Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Review - "Their Maryland: The Army of Northern Virginia From the Potomac Crossing to Sharpsburg in September 1862" by Alexander Rossino

[Their Maryland: The Army of Northern Virginia From the Potomac Crossing to Sharpsburg in September 1862 by Alexander B. Rossino (Savas Beatie, 2021). Hardcover, 9 maps, photographs, illustrations, footnotes, appendix section (A-F), bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiv,262/323. ISBN:978-1-61121-557-1. $32.95]

Pointing out that the existing volume of published Maryland Campaign and Antietam battle literature is second only to that of Gettysburg is stating the obvious, and no one is foolish enough to argue that the subject matter is understudied. However, major avenues of interpretation go in and out of style, evidence (new and old) is routinely being critically reviewed with fresh eyes, and emerging branches of history continue to engage with existing writing in ways little emphasized before or perhaps overlooked altogether. All of those factors and more ensure that coverage of any Civil War military history topic remains ever evolving and never truly settled. Created in that tenor of questioning prior assumptions and crafting alternative interpretations from existing lines of research and reasoning is Alexander Rossino's Their Maryland: The Army of Northern Virginia From the Potomac Crossing to Sharpsburg in September 1862. Based on primary sources, Rossino's chapters offer clearly different views on a number of topics. Each discussion also displays fruitful engagement with the best and most influential secondary works, notable inclusions being Joseph Harsh's multi-volume treatment of the campaign, the classic Carman manuscript (which has been edited twice for publication since 2008, first by Joseph Pierro in a single volume and soon after in a trilogy from Tom Clemens), and the first volume of Scott Harwig's exhaustive new (and still in-progress) account of the Maryland Campaign. Not another narrative-format history, Rossino's book addresses specific issues and themes related to Lee and his army in Maryland mainly through standalone discussions, though there are some connective threads present.

Confederate reasoning behind launching a late-summer offensive into Maryland in 1862 has been well explored at this point, with many interpretations acknowledging the same list of factors but differing on degree of emphasis. Using contemporary and memoir source evidence from Lee's army, Rossino powerfully argues for renewed weight being placed on Lee's hopes and expectations that his army's presence in western Maryland would lead to a pro-secession uprising and a flood of recruits. Significantly, that recentralization of political goals helps render Lee's overwhelmingly criticized decision to stand and fight at Antietam more understandable, and perhaps more rationally defensible. Lee clearly believed the military and political rewards possible from a great victory on northern soil justified hazarding a pitched battle with a major river at his back. Critics benefiting from hindsight can certainly disagree with that, and many do, but what was behind Lee's motivation to fight behind Antietam Creek is undoubtedly more complex than personal ego, meeting honor's demands, or military hubris (though the general's assumption that McClellan's army was too disorganized and demoralized to threaten the southern army with outright annihilation proved dangerously misplaced). In a lot of ways, Lee's hopes and expectations in Maryland contemporaneously mirrored Braxton Bragg's in Kentucky, though each commander reacted to the disappointing results of their respective high-risk Border State campaigns in very different ways. Given how often the specter of foreign recognition is raised as a possible outcome of Lee winning a major victory on northern soil after his army's triumphal summer campaigns in Virginia, it is curious that questions regarding whether diplomatic possibilities influenced Lee's decision-making in Maryland are left out of Rossino's political analysis, which sticks to the domestic sphere.

The next chapter plots when and where all of the major pieces of the Army of the Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac. Carefully noted are the many differences between the author's interpretations and those of prior writers and historians. Of particular moment are the places in the essay's narrative of events where Rossino's fresh examination of the sources respectfully disagrees with Harsh and Hartwig. In similar vein, Rossino also charts the locations of the camping sites of Lee's army around Frederick, which also differ in many specifics from prior accounts. While not profoundly necessary knowledge needed to gain a better understanding of the campaign as a whole, such details are shown in the book to impact at least one enduring mystery—the one revolving around who lost Special Orders No. 191, exactly where the document was left, and what its carrier might have been doing when it happened. Rossino does not pin down any of that with certainty, but his meticulous analysis of the evidence arguably widens the range of possibilities (or, to think about it a different way, narrows some probabilities).

