Interview: Schmidt, “September Mourn”

17 02 2020

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I first met Alann Schmidt when he was a ranger at Antietam National Battlefield probably 10-15 years ago. He has since moved on from the NPS, but recently published with co-author Terry Barkley September Mourn: The Dunker Church of Antietam Battlefield (previewed here). Mr. Barkley was unavailable for interview, but Alann took some time to answer a few questions.

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BR: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

AS: I was born in Bethesda Naval Hospital, but have lived most of my life in south central PA. I have had some interesting jobs over the years, as I started out as a funeral director at one of the largest funeral homes in Pittsburgh, but eventually I decided to go back to school to pursue what was always my greatest interest – history. While completing my Master’s degree at Shippensburg University I did an internship at Antietam, and I jumped through whatever hoops necessary (and there were many) to stay. It was a terrific job for nearly 15 years, but suddenly I became sick with an unknown illness, to the point where I was so dizzy that I couldn’t stand, my vision was blurry, and I was so achy that I could hardly get around. It turned out to be Lyme disease and a malaria related disease called Babesia, and I had to take a disability early retirement. Over the years I have improved somewhat and am able to function fairly well, but I am still affected by neurological damage and limited in what I can do. Despite this (or maybe because of this!) I followed the Lord’s call to become a pastor, and I was ordained last year and now lead a small country church (Cherry Grove Church of God) near my home.

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War?

AS: Well, I am sure that this is sacrilege to admit, but I never was much of a Civil War buff. I live near Fort Littleton, a fort on the Forbes Road, so I was interested more in the French & Indian War. When I started at Antietam I obviously needed to learn all I could about the Civil War, and spending every day for years and years immersed in it does tend to sink in! And I had an amazing bunch of friends around me, like long-time Antietam fixtures Ted Alexander and Paul Chiles, Brian Baracz and Keith Snyder, and current authors like John Hoptak and Dan Vermilya. It was a privilege to learn from them and be part of that group. And certainly Rev. John Schildt, who I dedicated the book to.

BR: How did you come to be interested in the Church of the Brethren? Obviously you worked at the Antietam Battlefield, but did your interest predate your employment there?

AS: My denomination (Churches of God) has very similar beliefs, but I am not Brethren and had no connection to the Dunkers before I came to Antietam. As rangers we present general orientation talks and tours, but also have the opportunity to highlight other more specific topics. I was drawn to the Dunker Church simply because no one was doing a program on it, and in practical terms it was right across the road from the visitor center so I could easily organize and take groups over there! But as I began to research it to put a talk together I found more and more interesting sides to its story. I began to organize files, thinking perhaps someday I would write a magazine article or something, and gradually I had a large plastic tub full of files. I eventually became the go-to guy on the church and have been blessed with many opportunities to share the story, from park events to local history groups. The Brethren community very graciously welcomed me, and I have made several friends and often speak at their churches and events.

BR: Tell us a little about the Dunkers.

AS: “Dunker” is actually a nickname for a Protestant denomination that began as the German Baptist Brethren. To learn about them you simply break down that longer name. The group began in Germany in 1708 as part of the Pietism movement, wanting a more personal religious experience. One of their most notable features was that they practiced adult baptism out in the river, dunking themselves in the water (hence the nickname.) Like many others, the Dunkers came to America for religious freedom, and later spilt into a few denominations, the largest being the Church of the Brethren. The Dunkers were similar to other “plain” churches like Amish and Mennonite, and believed in a very literal reading of the New Testament. They were against most forms of indulgence, like drinking and gambling, were against slavery, and perhaps most of all were against any form of violence. There were Dunkers in central Maryland by the 1750s, and their first meetinghouse in the area was called the Manor church, built in 1829 in Tilghmanton, between Hagerstown and Sharpsburg. By 1852 the small white building we know as “the Dunker Church” was built on land donated by Samuel and Elizabeth Mumma just north of Sharpsburg.

