About Me

My Photo
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.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

"Perceptions Not Realities"

In the Mumma Barn on a windy Saturday morning, just nine days before the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle, of Antietam 30-40 fortunate people witnessed what I hope is a turn of the page in the scholarship, and treatment of the Army of the Potomac and its commander George B. McClellan.  Those of us who attended the Save Historic Antietam Foundation Seminar today witnessed Antietam Ranger Daniel Vermilya for the first time deliver his findings on the condition of George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Antietam.  Titled “Perceptions, Not Realities: The Strength, Experience, and Condition of the Army of the Potomac at Antietam," his conclusions which cant be ignored demand the attention of all serious Maryland Campaign scholars. Once and for all they refute the typical assumptions made on the condition of the Federal Army and what exactly McClellan understood the status of that command to be on the eve of battle.

Antietam Battlefield Ranger Dan Vermilya
Dan began with some of the usual assertions made about McClellan and the Union Army at Antietam from such sources as Ken Burn’s Civil War and Stephen W. Sears Landscape Turned Red. As a volunteer and guide here at the park, I hear variations on this theme all the time.  The Army of the Potomac outnumbered the Army of Virginia 2-1 at the Battle of Antietam.  McClellan had 30,000 fresh troops on September 18 and could have administered the final deathblow to Lee’s Army if only he had attacked on that day.

Dan’s serious research uncovers a much different story.  He looks at the condition of each corps.  He reveals correspondence from Hooker, Porter and others who describe the serious degradation of readiness in their commands.  We see a total lack of confidence by Hooker in Abram Duryee, something never known before today.  We see present for duty numbers from different sources and different dates that are conflicting and contradictory.  We discover that straggling was just as serious a problem for George McClellan as it is for Robert E. Lee, and we see what measures he and his generals take to fix the problem.  We see a marked decline in strength of the Federal Army as the days of September go by. 

Dan supported his conclusions with slide after slide of detailed documented original source material.

What Joseph Harsh does in precisely documenting the condition of the Confederate Army in his landmark book Sounding the Shallows, Dan does in part for the Union Army in his research.  Like Harsh, he looks at combat experience, this time for each Federal brigade. He finds that unlike the Confederate Army where all of the combat brigades have seen action in at least one but often two or even three campaigns, many Union brigades have never seen action at all. 

Dr. Tom Clemens recognizes Ranger Vermilya
Dan synthesizes all this information into a portrayal of a different Army of the Potomac than the stereotype we normally envision.  We see a commander with a much more complex set of circumstances to face as he advances out of Washington toward Western Maryland than the commander that history has previously portrayed to us. McClellan faces conflicting orders and direction from Washington, confusing and contradictory unit strength reports. There is massive straggling, green troops, dozens of new brigade, division and even corps commanders, heavy combat losses in men and leaders from the months of heavy fighting on the Peninsula, at Cedar Mountain and during the Second Manassas campaign. Trusted senior officers face imminent court martial charges. 

It is not so simple or cut and dried now, is it?  We must relook at all the unsustainable and sweeping generalities that were the foundation of the interpretation for a hundred years. 

What about McClellan’s decision not to attack on the 18th?  In correspondence not seen in the OR, we hear the condition of Andrew Humphrey’s division.  Virtually all green troops, they made a 26-mile overnight forced march from Frederick to Sharpsburg and arrive on the morning of the 18th.  Are they ready for battle? Dan also revealed a never before seen handwritten scrap of paper purportedly jotted by McClellan or one of his staff which listed the strengths of the three divisions of the Fifth Corps and Couch’s division, and a list of senior officers killed or wounded in the fighting.  Mistakenly referring to George Hartsuff as mortally wounded, the document must have been written just after the battle.  McClellan appears to be weighing some of the factors (available units and combat losses among leadership) he is considering for deciding whether to attack on the 18th. 
Antietam Battlefield Superintendent Susan Trail, and Rangers Dan Vermilya, Keith Snyder, Brian Baracz, and John Hoptak

Why didn’t anyone else see this before?  What has Dan done differently?  To begin with when not working at the battlefield, he spent much of he summer in the Library of Congress and National Archives.  He pursued an exhaustive, comprehensive, methodical review of original records including strength reports, correspondence, and military orders.  He has NOT rehashed the ocean of secondary sources and their  usual tired themes.

The scope of Dan’s study was limited. However, we glimpse tantalizing details of what else might be learned if this line of investigation is pursued. We were treated to just a part of Dan’s research in his presentation today.  I know that much more will be revealed when he distills this fine research effort either into an article or even better as a chapter in a more comprehensive work that would be for the Union Army, what Taken at the Flood was for the Confederates. 

Yours Truly and Dan Vermilya
So in the Mumma Barn on a windy Saturday morning, 30-40 fortunate people witnessed what I hope is a turn of the page in the scholarship, and treatment of the Army of the Potomac and its commander George B. McClellan.  At the end of Dan’s talk, Dr. Mark Snell, both a presenter and attendee said as much. I agree with Dr. Snell. Keep it coming Dan!

Dan’s work marks him as an objective, thorough, and passionate scholar of the Maryland Campaign.  SHAF chose wisely in selecting him as its first Harsh Scholar. No doubt his great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, of Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry who made the ultimate sacrifice at Antietam would be proud of Dan.  His family and we who are his Antietam colleagues and friends sure are!

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for the kind words, Jim. You are a good friend and a great historian of the campaign. See you at the park tomorrow! The 150th is almost here!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Is the keynote slide presentation available?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I dont know. Dan is preparing a paper on his research and he may be offering the powerpoint. I will ask him and let you know.

      Delete
  3. Jim and Dan, thanks to you both for an excellent Saturday.
    Dan, really an outstanding bit of research. I'm looking forward to your turning the talk/slides into an article... and as Jim hinted, later, into a chapter in a full study... maybe "Damming the Flood" to take off on Dr. Harsh's theme.
    Jim, and for your support to Dan and the SHAF organization that made it possible for the enjoyable Saturday with friends and first class speakers.
    Ron Dickey

    ReplyDelete
  4. Ron,
    It is always great to see you. I agree that hopefully this is just the start of a more detailed wider ranging study. I like your suggestion for a title. Maybe we will see you during the 150th commemoration.
    Warm Regards
    Jim

    ReplyDelete