June 4, 2018
Do you ever wonder how people can write new books about history? Shouldn’t it never change because it’s all in the past? The truth is anything but. No one can explain that better than today’s guest, Dennis Frye. Having been involved in everything from giving tours to leading nationally important preservation and battlefield protection organizations, few people know Civil War history like Dennis. And in his new book, Antietam Shadows, he makes the case that history should never lie dormant, it always needs to be re-examined. Join as Nick and Dennis talk about Dennis’ new book, highlights from his career in preservation, and more on this week’s PreserveCast.
[Stephen Israel] Do you ever wonder how people can write new books about history? Shouldn’t it never change because it’s all in the past? The truth is anything but and no one can explain that better than today’s guest, Dennis Frye. Having been involved in everything from giving tours to leading nationally important preservation and battlefield protection organizations, few people know Civil War history like Dennis. And in his new book, Antietam Shadows, he makes the case that history should never lie dormant. It always needs to be reexamined. Join as Nick and Dennis talk about Dennis’ new book, highlights from his career in preservation, and more on this week’s PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast!
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. Today we are joined by Dennis Frye who is the chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Dennis has had numerous appearances as a guest historian on national television and he’s been a lecturer and battlefield guide for the Smithsonian, National Geographic, and the New York Times. Dennis was co-founder and past president of today’s Civil War Trust and also co-founder and first president of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation. Dennis has authored ten books and 99 articles, writing for every major Civil War publication. His latest book, which was just released, is Antietam Shadows: Mystery, Myth, and Machination. Dennis, it is an absolute pleasure to have you with us here today on PerserveCast.
[DF] And I am so honored to be with you Nick and also, we are fellow Shepard University graduates.
[NR] Yeah, that’s right. We didn’t mention that but we went there, a few years apart between us. But we were there.
[DF] Now don’t go overboard.
[NR] Dennis, you have had a long and fantastic career in both history as well as preservation. Where does the love and the passion for this line of work, where did it come from, how did you get into it, and what path did you follow?
[DF] It can all be summarized in one four letter word: home. I grew up here. I grew up just north of Harper’s Ferry, only a few miles from Antietam. When I would wake up in the morning and look out my window, literally there was South Mountain right in front of me, Crampton’s Gap, the Battlefield of Crampton’s Gap. As the sun was rising from the East over South Mountain, I’d see the battlefield everyday. And so literally, it’s my home. And genetically even, it’s home. My family’s been in the area of Antietam, Harpers Ferry, Pleasant Valley, South Mountain over 250 years arriving there right at the end of the French and Indian War. So it’s my roots. I love my home. I love my roots. It came naturally.
[NR] So you grew up in the area and then obviously, as you mentioned before, you went to Sheperd University. Then where’s the first job in history. Where did you land?
[DF] When I was twelve years old – sixth grade – I decided I wanted to be a park ranger and since we had several National Parks in near vicinity of where I lived, I went over to Antietam and began volunteering in the Dunker Church because I actually am a Dunker. I’m a member of the Dunker faith for generations on end on my dad’s side of the family. We had been Dunkers. So I dressed in period garb back in the 1970s, 1980s doing living history at the Dunker Church talking about my own faith and what happened to the Dunkers at the Antietam Battlefield. So that was the very beginning.
[NR] You were with Harper’s Ferry at the National Historical Park. And then while you were there, you’ve also kind of had pauses from that work. And part of that was when you were with – at the very beginning of the Civil War Trust. We’ve had Jim Lighthizer on before. We’ve talked a little bit about Civil War Trust. But maybe you could give us some background on when it was formed, how it kind of came together, and the role you played in that.
[DF] Oh, indeed. Right after graduation from Shepherd – literally a week after graduation – I started a full-time permanent supervisory historian’s position at Harper’s Ferry. And then I got promoted to the chief historian’s position and was just as happy as could be there. But we were having serious issues. Not in the national park, but in battlefields around national parks and battlefields where there was no park at all. The late 1980s was a boom period. There was a period of large, large development and construction. Washington D.C., northern Virginia was moving further and further west in Maryland, and Antietam was not well-protected. There was less than 1,000 acres of the Antietam Battlefield that was safe at that time.And this was the case in most battlefields. There were very few Gettysburgs or Chickamaugas, Chattanoogas. Most of the battlefields were not safe in the late 1980s. And here came the houses, here came the four-lane roads, here came the developers, here came the outsiders. And I saw it coming.
