The Marines Land at Antietam

The largest event ever to take place at Antietam Battlefield, with the exception of the battle itself, was in 1924. In September of that year, 3,200 United States Marines marched from their base in Quantico, Virginia to Sharpsburg and spent eleven days on the battlefield. In addition to training and maneuvers, the “soldiers of the sea” held baseball games, concerts, parades, ceremonies, movies and dances. They brought tanks, aircraft, balloons, machine guns, artillery, trucks and all the equipment needed for a major deployment. Photographs of the event appeared in papers across the county. Over 100,000 people came out during the event to witness the spectacle.
 
News wire photograph of U.S. Marines charging across Antietam Battlefield during their fall maneuvers in 1924
This Associated Press photograph appeared in newspapers across the county including publications such as the Syracuse Journal and Republican-News in Syracuse, Kansas, the Albany Evening Herald in Albany, Oregon and the The Daily Herald in Chicago, Illinois.
At the time, Antietam Battlefield was managed by the United States War Department. Five military parks were established by the War Department in the 1890s to preserve the memory of U. S. armies and soldiers, and to create open-air classrooms to study of the Civil War. The National Park Service did not exist at the time. Chickamauga and Chattanooga, Gettysburg, Shiloh, Vicksburg and Antietam were the first five battlefield parks, all managed by the War Department until 1933 when they were transferred to the National Park Service.
 
Brig. Gen. Dion Williams sits at his field desk
Brigadier General Dion Williams sits at his field desk at Antietam

General Dion Williams, circa 1924 From the Joseph B. Knotts Collection (COLL/372) at the Archives Branch, Marine Corps History Division

Brigadier General Dion Williams led the Marine Corps Expeditionary Force to Antietam. Williams graduated from both the United States Naval Academy and the Army War College. He had served in the Spanish-American War, as an instructor at the Naval War College and Fleet Marine Officer for the Atlantic Fleet. His goal for this event was two-fold. One aim was to train the force in expeditionary warfare, and the second was to demonstrate the importance of the Marines. After World War I, the U.S. military was downsizing, budgets were tight and there was even talk of not needing the Marine Corps.

The Fall Exercises, 1924 booklet that was issued to every Marine who participated, stated that their purpose was to “demonstrate with personnel and material of the Force how an attack would be conducted under present day conditions upon the Civil War Battlefield of Antietam,” while at the same time “furnish a spectacular feature for the observers and visitors who will be invited.” The training order for this event specifically stated the demonstrations were valuable for “publicity and advertising,” while also providing experiences that will “accustom the personnel to marching conditions, familiarize them with the routine and technique of campaign and subsistence for a period away from the barracks, and give opportunity for exercises of all arms over diversified ground in unknown territory.”
 
Map of the Marines route from Quantico to Sharpsburg
Map showing the route the Marines took from Quantico to Sharpsburg

National Park Service

Between 1921 and 1937 there were seven of these major maneuvers on Civil War battlefields to train and prove to the nation the skill and value of the Marine Corps. The 1924 Fall Exercises began in earnest when the Marines started their 138-mile journey to Antietam on August 24. They marched an average of sixteen miles a day, setting up camp each evening. Starting at Fort Humphreys (today Fort Belvoir), Virginia; then camping in East Potomac Park in Washington D.C.; and on to camps in Rockville, Gaithersburg, Ridgeville and Frederick, Maryland. As the Marines marched into Frederick, the local paper said that, “all along the line on the roller coaster road the long column of khaki clad Marines received hearty receptions from the people of the countryside, many of whom came miles and waited at crossroads with dinner baskets to see the Soldiers of the Sea and the big variety of war paraphernalia . . . It seemed everybody had taken a holiday to honor the Marines.”

August 30 was a big day for the Marines and the city of Frederick. It started with a parade and review at 10:00 am. At noon, Marine aviation staged a dramatic aerial battle over the city. The camps were open to the public all day, and that night the Marine Band performed a concert and there were two dances – one for the officers at the Catoctin Country Club, and a separate dance for the enlisted at the Armory.
 
