After Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson spoke to a large crowd about the Battle of Antietam for about 45 minutes Sunday night, Ed Bearss approached the podium and jokingly thanked his longtime friend for his “preliminary remarks” about Antietam.
Bearss’ comment elicited loud laughter from the audience of approximately 500 who came to the tent outside Antietam National Battlefield’s visitors center Sunday night to hear two of the most renowned Civil War historians.
After McPherson, and then Bearss spoke, the plan was for the men to take questions from the audience and then remain for a book signing, hinting of the possibility of a long night after a long day. The talk is part of the national park’s 150th commemoration of the Battle of Antietam.
Charlene Baumgardner, 60, of Auburn, Ind., said she and her husband, Craig, 61, spent Sunday enjoying events at the national park, scuttling their plans to spend a second day at a nearby Antietam re-enactment when the couple saw the list of activities planned at the park.
Earlier Sunday, they listened to Bearss as he led 377 people on a tour from the Mumma House to Bloody Lane, Baumgardner said. She said the $6 family entry fee to the park for the day’s festivities was a bargain.
The couple was to leave Sunday afternoon, but decided to stay an extra day when they saw Bearss, 89, would be speaking, she said.
“You don’t know how many times you’re going to get to hear him,” Baumgardner said.
Before McPherson even approached the podium, every seat under the large tent was taken and people had set up camping chairs outside the tent while others stood for what was expected to be a 45-minute talk by McPherson, followed by another by Bearss.
McPherson is a best-selling author of Civil War books, and Bearss is a popular tour guide at Civil War battlefields and the chief historian emeritus for the National Park Service.
McPherson began and ended his talk disagreeing with a book review by his friend and fellow Civil War historian William C. “Jack” Davis. Davis claimed in the review that Antietam “is usually and erroneously referred to as a turning point of the war,” said McPherson, quoting Davis.
“I think it was the most important turning point of the war,” McPherson said of the Sept. 17, 1862, battle near Antietam Creek.
Referring to Union Gen. George B. McClellan’s slow response to the discovery of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s lost orders, McPherson said, “I can readily imagine what would have happened if the situation had been reversed and Lee had discovered McClellan’s army was divided into several parts, too distant from each other for mutual support.
“He would have had (Gen. Thomas “Stonewall”) Jackson on the road within the hour with (Gen. James) Longstreet right behind,” McPherson said.