Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Jordan: "UNHOLY SABBATH: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory, September 14, 1862"

[ Unholy Sabbath: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory, September 14, 1862 by Brian Matthew Jordan (Savas Beatie, 2012). Hardcover, 12 maps, illustrations, notes, appendices, interview, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:347/408. ISBN:978-1-61121-088-0 $32.95 ]

Beyond a few introductory works (most recently John Hoptak's The Battle of South Mountain) and John Michael Priest's detailed ground level study, the South Mountain story and its three clashes at Fox's Gap, Turner's Gap, and Crampton's Gap have typically been relegated to short pieces inside larger works. Brian M. Jordan's Unholy Sabbath represents the first attempt at incorporating into a full length South Mountain study all the different facets of modern military history scholarship. In doing so, it succeeds admirably.

One can presumably write an exhaustive book covering the fighting at each gap alone [and indeed this has already been done for Crampton's Gap with Timothy Reese's Sealed with Their Lives], but the moderate level of complexity of Jordan's narrative is entirely appropriate to a campaign or battle study of the standard 300-400 page length. The action unfolds at brigade and regimental scales, and a full picture of the rugged topography and how it helped and hindered both sides is conveyed. Supporting the text is a good set of maps exhibiting the the amount of detail in unit placement and terrain features one comes to expect from books of this type and especially from this publisher.

Jordan's perspectives on writing history are refreshing.  It is arguable whether the Special Order 191 controversy should be considered beyond the scope of a South Mountain study, but is pleases me when authors (like Jordan does here) recognize they have little to add to an already exhaustively documented subject and elect instead to use the footnotes to refer readers elsewhere. Many readers also prefer authors to take definite stands on controversial issues. Jordan is judicious is this regard.  Some established views are confirmed.  For instance, he is deeply critical of JEB Stuart's failure to properly screen all likely approaches to the South Mountain passes (a view that is supported by the evidence regardless of how moderated the opinions of contemporaries became over time), and it would be perverse not to be impressed by the stand of Rodes's brigade at Turner's Gap.  On the other hand, the author demonstrates no interest in perpetuating either the simplistic standard view of McClellan's generalship or the psychological issues so many writers pin on Little Mac.  The question of whether federal corps commander Jesse Reno was killed by friendly or hostile fire is handled by the presentation of both cases, leaving the reader to decide. What is rejected is any evidence that Reno was a "fragging" victim.

In a later chapter relating the thoughts of soldiers and civilians on the meaning of the battle, the author makes the trenchant point that the South Mountain battle represented McClellan's clearest offensive victory to date, offensive being the key word in the sense that driving Confederates from strong positions (regardless of local numerical superiority) meant far more to the men than simply successfully holding ground against attack. Giving South Mountain a status rarely approached by later writers and historians, many veterans indicated in their own writings a symbolic renewal of martial confidence after South Mountain, a tonic to the demoralization of the Seven Days and 2nd Bull Run. On the other side, as one might expect after defeat, Confederate military and civilian observers tended to underplay the significance (and certainly any symbolic meaning) of the fights at the gaps, naturally stressing the successes of individual stands and the overwhelming numbers of the enemy.

Unholy Sabbath is clearly the cream of the crop when it comes to South Mountain studies. With its all around appealing presentation, even Civil War readers not typically interested in campaign or battle studies will likely find themselves drawn in by the writing.  If bookshelf space exists for only one South Mountain book, the choice should be Brian Jordan's Unholy Sabbath.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Drew,

    Many thanks for your kind review of Jordan's new release. We appreciate all you do for the Civil War community, publishers, authors, and readers alike.

    -- Ted Savas


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