Marine Corps Trucks traveling to Antietam
Marine Corps trucks rumble towards Antietam

Antietam Reenactment Photo Collection, Historical Resources Branch, Marine Corps History Division, Quantico Virginia

Thankfully, when the Marines left Frederick, they rode last 23 miles over South Mountain to Sharpsburg in trucks, but that too proved to be an adventure. The Baltimore Sun reported that, “the Lieutenant who had charge of the precarious expedition described it as a nightmare. Every 3 or 4 miles the engines of the big trucks got so hot the men had to stop. They had to put big blocks under the wheels to keep the trucks from breaking loose and running away. One loaded truck jumped its blocks, dashed wildly down the mountain side, crashed through a rail fence and ended up in the middle of a pasture. Fifteen trucks who made the trip had to be repaired for the main move the next day. The girls of Frederick have been sweet to the marines, but the mountains are giving them ___.”

Finally, after six days of travel and a day of liberty, the Marines arrived on the battlefield, setting up their camp on the historic Piper Farm. The next eleven days were filled with drill, parades, more drill, night searchlight training, and field exercises, all building to the final demonstration of a regimental-sized attack. Important dignitaries attended that week, including the Commandant of the Marine Corps Lieutenant General John Archer Lejeune, Smedley Darlington Butler and Theodore Roosevelt Jr.
 
Portraits of Lieutenant General John Archer Lejeune, Smedley Darlington Butler and Theodore Roosevelt Jr.
Portraits of Lieutenant General John Archer Lejeune, Smedley Darlington Butler and Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

Library of Congress, Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections

General Lejeune served more than 40 years in the Marines and was often referred to as the “greatest of all Leathernecks.” At the time of his death, Smedley Butler was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. From 1898 to 1931, Butler led Marines fearlessly across some of the most treacherous and distant foreign lands. He was awarded the Medal of Honor twice – one for action at Vera Cruz, Mexico and the other for his courage in Haiti. In 1924 he was on leave from the Marines serving as the Philadelphia Director of Public Safety.

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was a government, business, and military leader. During WW I he commanded the 26th Infantry Regiment as a Lieutenant Colonel. After the war, Roosevelt was instrumental in the formation of the American Legion. He served as a New York State Assemblyman and was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy during this event. Roosevelt also served as Governor of Puerto Rico and Governor General of the Philippines, Chairman of the Board of the American Express Company and Vice-President at Doubleday Books. During World War II he was promoted to Brigadier General, assistant division commander of the 1st Infantry Division. At the age of 56, he landed on D-Day with the first elements at Utah Beach. General Omar Bradley described Roosevelt’s valor as the “single greatest act of courage” he witnessed in the entire war. He died of a heart attack a month later and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on the beachhead.
 
Training Schedule for the Marine Maneuvers
Sept 2 Tuesday Pitch Camp
Sept 3 Wednesday General Police
Sept 4 Thursday A.M. Drill
P.M. Demonstrations

Battalion Parade
NIGHT Searchlight Drill
Sept 5 Friday A.M. Drill
P.M. Demonstrations
Battalion Parade
Sept 6 Saturday Review and Inspections
Sept 7 Sunday Rest
Sept 8 Monday A.M. Drill
P.M. Demonstrations
Regimental Parade
NIGHT Searchlight Drill
Sept 9 Tuesday A.M. Practice for September 12 Demonstration
P.M. Practice for September 12 Demonstration
Sept 10,11 Wednesday/Thursday Field Exercises
Sept 12 Friday Demonstration of a Regiment in attack supported by auxiliary infantry weapons
 
In addition to the dignitaries, visitors poured in from all around the region. One local paper’s headline read “Shepherdstown is Agog over Marines.” The article told how, “the camp of the United States Marines on Antietam Battlefield at Sharpsburg attracts large crowds of people each day. Last Sunday many thousands of visitors were present, and the roads leading to Sharpsburg were congested by the greatest automobile traffic that section has ever known.” The Martinsburg Journal reported that “the fields were full and all the streets in Sharpsburg were jammed with cars.” Visitors “swarmed down on the guides to the battlefield and went around the well-worn paths to the spots of historic interest in small armies . . . Tourists were ubiquitous.”
 
