For Susan Trail, superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield, a summer stint doing archaeology blossomed into a career juggling oversight of the 3,000-acre park near Sharpsburg, Md., where her responsibilities range from managing the physical landscape and infrastructure to developing cultural resources and changes in interpretation. Prior to her appointment to Antietam in 2011, Trail spent more than a decade working in various aspects of the National Park Service, bringing training in anthropology, archaeology, and history specific to Antietam commemoration with her. Today the Antietam Visitor Center is in the midst of a physical renovation and comprehensive update to its exhibits. Displays that provide a larger backdrop to the war will supplement the familiar descriptions of Antietam as the ferocious fight where Federal troops turned back the first Confederate invasion of Union territory.
Trail notes that the visitors center “is now a historic structure in its own right,” and updates are taking that into account. Interpretation of the epic September 17, 1862, battle—deemed the single bloodiest day in American history—is also being revisited. In addition, Trail notes that a new trail network is being developed that will make new connections on the battlefield, thanks to a generous million-dollar gift from an anonymous donor.
Are you a Civil War aficionado?
I’m not a military historian and I’ll be the first to admit that. That’s why I depend on the amazing staff we have, who have great depth and knowledge in that area and are amazing public historians and interpreters. My interests have always been looking at cultural history and as manager to leave the battlefield better than I found it. We are in the midst of a renovation of the visitor center; it’s been 4-5 years since we completed the rehabilitation of Burnside Bridge; and we just finished rehabilitating the inside of the Observation Tower on Bloody Lane, where we have the cast iron staircase, which is original to the 1890s. It needed a lot of work, and up on the top we did some safety upgrades as well. We put in a railing, and a better stairway entrance onto the platform.
You manage a beautiful landscape that was the site of horrific carnage. Is that a paradox?
I feel that every time I go out on the battlefield. One of the fundamental values we’ve identified on the battlefield is a sense of place, solemnity. Something we value and want to keep. That is something we hear a lot from visitors: how beautiful and well maintained it is, the juxtaposition between that and what happened that resulted in it being preserved.
You have a Ph.D. in American Studies. What was your focus?
In the mid-1990s I started work on my Ph.D. in American studies and my emphasis was material culture and specifically cultural landscapes. I’ve always been fascinated by historic landscapes and the history and the layering you see in the landscape—and honing in even further on commemorative landscapes and memorialization of landscapes, which fit very well with my job, my work at the battlefields. So, I did my dissertation on the history of the commemorative landscape at Antietam: looking at what happened on the battlefield after the fighting stopped. I spent a lot of time researching the history of the battlefield. I came back over to Antietam in 2011 [after an earlier stint as assistant superintendent at Antietam] and today is my 10th anniversary. I’ve been at Antietam 10 years today.
You are rehabilitating the visitor center. What is the goal?
We needed all new HVAC, plumbing, electrical systems. We’re bumping the front of the building out to make a larger lobby area and we’re adding a small wing in the back for offices and our staff. We’re also adding accessibility improvements, including redesigning our front sidewalk and adding an elevator that will go to all three levels. We’re redoing all of our exhibits and interpretive exhibits. We’re really excited about the exhibits because they look at a broadening of the story of Antietam and its larger context: the beginning of the Civil War, what led up to the Civil War, and going through and looking at the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of the enslaved as a result of the war.
We’re also looking at memory or the legacy of the battle, which of course we would. Commemoration is my area; we’re looking at how the battlefield has been memorialized and commemorated over time as well. We’re also working on a new park film, but it will not be ready when the visitors center opens back up. Overall, the visitor center experience will be very much updated. We don’t have an exact date for the opening at this point. It would be nice if we could complete it in time for the 160th anniversary of the battle in September.
Reflect on the changes between when you started as Antietam’s superintendent and today.
Over that time, we’ve seen an increase in visitors. A lot of parks are seeing that. I think our interpretive emphasis has changed over that time. One of the things we’ve seen in the larger world, over the past several years, is just how relevant the Civil War and its history remains for the public, or should be. When we look at the controversies over the Confederate battle flag, the controversies over Confederate statuary, Civil War sites and history are front and center as people seem to understand that things happening today have roots and are looking for the genesis of them.
That provides opportunities for us as well to talk about the context of these events in history. We definitely have seen more of a shift toward seeing the Civil War in a broader context. When I first started in 1997, I attended a “Holding the High Ground” conference work group in Nashville, Tenn., which was a turning point in the Park Service in interpretation of the Civil War. What we’ve seen over the years are more and more efforts to do that across the system. History is relevant. You have to understand where you come from to know where you are now. That is another thing I have seen during my tenure as a Civil War battlefield manager.
