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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.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

West Point General Officers at Antietam

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I am occasionally asked why the Confederate generals seem to be so much better than the Union ones, at least in late 1862.  From the very first days of the war, the southern cause is served by the likes of Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, and JEB Stuart. By the summer of 1862 add Robert E. Lee, and the Hills.  The great Union leaders seem to need some time to emerge. 

I have become very interested in the West Point graduates who fought at Antietam.  While preparing a presentation for a Round Table talk, I arrayed the officers on a chart based on their branch of service in the old Army. Then I noticed something interesting.  There are essentially six branches.  Three are the technical branches and include the Corps of Engineers, Topographical Engineers, and Ordnance.  Three are combat arms and include infantry, artillery, and cavalry.  For this analysis, I will consolidate the technical branches together.

The Technical Branches
Branch
USA Generals
CSA Generals
USA Other
CSA Other
Total Officers
Corps of Engineers
5
1
12
1
19
Topographical
Engineers
5
0
6
0
11
Ordnance
2
0
4
0
6
Total
12
1
22
1
36

This obviously shows that a lot of the West Point Union general officers came from the ranks of the technical branches.  These are officers who saw little combat service in the old Army except in Mexico, and by the nature of their jobs tended to be more technically oriented and less likely to be leaders of men.  There are exceptions of course.  From these ranks come Robert E. Lee, George Meade, and Jesse Reno.  George McClellan is also an engineer.  Lee it must be remembered essentially transferred to the 2nd Cavalry in 1855 and had several years of front line experience with the mounted forces.  Also worth noting are the large number of West Pointers (22 in all) who were not generals.  These are the men who rounded out McClellan’s excellent staff and contributed in many ways throughout the war to the success of the Army of the Potomac in the areas of logistics and engineering.  The sole Confederate officer is E. Porter Alexander, who at this time served as Lee’s brilliant ordnance officer.  But the teaching point here is 12 Union generals and only one Confederate general are general officers at Antietam.

We now turn to the artillery.

Branch
USA Generals
CSA Generals
USA Other
CSA Other
Total Officers
Artillery
19
7
53
2
81

The artillery accounts for the biggest number of West Point general officers who fought at Antietam.  Hooker, Sedgwick, French, Burnside, Stonewall Jackson, Daniel H. Hill and A.P. Hill come from these ranks.  We see here a larger plurality of Confederates at the general officer level. While there were four artillery regiments in the old army, just one battery per regiment actually had guns.  Most artillerymen in the old army if they weren’t manning coastal forts like Ft Hamilton NY, Ft Monroe VA, Ft Sumter SC or Ft Pickens FL fought in the west largely as red-leg infantry. The older gunners like Hooker, Sedgwick and French also saw service in the bloody Seminole Wars of Florida.  Virtually all saw duty in Mexico.  There are also a large number of junior officers in the Union Army.  These men often filled out the regular artillery batteries.  For example, of the 14 West Point graduates of the class of 1862 at Antietam who graduated just two months before the battle, 11 went directly into the artillery batteries.

There are 52 West Point graduates who came from the infantry.  For the first time, the number of generals is very close.  Of 13 generals, seven fight for the Union, and six for the Confederacy.  Israel Richardson and Winfield Scott Hancock are the best representatives for the Federal side.  James Longstreet, Lafayette McLaws, and Richard Garnett are some of the excellent southern generals.

Branch
USA Generals
CSA Generals
USA Other
CSA Other
Total Officers
Infantry
7
6
35
4
52

All these men from the day of their graduation spent their lives on remote outposts in the west.  They had men to lead and combat objectives to accomplish.  And a large number of their ranks become Confederate generals.  For the large number of Union officers not generals, many fought in Syke’s 2nd Division, Fifth Corps, or were aides to General McClellan.  But looking at the relative numbers of general officers starting with the technical branches and moving through the artillery, there is a trend.  The more tactical the branch, the more Confederate generals.

Finally there is the cavalry. 

Branch
USA Generals
CSA Generals
USA Other
CSA Other
Total Officers
Cavalry
5
8
25
3
41

For the first time, we see Confederate generals outnumbering Union generals.  From this group come the likes of JEB Stuart, Fitzhugh Lee, John Hood, Richard and George B. Anderson, and Dorsey Pender.  Union generals here are Alfred Pleasonton, and Sam Sturgis.  John Buford served on McClellan’s staff and did not lead troopers at Antietam. 

The Confederates are blessed at the onset of the war by a large number of officers who were troop-leading soldiers in the old Army.  While not experienced in leading large formations before the war, they had honed their leadership skills and at least had some concept for moving soldiers around the battlefield.  Infantryman and cavalry troopers with combat experience know the importance of taking risks and being daring.