So not just me, but peers of mine, seven of us met in Fredericksburg in July of 1987. Fredericksburg was being gobbled up by the developers and by Washington and northern Virginia, and we wanted to do something to save the battlefields. It hurt our souls every day to see a new house or a new road go up on these battlefields.
We met in Fredericksburg. We decided we had to fight. We had to do something. We organized. We created what then was known as the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, (APCWS). Like the way that rolls off my tongue? APCWS. And I was a member of the board. I was an original founder. The first president moved on and called me. This was Will Green, A. Wilson Green, and said, “Look, I need you to come down and temporarily lead the organization. You know it. You’ve been here from the beginning. And it’s just for a period of time until we get a new president.” Well, I temporarily left the Park Service in December of 1994, went to Fredericksburg, and after the first month, I loved it. I was actually day to day, saving battlefield land with no bureaucracy. Nobody above me saying I couldn’t do this, and I thought, “I can do this for a career!”And so I literally left the Park Service and for nearly four years was president of APCWS, which is today the Civil War Trust. And we saved thousands of acres and dozens of battlefields, and it was one of the best times of my life.
It was the most difficult time in terms of I had no time for anything else but battlefield preservation. No time for family, no time for my home life, no time for anything. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but the most fulfilling. I like to say I led what is today the Civil War Trust during its teenage years where we were either going to grow up and become extremely successful and mighty big adult, or we were going to flail and fail. And fortunately, we had great success, and that set the framework for today’s organization and the continued successes it has.
[NR] Yeah, and it must be pretty heartening to see where it has gone today. I know that they just announced that there’s an umbrella organization called The American Battlefield Trust that’s come out of this, which is going to be focused sort of broadly on the War of 1812, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War. And to have been at the ground floor of that during those teenage years – it was just you. You were just one employee or were there multiple employees at that time?
[DF] Well, I did have a small staff, about a half a dozen. And it was miraculous how much we accomplished. We worked hard. We didn’t care about a 40-hour clock week. Sometimes we were working 80-hour weeks non-stop because we knew that the battlefields weren’t on a timer. If we were racing against a developer, we had to win that at race. Or if we were racing against age. A farmer or a farm family that wanted to sell and only had a certain period of time or someone was about to pass away and wanted to sell. So it was never based on “Ope, clocked my 40, got to quit”. It was all based on the need and the determination to save these battlefields. And it was all based on passion. We were driven by passion to save these historic grounds. And it went by, it was a fast four years. Exhausting, but quick and extremely fulfilling.
[NR] So you mentioned, sort of when we started talking, about your passion for this and growing up in nearby South Mountain and, of course, Antietam. You were also involved in the early phases of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation, which will get us into talking about the new book that you’ve just published and some of your other books. Tell us a little bit about Save Historic Antietam. We’ve had Tom Clemens on before. We’ve talked a little bit about that. But what kind of victories took place there? What was the challenges at Antietam?
[DF] Well, one of the most frightening moments in my life occurred in August of 1985. I was being interviewed by a newspaper journalist and at the end of the interview, Tamala Baker says to me, “Hey, what do you think of the recent rezoning of the Grove Farm by the county commissioners?” And I said, “What? What? What are you talking about?”
Of course, the Grove Farm is a famous farm located outside of Sharpsburg where one of the famous Lincoln-McClellan photographs was taken. And yes, they had rezoned the entire farm for business general, which is the most onerous zoning in the county other than interstate exchange. And it meant the end of Sharpsburg. I mean, if that area out there was developed, Sharpsburg would have been destroyed. In fact, I came up with a phrase “Don’t Gettysburg Sharpsburg. Don’t Gettysburg Sharpsburg.” I turned Gettysburg into a verb representing the commercial development that has destroyed much of the battlefield there, the Pickett-Pettigrew Charge.
