About Me

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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 young adult children who I love very much. I currently volunteer at Antietam 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. Since 2013 I have been conducting in depth research on the regular artillery companies of the Union Army and their leaders. I hope to turn this into a book on this subject in the future. 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. 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.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Battle of South Mountain by John Hoptak - A Must Have Addition To Your Library

When I find a great Civil War book, I highlight memorable quotes, circle unit strength and casualty numbers, write dates and times in the margins, underline biographical information, and sketch diagrams of the battle lines. My copies of books like Joseph Harsh’s Taken at the Flood, and Tom Clemen’s edition of The Maryland Campaign of 1862 Volume One South Mountain by Ezra Carmen are like that – dog eared, marked up, and carried on my many treks to the sites of the Maryland Campaign. John Hoptak’s new book The Battle of South Mountain has joined my very select traveling library.

In their own right, the series of battles that occurred at Frosttown, Turners, Fox and Crampton’s Gaps of the South Mountain range on September 14, 1862 were significant military operations. On that late summer Sunday, Robert E. Lee’s scattered army was driven off the mountain heights by a resurgent Army of the Potomac and Lee’s plans to capture Harper’s Ferry, and force a decisive battle north of the Potomac River were seriously jeopardized.

Lasting over twelve hours with nearly 50,000 troops engaged, and around 5,800 casualties suffered, the fighting here ranks in scope with the war’s first battle at Bull Run in numbers involved and casualties suffered. Yet the Battle of South Mountain is nearly totally eclipsed by the epic Battle of Antietam, fought by these same armies three days later around the town of Sharpsburg. South Mountain is adequately treated in the classic Antietam campaign studies of James Murfin, Stephen Sears, and Joseph Harsh, but much detail and context is necessarily missing in these accounts. Antietam Battlefield ranger, historian and author John Hoptak has convincingly filled a critical need for a comprehensive, stand-alone study of this important battle.

The Battle of South Mountain, published by the History Press as part of its Sesquicentennial series is a crisp, concise but comprehensive account of the battles at the four passes or “gaps” across South Mountain on September 14, 1862. Beginning with an overview of the Maryland Campaign, the book then focuses a chapter on the fight at each of the four gaps. Chapter Two covers Fox Gap where Jesse Reno’s Ninth Corps battled most of General Daniel Harvey Hill’s division, and elements of D.R. Jones and John Hoods divisions in a daylong struggle for the critical southern flank of the Confederate line along the National Pike. Chapter Three is the story of Fighting Joseph Hooker’s fight for Turner’s Gap and the more northern Frosttown Gap. Union General John Gibbon’s Black Hat brigade of crack Midwestern soldiers contested the main road with Alfred Colquitt’s veteran brigade of Georgians and Alabamians. Further north at Frosttown, General Robert Rodes brigade of Alabama soldiers tenaciously defended that gap against George Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserve Division. After a daylong forced march from Hagerstown, Confederate reinforcements from Nathan Evans South Carolina brigade, and the other half of D.R. Jones division, arrived in time to blunt a final attack by three brigades of mostly New York troops in John Hatch’s division. Chapter Four is the story of the attack on Crampton’s Gap, undoubtedly the key element in George McClellan’s plan to rescue 11,000 beleaguered Union troops encircled by Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s forces at Harpers Ferry. Here the two divisions of General Franklin’s powerful Sixth Corps are pitted against a small cavalry force under Thomas Munford and two weak infantry brigades from Major General Lafayette McLaw’s division.

The story is well told. It benefits from numerous battlefield tromps where Mr. Hoptak thoroughly researched the terrain, distances, vegetation, and road network. With that he paints a clear picture of this mountainous field of battle. Using many commander’s reports and the letters and diaries of individual soldiers, he recounts a stirring story of the desperate fighting that raged along a front of nearly seven miles. His descriptive style allowed me to always maintain a clear situational awareness of units, and leaders at all times and I came away with an increased understanding of the ebb and flow of this battle. There are also excellent biographical sketches of many of the regimental, brigade, and division commanders that fought the battle.

The book is rich in photographs and drawings of the soldiers and the battlefield. With eight fine maps rendered by fellow Antietam Ranger Mannie Gentile, a detailed order of battle, a bibliography with over seventy primary sources, and many other secondary references, the book is a truly scholarly effort that will satisfy both serious Civil War students and the general reading public. For Maryland Campaign aficionados, it is a must have addition to your library and is now the definitive account of the battle. It surely further secures John's place as a premier Maryland Campaign scholar.

The final chapter of the book concludes with McClellan’s pursuit of Lee’s defeated army to the banks of the Antietam. And if the story had truly ended there, with Lee retreating across the Potomac without giving further battle, the Battle of South Mountain would have been accorded a much higher standing in Civil War historiography. At long last, this book goes a long distance toward according the battle the scholarship and undivided attention that it deserves. You can read my review and more information about the book here at Amazon.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Out Early!!

John Hoptak’s long awaited new book The Battle of South Mountain is now available. It was not scheduled for release until March 7th but John advises on his blog that it is now available from publisher History Press or through the major online book retailers.

I am sincerely looking forward to reading my copy once it arrives. This prequel to the Battle of Antietam has cried out for an up to date interpretation and John is just the man to do it.

I sincerely wish John all the best in his latest writing endeavor.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"That sandwich will need no pepper."

