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)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Early Thoughts on "To Antietam Creek", by D. Scott Hartwig

One of the best parts of the Antietam 150th is that many new titles have come out about the battle and the campaign. I recently reviewed Bradley Gottfried's latest work, Maps of Antietam, here, but I would also like to highlight a few others.

Hopefully, sometime soon, I can post some thoughts about the latest installment of Ezra Carman's magisterial work on the campaign. Volume 2 of Carman's manuscript was recently released, and Tom Clemens once again provides extraordinary insight and knowledge in the footnotes. I have been thumbing through the book, and plan to post on it relatively soon.

For now, however, I want to highlight a book that was just released this week. Many years in the making, To Antietam Creek is a history of the Maryland Campaign, part one of a two volume set on the campaign and Battle of Antietam. To Antietam Creek is an incredibly in depth work which runs from the start of the campaign through September 16th, providing detailed analysis on each army, on commanders, and on the action which led the armies, appropriately enough, to Antietam Creek. Written by Gettysburg NMP historian D. Scott Hartwig, this volume is not for the faint of heart. Complete with footnotes and order of battle, it runs nearly 800 pages. Needless to say, I haven't had the time to read all 800 pages in the few days since I picked up my copy at the Antietam bookstore. However, what I have been reading is really good and looks very promising.

I am sure I will find parts of the book which I don't entirely agree with, or some I may strongly disagree with, but based on what I have read so far, I think I can conclusively say this: Hartwig's To Antietam Creek is, unlike other recent works (such as Richard Slotkin's The Long Road to Antietam), a scholarly historical work that gives the Maryland Campaign the treatment that an event of its magnitude deserves. Certainly, the work of historians such as Carman, Clemens, Harsh, and Rafuse have done wonders for our understanding of this campaign; in fact, those historians have set a standard of excellence by which we can measure other work on the campaign. Perhaps this new volume can rise to that standard as well. Hartwig's book certainly deserves our attention. I have a feeling that this work will be sitting on my bookshelf for years, filled with notes, underlined sections, and well worn pages.

I want to highlight a few passages from Hartwig's chapter on the Army of the Potomac in the Maryland Campaign, as they seem to be in sync with some of my own research and work on the Army of the Potomac this year (hopefully without sounding too vain on my part; anything I have done pales in comparison to work of this length, depth, and magnitude). Hartwig doesn't go into the detail on troop strengths throughout the campaign and the experience levels that I used in my research for the Joseph Harsh award, but his work is an extremely refreshing take on the difficulties, challenges, and complexities facing the Union forces in the Antietam Campaign. Considering that my work was more of a comparative study against false conceptions of the Army of the Potomac in the most popular histories of the campaign, this young historian is especially comforted to know that some of what I presented on is backed up by the work of a historian of Scott Hartwig's caliber.

Here are just a few quotes from Hartwig's work that were wonderful to read...

"Straggling, absenteeism, and lax discipline were the byproducts of the defeatism that afflicted the army." (135)

"Straggling was nearly as serious in the Army of the Potomac as it was in Lee's army" (135).

"The popular image of a well-fed, well clothed, Union army in the Maryland Campaign is one of its myths. Although the army was generally better clothed, better fed, and better equipped than the Confederates, there were plenty of 'Ragged Yankees'" (137-138).

Speaking of Federal strength upon leaving Washington, namely, the veteran forces in the army: "The entire field army at this point numbered about 60,000 effective soldiers, hardly the Union juggernaut that is typically described in Maryland Campaign studies" (139).

"Histories of the Maryland Campaign rarely fail to highlight the Army of the Potomac's superiority in numbers, but at the outset of the campaign that advantage was rather slight, and the qualitative edge went to the Army of Northern Virginia." This refers to the relative inexperience of Federal forces in the campaign (139).

"The Army of the Potomac marched into Maryland as a powerful but imperfect force. It was better equipped, uniformed, and supplied than its adversary, and it had a slim advantage in numbers. But the negatives outweighed the these advantages. Mutual suspicion and a lack of confidence marked the relationship of its commander with the president, his cabinet, and the army's chief of staff. Two of the corps commanders were facing a potential court-martial at the end of the campaign. The senior leadership lacked the unity and trust in each other that Lee's command structure had, and McClellan generally discouraged any initiative by his subordinates. There were no leaders at corps command who were of Jackson's and Longstreet's caliber. The infantry contained large numbers of new recruits with little training. The army's overall organization remained incomplete, and some branches, such as the artillery, were downright inefficient. Lee may have had the smaller army, but it was an army with superior organization, morale, and leadership, which invariably proved to be more flexible and responsive, as well as capable of concentrating troops more rapidly.
"Still, for all its imperfections, there was something magnificent about this Army of the Potomac. It had shown its resilience and dedication in the speed with which it shook off the disaster at Manassas. Defeat had washed away the starry-eyed optimism that had once buoyed the army, and it viewed the future with the grim knowledge that whatever lay ahead would be hard and bloody... So much rode on the shoulders of this army: the preservation of the Union, and the future of freedom in America. The Army of the Potomac would determine on the battlefield whether the document in the president's desk remained locked away or shed its light on the nation's future [referring here to the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation written in July, 1862] (160-161).

Now, if you will excuse me, I have an 800 page book to read cover to cover. More thoughts to come once I can make my way through the book in its entirety. Let's hope that my early optimism is rewarded upon finishing the work.

1 comment:

  1. Dan,
    I got the book today also. Just reading the bibliographical essay was very instructional. The material comes from the primary sources that many have overlooked. Having said that, I am deep into the chapter on the Peninsula Campaign. A great, informative, balanced read.