The anniversary of the battle is next Tuesday, but the reenactment and other commemorative events will be held Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to accommodate the large numbers of visitors.
Because the National Park Service does not permit reenactments on official battlefield grounds, except for its own historical demonstrations and interpretations, there will actually be two celebrations this weekend.
The Antietam 140th Anniversary Commemoration, the more commercial and entertaining of the two, will be held on a 1,000-acre (404 hectare) farm near Hagerstown, Maryland, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the battlefield.
Reenactors will stage four major phases of the battle: the clash at Fox's Gap, the bloody struggle in the cornfield, the horrendous slaughter at Bloody Lane, and the legendary fight at Burnside Bridge. Union troops made repeated futile assaults across the narrow stone bridge when they could have waded across the creek downstream.
Some 5,000 Civil War soldiers fell at Bloody Lane alone, a sunken road in the center of the Confederate line that became a death trap when Union soldiers outflanked it.
The fighting will be restaged before masses of spectators in four sections of open farm field rather than in the actual places where the individual clashes were fought.
Among the other events will be cavalry demonstrations, children's games, band and bugle concerts, a hymn sing, and a fictional temperance rally. Actor Stephen Lang, who stars in the forthcoming Civil War movie Gods and Generals, will portray Stonewall Jackson.
A more solemn experience is scheduled for the National Battlefield, which adjoins the town of Sharpsburg. Friday evening there will be a memorial ceremony at the Battlefield's famous Dunker Church, scene of some of the bitterest fighting in the opening round of the battle.
"It's a very low-profile ceremony," said Howard, "but it's also a very emotional ceremonya true remembrance. It's very low-key. Not a lot of glitz and glitter. But it kind of reminds everybody why we do what we do."
Remembrance and rededication ceremonies also will be held at the actual cornfield, Bloody Lane, and other battlefield sites. Groups representing the Texas Brigade, the 20th Pennsylvania Regiment, and Citadel cadets will be among those participating.
Though there will be no Park Service battle reenactments, units from Wyoming and Alabama will give artillery demonstrations on the grounds of the battlefield visitor center.
"The programs most people look forward to are our real-time hikes," said Howard. "They take place when the battle action would have been under way. They're very time-specific and site-specific, so the visitor is actually walking the ground at the time the particular action happened."
Historian James McPherson, author of the just published Antietam: Crossroads of Freedom, will explain the enormous importance of the battle in a presentation Saturday night at the national park's visitor center, one of several lectures the Park Service is holding.
Another event, "From Antietam to Afghanistan," is devoted to letters written by Civil War soldiers and those who came later. "It will show how letters home from soldiers are always the same, regardless of the year, the date, or the war," Howard said. "They bring out the reality that these weren't armies, these were men that were fighting here."
The state of Maryland will also open its first Civil War driving trail, a 90-mile (145-kilometer) route extending from White's Ferry on the Potomac River outside of Washington to Frederick, Maryland, and around to Antietam. Called "The Antietam Campaign: Lee Invades Maryland," it will be followed by three more trails in the next few years.
Byron said the driving trails will help accommodate ever increasing interest in the Civil War that was fueled by Ken Burns's 1991 PBS television series "The Civil War" and the 1993 film Gettysburg, which was based on Michael Shaara's book The Killer Angels.
"For the last five years, we have a seen a continual total increase in visitors of 18 to 19 percent," said Howard. "It's constant. Not a spike. Every year we'll increase 3 or 4 percent, and we continue to build on that."
Visitation has increased overall by 71 percent since 1991, he noted. "It's got a little to do with the fact that people realize that, though Sharpsburg, or Antietam, is not the most well known battlefield site, and not the easiest to get to," said Howard, "when you get here, you're actually going to seeI won't call it reality, because no one will ever be able to present the realitybut to get as close as you can to that period in time."
Copyright 2002 Chicago Tribune