And so, that became our rallying cry and we had great success. We not only were able to secure the Grove Farm over time; but today Antietam is the largest Civil War preserve in the United States. There’s over 9,000 acres that are now protected. When we started in 1985, there was about 900 acres that was protected. So it’s been a great success. It’s the greatest success story of any small battlefield organization in the country. And it helped set the foundation for the creation of the Association of Preservation for Civil War sites and the Civil War Trust. So we were used as a model because of our success. Politically we’ve been successful. Of course, we’ve been tremendously successful in actually saving land. We’ve had a lot of great partners, including state and federal government, but mostly people. People that just want to give. People who care, and people who are dedicated and committed to preserving and protecting Antietam. So we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of people over the years support us and it’s magical.
Now, I go there and I stand at the cornfield, which wasn’t part of the battlefield in 1985. Not a single, square inch at Antietam at the cornfield was owned by the people of the United States or protected by us. The area around Bloody Lane where the Yankee army, the Federals, attacked, none of it protected. The West Woods, not a single inch protected. The East Woods, not protected. I mean, these are landmarks that people know they’re iconic, none of it protected. Now, it all is. And that was all started by the Save Historic Antietam Foundation.
[NR] Well, before we take a quick break, I do want to ask sort of an Antietam question. It’s a leading question because I know the answer here. But you also don’t live exactly on the battlefield, but you live in a historic place associated with the battlefield and listeners might be interested in that. Where do you live, Dennis?
[DF] Well, my wife Sylvia and I own a historic home, built about 1840 – and we’re about two miles south of Burnside Bridge – but what makes the house and the property significant is this was General Burnside’s headquarters right after the battle. Burnside was here for about two weeks, the last week of September, the first week of October, and he lived here in our house. His whole corps, the main corps surrounded us and we had a very special guest visitor on October the second, the president of the United States Abraham Lincoln, arrived here at Sharpsburg to review the [Union] Army and congratulate McClellan and the [Union] Army for their great victory in Antietam. His first stop was to meet with Burnside and the President Lincoln, the president actually conferenced with General Burnside in our home. And I know that, I feel that every day. That is part of my soul. Every morning when I awaken and I walk downstairs onto those original floorboards, those beautiful yellow pine floorboards, I know Abraham Lincoln was here. He stepped here and he was part of the history of this house. So it’s been an honor for me and Sylvia to be caretakers – I don’t call us owners – but caretakers of this beautiful property. To restore it, our plan is to hopefully, pass it on to others who will love and respect the history as much as we do.
[NR] Well, I think that that’s a fantastic place for us to take a quick break. And then, when we come back that really sets the scene for Antietam. And then, we’re going to dive into this new book, find out all about it, and what it’s all about, and where people can get it and all that. We’ll do that right here when we return on PreserveCast.
And now, it’s time for a Preservation Explanation
[Stephen Israel] Hello, listeners. I have some news. This will be my final episode as the producer for PreserveCast. Don’t be too worried. Nick is still here and everyone else involved in PreserveCast will continue to offer you an up-close, podcaster’s view of historic preservation unlike anything else on the airwaves/in your podcast app. Soon, I will be a civilian, just like any of you. But even when you’re not working behind the curtain of professional preservation, there is plenty that you can do to make your voice heard.
For example, this year, the Maryland Historical Trust, the state’s historic preservation office, will update the statewide preservation plan. A five-year guiding document for government agencies in the greater preservation community. To develop the plan, known as Preserve Maryland, the Maryland Historical Trust has convened an interdisciplinary advisory committee and is working in partnership with Preservation Maryland and other organizations to hold public and professional meetings to solicit feedback and recommendations for action.
This past May, Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Historical Trust held meetings on the topics of historic preservation planning and preservation advocacy. The Maryland Historical Trust will also host additional meetings for the public throughout the state. Citizens that are unable to attend those meetings or want to submit additional comments can complete a survey that will be linked in the episode description for this episode. I know I’m going to be filling out one of those surveys; and if you’re one of our Maryland listeners, I hope you do too. It’s just one of the many things that you can do to make your voice heard in support of saving historic places in Maryland and beyond. Keep on preserving, everybody. And don’t shed a tear for me yet, you’ve still got more PreserveCast.
