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I am a lifelong student of military history with particular interest in the Battle of Antietam. I work for the federal government in Washington DC and have two teenagers who I love very much. I currently volunteer at the battlefield and devote much time to the study of this battle and the Maryland Campaign. I enjoy collecting notable contemporary quotations by and about the men of Antietam. These words often add a degree of color and character not found elsewhere in their stories. A feature of this blog is the presentation of some of these quotes. My perspective comes from a 28 year career in the U.S. Army. Travels took me to World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific where American valor ended the tyranny of Nazism and Empire. But our country faced its own greatest challenge 80 years earlier during the Civil War. And it was the critical late summer of 1862, when Robert E. Lee launched the Maryland Campaign that fortune could have gone either way. It is an incredible story of drama, carnage, bravery, and missed opportunities that culminated around the fields and woodlots of peaceful Sharpsburg MD. So join me as I make this journey South from the North Woods.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Dawn


I had occasion this week to refer back to Mr. Lincoln’s Army, volume one of Bruce Catton’s landmark work on the Army of the Potomac.  I recently talked to one of my colleagues about the writing style of modern Civil War authors.  Much of it is certainly historically accurate but has an element of dryness and structure that makes it difficult to enjoy.  My friend is actually going back to read Shakespeare to improve his own prose style.  Maybe I should do that as well.  It is no wonder that some of the best Civil War history is written by journalists like Bruce Catton and Douglas Southall Freeman.  It was Catton’s work that ignited my interest as a youngster some 45 years ago and I am still drawn to it.  Without ever having to been to Antietam as a twelve year old, I could visualize it thanks to passages like these I offer below.  This post today, is nothing more than an opportunity to go back and enjoy some of the beautiful writing that I dare say many of you read and which drew you into your own study of the Civil War.  All of these passages beautifully evoke the early morning dawn of September 17, 1862 on the fields north of Sharpsburg but the second one is my favorite.

"There was a tension in the atmosphere for the whole army that night.  Survivors wrote long afterward that there seemed to be something mysteriously ominous in the very air-stealthy, muffled tramp of marching men who could not be seen but were sensed dimly as moving shadows in the dark; outbursts of rifle fire up and down the invisible picket lines, with flames lighting the sky now and then when gunners in the advanced batteries opened fire; taut and nervous anxiety of those alert sentinels communicating itself through all the bivouacs, where men tried to sleep away the knowledge that the morrow would bring the biggest battle the army had ever had; a ceaseless, restless sense of movement as if the army stirred blindly in its sleep, with the clop-clop of belated couriers riding down the inky dark lanes heard at intervals, sounding very lonely and far off."

"And while they slept the lazy, rainy breeze drifted through the East Woods and the West Wood and the cornfield, and riffed over the copings of the stone bridge to the south, touching them for the last time before dead men made them famous.  The flags were furled and the bugles stilled, and the hot metal of the guns on the ridges had cooled, and the army was asleep-tenting tonight on the old camp ground, with never a song to cheer because the voices that might sing it were all stilled on this most crowded and most lonely of fields.  And whatever it may be that nerves men to die for a flag or a phrase or a man or an inexpressible dream was drowsing with them, ready to wake with the dawn."

"The morning came in like the beginning of the Last Day, gray and dark and tensely expectant.  Mist lay on the ground, heavy as fog in the hollow places, and the groves and valleys were drenched in immense shadows.  For a brief time there was an ominous hush on the rolling fields, where the rival pickets crouched behind bushes and fence corners, peering watchfully forward under damp hat brims."

2 comments:

  1. I couldn’t agree more with you. Catton really made the Civil War come alive for me. Just reading the passage you cite gives me chills. (Incidentally, Mr. Lincoln’s Army is one of my favorite books.) I suppose a challenge for historians in reaching a wider audience is to balance the need to get the facts straight and explore theories with the spinning of a good yarn. It doesn’t take much to recite the facts, but it is hard to make those facts come alive. Catton struck the right balance and won so many fans, even if “professionals” sometimes looked the other way.

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  2. I could not have said it better Ron. Happy holidays to you. Jim

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