Friday, April 3, 2020

Booknotes: The Cornfield

New Arrival:
The Cornfield: Antietam's Bloody Turning Point by David A. Welker (Casemate, 2020).

If I'm correct, The Cornfield is David Welker's first Civil War book since the 2001 publication of his Chantilly battle study Tempest at Ox Hill. If memory serves, I recall thinking at the time that the author was a more than capable writer of battle history and his version was the better of the two major Chantilly studies.

But is there a great need for another Cornfield narrative? According to the description: The Cornfield: Antietam's Bloody Turning Point "tells for the first time the full story of the exciting struggle to control “the Cornfield,” the action on which the costly battle of Antietam turned, in a thorough yet readable narrative. It explains what happened in Antietam’s Cornfield and why. Because Federal and Confederate forces repeatedly traded control of the spot, the fight for the Cornfield is a story of human struggle against fearful odds, of men seeking to do their duty, of simply trying to survive." I know it is almost routine marketing strategy, but I always cringe when I read claims that a particular book "tells for the first time" the story of a topic most would consider already exhaustively treated, but there's always room for new interpretation.

In hinting at how Welker's account differentiates itself from the pack, the description states that "many of the included firsthand accounts have never been revealed to modern readers and never have they been assembled in such a comprehensive, readable form." Of an even more intriguing nature, it is claimed that the book "offers new perspectives that may be controversial—particularly to those who accept unchallenged the views of the battle's first historians and its generals, who too often sought to shape our understanding for their own purposes—but which are certain to change modern understanding of how the battle of Antietam was fought and its role in American history." I was hoping there would be an introduction section that would provide us with some hints regarding the nature of some of these new perspectives but no dice.

Finally, the book doesn't present the Cornfield fighting in a vacuum. It also "offers fresh views of the battle as a whole, arguing that it turned on events in the Cornfield because of two central facts — Union General George McClellan’s linear thinking demanded that the Cornfield must be taken and, because of this, the repeated failure by the generals McClellan charged with fulfilling this task created a self-reinforcing cycle of disaster that doomed the Union's prospects for success—at the cost of thousands of lives."

In close support of the author's extensive Cornfield narrative is an impressive-looking set of troop movement and terrain maps, the kind of battlefield cartography that doesn't skimp on showing practically every ear of corn, fence post, and furrow in the field. The bibliography is of expected size and breadth for a book of this type, and there is pretty extensive adjudication of source conflicts in the endnotes. If you are an Antietam person, this looks to be well deserving of your consideration.

12 comments:

  1. Welker's book on Chantilly was superb. I agree would be nice if talented historians like this turned their attention to battles not covered instead of takes on well trod subjects. If Welker is an Eastern Theater guy...Mechanicsville anyone? Malvern Hill? Curt Thomasco

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    1. We have the same hopes. With all the Petersburg attention in recent years the Peninsula is clearly becoming the most singularly neglected of the major eastern theater campaigns. It has to get its moment sometime, right?

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    2. This gets us back to the persistent rumor that O'Reilly is (forever) working on a Malvern Hill study and Krick the Junior is (forever) working on Gaines's Mill. I understand Drew's point in his discussion about Hess's Vicksburg assaults book coming out this Fall but for those of us who have to buy these volumes I for one wish these authors would cover material that hasn't been done instead of - within only months - cranking out duplication. Frankly, with SIU Press's essay collection this past several months and Tim Smith's book earlier this year, couldn't Hess have found untrodden ground?

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    3. To be fair, Hess has told me in the past that he works on many projects concurrently and its entirely possible he didn't know about Smith until his own version was far advanced.

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  2. Well Put John. Besides the Penisula actions you mention the other untrodden ground on my wish list is ANY Red River Campaign battle. Earthen Walls on Fort DeRussy is an excellent book but it is the only one I know that covers any battle in the campaign besides the multitued of overview studies. Interestingly I am organizing Chicago CWRT's trip for 2023 (Organizer gets to pick the trip) I am hoping that we will be able to get Garry Joyner, et al to lead our tour so I am sure some of our members will pick their brains on what is in the works on Mansfield, Pleasant Hill, Yellow Bayou, etc. Another area of late that I think Drew got me focused on is the BEGINNING stages of the Knoxville Campaign. What treatments exist on the Knoxville Campaign alwasy seem to start with Longstreet's arrival on the scene. I know getting to Knoxville was relatively bloodless but it would nice to see an operational study detailing Burnsides movements to Knoxville before Longstreets arrival during the Summer of 1863. Also some areas of Price's 1864 campaign could be flushed out some more. I know Westport and Pilot's Knob are covered but there were other engagements along the way. Lastly and more of an Atlas question but I have embarked on a year long project resorting to creating a homemade atlas along with ABT's maps probably a couple of hundred excellent maps to create a hardcopy. A really wish list project would be if someone would create a detailed Atlas of all the Petersburg Campaigns (8 or 9). The project would probably be a big undertaking for the likes of a Hal Jesperson, Bradley Gottfried, etc. but the result would be very worthwhile and is sorely needed in my opinion to sort out all of the incredibly complex details, manuevers and attacks of a 9 month - 9 phase campaign. Curt Thomasco

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    1. His writing partner (Steve Bounds) passed away a few years ago, but I always hoped that Curtis Milbourn would write some standalone studies of Red River Campaign battles. The articles the pair wrote were great. I am looking forward to seeing what kind of Mansfield-Pleasant Grove-Pleasant Hill coverage Frazier will be able to fit into his series.

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    2. Hi Curtis,

      Brad Gottfried has finished The Spotsylvania campaign down to the river crossing, and is working on Petersburg.

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  3. Also I am really looking forward to SIU's study on the SIEGE of Vicksburg. I really hope they go into detail about not just Coonskin Foster and the 3rd Redan Mine Explosion....but all the detail in the rear along the Big Black River and Mechanicsburg, MS where low level fighting was occuring to ensure Johnston did not pursue relieving the Siege. Terry Winschel last year echoed Ed Bearss that not enough attention is paid to those units holding the line to prevent any attempts to lift the Siege of Vicksburg. Curt Thomasco

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    1. Curtis: Interestingly enough, Tim Smith has a book on the siege in the pipeline at Kansas. I actually have no problem with an essay collection and a book-length treatment coming out at the same time - they're different animals. Two books on the same subject within 6 months is another situation. And I appreciate Drew's point about Hess but information about Tim's book was available some time ago and Vicksburg is his "wheelhouse" - there are as-yet untouched areas on Hess's recent Atlanta campaign turf.

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  4. Sorry for the incessant posts but 1 other wish list is Craig Swain and his website "To the Sound of the Guns" He is such an expert on a number of combined arms operations - particularly the Siege of Charleston. If there was ever anyone to write a detailed day by day account of all the raids, skimishes, vessel sinkings, bombardment actions it would be him. He is fantastic at culling resources to provide you with Day 317 of the Siege and what happened that day as a bonus he takes old maps and overlays troop movements. Really great stuff. Curt Thomasco

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    1. I also would like to see Craig repurpose all of his incredible artillery unit research into a reference book. It's always easy to impose big projects onto others!

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    2. I second Drew's and your "volunteering" Craig for a project. Personally I think he'd do a great job of giving us something we've never had - a good study of field artillery tactics and their evolution during the War. Something similar to Hess's infantry tactics book.

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