PreserveCast isn’t just for Mondays anymore. Find all of our episodes at PreserveCast.org anytime. And, we’re on social media to continue the conversation @PreserveCast. If you have a question or want to suggest a topic, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[NR] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. Today we are joined by Dennis Frye, who is the chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Before we took our break, we were talking with Dennis about his path to preservation, his passion for history, the fact that he lives in a home that was General Burnside’s headquarters after the Battle of Antietam, a place where Abraham Lincoln visited General Burnside in the field, really setting the stage for Dennis’s love and just his being immersed in all things Antietam. And you have a new book out, Antietam Shadows: Mystery, Myth, and Machination. What is it all about? There’s been a lot of books about Antietam. What can you tell us about this book?
[DF] Well, first of all, this is not like any of the other books and that’s intentional. This is not a battle history. It is not a campaign history. In fact, it’s not even a history. What it is is a book about the history. It actually questions the history. It challenges the history. It shows a lot of skepticism about the history. Now let me explain. There’s no question the Battle of Antietam occurred on September 17, 1862. But that’s the only thing we can call fact.
After the date, everything else is an opinion. All of history is a human’s opinion of what happened. We do not actually present the facts, but we see through our perceptions, through our point-of-view, through our prejudices. All of these are filters of reality. And when we write it down as history, the reality is passed through all of these layers of filters and so there is no reality, as such, except for the date. And so what I do here in the book is I really challenge a lot of what historians, professional historians like me – I’m a professional historian – I’m challenging my peers. I’m challenging myself. I’m challenging what we have accepted as fact, what we have accepted as reality. In many respects, I’m a contrarian in this book. I am asking people not simply to accept what other historians have said, but my mantra is, “I’m not asking you to agree with me but to think with me. Think with me.” The opening line of the book sets the whole theme. And the opening line is this, and I quote, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?”
[DF] That’s not my quote. “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” But that comes from one Napoleon Bonaparte. That’s the thematic framework. Then I had so much fun with this. In fact, of all the other book… I’ve had fun with every book I’ve written, but this one was particularly fun because I was challenging me, and challenging so many historians that I’ve known for decades, and saying, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. How do you know this? What’s the basis of this? Where did you find this? What’s the foundation of this? What’s the source of this?” Being very inquisitive, being a detective and just not accepting history because it’s been written by another historian.
[NR] So why don’t you give us – and I think that’s a fantastic way of laying it out. And really an interesting… Even for someone who perhaps isn’t fully immersed in the Antietam story, just the idea of sort of challenging history and challenging what we know is just interesting in its own right. So for people listening around the country who maybe haven’t even been to Antietam, the idea of questioning what we know about a piece of history is pretty fascinating. But could you give us an example? I mean, for somebody who maybe is familiar with Antietam, give us an example of one of these things that you question and how you make the case.
[DF] Well, let me answer that in two ways. I want to answer first what’s unfamiliar and then the familiar because those people who don’t know anything about the battle or even don’t know anything about the Civil War. This is the book for you. Because I didn’t write it for Civil War buffs. Civil War buffs will get a lot out of this and I will turn them inside up, inside out, and upside down in terms of what they know and challenge them to think about that convention over and again. So it’ll be stimulating and provocative for those that know a lot. But for someone who knows nothing, knows nothing about the first invasion of the North, knows nothing about the result, the consequences, and doesn’t even know much about the American Civil War except it happened. This is a good book for them because the first chapter is called “Beware History” and the second chapter is called “Mentor or Tormentor.” And both of those chapters focus on the experience every school kid in this country has had with history, which is usually not a good experience. So many people detest and hate history because of the way that it was taught. So I actually tried to layout that history can be fun, it can be entertaining, it can be most interesting because history’s not about dates. It’s not about facts. It’s not about chronology. It’s not about memorization. It’s not about regurgitation, which is the way we teach history. All wrong, wrong, wrong! If we look at history as people and people who faced dilemmas, and those dilemmas, they have options. That’s all of us. Every day we face dilemmas. Every day we have options. And then we make a selection, we decide upon some option, and that decision then has consequences. Well, that’s history. That was just a definition of history. Dilemma, option, decision, consequences. Every human being can relate to that experience every day. And so, that’s how the book is written so that one can relate to it whether you like history or not.