What led you to a career in the Park Service?
I attended the University of Maryland and got intrigued with anthropology and discovered I really enjoyed archaeology, working outside, digging in the dirt and finding tangible pieces of the past. That really spoke to me, and doing the research for the history as well. And then I got a masters degree in anthropology with an emphasis on historical archaeology at the College of William & Mary. I inadvertently came in the park service. It started as a summer job doing archaeological work in this area and at several of the parks in this region, including Harpers Ferry, and the C&O Canal and Antietam. My first permanent position was with the C&O Canal National Historical Park as a cultural resource manager. In 1997, I came over to Monocacy and Antietam National Battlefield and served as assistant superintendent at Antietam and the site manager at Monocacy Battlefield, which at that time was really just getting going. There wasn’t much open there in the late ’90s. I worked at Monocacy from 1997 through 2011, and during that time Monocacy became a separate park from Antietam administratively. I became the first superintendent there.
How is the park weathering Covid?
Like many parks, during the Covid period we’ve seen an increase in what we would call recreational users, people who are coming out for green space because we have a really nice trail system in the park. When Covid was in full swing last year, we saw a large uptick in visitors who were coming to be outside and to walk. So that was good. It was a challenge to get to talk to them about the battle because a lot of them didn’t know where they were and what it was about. So it was an opportunity for us.
Describe the scope of the landscape management and the range of elements on the battlefield.
We have historic houses, historic barns, and a historic landscape, which is really our main resource—the battlefield. We work to maintain that, and we work with local farmers who actually farm a large part of the battlefield for us through agreements. We’ve been focusing on building a really good relationship with our local farmers and bringing in really good farmers.
Another focus is looking at ecological resilience on the battlefield. We have a historic landscape, but we also have opportunities to integrate our natural resource management and our cultural resource management. Down on the south end of the park, about 15 years ago, the park started setting aside derelict farmland for native grasslands and developed those down on the Otto Farm. We’re looking to expand our native grasslands in the park and doing some reforestation along Antietam Creek. We have a planning effort underway now to develop a landscape management plan. This is just now for public review and comment. We’re planning on having that done early next year and will focus a lot on the resource management on the battlefield.
Over the past few decades, the park has expanded a great deal.
Since about 1990, the park has almost doubled in size. Since I’ve been there, we’ve had several new properties come into the battlefield through the American Battlefield Trust. They’ve been a great partner working with us on land acquisition on the battlefield. That has been a huge thing to be able to protect that much land, integrate it in, and give us the opportunity to expand our interpretation and visitor access. About three years ago, we were fortunate to get a million-dollar gift, an anonymous donation to work on our trail system to rehabilitate and expand our trail network. So we have started that work.
It’s a good time to be doing that work because the park has expanded a great deal. We added things on an ad hoc basis, and now we have the opportunity to look at it as a whole system. Last summer, we rehabilitated and expanded the West Woods Trail and the Cornfield Trail through a new property that American Battlefield Trust had acquired a while back, and visitors have appreciated the opportunity to get into parts of the park they hadn’t been in before. So we rerouted sections of trail and we’re going to put in new interpretation. For example, on part of the Cornfield Trail—on what we call the Miller grasslands, which is another main area of fighting with a lot of casualties—there are two [Alexander] Gardner photographs taken in this area. We’re going to put waysides out showing the Gardner photographs and show the location where each was taken.
As part of this grant, we also produce digital trail guides. We’re going to do that as well for all our trails. This is a multi-year project. It will take us awhile. There are still lands inside the park boundary that have not been acquired by the NPS. Many of these have scenic easement on them, which offer a level of protection. We acquire properties when they become available from willing sellers.
What is a challenge going forward in management of Antietam?
Interpretation is an ongoing challenge as we’re working with current events and fitting the pieces together. We work to maintain our resources in perpetuity so they may continue to be in good condition. These are all things that are out there and we are engaging with them. It’s exciting in a lot of ways. I really enjoy what I do. And I am really fortunate to have a great group of people at Antietam who are very engaged. You can see that the park is well maintained. There is a lot of pride in its appearance.
What is your favorite place or monument on the battlefield?
My favorite place on the battlefield is the Final Attack Trail on the south end of the battlefield, as it is quiet and I enjoy walking through the native grassland fields the park has established over the past couple of decades.