Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Review: The Battle of South Mountain, by John Hoptak

Having just finished up grading finals, completing my last official duties as a Graduate Assistant at John Carroll University, I have now begun to turn my attention back to my primary area of interest, the Battle of Antietam. One book which was a must read for me before my upcoming return to Maryland is The Battle of South Mountain, by my fellow Antietam Ranger, and good friend, John Hoptak. John is a fine historian and a fine guy (don't let the fact that he is a Yankees fan distract you, he isn't that bad). He was one of the many wonderful people at Antietam who made me feel at home last summer, and I look forward to working with him again upon my return to Antietam in just a few days. John was very encouraging and helpful in my decision to start this blog. He runs his own blog dedicated to the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and other Civil War topics, which you can find here.

The Battle of South Mountain is a fast paced narrative of the crucial events that took place on South Mountain on September 14, 1862, just a few days prior to the climactic Battle of Antietam on the 17th. For years, scholars, historians, and Civil War travelers have overlooked South Mountain in favor of Antietam. Certainly, Antietam stands as not only one of the pivotol moments in the war, but one of the most important days in American history. However, without South Mountain, Antietam would not have occured as it did. Most likely, without a Union victory on South Mountain on September 14, there would have been no battle at all at Antietam, as Lee would not have turned and gathered his forces to fight there. Conversely, because Confederate forces slowed the Union advance on the 14th, Stonewall Jackson was given the crucial extra time he needed to capture Harper's Ferry, arriving in Sharpsburg just in time to supplement Lee's forces and to make a stand against McClellan on the 17th. While relatively small in scale when one considers the casualties, the strategic importance of the fight at South Mountain was immense in its effects on the Maryland Campaign of 1862.

It is this strategic importance which John brings to light in his recent work. While his battle narratives are excellent in their depth, detail, and lively writing, the common student of the war will benefit the most from John's insightful analysis of the strategy of the campaign. Whereas berating George McClellan as a cowardly slowpoke is the prevailing method in writing about this campaign, The Battle of South Mountain gives the Union commander his due. John convincingly suggests that McClellan's actions at South Mountain displayed a level of tactical aggression which sharply contrasts popular images of the commander. On this point alone, John's work immediately stands out and provides a refreshing new voice to the conversation. For far too long, historians have lambasted McClellan as an inept battlefield commander who was more concerned with his image than he was with defeating Lee. However, as The Battle of South Mountain persuasively notes, McClellan's plans for sending Major General William Franklin's force south through Crampton's Gap had the goal of relieving pressure on Harper's Ferry, adding Dixon Miles's 12,000 men to Franklin's force, then moving north through Pleasant Valley to cut off Lee, all in one day's time. Clearly, this was an audacious plan that if anything should be faulted for being overly ambitious. John's description of these movements around Crampton's Gap is but one example of his excellent grasp and refreshing take on the strategy of this important campaign. Any good battle history both narrates the events on the field and provides a sharp and incisive bird's eye view of the strategy, tactics, and meaning of the troop movements. In this regard, The Battle of South Mountain is an excellent narrative of one of the most overlooked days in the history of the Civil War.

As an added benefit, another one of my Antietam colleagues and good friends, Mannie Gentile, also helped out with this effort. Mannie, being an excellent artist, created detailed maps for various phases of the battle and the campaign. The maps are wonderfully drawn, and are pieces of art. Mannie also runs a blog about the experience of working as a Park Ranger at Antietam. You can find it here.

For those with an interest in Civil War history, I would highly recommend The Battle of South Mountain. It is a fine example of historical writing on one of the Civil War's most overlooked battles. John makes the complex story of a battle which stretched across several miles with many intricacies very accessible, and as a result, his work is one for both the novice and the expert alike. Last summer, I had the privilege of going on a tour of Crampton's Gap with John and a few good friends, and I can certainly say, John is as good as anyone at making a battlefield come to life and helping to teach others about the events of the past and their importance for us today.

Below is a promotional video for The Battle of South Mountain, produced by Mannie Gentile.


  1. Dan,

    Thanks for the kind words and thoughtful post. See you Friday!


  2. I agree fully with the interpretation of George B. McClellan and his key role at the Battle of South Mountain. Good review Dan!

    Jim Rosebrock

  3. Nice blog, Dan! And thanks for following mine too. See you on the field sometime. Jim Buchanan of Walking the West Woods blog fame is a pal of mine. You guys use a copy of an ambrotype of mine (Justus Wellington, 15th Massachusetts) to help tell the story of the West Woods fighting.

    Take care

    John Banks

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone. John, I look forward to seeing you at Antietam this season.