The Marine Corps Baseball Team poses for a photograph.
The Marine Corps Baseball Team

Antietam Reenactment Photo Collection, Historical Resources Branch, Marine Corps History Division, Quantico Virginia

There were special events daily. On September 4 there was a thirteen-gun salute for General Lejuene followed by a sunset parade. Many evenings there were “open-air moving pictures.” Locals remembered how the hospitable Marines brought out their blankets to share with their guests who sat in the chilly night air. The Hagerstown Chamber of Commerce hosted a dinner for General Williams and his staff. On a few nights, powerful searchlights lit up the night sky and anti-aircraft guns fired into the darkness. The Marines defeated the Shepherdstown baseball team 4 -2, “There was plenty of action in this game and the largest crowd of the season enjoyed it,” reported the Shepherdstown Register, “about 1,000 marines went in camp trucks to watch the exhibition, which was enlivened by music by the camp’s band.” Later that week, the Marine sluggers lost to Hagerstown 8-2 before a crowd of 1,500 spectators. The biggest day in camp was payday. Over $100,000 in cash was flown in from Quantico was distributed to the men who fanned out into the local community to spend their earnings.
 
Marine airfield in Boonsboro, Maryland
Marine Airfield in Boonsboro, Maryland

Antietam Reenactment Photo Collection, Historical Resources Branch, Marine Corps History Division, Quantico Virginia

In addition to the main camp at Antietam, there was a second encampment six miles away just outside of the town of Boonsboro. This was the airfield for the First Aviation Group. Three Martin bombers and nine Vought fighters launched from this grass field to provide combat and photographic support to the ground forces. The Air Wing was commander by Major (later Major General) Roy S. Geiger, considered to be the father of Marine aviation.
 
Brig. Gen. Dion Williams leads ceremony at Antietam National Cemetery
Brig. Gen. Dion Williams leads ceremony at Antietam National Cemetery

Antietam Reenactment Photo Collection, Historical Resources Branch, Marine Corps History Division, Quantico Virginia

One of the most moving moments of the week was the commemorative ceremony at Antietam National Cemetery. The Marine aircraft dropped flowers from the sky upon the graves of the Civil War dead and a wreath was placed at the Private Soldier Monument. 5,000 attendees heard General Williams proclaim that “out of the struggle of the Civil War emerged a united country, all American and working for the good of the nation….The United States Marines have marched to the battlefield of Antietam in order that they may be trained and fit for duty as the first line of the nation’s defense. It is fitting that we, the young soldiers of today should pause for a moment to pay simple tribute to the brave soldiers of the Civil War who fought and died on this hallowed ground.”
 
Marine Corps Balloons at Antietam Battlefield
Marine Corps Balloons at Antietam Battlefield

Antietam Reenactment Photo Collection, Historical Resources Branch, Marine Corps History Division, Quantico Virginia

In addition to the aircraft, two balloons were brought to the field – a free and kite balloon filled with a combined total of 88,000 cubic feet of hydrogen (this was before the Hindenburg disaster) On Sept 9, the free balloon was launched “in the general direction of Quantico.” According to Leatherneck Magazine, “all of the inhabitants along the way ran out to get sight of it. Sheep and cattle herded together and when the balloon approached, they stampeded. The Marines called out to the farmers below to catch hold of the ropes and pull them down. Some Marines got out, went to Frederick for lunch and returned to Sharpsburg. One airman continued and landed between DC and Quantico.”
 
