Antietam National Battlefield Park Gears Up To Commemorate Civil War’s Bloodiest Day

Antietam, Civil War
It was the bloodiest day of the Civil War. After 12 hours of ferocious fighting on September 17, 1862, an estimated 23,000 soldiers had been killed, wounded or declared missing. Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North was at an end.

The Battle of Antietam, in Maryland, proved to be a turning point in the war. Lincoln had been keeping his Emancipation Proclamation secret, waiting for a Union victory in order to make the controversial freeing of the slaves in rebellious states politically easier. This battle gave him that victory.

It also boosted confidence in the North. Union forces had suffered a series of embarrassing blunders and defeats. While the Union army’s success at Antietam wasn’t all it could have been (their forces outnumbered the rebels but were poorly handled by General McClellan) it showed that the war could be won.

On the weekend of September 15-17 Antietam National Battlefield Park is hosting a commemorative weekend of events for the 150th anniversary. Programs include battlefield hikes, lectures, special exhibits, kids activities, Civil War music and living history artillery and infantry firing demonstrations. For more information on General Lee’s ill-fated Maryland Campaign and commemoration events related to it, check out the National Park Service’s Maryland Campaign Commemoration page.

There’s also a large Battle of Antietam Reenactment on farmland a few miles away from the national park on September 14-16. This is a privately run event and preregistration is a must. Deadline is August 31.

[Photo of Confederate dead at Bloody Lane courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Meramec Caverns: The Coolest Attraction On Route 66


If you want to beat the heat this summer, there’s no better way to do that than to explore a cool and beautiful cave.

Missouri is one of the best states to see them. A combination of lots of limestone and plenty of water has honeycombed the state with some 6,000 caves, from tiny little crawl spaces to grand and glorious show caves. One of the most popular is Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri, on Route 66.

Like many caves, it was first used by Native Americans. In the 18th century, French explorers mined the cave for saltpeter, an ingredient used in making gunpowder. Saltpeter Cave, as it was then known, became tactically important in the Civil War. Union troops were stationed there mining the saltpeter until 1864, when Confederate guerrillas attacked them, drove them off, and destroyed the works.

The cave didn’t become a public attraction until the 1890s, when dances were held in the main gallery, appropriately called “The Ballroom.” Showman Lester Dill bought it in 1933, renamed it Meramec Caverns after the nearby river, and opened it to the public. He systematically explored the cave and discovered several impressive chambers. Soon people were flocking to see the stalactites and stalagmites, and beautiful stone drapery that looks like giant curtains. The action of the water depositing minerals on the walls had created amazing shapes and contours on every spot.

%Gallery-158676%Dill decided to create some clever advertising by linking the cave to Jesse James. He claimed it was one of his gang’s hideouts, although James scholars dispute this. The Jesse James/Meramec Caverns legend got a shot in the arm when the public became aware of a man claiming to be the real Jesse James, still alive and spinning a tale about how he faked his own death. Actually this old coot was named J. Frank Dalton and had one time passed himself off as Billy the Kid.

Local booster Rudy Turilli brought “Jesse” to Meramec Caverns to celebrate his 103rd birthday on September 5, 1950. This brought in a huge amount of publicity and Turilli offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove he didn’t have the real Jesse James. The James family took him to court and won. Turilli never paid the $10,000.

The tour and the nearby Jesse James Wax Museum explain this conspiracy theory in detail. The whole experience is fun and a bit cheesy, having the roadside appeal of The Thing? and South of the Border. There’s no denying the natural beauty of the cave itself, and beyond the showbusiness aspect of the place that’s its real appeal.

While you’re in Stanton also check out the Riverside Reptile Ranch to meet all sorts of creepy creatures, and take a ride on the Caveman Zipline.

Alcatraz Marks 50th Anniversary Of Famous Escape

Alcatraz
They said Alcatraz was escape-proof, but 50 years ago yesterday, three prisoners made an ingenious break out, paddled out into the cold waters of San Francisco Bay and disappeared.

On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin were ready to bust out of prison. Over the past year they had patiently chipped away at the air vents in their respective cells with spoons. At night they’d replace the vents and cover the expanding tunnels with pieces of colored cardboard.

On the night of the breakout they squirmed through the tunnels into an unused service corridor and made their way to the roof. To keep the guards from noticing they were gone, they left behind dummy heads in their beds made of paper maché and real hair gathered from the prison barbershop.

From the roof they climbed the barbed wire fence and floated away on a raft made of rubber raincoats. They were never seen again. Fragments of their raft and plywood paddles were found on Angel Island, two miles away from Alcatraz. Footprints led away from the raft and a car was stolen that night.

A fourth man, Allen West, didn’t make it to the rendezvous in time and was left behind.

Did the three men escape? Despite many rumors, none of them were ever found. A ship’s captain said he spotted a body floating in the bay wearing a prison uniform. The body wasn’t recovered. Their files remain open.

%Gallery-158021%According to legend, they would return to Alcatraz for a visit on the 50th anniversary. As unlikely as that sounds, US Marshal Michael Dyke spent yesterday on Alcatraz hoping to catch the aged fugitives. He left at the end of the day disappointed.

Alcatraz, also known as “The Rock,” started life as a fort. During the Civil War, local Confederate sympathizers and privateers were imprisoned there. It continued as a military prison through World War I, when it housed conscientious objectors. Alcatraz became a Federal prison in 1933 and was used to keep the most troublesome prisoners. Its guests included such model citizens as Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly. It was closed in 1963.

Now Alcatraz is a National Park and open to the public. Visitors can see the prisoners’ cells and other areas, as well as the escape route of Morris and the Anglin brothers. All access to the island is via the private ferry company Alcatraz Cruises from Pier 33. Check out the gallery for some views of the prison, as well an intriguing shots of the escape route.

[Photo courtesy Bruce C. Cooper]

Civil War Ballooning Revived This Memorial Day Weekend

Civil War
During the Civil War, the clashing armies used many new technologies to try to gain an advantage.

One military innovation was the balloon. Although the first balloon ascent had taken place in France in 1783 and the French army had already used them in battle as early as 1794, military aviation was still in its infancy and the United States and Confederacy became the second and third countries to use it.

Balloons were handy for spying on enemy movements. Observers would send back information either with signal flags or via a telegraph wire leading to the ground. The more industrial North had an edge in ballooning, but the South used them effectively too. Despite their best efforts, neither side was able to shoot these daring aviators out of the sky.

Now these early experiments are being re-enacted in Virginia. On Saturday, May 26, there will be a Civil War Balloon Observation Exhibit at the Yorktown Battlefield. There will be presentations on how balloons were used by both sides. It’s part of a weekend of lectures and re-enactments.

On Memorial Day, Monday, May 28, at the Gloucester Main Street Center, there will be a Civil War re-enactment featuring a 45-foot diameter replica of the Union’s balloon Intrepid. Re-enactors will portray Union and Confederate balloonists. Those who prefer more recent military history can meet special guest Richard C. Kirkland, who flew 103 combat missions in World War II and whose 69 helicopter rescues in Korea inspired the movie and TV series “M*A*S*H.”

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Photo Of The Day: Lincoln Memorial

Whether you haven’t yet been, or you’ve visited it many times, Washington’s Lincoln Memorial never fails to inspire and amaze. Today’s photo, by Flickr user Christian Carollo Photography, provides a unique angle on this most famous of American monuments. The photo’s black and white color palette, artful use of light and shadow and interesting “behind the pillars” angle creates a feeling of mystery and significance for this otherwise highly recognizable landmark.

Taken any great photos of your own in our nation’s capital? Or maybe just down the street from your house? Why not share them in our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.