Friday, August 5, 2022

Booknotes: When Hell Came to Sharpsburg

New Arrival:
When Hell Came to Sharpsburg: The Battle of Antietam and its Impact on the Civilians Who Called it Home by Steven Cowie (Savas Beatie, 2022).

Of course, we're all familiar with, either by reading or by reputation, the host of fine books that document in great detail the military history of the 1862 Maryland Campaign and its climactic battle fought along Antietam Creek. We might be getting the best treatment yet when the second volume of Scott Hartwig's campaign history is eventually published (according to the author, the final touches were submitted earlier this year). The opening chapters of Steven Cowie's When Hell Came to Sharpsburg offer their own summary of the battle, albeit with special focus placed on the fighting's effects on the local townspeople and their property both inside Sharpsburg and among the many outlying farms that would lend their family names to notorious scenes of death and destruction.

As its subtitle suggests, Cowie's Antietam book concentrates on the aftermath of the great battle in its myriad of consequences to soldiers, civilians, property owners, and the landscape itself. When Hell Came to Sharpsburg "investigates how the battle and opposing armies wreaked emotional, physical, and financial havoc on the people of Sharpsburg."

The field hospitals that took care of the wounded of both sides are examined in one chapter. Another delves into the supply problems the Army of the Potomac experienced after the battle, a crisis that some believe significantly handcuffed McClellan's ability to pursue Lee's retreating army. The destructive effects of the battle on the town, nearby farms, and the natural and improved landscapes in general are surveyed in great detail. Also documented in the book is the Antietam disease outbreak that was a direct result of the battle's ecological fallout that, among other things, contaminated groundwater and facilitated airborne disease transmission.

The long-term effects of the battle and the struggles to rebuild are also addressed at length. Local resources were appropriated by both sides and those needed to be replenished. The struggles of local citizens to obtain federal compensation for their property losses are discussed in a chapter exploring widespread local frustrations with the Act of July 4, 1864 claims process. In the book, Cowie "carefully and meticulously follows the fortunes of individual families like the Mummas, Roulettes, Millers, and many others—ordinary folk thrust into harrowing circumstances—and their struggle to recover from their unexpected and often devastating losses." The final chapter looks at, among other issues (one of those being military cemetery interment), the Bowman Act of 1883 and how it provided Sharpsburg citizens with another opportunity to press their claims.

More from the description: Cowie's research "unearthed a trove of previously unused archival accounts and examined scores of primary sources such as letters, diaries, regimental histories, and official reports." Enhancing the text and its documentation, all of the chapters are "(p)acked with explanatory footnotes, original maps, and photographs." At 500+ pages this volume is far beyond a casual read, but it looks like anyone with a special interest in Antietam will want to add it to the collection.


  1. Thanks Drew. This is one of the most important books we have published. While it is detailed, I think anyone with a serious interest in The Maryland Campaign of 1862 in general, and Antietam in particular, will want it in their library,

  2. Just finished this book. I was amazed about the massive impact the battle had on Sharpsburg. Sad that the Fed govt made things so difficult for claims..


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