Born March 11, 1857 in “a little log cabin” in Keedysville, Md., Oliver Thomas Reilly was one of 10 children born to Edward Reilly and Mariah Lantz Reilly. At the age of 5, O.T. Reilly stood “in the midst of both armies during the retreat from South Mountain of the Confederates and the advance of the Union Army.” He was “an eyewitness to the Battle of Antietam from the Union Signal Station” on nearby Elk Ridge. The memory of that single event made such a profound impression on the boy that it shaped his entire life.
A battlefield guide from age 15, Reilly declared on his calling card, “Get O.T. Reilly, the best guide, nearly 65 years experience … has been over the battlefield with many high ranked officers of both armies [Gens. Hooker, Burnside, Franklin, and Longstreet included] and thousands of men who fought in the battles.”
Secure in his knowledge of the battle, he was known for challenging the memories of the veterans he met. A week before the battle’s 25th anniversary, the inaugural issue of the Antietam Wavelet featured a column by neophyte reporter Reilly, beginning an amazing run of weekly columns that lasted 55 years.
Mostly he gathered news on battle-related topics: relics found and sold, veterans and their reunions, monuments planned and dedicated, monuments planned and not dedicated: “Several members of the 108th New York Regiment visited Antietam Battle-field last Thursday [September 15, 1888] and located the place occupied by their regiment during the battle. They called on Mr. William Roulette, the owner of the field, who gave them permission to erect a monument, which will be done as soon as the work on the shaft can be completed.” The 108th New York never erected the monument.
He moved to Sharpsburg in November 1890 and “opened a confectionary, grocery and novelty store in the room adjoining the residence of (his father-in-law) Elias Spong” at the corner of Main and Hall. “His novelties are chiefly battlefield relics, and it will pay any one to go and see them,” he wrote. But as his family grew, he rented, and finally purchased, a large stone house near the square where he moved his family, set up his candy store on the ground floor and sold his relics and antiques out of the basement.
He had “in his old collection of relics, two spring-wagon loads of the wood of the old roof of the Dunkard Church, a long well-made pine bench from the Smoketown Hospital used by wounded soldiers after the Battle of Antietam, about 25 kinds of shot and shell, and 8 John Brown pikes or spears, but all have been sold.”
Local historian Earl Roulette tells of a local boy who found a cannonball in a stone fence as he ran after a foul ball during a baseball game. The whole team ran into town to sell the relic to O.T. Legend has it that, as such exchanges were going on upstairs, other children would sometimes slip downstairs and steal relics that they would sell back to Reilly at a later date.
O.T. Reilly’s dominance in Sharpsburg seemed undisputed until July 19, 1906, when Martin L. Burgan walked into the office of the Shepherdstown Register. Writing for the newspaper, Reilly graciously reported that Burgan left “a very beautiful souvenir book containing views of Antietam battlefield that he has recently published. Mr. Burgan deals in souvenirs and relics of the great battle.”
That September, Burgan opened a stationery store right next door to Reilly’s, released a line of full-color postcards and offered battlefield tours. “In visiting the Antietam Battlefield save time,” his brochure exclaimed. “…see it all and have it explained to you by experienced guides who will give you historical information of reliability at a reasonable price. Get your guide at the Burgan Antique Shop. Antiques and Relics of All Kinds.”
Local historian Wilmer Mumma recalled that “both printed and copyrighted a picture and souvenir guidebook, and often got into open conflicts as to who owned what and who was more correct in his facts. This sometimes led to fisticuffs in the street over would-be customers.”
Burgan left Sharpsburg in 1924, but Reilly’s battles continued as the War Department transferred care of Antietam Battlefield to the National Park Service, which promptly took aim at him. “It has been learned that two persons living in the town of Sharpsburg conduct visitors over the Battlefield Site and explain the movements of troops during the battle,” the 1934 NPS Annual Report reads. “They have not been required to pass an examination to determine their fitness nor have they been licensed by the Government (as was the practice at Gettysburg). It is understood that they do not as a general rule solicit on the highways but conduct visitors who request them to do so. A further study of this phase of the situation will be made and reported on at a later date.”
Reilly fired back in the Register: “John K. Beckenbaugh, the newly appointed superintendent of the Antietam Battlefield, comes out in his new uniform. We understand anyone acting as a guide will have to take an examination, be rated and wear a uniform like at Gettysburg. Mr. Oliver T. Reilly, the noted Antietam Battlefield guide, because of his residence on the field during the Battle of Antietam, doesn’t have to depend upon the history of others to gather the information necessary to depict accurately the battle that occurred on this historic spot.”
Still a fighter at 79, Reilly watched the approach of the battle’s 75th anniversary with characteristic energy: “I want to get older. I want to be here to see the great gathering next year. I am living on borrowed time.” He would, in fact, live, and write, into the next decade.