With respect to people who know a lot about Antietam, one of my favorite things to do is to take something like, “McClellan didn’t do anything on September the 16th, the day before the battle.” That he twiddled his thumbs, he wasted the whole day, he could have destroyed the Confederate Army that day if he had only moved, if he had only moved.” That is the conventional wisdom that Civil War historians give you time and time and time again. Well, I challenge that. He did move on September the 16th. He didn’t fight. He didn’t attack the enemy army to any extent. But you know what he did on September the 16th? He moved across the Antietam Creek, north of General Lee and he captured the road that would have allowed General Lee to continue the invasion in the North. Literally, on September the 16th, Lee was cut off from his invasion route. McClellan blocked him. He couldn’t go North. Well, nobody talks about that, but that was McClellan’s achievement on September the 16th, and it’s huge! That’s the only reason the battle occurred is because Lee couldn’t move. He didn’t stand in Antietam or come to Antietam to make a fight there. He could care less about fighting there. He was organizing and bringing his army back together there so that he could move into Pennsylvania, one day march from Sharpsburg. One day, Nick. And when McClellan moved across the Antietam, ceased the road to Hagerstown from Sharpsburg, and cut Lee off it completely changed all of Lee’s options and dynamics.
That’s the kind of thing the book presents is “look what McClellan did.” I don’t like McClellan. I can’t stand him. It’s very hard for me to issue any compliment to George McClellan [host laughing]. But the man deserves credit where credit is due; and he deserves credit for literally stopping an invading force on September the 16th by seizing the road to Pennsylvania. He gets no credit for it.
[NR] I mean that’s just fantastic and I can’t wait to dive into this. And hopefully, everyone who is listening feels the same way and will pick this up. I’m curious, you were saying you were trying to be a little contrarian in this and challenge even yourself. Were there any surprises for you while writing this where you said, “You know what? I guess I hadn’t really thought about it that way.” Was there ever a moment or I guess multiple moments where you even surprised yourself or were able all to kind of challenge what you had once thought?
[DF] Almost every chapter. Almost every chapter. Anyone who’s ever been with me on a tour or heard me in a lecture, they’re going to see me time and again reverse my own thinking to change where I’ve been. The historian who stands in stone, who says something and then never changes, never researches, never does any more work because, “This is the way it is and I say so because I’m the historian who says that’s the way it is.” That’s a bad historian. That’s a poor historian.
Historians should always be challenging themselves. They should always be a detective. They should always be mining for new information, and if it completely reverses something that’s conventional, good, good. Throw it out there and let people see it in a different way, in a different manner, in a different light. And so the whole book is all about that, but one of my favorites – I can’t say it’s my favorite because every chapter I really… I just was so excited by each chapter. But one of my favorites is early on is a chapter called “Eight Words.” Eight Words. The eight words are these: “We shall make our stand on these hills.”
I’ve begun tour after tour after tour with those eight words. That’s Robert E Lee. What a great way to begin a tour in Antietam. Well, I thought, “What’s the source of this?” Well, the source is in none other than the great Pulitzer Prize-winner Douglas Southall Freeman’s book on Robert Lee, the great biography that he wrote on Lee. There it is. On the first page about Antietam, in the first paragraph are those words, “We shall make our stand on these hills.” So if Douglas Southall Freeman, the greatest Civil War historian who ever lived, wrote tha, then it had to be true. Well, did he source it? He did. So I thought, “Let me take a look at the source.” I did, and I discovered the source. And he says very specifically, “This is what page it came from,” etc. And I thought, “Okay. That’s good enough,” but it wasn’t. I thought, “I’m going to go beyond the footnote. Let me see if I can find the actual source.”
