Superintendent John Howard plans to retire at year’s end after 16 years at the helm of Antietam National Battlefield. Here he shares a few parting thought.
What accomplishment stands out most in your time at Antietam?
The thing I’m the proudest of is the fact that during that period of time we were able to acquire what is the equivalent of 59 percent of the battlefield. The fact that we were able to acquire the Roulette Farm near Bloody Lane—I described that to my boss when it happened as kind of like Yellowstone getting Old Faithful. That’s the thing that will serve the most people.
What is the biggest challenge facing the battlefield at this point?
Maryland is very visionary on protection of places like Antietam. [Officials] were able to protect about 80 percent of our viewshed, so we never really have to worry about a casino in Sharpsburg. Exterior threats, I won’t say it’s minor but it’s not to the level of a Walmart or a casino. The biggest issue we deal with right now has got to be money. A lot of the things we need to do, restoring some of the older structures and some of the landscape, takes money. Everything we have to do now in deferred maintenance costs somewhere around $5.5 million and our annual budget is only $3.2 million.
What have you learned about the battle that most fascinates you?
You can’t be in a place like this without coming to understand sacrifice. Overall there are many brave people and many who weren’t so brave, but I’m always impressed by the total number, and I even to this day have trouble getting into my mind what went on that day. Here it doesn’t matter what side they were on. These are the men who came here and changed the world and definitely changed our country.
If you could take a visitor to only one spot, what would it be?
I think I would take them down to the 40-acre cornfield on the south end of the battlefield. The landscape is 99 percent true to form. The impact it had on me the first time…I was walking down there with one of our historians and we came to a little ravine that was kind of out of place. It hit me all of a sudden that this is where the Rhode Islanders got trapped. You can’t walk that field without understanding what these soldiers were going through. To me the idea is if you can bring one point to somebody, it’s that you’re standing in the footsteps of these men. That day I was just a visitor.
What’s the craziest question a visitor has asked you?
It maybe wasn’t so much a question as a statement, but I was with a group up at Millers’ cornfield and this fellow was looking down the avenue and the line of the monuments there, and he turned around and looked at me and said, “You know something? It’s actually really lucky they had these monuments to hide behind.”