Sunday, November 22, 2020

Stunning film of JFK at Antietam battlefield in April 1963

FRAME GRAB AT 2:58 MARK IN VIDEO: Visitors film Kennedy (right rear)
 as his open convertible travels on Cornfield Avenue at Antietam.

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On April 7, 1963, seven months before his assassination, President Kennedy made a nine-minute helicopter ride from the presidential compound at Camp David for a surprise visit to the Antietam battlefield. The previous Sunday, the president -- an avid student of history and a World War II veteran -- visited Gettysburg with his wife, Jackie. 

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A remarkable, seven-minute silent film of Kennedy's Palm Sunday visit --- digitized and posted on the JFK Presidential Library site -- shows the 45-year-old president riding in the back seat of an open, white convertible and visiting notable Antietam sites. The presidential security detail at the battlefield appeared to be less than robust. Kennedy, of course, was traveling in an open-top Lincoln Continental limousine when he was shot during a motorcade through downtown Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

Perhaps unremarkable then, this Antietam film is stunning today. Battlefield visitors, some filming the visit, stood steps from Kennedy as his car traveled slowly on Cornfield Avenue. (I wonder where their film is now.) As JFK examined a marker at Miller's Cornfield, a young boy stood nearby, apparently giddy because of his good fortune. Another visitor there, a woman in a floral print dress, appeared unimpressed with the world's most powerful man. Perhaps she was a Republican who voted for Richard Nixon in 1960. Kennedy's visit was such a well-kept secret that most Sharpsburg, Md., residents didn't know about it until after he departed. 

This April 7, 1963 photo, included in a wayside exhibit
at Antietam, shows JFK at Burnside Bridge
 with acting Antietam superintendent
Robert L. Lagemann.
JFK spent 
about 90 minutes at Antietam with a small party that included his brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy, and the senator's pregnant wife, Joan; his longtime friend Lem Billings and Undersecretary of the Treasury James A. Reed. As Kennedy's presence on the battlefield became known to the public, his three-car caravan was followed by an ever-increasing number of vehicles.

Besides Miller's Cornfield, Kennedy made three other stops: Bloody Lane, the New York State Monument across from the Dunker Church and Burnside Bridge. Apparently he didn't have time to visit the national cemetery or the new visitors center, which opened for the first time earlier that year. (Sen. Kennedy climbed the old War Department tower at Bloody Lane, but neither his wife nor brother made that strenuous journey. You can make the climb with me here.) 

Relaxed and friendly, JFK chatted with tourists, including three girls whom he "cordially received" at the New York State monument. "He sincerely is gracious to people," said acting Antietam superintendent Robert L. Lagemann, who served as the president's guide.

On his last stop, Kennedy and Lagemann visited iconic Burnside Bridge -- about five minutes into the film a white car crossed the bridge, which wasn't closed to vehicular traffic until 1966. What seems crazy to us today was, well, normal back then. 

William McKinley, shown in 1865 and as president, 
visited Antietam under much different circumstances
than JFK. Kennedy's 1963 guide wanted to tell
McKinley's Antietam story, but the whirring  
of the president's helicopter prevented him.
(Credits: Mathew Brady | Library of Congress)
"Lagemann reported that the President showed intense interest in the troop movements over the site," the Daily Mail of Hagerstown (Md.) reported the next day, "and in the status of land acquisition." Kennedy, who had deep Irish roots, asked about an Irish Brigade marker and was amazed the battle resulted in 23,000 casualties.

The battlefield superintendent was impressed with Kennedy's keen knowledge of the battle -- the president eagerly read an Antietam guidebook Lagemann gave him and asked many questions.

"By the time I was halfway through an answer," he said, "the President was ready with another question."

Shortly before JFK boarded the presidential helicopter parked near Burnside Bridge for his return to Camp David, Lagemann wanted to tell him about another president who visited Antietam, albeit under much less friendly circumstances. But because of the racket from the whirring helicopter, he skipped the story of William McKinley. As a 19-year-old commissary sergeant in the 23rd Ohio, the future president served coffee and warm food to his comrades on Sept. 17, 1862, a short distance from where Kennedy and Lagemann stood.    

FRAME GRAB FROM 1:56 MARK: Kennedy arrives by helicopter
about noon at the Spong farm near Burnside Bridge in Sharpsburg, Md.
FRAME GRAB AT 2:21 MARK: In an open convertible, Kennedy and Lagemann (right)
 with JFK entourage.
FRAME GRAB AT 2:26 MARK: While his brother Ted and pregnant sister-in-law Joan
 stand at right, JFK listens to Lagemann, the acting Antietam battlefield superintendent.
FRAME GRAB AT 3:03 MARK: Near a visitor carrying a young boy and clenching a
pipe, JFK examines a wayside marker at Miller's Cornfield.
FRAME GRAB AT 3:05 MARK: This woman appeared unimpressed with the president.
FRAME GRAB AT 3:26 MARK: While battlefield visitors -- including a young boy -- stand
steps away, Lagemann explains action at Miller's Cornfield.
FRAME GRAB AT 4:23 MARK: Kennedy surveys the battlefield near
the New York State monument with Lagemann and an unidentified man.
FRAME GRAB AT 4:50 MARK: Kennedy (right) and his entourage stop at Burnside Bridge.
FRAME GRAB AT 4:58 MARK: A car crosses Burnside Bridge while Kennedy and
Lagemann visit the iconic structure, which was not closed to vehicular traffic until 1966. 
Note the 21st Massachusetts monument to JFK's right. It was long ago moved to the other 
side of Antietam Creek.
FRAME GRAB AT 5:16 MARK: Kennedy leans over Burnside Bridge
for a look at Antietam Creek. A Secret Service agent appears in the foreground.

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-- On excellent Gettysburg Daily site, see coverage of  JFK visit to Gettysburg on March 31, 1963.


-- Associated Press report, April 8, 1963.
-- Daily Mail of Hagerstown, Md., April 8, 1963.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the link to this video. The President genuinely seemed to enjoy the tour. I was amazed by how informal the visit was and the level of security. How times have changed.