonal National Park Service ranger.

Rowand said he met people from as far away as Germany on Friday and Saturday as he presented programs about the Civil War battle that cleared the path for Antietam.

As part of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of South Mountain, firing demonstrations and walking tours were held in Gathland State Park and the surrounding area.

During one of his presentations Saturday, Rowand explained to a 15-person group that about 6,100 men were killed, wounded or missing after the battle, which took place on several mountain gaps near Burkittsville.

Confederate and Union soldiers confronted each other at Frostown Gap, Turner’s Gap, Fox’s Gap and Crampton’s Gap. The result was that the Union effort stopped the Army of Northern Virginia’s first advance north and forced Gen. Robert E. Lee to go on the defensive.

Ron McKown and Rick McKown, brothers who live in Florida and Alberta, Canada, respectively, said their father was in the Army. This spawned an interest in military history for both of them; over the years, they have toured several Civil War battle sites together.

They chose a guided tour of South Mountain on Saturday because they wanted to walk in the footsteps of the soldiers.

“It’s one thing to read about steep slopes and that kind of stuff,” Rick said. “It’s another thing to actually walk it.”

On one of the hiking tours, a guide read firsthand accounts from soldiers’ diaries and letters.

“That added a lot of color to it,” he said.

Rowand said he likes hosting walking tours for the same reason.

“It really adds a whole dimension to the history,” he said. “You see what the men 150 years ago saw.”

Ron liked having “a local expert who knows the area point out things we would have missed on our own,” he said. He was fascinated to see that things seem to have changed little in the century-and-a-half since the battle.

“The idea of living in an area … that has been fought over and is the site of so many Civil War battles is just an interesting thing,” he said, while surveying the view of nearby hills, fields and woods.

While walking too much can be hazardous for Larry Graham, who has had a knee replacement, he also enjoyed learning about the paths walked by soldiers.

The Mechanicsburg, Pa., resident said he has spent a lot of time at Antietam, but wanted to learn more about the “precursor” battle.

Since he is more interested in the terrain and logistics than other elements of war, he said touring the trails and the geographical hurdles faced by the men was right up his alley. While he’s read about it, “when you actually get out there and walk it and do it … that’s helpful,” he said.

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