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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.

Friday, January 4, 2013

To Antietam Creek by D. Scott Hartwig

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My posting has been rather sparse of late. One of the things that has kept me away from SFTNW has been the many hours pleasantly occupied in reading Scott Hartwig’s epic To Antietam Creek (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012). It is the first of two volumes that describes at both the operational and tactical level the story the Maryland Campaign.  Volume One concludes in the wee hours of September 17th as the armies slumber fitfully and await the dawn of the bloodiest day in American history.

And just this afternoon, I read the final page. 

I knew from day one that I wanted to write a review of this book.  I probably have not said anything different from many other reviewers.  But I think my experience as a long time Antietam Battlefield volunteer and guide who has walked the battlefields of the Maryland Campaign, gives me a different and useful perspective from the usual rank and file book reviewer. My battlefield tours wont fundamentally change as a result of reading TAC.  Like this book, I attempt to interpret the Maryland Campaign and Battle of Antietam objectively and factually.  But the book’s completeness, numerous insights, deep analysis and great stories will add a new richness and depth to my tours and programs that I would not otherwise have had I not read the book.

Mine was not a cursory skimming of the book but a thorough note-taking margin scribbling underlining and highlighting expedition.  Over the past three months, I have read it thoroughly, looked at virtually all the footnotes and scoured the bibliography.  I can now say unequivocally that this is the best book I have ever read on the Maryland Campaign.  And I have read many books.  My small 400-volume library contains primarily studies of the Maryland campaign and the leaders and soldiers who fought there.

Ezra Carmen’s comprehensive manuscript The Maryland Campaign of 1862 is finally available to the general public, superbly edited by Tom Clemens. Joseph Harsh’s Taken at the Flood is a brilliant depiction of the Maryland Campaign but it is primarily an operational level study through the eyes of Robert E. Lee.  Similarly Ethan Rafuse has an excellent albeit brief treatment of the campaign in McClellan’s War largely from the Union commander’s perspective. All of these works and others are fundamental to understanding the campaign.  I highly recommend them all. 

But what Scott Hartwig has done is to put it all together. He incorporates first person, primary source material not typically seen.  He acknowledges and uses the foundational work of Carmen.  He refers to events in the Antietam Studies at the National Archives that I have not seen elsewhere.  He acknowledges and integrates the scholarship of Harsh, Rafuse and Sears in a fair and meaningful way. He disabuses many myths.  The result is a balanced, readable, evocative, and thoroughly enjoyable work.

For the first time, there is a complete telling of the Battle of Harpers Ferry from both the Union and Confederate perspective.  All the gap battles of South Mountain are covered.  I was very pleased to see that the fighting at the Frosttown Gap that sometimes seems to take a back seat in some studies was prominently treated.

While serious civil war students will learn much, general readers will benefit from the fact that Hartwig takes the time to explain many of the technical terms that would otherwise be lost to them.  He explains what a column of divisions is, and thoroughly describes artillery organization, just to name two examples.

What is particularly important for a margin scribbler like me is the immense detail.  One is never left in any doubt how many infantry, cavalry or guns are in a particular fighting organization.  We experience every fight from the first cavalry skirmishes around Poolesville through Solomon’s Gap, and Quebec Schoolhouse to South Mountain and Harpers Ferry.  One of Scott’s talents is to clearly depict fighting at the tactical level. We visualize every bend in the road, clump of trees, or row of fences on the field.  We smell the gunpowder and hear the cries of the men.  It is great battlefield story telling no doubt polished by years as Gettysburg’s Chief Historian. Essential to the book are its seventeen well-crafted maps.

Hartwig takes on many of the interpretive myths.  The size of McClellan’s army is smaller than many think.  The Federals suffered just as much as the Rebels from straggling and disorganized logistics.  Union staff officers were outstanding.  The ANV with several major exceptions was markedly inferior in this category.  Sumner and Burnside may not have been the greatest wing commanders but they receive their dues here.  We understand the superior organization of the Confederate artillery at the time of the battle.  And we learn that there were several very good Union cavalry regiments that fought well in the Campaign and they are not the ones who fought their way out of Harpers Ferry.  Jackson, Stuart and Longstreet were arguably among the greatest battlefield leaders of the war but we also see them for the human beings who they are. McClellan, the perennial whipping boy of the Civil War at long last gets the treatment that he deserves.  Hartwig is unforgiving in many ways but he is objective and balanced.  No one on either side of the McClellan debate (myself included) should argue with this. The analysis is excellent.  You have to read it yourself. 

Hartwig beautifully describes the overall condition of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac in two stand-alone chapters.  These are so good that I use them as a primary reference source for training of potential Antietam Battlefield Guides.

There has never been as good a description of the movement to contact of the armies on September 15th and 16th as I see here.

The final hours before the armies begin their death struggle, on a pitch-black rainy night have never been told so well.  The narrative hearkens back at some level to Bruce Catton’s own masterful description of the moments before the Battle of Antietam begins.

There are some great extras.  Appendix B Strength of Union and Confederate Forces is the best one-stop resource available to the general reader on the numbers.  Don’t overlook the notes.  There is a veritable Sounding the Shallows here in the 84-page collection of 1,422 notes.  You will miss out if you skip them

To some who would dismiss this book as just a story of the events up to Antietam, I would answer that this book is a necessary foundation to understanding the tactical battle that Hartwig will treat us to when the second volume comes out.  If you want to learn more about the Maryland Campaign than you can from any other book, you must move this one to the top of your reading list. 

If you have hesitated to get this book because of its massiveness, get over it and buy the book.  From the first to the last, To Antietam Creek will reward you with the best-told story of the Maryland Campaign ever produced.  Now we wait for Volume Two.




3 comments:

  1. Great review by an expert in the field. My stop is Amazon

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  2. Glad you enjoyed it Gerald. See you soon on the field.
    Jim

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  3. Jim, thanks for the review. As usual you've provided an unbiased assessment. I've been struggling to find time to attack this one. It appears to be one that has to be digested, not merely read.
    Ron Dickey

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