SUMMARY West Point Generals at Antietam
Branch
Union Generals
(West Point Graduates)
Confederate Generals
(West Point Graduates)
Technical
12 (12 of 43 – 28%)
1    (1 of 22 – 5%)
Artillery
19 (19 of 43 – 44%)
7    (7 of 22 – 32%)
Infantry
7    (7 of 43 – 16%)
6    (6 of 22 – 27%)
Cavalry
5    (5 of 54 – 12%)
8    (8 of 22 – 36%)
Total
43
22

Artillerymen are in the middle.  Large numbers come from these ranks.  Their branch is a combination of battlefield daring and mathematical calculation.  Some generals clearly fall into the first category.  Stonewall Jackson and the Hills come to mind for the Confederates.  Joe Hooker, John Sedgwick (who also commanded cavalry in the pre-war), and John Gibbon represent the artillery well on the Union side.  Others fall into the other extreme. 

The Union side on the other hand will promote a large number of technicians to the senior ranks early in the war.  Some great generals will emerge from this group eventually but they enter the war with little or no troop leading experience.  Their technical professions rewarded careful analysis, management of risk, and orthodox business leading practices that do not necessarily translate to battlefield success.  Robert E. Lee is the notable exception.  One year into the war, the technicians are apparently still learning their trade.  Good careful planners, they must learn to successfully lead men on the battlefield.  Some like Franklin, and Baldy Smith wont survive.  But others, like George Meade certainly will.

I am making some broad generalizations here regarding the different branches.  I am also looking only at West Pointers and not the number of volunteers who will receive general officer commissions.  But it is clear by just looking at the numbers that there may be a partial answer to the question by many visitors about the apparent superiority of Confederate leadership

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Four Years

January 17, 2009
I started writing South From the North Woods just over four years ago.  As blogs go, it is by no means a blockbuster but I am proud of the 46,233 visitors and 165 posts.  SFTNW spun off another blog Antietam Voices, and I have collected over 4,100 quotes.

Often the march forward of time is barely discernable as we plod forward each day.  But much has changed in the past four years.  My son has grown up and is now a Marine lance corporal stationed aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard.  My daughter is a college student, volunteer firefighter, and EMT trainee.  The 150th anniversary which was just a dim distant object in 2009 has come and gone. 

Perhaps nothing better illustrates change than this.  Today I flipped back to one of my earliest posts. I was struck by the differences that have occurred to the Joseph Poffenberger barn since I began posting.  Here is a picture taken four years ago for that post and one taken today for this post.

January 19, 2013

So to SFTNW a belated happy fourth birthday.

The most sanguinary part of the whole field

From the Cornfield east of Miller's house looking northeast (1/19/13)

During the short winter days of January, I have been getting ready for the upcoming year at Antietam.  One book I am spending a lot of time with is Volume 2 of Ezra Carmen’s Maryland Campaign.  The outstanding editing by Tom Clemens adds a great deal of clarity to Carmen’s manuscript.  Every footnote is worth reading.

As anyone familiar with Carmen knows, he copies much of his prose from Official Record reports, magazine articles, and letters from participants of the battle.  But there are stretches where you see the landscape and battle from his eyes and in his words. 

Early in volume two, Carmen spends much of chapter 12 (The Field of Antietam) describing the terrain around the northern part of the battlefield.  While some of his syntax is aggravating,, pronoun use can mystify, and the sentences often run on making for a difficult read, (maybe like this one), Carmen nevertheless delivers some very evocative description of the roads, terrain, crops, and structures on the battlefield.  Here is a sample:

“North of the cornfield was a grass field of nearly 40 acres of higher ground than the cornfield and upon which the Union batteries were posted on the 17th. In that part of this field, bordering the Hagerstown Road, stands the house of D.R. Miller, an apple orchard, north and east of it, a garden in front, and in the southwest corner of the garden, close by the road, a spring of delicious water, covered by a stone house.  Beyond the field where are Miller’s house and orchard, was another field, bounded on the north by the North Woods. South of the cornfield and bounded by the Hagerstown road on the west and by the East Woods and the Smoketown road on the east and south was a field of nearly 80 acres, most of it in luxuriant clover, some of it freshly plowed. In the East Woods and West Woods and the cornfield and grass field between them, is where the terrible struggle between the Union right and the Confederate left took place-the most sanguinary part of the whole field.”[1]

Sometimes there is a tendency to jump over the early chapters of Carmen to get to the meat of the action.  Don’t do that.  It is worth it to read the entire work thoroughly.  For someone like me who has been to this field many times, the careful reading of Chapter 11 painted yet another picture and perspective that I had not seen before.  I read this chapter last week.  Today I was on the field and the imagery of Carmen’s words came back to me as I viewed this ground today.  Pictures are worth a thousand words but sometimes a thousand words, carefully and perceptively read can produce an image that stays with us in an even more powerful way.


[1] Carmen, Ezra. The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 Volume II: Antietam, edited and annotated by Thomas G. Clemens. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2012, page 11.

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.