If you have driven through Antietam National Battlefield, or even passed through the park on Route 65 or Route 34, you have probably noticed the black and white cast iron tablets that are scattered throughout. Over two hundred of these tablets still mark the battle lines, and they provide a glimpse into the earliest years of battlefield preservation at Antietam. Antietam was one of the five battlefields that were preserved by the War Department along with Chickamauga/Chattanooga, Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg. Each site had a Battlefield Commission to oversee its establishment and early operation. Antietam was the second of these sites to be set aside by an act of Congress on August 30, 1890. Even as Congress debated federally preserving the park, marking the battle lines was a part of the plan; as The Committee of Military Affairs put it in their report on February 27, 1891: “A nation should preserve the landmarks of its history. The bill under consideration proposes to preserve and properly mark with plain, enduring tablets the field of Antietam, on which was fought, September 17, 1862, the bloodiest battle of the war.” At Antietam, the Federal Government purchased fewer acres than at the other 1890s battlefields—just enough to create a park road network. Along these thoroughfares, over 200 iron tablets, which were cast in Chattanooga, were erected to mark the lines of battle. The War Department also constructed macadamized roads and an observation tower to help visitors get a better perspective on the undulating terrain and to provide visual access to land that was still in private hands.
Since 2016, volunteers at Antietam National Battlefield have proved critical in restoring and preserving these War Department Tablets. The self-named “Iron Brigade,” a small cadre of about five volunteers, works closely with the Cultural Resources staff at Antietam to remove the tablets from their bases, bring them into a workshop, strip the paint off using electric drills fitted with a special wire brush attachment, prime them, paint them, use rollers to apply the white paint to the raised letters, and meticulously touch up the tablets with tiny brushes before returning them to the field.
The crew has also begun applying the same treatment to the smaller directional signs, which were erected at the same time as the tablets. As of spring 2020, the Iron Brigade had completed restoration on all but a handful of the tablets. They will continue their work on the directional sings, and will continue to rotate the tablets in for restoration and maintenance on a cyclical basis.
Last updated: April 13, 2020