Posts tagged ‘Parker Hills’

Making the Battle of Antietam Feel Real

Looking up toward the Union position from Bloody Lane.

Looking up toward the Union position from Bloody Lane.

This time, it hit me while I was standing on the Sunken Road. At least, that was what the old farm road, which wound through the fields near Antietam Creek, in rural Maryland, was called before Sept. 17, 1862.

That day was the bloodiest in American history. The Battle of Antietam resulted in 23,000 casualties—Americans all, from the Union and the Confederacy. Many occurred on the Sunken Road. Union soldiers advanced four times from the top of the rise, and the Confederate soldiers held them off. But the Confederate soldiers were greatly outnumbered, and as their line broke open, the Union soldiers advanced and took control. The fighting, by all accounts, was savage.

Parker Hills, one of the faculty leaders on the Alumni Association’s Civil War Study Tour, noted a fact that gave me chills: Many of the dead had been shot in the head.

The road, these days, is known as Bloody Lane.

“You can’t stand here,” said Hills, a retired brigadier general, “and not feel the horror of war.”

I felt it. I’d felt something similar last year, when I tagged along on the study tour to Gettysburg and stood at The Angle, imagining what it felt like to be a Union soldier watching the Confederates advance—or to be a Confederate soldier making that long, lonely—and doomed—advance, known as Pickett’s Charge.

That’s the amazing part of these tours, which are among the most popular trips sponsored by the Alumni Association. History comes alive.

I’d known before the tour started that more Americans died at Antietam than on any day in American history. I learned before I set foot on the battlefield, thanks to a morning lecture by the other faculty leader, Terry Winschel ’77, the actual number of Americans who were killed, wounded, mortally wounded, or captured that day.

But standing on the battlefield made those numbers feel different. More visceral. Thanks to Hills and Winschel, I better understood how those soldiers had come to be in this position; the tour encompassed Robert E. Lee’s Maryland campaign, and it had made previous stops at South Mountain and Harper’s Ferry. I got the context.

And Hills and Winschel excel at telling the stories of the men who fought there and finding the details that make listeners feel. It was chilly Saturday, chillier than the forecast had predicted, and many of us had left our heavy coats back in the hotel.  But these men, the night before the battle, were shabbily clothed and unable to warm themselves with even a few swallows of hot coffee—fires were forbidden, as they would give away the troops’ position.

And rations were few. Soldiers on both sides, the faculty leaders told us, were subsisting on little more than green corn.

This tree was standing more than 150 years ago, when the Union and Confederacy battled for control of this bridge, now called Burnside's Bridge after the Union general who led the attack.

This tree was standing more than 150 years ago, when the Union and Confederacy battled for control of this bridge, now called Burnside’s Bridge after the Union general who led the attack.

Additionally, neither Hills nor Winschel ever miss a chance to relate history to our current day.  “In our own time period—Vietnam, there were 50,000 some killed,” Winschel said. “How many in Iraq? How many in Afghanistan? Can you imagine what we the American people would say if it was reported that on one day in Afghanistan, 23,000 Americans had fallen? We wouldn’t stand for it, would we?”

It makes you think.

This was my second time on the tour. A year ago, I attended the trip to Gettysburg as a reporter. I went through the tour just as the travelers did, and I wrote about the battle and did a magazine feature about the hold that Gettysburg has on Americans, 150 years later. This time, I tagged along to help the Alumni Association’s crack travel and education staff … and I found myself part of what is essentially an extended family.

Many of the regulars on the study tour have been coming for more than a decade. They showed up the first time because they were Civil War … well, I hate to use the word enthusiasts. They’re learning about and debating a war, one that Winschel constantly reminds us affected every family in the entire country, North and South. No one ever forgets that, even as they debate strategy and laugh over funny stories about the generals and take in the scenery. (It’s one of the things that strikes me about the battlefields: These places that saw so much death and pain are truly beautiful. It’s a little hard to reconcile.)

And they come back, yes, to keep learning about the war, to walk the battlefields and figure out what happened here. But they also come back to visit with friends, with people who have the same interest. In some ways, it’s like a big ol’ family reunion.

And now I’m part of it.

I got home late Sunday afternoon. At dinner Sunday night, I regaled my husband with tales from the battlefield, working in Hills’ and Winschel’s best lines as often as I could. (I did give credit. Promise.) I went into so much detail about the flaws in Union Gen. George McClelland’s battle plan (or lack thereof) and McClelland’s “lack of boldness,” as Hills put it, that prevented him from pressing a giant numerical advantage, that my husband stared at me across the table and said, grinning, “You’re a buff.”

I’m not sure I exactly qualify for “Civil War Buff” status. But I did bring home more Civil War books to read, and I am hoping to tag along again on next year’s tour, when home base will be Williamsburg, Va., and Winschel and Hills will lead the group through the Peninsula Campaign. That was a seven-day campaign. The study tour will do it in four. And have a great time, I know. And learn a ton.

Lori Shontz, senior editor

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October 22, 2013 at 5:18 pm Leave a comment

Next Stop: Antietam

Parker Hills (left) and Terry Winschel, who expertly led the study tour to Gettysburg, will return in 2013 for a trip to Antietam.

I got home from Gettysburg on Sunday night and immediately began inundating my husband with stories about how the Union generals exhibited leadership, stories about heroic acts by individual soldiers, stories about how the citizens of Gettysburg coped with the battle. I even threw in a bit about military strategy, much to his shock.

I’m hoping my enthusiasm was catching, because Saturday night, the Alumni Association’s travel and education staff announced next year’s Civil War Study Trip: to Antietam, site of the bloodiest one-day battle in U.S. history. Side trips to Harpers Ferry and South Mountain are expected, too.

