Saturday, June 30, 2012

Book Review--The Battle of Antietam

Alexander, Ted. Battle of Antietam: The Bloodiest Day (MD) (Civil War Sesquicentennial Series).   The History Press. Charleston, SC. 2011. B/W photos, maps, index, bibliography, notes, order of battle. ISBN 9781609491796, $19.99.

Ted Alexander is the chief historian for the
 Antietam National Battlefield. In this role it would be expected that he would be able to write a clear and concise work on the battle. Overall he has succeeded. While by no means is this work going to supplant  Stephen Sears massive work Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam that is not the goal of works from The History Press. For those looking for a good introduction to the battle this may be your best option.

The book starts out with a history of the Sharpsburg area and it's surroundings. The town was originally founded in 1763. After losing a close vote to become county seat the area of Sharpsburg remained mostly rural farm land while the town of Hagertown became more industrialized. On September 17, 1862 this farm land would see some of the most violent fighting our country has known.

Mr. Alexander covers the major areas of fighting near Antietam Creek well: chapters cover the Cornfield and the East Woods, West Woods and the Dunker Church, Bloody Lane, and Burnside Bridge. Each are covered in good depth but not to a point where an unfamiliar reader is confused. While pointing out many of the "highs and lows" Alexander tends to stay away from the finger pointing and the blame game that often occurs in books. Union General George McClellan is spared the beating he is given by many historians for his slow reactions and General Edwin Sumner is spared the critisism often dealt his way in regards to his early morning actions at the West Woods.

In his book Alexander does more than cover just the military aspects of the battle. As the subtitle to the book says this was America's bloodiest day. With over 23,000 total casualties both armies took a beating. An excellent chapter covers the aftermath of the battle including dealing with the dead, both human and animal, hospitals and the civilian aid given to the injured, the spread of disease to both military and civilians, and the huge amount of property damage caused. All was not doom and gloom however as Mr. Alexander points out the medical advances brought about by Dr. Jonathan Letterman. Many of these were first implemented at Antietam.

The Confederate army, tired and defeated, retreat across the Potomac on the evening of September 18. McClellan rather clumsily sends a rather small grouping of soldiers after Lee. This leads to the Battle of Shepherstown, where Union troops are defeated by a Confederate force led by Stonewall Jackson, thus sustaining another 363 casualties the majority suffered by the 118th Pennsylvania.

With the fall of 1862 being a major Confederate disappointment, and General McClellan not following up Abraham Lincoln had seen enough and removed "Little Mac" from command. While having been relieved of command there can be little doubt that McClellan and the Union army achieved a great victory that September day. So great in fact that it paved the way for President Lincoln to unveil his Emancipation Proclamation. While the proclomation's value to slaves in seceeded areas can be debated it's longer term value to the Union cause can not be.

The book wraps up nicely with a chapter covering post battle events such as the founding of the Antietam National Cemetery, the founding of the Antietam National Battlefied, soldier reunions, improvements to the battlefield, and more.

The book is really helped along by the wonderful maps provided by Steven Stanley. There are dozens of b/w photos helping visually further the story. Also included are an index, bibliography, notes, and an order of battle. This is not a book for those with a good knowledge of the battle. I doubt you will find anything new here. For those just coming to the battle, or like me have a bit of knowledge but want to know more, this is a book I can heartily recommend. It will help when you move on and read Sears, Harsh, or Carman.

For those with more interest you might like to check out Ted Alexander's appearance on Civil War Talk Radio by clicking here.

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