And so I went and discovered the actual source, which was a book published in 1911, and I thought, “Uh-oh, uh-oh, wait a minute, wait a minute. 1911? 50 years after Antietam? Well, yeah, wait a minute. Maybe I should be skeptical about this.” And so I actually started to read the source. And you know what, Nick? The man who wrote the book, a fellow named Morgan, wasn’t even at Antietam. He wasn’t even there! He was on sick leave! He didn’t rejoin the army until more than a week after the battle. So how does he know that General Lee stood there and said, and I quote, “We shall make our stand on these hills?” That’s the kind of discoveries I made.
[NR] Wow. Wow, and so that surprised you. Literally, going into writing this book, you had no concept that that was such a sort of secondary source in a sense?
[DF] No concept whatsoever. I just took for granted that it was real, that it was true, and that it was factual because none other than Dr. Freeman told me so.
[NR] Yeah, and you’re not the only one to take it on face value. I mean, that’s been repeated time and time and time again.
[DF] So many times, and I can’t tell you how many times I used it to open the tour on the battlefield. I tell you what, I don’t use those words anymore to open up a tour.
[NR] Well, you could, but you’d have to give some background and say, “I could say these eight words, but I have to tell you why I’m not going to.”
[NR] Obviously, you’re painting a picture of a really great book, really interesting, and a completely different take, not only on Antietam but just on history and Civil War history. If people want to buy the book, Dennis, where do they get it?
[DF] The easiest place to get it is at Amazon. I mean, almost everything’s easy to get on Amazon. And you just type in Antietam Shadows in Amazon. It comes right up. One feature I like about Amazon is they’ve got a little feature there called “Look Inside,” which allows you to actually go inside the book, and it lists the table of contents, which I hope is intriguing and provocative by itself, but it also allows you to read the first chapter,“Beware History,” and that sets the whole thing up. It’s available here in local bookstores in the Sharpsburg, Harpers Ferry, Hagerstown area, but it also can be purchased at the Harpers Ferry bookstore at Harpers Ferry National Park. The cool thing about that, that’s the non-profit organization that supports my national park, so any sales proceeds there go right back into Harpers Ferry NHP. So that’s at HarpersFerryHistory.org, where you can also purchase the book.
[NR] Fantastic. Well, before we part ways here, we ask everyone, which is a very difficult question for people who love history, which is what’s your favorite historic building or place?
[DF] Well [laughter], I’ll cheat and then I’ll cheat again. My favorite two places are Harpers Ferry and Antietam. They have been my favorite two places since I can remember. Literally, I’m 60 years old now, so my first memory actually was about age four when I heard the cannon thundering at Antietam for the battle reenactment that was held there in 1962. And so that’s my first memory of the Civil War, hearing cannons thundering in the air from that battle reenactment. So both of those are equal in terms of my love for them, my passion for them, the work that I’ve done at both places to preserve the battlefields at both of those sites. I cannot separate Antietam and Harper’s Ferry.
[NR] Yeah. Well, I think that that comes through and is very obvious in the passion that you’ve displayed over your whole career and also today. It’s been a pleasure having you on here. And I should also mention before we started this interview, Dennis and I were talking, and Dennis is currently the chief historian at Harpers Ferry. But after a long and illustrious career, he’s going to be retiring at the end of this month. So we’re looking forward to seeing what’s next because I know you can’t sit still, so we’re expecting many more books in the future, Dennis.
[DF] Well, there will be more books, and I also absolutely intend to save more battlefield land. It is in my soul and I cannot divorce myself from my soul.
[NR] Well, Dennis, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thanks for joining us today, and I’m looking forward to reading the book. And I hope everyone else who listened is as well. Thanks, again.
[DF] Nick, a great pleasure, and congratulations to you for all the great successes you’re having with Preservation Maryland. I am thrilled for all that success. Nick, thanks so much. Thanks to you and Stephen.
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This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service, and in partnership with the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
Our website is made possible by the Historic Preservation Education Foundation. This week’s episode was produced and engineered by me, Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band, Pretty Gritty. And most importantly, thank you for listening and preserving!