BR: What roles did the Church (the building and the congregation) play during the battle and afterwards?

AS: The Dunker Church is the classic example of wrong place at the wrong time. It sits along the road on the ridge north of Sharpsburg. This made a good defensive position for the Confederate army, but that meant that all through the morning of the battle the Union army would be making waves of attacks coming right at the area. So… sitting right in the middle of the worst part of the worst one-day battle in American history was this church, dedicated to the principle of peace. You couldn’t write a fictional story like that and have anyone take it seriously, yet it is all true. The church sustained heavy damage (as you can see in the Gardner photos) but remained standing. Immediately after the battle it was a triage/emergency room, as surgeries were performed in it and soldiers were loaded up and taken to one of the many farm hospitals in the area, and it is even claimed that embalming was later done there.

While the locals, including the Dunkers, had left before the battle and were not in physical danger during it, when they came back they found a much different scene from what they had left behind. Their crops were destroyed, especially devastating since it was harvest season, and now their fields are giant cemeteries, greatly impacting how they will be used in the future. Their homes and farms are now hospitals, and they will be expected to provide much of the care and labor in these endeavors, not to mentions even more of their supplies. And their church has been defiled by the very thing they stand against. How would we respond? Obviously the focus of most Civil War studies is on tactical aspects of the battles, but there is so much more to these stories, so much more to think about. From just one day of battle these local folks’ lives were forever changed, and not only right after the battle, but years later, as due to things like monuments, tourists, and National Parks there would always be out of the ordinary impacts. I think the way the locals, especially the Dunkers, persevered, recovered and are still there is an inspiring story that we can learn much from.

One aspect that I wanted to shine a light on is the overlooked story of what happened later to the church. The congregation outgrew the building and moved in town in 1899, and it fell into disrepair, eventually collapsing in a windstorm in 1924. While it is known such an important landmark to the battle most folks don’t realize that the church was not there for nearly 40 years. It was only through a long, arduous process that it was finally reconstructed for the battle’s Centennial in 1962. This church has a tremendously interesting story of ups and downs (literal ups & downs!) and fascinating tidbits (like a connection to Mark Twain!) that is so much more than the Battle of Antietam.

BR: As we may have discussed, my great-grandmother’s brother, Pvt. James Gates of the 8th PA Reserves, was mortally wounded on Sept. 17, 1862, while advancing toward the church from the north. I learned of the circumstances of his death from the 8th PA Reserves file in the Park office, in accounts written by his comrade Frank Holsinger. I also learned that prior to the war, he came down from his Pennsylvania home as a seasonal hired hand on the farm of Church Elder David Long, and that he had courted one of Long’s daughters. After the battle, prior to Gates’s eventual death in Smoketown, Holsinger visited the Long’s and informed them of the wounding. Later, after the war, Holsinger returned for the dedication of the National Cemetery, where Gates is buried, and again struck up relations with the Longs, marrying another of their daughters. Can you tell us a little about the Long family?

AS: Elder David Long was the main pastor for the Manor church for many years before and after the battle, and as such would have also been the same for Antietam’s church, as it was one of several in the area grouped together. He was born in 1820, and in 1841 married Mary Reichard. They had 12 children; four sons were ministers and three daughters married ministers (one named Seth Myers – probably not the NBC one.) It is said that Elder Long would go to slave auctions and purchase slaves to set them free. Lots of folks (as many as 100) gathered at his house during the battle, and he would been the one preaching in the Dunker Church the Sunday of the Battle of South Mountain. He represented the area’s Brethren churches at many Annual Meetings, and is said to have performed more marriage ceremonies than anyone else in the area. He died at 75 from pneumonia. The History of the Brethren in Maryland notes that “Few families in Middle Maryland have made such a deep impression on the life of the Church as the family of David & Mary Long.”