All of these events were just a prelude to the big day. Friday, September 12 was the full demonstration of the entire force. Unlike other reenactments on former Civil War battlefields, the Antietam event was purposely planned to be a modern battle. The Gettysburg Times reported that “60,000 men and women came here yesterday to see for the first time the battle of Antietam—resurrected, rejuvenated and staged by the United States Marines with all modern war paraphernalia…It was the largest crowd assembled here since that September day in 1862” The crowd witnessed, “a model offensive drive over the same gently rolling hills of Civil War Antietam. The ground was the same, but that was all. Airplanes circled overhead and swooped down low to bomb the enemy lines. Artillery firing blank shrapnel laid down a barrage for advancing infantry. The infantry deployed and crept forward, while machine guns rattled on either flank. And finally, tanks scurried here and there, spitting fire and leveling positions. Thousands of automobiles dotting the hillsides like black beetles on a carpet of green and brown.”
 
Marines in action during training maneuvers at Antietam
Marines in action during training maneuvers at Antietam

Library of Congress, Marine Corps History Division

 
General Lejeune and Williams talk to Civil War veterans
Generals Lejeune and Williams talk with Civil War veterans

Library of Congress

The Frederick News recounted, “There was realism wherever one looked. Airplanes swooped low over the men firing machine guns and dropping bombs. The tanks spit fire as they discharged the deadly machine guns …Shells flared as they landed among the fighters and the machine guns and rifles cracked continuously.” Special guests that day included Civil War veterans. As the Marines battled, one of the veterans pointed his cane and remarked, “look at those boys, you’d think there was but a dozen or two of them. Why, when our outfit marched into this battle it went shoulder to shoulder, like it was on parade. No creeping and falling down like those boys.”
 
This event was not just successful for the Marines, it was good for the local economy. Leatherneck Magazine stated that “the merchants were busy till a late hour last night catering to the needs of our troops in the front lines.” The roadways were lined with booths selling “iced drinks of every description, ranging from orangeade to coca cola.” Trucks piled with cantaloupes, fruit and other refreshments did a brisk business. The Standard Oil Company in Shepherdstown sold 13,000 gallons of gas for the Marine trucks and cars. Hundreds of brass cartridge shells were gathered by local children and sold as souvenirs, and the Shepherdstown Register announced, “All of the lumber used in the building of the officer’s tents will be sold at public auction to the highest bidder on Saturday, September 13, and is to be removed from the grounds within 24 hours unless arranged otherwise with Mr. Piper, the landowner.” That same day the Marines began their long journey back to Quantico with one more memorable stop. On the September 18 the footsore Marines marched across the south lawn of the White House for a parade and review by President Coolidge and his wife who stood on the south portico.
 
Marines march past the president on the south lawn of the White House
Marines march past the President on the south lawn of the White House

Library of Congress

 
On September 22, 1924, the Marine Corps Commandant commended General Williams on the “precision and smoothness with which the Force functioned during these maneuvers, indicating a pains-taking preparation, an efficient staff system and a high degree of military training, which reflected great credit on Brigadier General Williams as Commanding General, and on the officers and men attached to the Force.” A week later the Preparedness Report from the Commanding General of the Marine Corps to the Secretary of the Navy stated that “On the whole, the 1924 Fall Maneuvers resulted in very valuable training and experience for the personnel of the Marine Corps who participated.”

However, the Gettysburg Times had a much more dramatic review of the Marine battle at Antietam. “The scars left by that sanguinary and obstinate struggle on human hearts and on the peaceful earth have disappeared under the healing hand of time, but those who visit the old battlefield today will dwell more on the splendor of the tragedy and the great principles which underlay it than on the horrors that it witnessed. A great contrast this September 1924 to that of 1862. A united country, strong and peaceful now, free from internal conflict and fearless of foreign threat…We have reason to thank God that there are no foes at Sharpsburg today. Our gallant Marines are simply developing their strength for the protection of the country should such protection unhappily ever be needed.” The Baltimore Sun perfectly summarized the Marine’s fall event as “one of the most interesting and spectacular peace-time campaigns in the history of its existence as an organized force.” Today, the Marines and numerous other military groups from every branch of service still visit the park every year to study and experience the battlefield. However, their tanks and machine guns are no longer permitted.

Note: quotes from newspaper accounts appear as published.

Last updated: April 7, 2020

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