The faculty leaders, once again, will be the entertaining and knowledgeable Terry Winschel ’77 and Parker Hills, who are responsible for my Sunday night dinner conversation. The dates are Oct. 16–20, 2013 (that’s the off weekend for the football team), and registration begins on Nov. 1. You can click here for more information as it becomes available.

I’ll be ready. (I just need to check The Penn Stater publishing schedule …) I can’t walk out of a bookstore empty-handed, so Saturday night at the battlefield’s visitor center, I consulted with Nancy Crago ’88, who was consulting a list of her 200 Civil War books before making her purchase. She said my next read should be Battle Cry of Freedom, a one-volume history of the entire Civil War by James McPherson. (It won the Pulitzer Prize.) Her suggestion was enthusiastically seconded by everyone within earshot, so I bought it.

It’s on my (large) reading pile. If anyone has additional recommendations, let me know in the comments.

Lori Shontz, senior editor

August 27, 2012 at 5:01 pm Leave a comment

Gettysburg Day Three: On Courage

Gettysburg file photo by Tina Hay

Everything really hit me Saturday afternoon when I was standing on the Union line, just to the right of the famous “copse.” That’s the umbrella-shaped group of trees that was the focal point for the Confederacy’s final, doomed offensive of the Battle of Gettysburg, Pickett’s charge.

I’d read about it. Listened to a lecture about it. And on the previous two and a half days of the Alumni Association’s Civil War Study Tour, I’d stood on other famous parts of the Gettysburg battlefield. But something about standing on the low stone wall, gazing out at the open field made everything real.

That’s partly a tribute to the National Park Service. The fields have been restored so that my view was the same as the soldiers had on July 3, 1863. We had also stood at the Point of Woods, where Robert E. Lee had watched the battle and apologized to his men (more…)

August 26, 2012 at 8:16 am 3 comments

Gettysburg Day Two: Heroism and Humanity

It’s easy, when you’re learning about the Battle of Gettysburg—or any battle, for that matter—to get caught up in the tactics, the heroism. On Day 2 of the Alumni Association’s Civil War Study Tour, we got an important, moving reminder of war’s human cost.

Guest speaker William Williams, a retired Associated Press newsman turned amateur historian, discussed his book Days of Darkness, which details how the town of Gettysburg coped with the battle—and its aftermath. Gettysburg’s population was 2,300; when the armies pulled out, they left behind between 20,000 and 30,000 wounded. Both armies left doctors behind, too, but the citizens had to help the men who, as Williams said, “were begging for water, food, prayers.”

Williams told incredible stories (many of which he’s found in diaries from the time), including one of a woman cradling a dying teenage boy who thought she looked like his mother that made me tear up. But what honestly stuck with me (more…)

August 25, 2012 at 8:44 am 2 comments

Gettysburg Day One: Lessons in Leadership

The statues of Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock (left) and Gen. Oliver Howard tell a story, as we learned on Day One of the tour. (file photo by Tina Hay)

Day One of the Alumni Association’s Civil War Battlefield Study Tour to Gettysburg was, of course, Day One of the battle. Our faculty leaders, Terry Winschel ’77 and Parker Hills, started by giving us the political and military context for the years leading up to Gettysburg. They’re a terrific team.

Parker, the retired general, wears a watch that tells military time, reels off one-liners and what I’m assuming are Southern aphorisms (if they’re not, they should be), and punctuates his PowerPoints with snappy sound effects, everything from typewriter keys to explosions to snippets of Beethoven.

Terry’s picked up a trace of a southern accent after decades in Mississippi as the historian at Vicksburg National Military Park, but his native Pittsburgh still occasionally comes through. He tells stories so smoothly that despite my notoriously bad handwriting, my notes from his sessions are pristine. I can’t remember the last time I stayed in the notebook’s lines. (Not when Parker was speaking.) Terry isn’t wearing a watch, and if he needs a PowerPoint, Parker pushes the buttons.

The combination is fantastic; it’s obvious they’ve known each other since Parker was a mere Army captain. They met at Vicksburg, where Terry was giving tours of the battlefield and Parker was bringing soldiers to learn. Part of the reason the country has national battlefields is (more…)

August 24, 2012 at 9:24 am 3 comments

Cramming for a Civil War Weekend

Have you ever judged someone simply by a book? By something on her shelf, by something he’s recommended you read? It’s not foolproof, of course, but I think it can be a pretty effective way to, well, get a read on a person, too.

So before I arrived in Gettysburg on Wednesday for the Alumni Association’s Penn State Civil War Battlefield Study Tour, I had a mental picture of the two faculty leaders, Terrence Winschel ’77, who just retired as the chief historian at Vicksburg Military Park, and Parker Hills, a retired brigadier general who’s been giving battlefield tours since 2001.

I’ve spent the past week or so tackling the trip’s reading list, which, I admit, I assumed would be a little dry. I love history, but military history? The little I’ve read was difficult; despite hearing my dad and my brother, both Army veterans, talk about that stuff, I just could never picture what was going on. Often, honestly, I tuned out.

Well, all of the books on the reading list for Gettysburg were terrific. I found myself reading paragraphs out loud to my husband over the breakfast table and marking particularly eloquent or interesting passages with a Post-It note. Each of the authors is a true storyteller … and as a writer myself, that’s pretty much my highest compliment.

So I figured anyone who chose those books would be storytellers, too, and boy, was I right. Terry and Parker had my colleagues from the Alumni Association’s travel and education staff cracking up Wednesday night at dinner, and afterward, they told me they didn’t want anyone to feel as though they were slogging through homework as they prepared for the trip. Mission accomplished.

I’ve read five of the six books (I skipped Edwin Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign only because it was billed as “for those who have already mastered the basics”), and I’ve loved all five. (more…)

August 23, 2012 at 8:49 am 10 comments


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