Thursday, September 1, 2016

Review of Reardon & Vossler: "A FIELD GUIDE TO ANTIETAM: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People"

[A Field Guide to Antietam: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People by Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler (University of North Carolina Press, 2016). Softcover, 32 maps, 110 period illustrations and modern photos, notes, bibliography, index. 360 pp. ISBN:978-1-4696-3020-5. $23]

Back in 2013, jaded readers could be forgiven for greeting Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler's A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People with a questioning eye over the need for another driving/walking tour of the great battle. However, the freshness of the approach, the quality of the maps and photos, and the razor sharp text quickly won over most skeptics. If anything, their new book A Field Guide to Antietam is even better.

Many major Civil War battles had key moments occurring simultaneously on widely separated sectors of the field (making a chronologically arranged tour impractical), but Antietam seems almost made for touring, with the combat proceeding roughly north to south throughout the September 17, 1862 day of battle. Reardon and Vossler's expert tour construction takes full advantage of this, with its 21 driving stops progressing in the same direction. The book also has several lettered sub-tours designed for the more active visitors. The first 18 stops cover the battle itself, with 19-21 leading respectively to Boteler's Ford (and the Battle of Shepherdstown), the Grove Farm, and the national cemetery.

Each stop begins with an Orientation section that directs visitors to the exact spot where they can make full use of the information that follows. The authors take great care to orient readers in all four directions, in terms of both event and landscape points of reference. Modern color photographs, labeled with the aforementioned reference points, are helpfully included, as are alternative directions when line of sight is seasonally obstructed (for example, by crop growth in the fields). The attention to detail, here and elsewhere, is exemplary. The orientation is also carried over to the maps, with each numbered and/or lettered stop marked on the maps and also accompanied with a directional viewpoint arrow.

Up to six questions are answered at each stop. All answer What Happened Here?, Who Fought Here?, Who Commanded Here?, Who Fell Here? and many additionally address Who Lived Here? and What Did They Say About It Later? Occasionally, there is more commentary at the very end (labeled "postscript" or "a final word" in bold type). Every stop concludes with driving directions to the next destination in line. All of the text is sourced in the endnotes, a much appreciated step typically absent from guidebooks.

For the stops, What Happened Here? is often the largest section. Accounts of the fighting can be up to several pages in length for any given stop and all describe the action at the regiment and battery unit scale. Excerpts from participant writings are also judiciously inserted into the text. The amount of information packed into the limited space available is impressive. In fact, if one combined all the What Happened Here? text from each section of this guide into a single narrative, the result would be one of the very best compact military histories of the battle available. Maps are an essential part of a good guidebook, and the multi-color ones created for the volume are excellent. They clearly display the positions and movements of opposing regiments and batteries, as well as all the expected terrain features (roads, fields, fences, buildings, woods, ravines, streams, and bridges). Period illustrations and modern color photographs of the battlefield are also included.

The Who Fought Here? section is comprised of a list of units (brigades, regiments, and batteries) present during the action specifically represented by the stop under consideration, as well as numbers data. Biographical sketches of generals that figured prominently in a given stop's series of events are present in Who Commanded Here?. The question of Who Fell Here? is answered with a detailed rundown of regimental and battery casualty figures (of each unit mentioned in Who Fought Here?). Within this section, Individual Vignettes tell the story of one or two individuals that fell during that stop's sequence of events. In addition to offering some brief personal background information, the vignettes also directly connect the battle deaths to the home front by delving into the struggle of relatives to obtain back pay and survivor's benefits.

One of the most unique features of the Reardon and Vossler guides is their substantial exploration of the impact of the fighting on the civilians living on or near the battlefield. Who Lived Here? describes the family histories of the inhabitants of many of the battle's most famous landmarks (ex. the Miller, Mumma, Rohrback, and Sherrick farms), as well as information about the structures and the property damage wrought by the fighting. Sadly, a common denominator in all this was the inability of nearly everyone to obtain adequate (or, in many cases, any at all) compensation from the government for material losses directly stemming from the fighting. What Did They Say About It Later? is another component that sets these volumes apart from other Civil War battlefield guidebooks. Interesting historiographical issues and controversies are discussed here, with judiciously selected input from the written records of soldiers and civilians.

The book itself is of very sturdy construction and should hold up well to repeated use in the field. The paper is thick and heavy, with a high gloss finish that will help keep the pages in good shape during hot, humid summer conditions.

Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler have now produced a pair of truly exceptional battlefield touring guides. In content and presentation, their Gettysburg and Antietam volumes are originally designed tools with unique facets that clearly set them part from a crowded field of largely imitative contenders. Hopefully, this is only the beginning*.



* - Reardon was recently interviewed about her guidebook work at Bull Runnings. Go here to read it. She didn't drop any hints about the future beyond new editions of the Gettysburg volume (a revised print version and an enhanced e-book).

• Click HERE for more CWBA reviews of UNC Press titles •

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