I just finished a new book about Abner Doubleday. Titled easily enough Abner Doubleday A Civil War Biography, the book is the work of Thomas Barthel whose previous works have centered on the game of baseball. The book effectively debunks the theory that Doubleday had anything to do with the game of baseball. On the plus side, I learned a lot about Doubleday as a man, his background in upstate New York, his life after his Army career, and his great interest in spiritualism and strong support for abolitionism.

The soft cover edition with its front cover photos of both the Dunker Church and the Middle Bridge at Antietam compelled me to buy the book. I was hopeful that there would be a lot of attention on the Maryland Campaign. Doubleday's brigade played an important role at Frosttown Gap on September 14th. As the newly minted commander of Hatch's division after that officer was wounded at South Mountain, he played a critical role in the attacks down the Hagerstown Pike in the early hours of the Battle of Antietam. Unfortunately the book is very short of details on Doubleday’s military career except perhaps for his time at Fort Sumter and his controversial days at Gettysburg where he commanded the First Corps on July 1, 1863 but was relieved of command by his junior in rank John Newton. And despite its cover, the book sadly devotes few pages to the Maryland Campaign. Even worse, there are a number of glaring errors that somehow slipped by the editor. For example, the author states that Lee moved out of Frederick on September 7, 1862 to execute Special Order 191. Lee’s Army departed Frederick on September 9. He says the Battle of Turner’s Gap is sometimes referred to as Frostburg. I believe he means Frosttown Gap. He says that after its surrender, Jackson left 10,000 men at Harpers Ferry to guard the 12,000 prisoners. A.P. Hill had perhaps half that number and they were there to parole prisoners, not guard them. He says that the skirmishing in the East Woods the night of September 16 occurred between Albert Magilton’s brigade of Meade’s division and Lawson’s Confederates. First of all it was Truman Seymour’s brigade of Meade’s division that fought Hood’s men in the East Woods. And it is Lawton’s men that he is referring to, not Lawson’s. Finally, he says that Lee left perhaps 7,700 dead bodies when he retreated from Maryland. The actual death count was around 3,700 for both sides, with many more perishing of their wounds later on.

So for me, the book failed to educate me at all on Doubleday’s role in the Maryland Campaign. I learned more about the man and came away with more respect for him and his sense of duty as a soldier and public figure after the war. I did managed to add 40 quotes about Doubleday to my collection. You can read all of them here at Antietam Voices. Here are a few of my favorites.

"I wish Abner Doubleday, now a captain in the First Artillery, to be a major in the similar corps if possible."

Shortly after the hero of Fort Sumter returns to the North, Abraham Lincoln sends over this note from the White House to the War Department. Unfortunately the author did not cite the source of this quote.

"That sandwich will need no pepper." Abner Doubleday July 3 1863

It is at the height of the Confederate artillery barrage prior to Pickett-Pettigrew assault against the Union center. Abner Doubleday has removed a sandwich from his pocket and is about to eat it when he and the food are showered by dirt and gravel from a nearby exploding Confederate shell. He makes this wry remark to Major Harty T. Lee of his staff. This quote was originally from History of Pennsylvania Volunteers 1861-5: Prepared in Compliance with Acts of the Legislature by Samuel P. Bates. (Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot, 1993.).

"He is deficient considerably in the requisites of a commander. He does not drink whiskey…stays with his command and seems anxious to do his duty and fight Rebels….He also allows his wife to stay with him when he ought to keep a mistress." William O. Blodget

This tongue in cheek quote is from First Lieutenant William O. Bldogett of Company F, 151 Pennsylvania Infantry. It was originally found in The 151st Pennsylvania Volunteers at Gettysburg: Like Ripe Apples in a Storm by Michael Dreese and Timothy H. Smith. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.)

"Gen. Doubleday was not a man of 'personal magnetism' nor what is called a dashing officer.' He was an earnest and conscientious man and a safe and steady soldier-precise, methodical, and to be depended on in any emergency." Don Carlos Buell

This quote is attributed to General Don Carlos Buell who no one could ever accuse of possessing personal magnetism or of being a dashing officer. The quote describes Buell as much as it does Doubleday. Unfortunately the author did not cite the source of this quote.

"Gen. Doubleday who is a gallant officer. I saw him at Antietam…. He was remarkably cool and at the very front of battle, near Battery B at the haystacks." Rufus Dawes of the Sixth Wisconsin observed General Doubleday at the Battle of Antietam. Coming from this brave officer, this is high praise indeed. The quote is originally From Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers by Rufus R. Dawes. (Marietta, OH: E.R. Alderman, 1890.)

"General Abner Doubleday was a tall dignified looking gentleman as is commonly called of the old school. At the time I met him he was inclined to be portly. His forehead was very full. His hair was dark, crisp and oily-well streaked with white. A large full high beaked nose; gray eyes; heavily bagged underneath. A short trimmed bushy mustache, almost black; very swarthy. His hands [are] small and smooth in structure. His expression was very serious, but lighting up when he started to tell his fine, wholesome, and humorous stories. I made a study of his head which his friends said was good- to me it seemed a little prim as Mrs. Doubleday insisted on brushing his hair and slicking him up." Kelly

Long after the war, a sculptor known in the book only by the name of Kelly describes Doubleday and his story telling expertise. The quote is originally from Interviewing the Commanders of the Civil War by William B. Styple. (Kearny, NJ: Grove, 2005.)