Thursday, January 3, 2019

Review - "Visual Antietam Vol. 1: Ezra Carman’s Antietam Through Maps and Pictures: Dawn to Dunker Church" by Brad Butkovich

[VISUAL ANTIETAM VOL. 1: Ezra Carman’s Antietam Through Maps and Pictures: Dawn to Dunker Church by Ezra Carman, ed. and cartography by Brad Butkovich (Historic Imagination, 2018). Softcover, 26 maps, 63 B&W photographs, notes, OB, bibliography, index. 230 pp. ISBN:9781732597600. $19.95]

Though it certainly wasn't always the case, most Civil War readers at this point need little in the way of introduction to Brevet Brigadier General Ezra Carman's Maryland Campaign manuscript. Written using official documents and reports, available publications, and eyewitness accounts (often the product of solicited correspondence with officers from both sides), Carman's now more than century old The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 impressively presaged the modern Civil War campaign history. Carman himself participated in the Maryland Campaign as colonel of the 13th New Jersey (Gordon's Brigade/Williams's Division/Twelfth Corps/Army of the Potomac), but he had extensive personal connections to the Antietam battle during the postwar period as well. In addition to working on the manuscript, Carman served on the Antietam battlefield board and dedicated himself to preserving the military landscape around Sharpsburg. Long valued by scholars and park officials, his long-unpublished archive manuscript finally reached the wider Civil War reading audience it deserved this century with two separate editing projects—Joseph Pierro's The Maryland Campaign of September 1862: Ezra A. Carman's Definitive Study of the Union and Confederate Armies at Antietam (2008) and Tom Clemens's The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 (published in three volumes between 2010 and 2017). Drawing selectively from Carman's campaign history, Brad Butkovich's Visual Antietam series represents a unique attempt to follow Carman's classic text in maps and photographs.

With copies and reviews of the Pierro and Clemens editions available in abundance, there remains little point here in repeat discussion of the substance of Carman's text. In his own work, Butkovich avoids overlapping effort on the text side of interpretation. Seeing no need to try to duplicate the already thorough annotation and commentary efforts of Pierro and Clemens, he adds only a handful of his own footnotes in Visual Antietam. However, it should be mentioned that the earlier publications address the entire campaign manuscript while Butkovich's own treatment (a planned trilogy) focuses only on the Antietam battle. Thus, Butkovich begins his first volume with Carman's chapter 13, skips 14, then proceeds through chapters 15 and 16. Carman's Antietam sections could conceivably fit inside a single volume of reasonable size, but Butkovich quite sensibly (given his hope that readers will take his creations into the field) sees real value in portability.

As the full title suggests, it's the visual aids that make Butkovich's edition most noteworthy and valuable to readers of all backgrounds. The 26 maps in Volume 1—all intricately detailed, multi-layered creations by the author—comprehensively cover the fighting that occurred on the northern sector of the Antietam battlefield between the September 16 prelude and the following day's events at Dunker Church. The base map is a topographical representation of the battlefield using elevation contour lines. Overlying this is a full-featured rendering of the natural and built environments (to include roads, trails, buildings, fence lines, trees, crops, orchards, haystacks, and rocky outcroppings). The final map layer traces small-unit military movements and positions at the scale of individual companies, regiments, and artillery batteries. It's an impressive effort. When all three volumes are eventually published, readers will likely possess one of the best Antietam battle atlases available.

Every left-facing page of text is accompanied on the right by a full-page photograph or map. The former are either archival images (largely recognizable ones) or the more numerous original photographs. Like the maps the modern Antietam viewshed photos are closely tied to the text, but Butkovich also does something conceptually interesting with these images. The author employed a skilled photographer to snap images of the battlefield vistas at the same time of day (and also presumably during the same month) that the historical events occurred. Presented in full-page, landscape format (set on end to fit the page dimensions) these well-composed photographs achieve the desired effect.

The book also has orders of battle excerpted from Carman's compiled originals. Though more chrome elements would have made the volume much more costly, some wishlist items might be color maps and high-res photography. Color contrast isn't generally essential to creating meaningful cartography, but Butkovich's very densely-detailed maps would have benefited from color's ability to help the eye more readily distinguish between constituent features (in particular, units on top of busy terrain) at a glance*.

It's understandable that Antietam students might question the need for yet another published version of the Carman manuscript, but the quality and usefulness of the original maps and photographs present in Butkovich's abbreviated edition along with the skillful manner by which both are closely wedded to the text mark Visual Antietam as a valuable work that stands tall on its own. Though a more difficult proposition given the lack of ready-made narrative, it would also be interesting to see this same general approach applied to less familiar battles.

* - I am only reviewing the paperback version, but it should be mentioned that the digital (Kindle) edition does have color maps.

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