(I do apologize that the Gates and Holsinger stories didn’t make the book, as things were pretty far along in the editing process until I realized what an interesting side story that was. I was amazed at this Bedford connection to the battlefield, as that isn’t far from where I live.)

BR: Can you describe how long it took to write the book, what the stumbling blocks were, what you discovered along the way that surprised you or went against the grain, what firmed up what you already knew? When did you know you were “done”?

AS: All in all it took 15 years, as I continued to gather information here and there in my daily work as well as in dedicated research. I continued to hone the material mostly through what was best received in my presentations, and even used the subject for class projects (deed chain exercises, term papers, archival studies.) As I continued to work at it I hoped to get it published as a book, but I had no idea of how that end of the process actually went. I hoped to have it completed for the 150th anniversary of the battle in 2012, but I always seemed so busy that I just never got around to finishing it. Then I got sick in 2015 and retired, and I simply thought that I had missed my chance, that it never would get done, as my mind is not nearly as sharp as it was before I got sick. I hoped that at least the material could be passed on for future ranger use, so that the park programs would continue after me and the subject not forgotten, but as time went by it all slipped further away.

Then fortuitously Terry Barkley contacted me in 2016! He was newly retired from the Church of the Brethren archive, and remembered that I had been there to research several years before. He asked me if I had ever finished the book, and I explained that I hadn’t and my circumstances. Much to my delight he offered to take up the project and finish it for me, especially the Dunker background chapters. He added and polished and made it so much more than I ever imagined it could be. We decided to send it to Savas Beatie, and much to our surprise they agreed to publish it. I am so happy that finally the Dunker Church story is out there for all to learn. Together with Terry’s Brethren background and my NPS background we have tried to give the subject the attention and respect it deserves, and in turn fill in a gap in the Antietam story.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process? What online and brick and mortar sources did you rely on most?

AS: One of my collateral duties at Antietam was working in the park library, so I got to spend at least a small part of every day with lots of various source material, so that was where the vast majority of my information came from. I visited any other facilities I thought may have some related material, such as the Washington County Historical Society and the Washington County Library, both in Hagerstown, and the two National Archive facilities in Washington DC and College Park, MD. Once they heard I was working on the project folks far and wide gave me information, especially locals like Betty Otto, Ike Mumma, Tom Clemens, and Steve Recker, and my ranger friends would pass along things they would find in their research as well. I tried to cover all sides of the story, from Dunker religious history, to battle accounts, to park development, anything and everything. Terry had daily access to the Brethren archive and library for many years, so he was well versed in Dunker history subjects and got lots of material there. He was living in Lexington, VA at the time and did much of the final writing at the VMI library.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

AS: Well, it sold out of the hardcover printing run, so that’s good. I’ve been very encouraged by the good reviews, enthusiastic turnouts at my signings (2 years in a row now at the Church of the Brethren’s Annual Meeting the books sold out before I even got there!), and the appreciative feedback I’ve received from so many. I hoped to simply provide another option for those coming to Antietam that maybe weren’t hardcore tactical buffs, and it seems that the book has been that and more, and I hope will be for years to come.

BR: What’s next for you?

AS: Probably no more books, but who knows. I still write a lot – preparing sermons every week, and I really enjoy the research and public speaking I got used to doing as a ranger. My wife and I have a volunteer cat rescue, Righteous Rescues, that keeps me plenty busy enough for what I can handle physically.

My co-author Terry Barkley has a new book out, The Other “Hermit” of Walden Pond: The Sojourn of Edmond Stuart Hotham, also published by Savas Beatie. It is another interesting but little known side to a well known story, in this case Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Check it out.

Thanks for this opportunity, I have been so very blessed by this book and this whole process. All the best to you and your readers.


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2 responses

17 02 2020
95762 Savas

Great interview, thanks Harry and Alann.

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18 02 2020
civilwarlibrarian

Splendid interview! I read the book when it first came out. Well done! Thanks Harry and Alann!

Liked by 1 person

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