Rossino is largely correct in arguing that today's writers, partially taking their cue from period accounts written by either mocking Unionists or disgruntled Confederates, place too much emphasis on the hostile reaction of western Maryland's population to the presence of Lee's army and their rejection of southern paper currency in exchange for food, clothing, and supplies. Referencing many examples, the author convincingly reorients the reader toward a more accurate representation of a mixed popular urban and rural reaction to hosting Confederate soldiers, and he notes that many merchants accepted Confederate money willingly. What was clear to everyone at the time, however, was that there would be no significant enrollment of Maryland men into the ranks of Lee's depleted army. Obviously, the pro-Union stance of much of the population had a lot to do with that, but the author persuasively cites the transient nature of the army's presence in the state and its outward appearance as two additional major hindrances deserving of more attention. Rossino could easily have pointed to other examples from the war, such as Sterling Price's temporary stay in western Missouri in the fall of 1861 and Bragg's aforementioned experiences in Kentucky, as proof that proslavery Border States under pro-Union state governments would yield few recruits unless Confederate armies exhibited a proven ability to displace federal military occupation long term. On the other matter, the physically worn down and bedraggled appearance of the average Confederate soldier in Lee's army by September 1862 likely chilled the ardor of many a prospective Maryland recruit. Indeed, Rossino cites several Maryland accounts that linked the state of the individual soldier with that of his cause.

One chapter returns to a recent dispute over the famous photographic image of a dense column of Confederate infantry temporarily halted in the streets of Frederick. In it Rossino offers evidence to support the traditionally accepted September 1862 date over its July 1864 challenger. For example, the direction the column is facing ranks among the more compelling pieces of evidence cited in the essay. Interestingly, there is no mention in the essay of anyone having investigated whether the Rosen dry goods and clothing store (its large business sign prominently displayed in the image) has known dates of operation, though it is nearly impossible to imagine that someone has not done that digging already.

Lee very briefly considered a return to Virginia after South Mountain before changing his mind upon hearing of Harpers Ferry's imminent fall. There is some debate over what Lee considered his remaining options to be, but Rossino argues that the evidence strongly supports the conclusion that Lee, from the 15th onward, never seriously explored alternatives beyond concentrating his army for a defensive stand behind Antietam Creek. In response to the question of why Lee (the "King of Spades") then did not entrench his army for the coming onslaught, the author cites the lack of digging tools (supposing that much or most them were sent away with the army supply trains), the rocky soil, and the constant shifting around of formations (along with the late arrival of Jackson) prior to Hooker's opening attack on the morning of the 17th as reasonable answers.

Rossino also reexamines the primary sources to trace Lee's own movements and activities on the 17th. Emphasis is placed on the moments when, after the battle proved to be desperate in nature, Lee personally involved himself in the fighting at the tactical level. As elsewhere in the book, the author carefully notes (in either main text or footnotes) where his interpretations of events and their timing differ from others (for these matters in particular, the writings of Harsh and Carman). The chapter makes a strong case that Antietam should be added to the short list of Civil War battles where Lee dangerously exposed himself at the front in order to stave off disastrous breakthrough. The discussion is also accompanied by an informative series of maps that trace Lee's likely movements throughout the day as well the locations of events described in the text.

As one can readily see from the above, there is no single thread that runs through all of Rossino's chapters; however, it is clear that one of the chief goals of the exercise is to revive the role political objectives held in Lee's mind during the planning stages of the Maryland Campaign and the general's subsequent decision to offer battle at Sharpsburg. The book's in-depth revisitation of this subject will probably leave many readers surprised to learn (if Rossino's characterization of the trend is accurate) the degree to which political considerations have fallen out of favor in recent publications. Rossino also presents a reasonably sound argument for seeing Lee's unwavering decision to make a defensive stand at Antietam not as a foolhardy gesture based on a poor reading of his enemy, but rather as a decision in close alignment with the military and political considerations behind his launching of the campaign in the first place. Casual readers might get bogged down in the drawn-out argumentation involved in some chapters, but those familiar with the campaign's major studies, even if they disagree with some links in the author's chain of analysis, will recognize the formidable nature of Rossino's evidence-based challenges to influential views on a variety of issues related to Lee's army, Lee himself, and the Maryland Campaign as planned and fought.


  1. Drew - Thank you for the deeply thoughtful review of my book. I appreciate very much the time and effort you put into it. By way of response I'd like to offer a couple of thoughts. First, concerning the lack of comment on Lee and the possibility of European intervention. I uncovered no source which said that Lee ever took this into account. I'm sure he must have been aware of it because of conversations in the press and his interaction with Jefferson Davis. Lee himself, however, seems to have never placed any emphasis on drawing Great Britain and France into the war. The evidence did not take me in that direction therefore I did not comment. The lack of evidence showing that Lee may have take Europe into consideration is in fact one of those "notions" that I believe has been falsely injected into interpretations of Lee's motives for the campaign. If the general himself never commented on it then who are we as historians to say that it was a factor in his thinking? Sounds too speculative to me. The important thing is that Lee saw taking Maryland out of the Union as key to winning the war. This makes the Maryland Campaign a very different thing compared to the Gettysburg Campaign nine months later. Second, you are correct, I could have done more to place the campaign in the context of events in other border states. Unfortunately, I am not conversant in that literature, so I left it out. It could be a fruitful field of inquiry for an enterprising doctoral candidate.


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