Reflections from Antietam: Nicholas Cutchins Discusses His Internship at Antietam National Battlefield

by Nicholas Cutchins | | Friday, August 11, 2023 - 11:02

This summer was an atypical one. I decided to take a unique opportunity to receive some direct experience with my major. After my second year at UVA, I spent the summer working as an intern at Antietam National Battlefield. It was an unusual summer for the park, as they were finishing an $8 million renovation to update their visitor center, forcing all their operations into a temporary visitor center for most of my time there. There was also the periodic influx of smoke due to the Canada wildfires that sometimes put a dense haze over the landscape and trickled into my lungs as I worked. Regardless of these odd circumstances, I am forever grateful for the Nau Center for giving me the chance to learn from this one-of-a-kind experience.

I worked with Antietam’s interpretive division, welcoming visitors to the park and offering historical analysis of America’s bloodiest single-day battle. I served as a clerk at the visitor center, giving directions and instructions regarding the park’s driving tour, answering visitors’ questions, and taking phone calls as a representative of the park. Occasionally, visitors asked for more information regarding a particular regiment that was present at the battle. In that case, I would scan through our database and make a copy of that regiment’s file, which included the division and brigade it was in, the counties that each company recruited from, the total number of soldiers before and after the battle, and maps that detailed where the regiment fought during the day.

Perhaps the most important responsibility I had to undertake was historical interpretation. I gave 30-minute orientation talks in an open-air environment, pointing out key areas, giving a general history of the battle, and answering guests’ questions. I also participated in the park’s Battlefield Ambassador program, which stationed interns and local volunteers at some of the tour stops along the driving tour.

Visitors frequently expressed a common misconception that General George McClellan, who led the Union Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Antietam, was scared and incompetent because he seemed to be more conservative with his men and less of a risk-taker than other Civil War generals, such as Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. The staff often had to help contextualize such beliefs, citing hindsight bias and the smear campaigns generated when McClellan ran against Abraham Lincoln as a Democrat in the presidential election of 1864. The staff also emphasized that McClellan completed all of Lincoln’s orders, as he achieved major victories at South Mountain and Antietam, thwarted Lee’s invasion of the North, forced Lee to retreat from the North, and provided enough of a victory for Lincoln to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. We also had to explain that Lincoln was a politician, not a general, and he did not necessarily know how to manage an army, as his ambitious goals clashed with the mindset of his generals, some of whom were much more experienced in that regard.

The Battlefield Ambassador program allowed me to learn more about specific tactics and movements throughout the battle, as I worked with local volunteers who had ample experience in that regard. It also gave me the chance to interact with visitors and offer them more detailed historical interpretation, something that was not as feasible behind the desk. We offered replicas of primary sources for visitors to examine, including the photographs taken by Alexander Gardner that brought the brutal aftermath of Antietam to the national stage. We also showed visitors a recently-discovered Elliott map, which marked the locations of 5800 temporary burial sites for Union and Confederate soldiers. Most importantly, I gleaned invaluable information from the volunteers who used their love of history in their careers, notably as U.S. government agency workers or as former professors. These conversations gave me a clearer picture of what I could do after earning my history degree at UVA.

Perhaps the most difficult but most rewarding duty as an intern at Antietam was giving an “Orientation Talk”: a 30-minute presentation on the Battle of Antietam. These talks, typically led by rangers or interns, give the public a better grasp of what took place around them in the best classroom to learn about the battle—the battlefield itself. Before giving these talks, I originally had a tough time summarizing the battle. I had never studied military movements and tactics before the internship, instead simply noting the result and political importance of each battle. In order to turn a simple note in the back of my mind into a half-hour dive into the battle, I had to do some research and start memorizing. 

Thankfully, the rangers at Antietam had an ample supply of literature surrounding the battle, and they allowed me to shadow their orientation talks. They also gave me leeway in the subject of my talks, which allowed me to focus less on the military tactics and more on what I had experience in, which was political history. After prepping my outline, I gave my first orientation talk, which predictably did not go well. However, I was able to do more and more as the summer progressed, tweaking my talk to my liking. This had the effect of boosting my confidence and my public speaking ability, something I had lacked without a script in front of me. It still isn’t perfect, but the internship gave me a unique chance to improve.

My duties were not limited to historical interpretation. The park hosts a wide variety of events, from live artillery demonstrations once a month to its Memorial Day celebration. Local elementary school students place more than 5,000 flags on the soldiers’ graves in the Antietam National Cemetery a few days before Memorial Day. The large ceremony itself includes guest speakers, live artillery firings, and a wreath dedication. It was my job to ensure that these events went smoothly, from guarding the safety fence at the artillery firings, to assisting the elementary school children with the insertion of the flags, to recording the Memorial Day ceremony.

Perhaps my largest undertaking outside of historical interpretation was the creation of a database that contained every road sign and trailhead in the park, as well as their types, conditions, and locations. This database will help the rangers at Antietam decide which signs they should remove. Over the course of two months, I had to traverse every single public road in the park and take multiple photographs of each road sign I found. I renamed each photo file to correspond to an entry in an Excel sheet, noting what kind of sign it is, what color it is, on what road I found it on, and its condition. I did the same thing with every trailhead in the park, giving me a chance to hike every single trail the park has to offer to its visitors. I also gave comments on which trails need maintenance and where new trailheads should be placed to avoid confusion. I even suggested that the park get rid of an old education trail that was rarely used and may be hazardous to young children. In total, I logged 417 road signs and trailheads in the park, with the aim of transforming my database into a more advanced log with GPS locations of each of the signs.

Through my internship at Antietam National Battlefield, I was given the chance to learn more about America’s bloodiest single-day battle, educate visitors with more information, and make a lasting contribution to the National Park Service. I was able to learn more about what it means to be a historian and gained useful experience that will serve me well beyond my time at UVA.