Thursday, September 28, 2023

Review - " I Dread the Thought of the Place: The Battle of Antietam and the End of the Maryland Campaign " by Scott Hartwig

[I Dread the Thought of the Place: The Battle of Antietam and the End of the Maryland Campaign by D. Scott Hartwig (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023). Hardcover, 21 maps, 5 figures, appendix section, notes, source essay, index. Pages main/total:xv,781/975. ISBN:978-1-4214-4659-2. $54.95]

With the release of D. Scott Hartwig's I Dread the Thought of the Place: The Battle of Antietam and the End of the Maryland Campaign, one of the most highly anticipated Civil War titles of not only 2023 but recent memory is finally in the hands of eager readers. Just over a decade ago, Hartwig's To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign from September 3 to September 16 (2012) took readers through the initial invasion, the investment and siege of Harpers Ferry, the Battle of South Mountain, and finally to the doorstep of the war's "Bloodiest Day." At nearly 1,800 pages of inspired writing, these two volumes form what is clearly the most thorough modern micro-history of the campaign and battle.

In breadth and depth, I Dread the Thought of the Place does not disappoint. Those who read and collect books of this type are very demanding, and this volume surely meets, even exceeds, most expectations. One might even imagine, if he were alive today, that this modern masterpiece would bring a tear of joy to distinguished predecessor Ezra Carman's eye. In authoritative fashion, the narrative's action phases seamlessly shift from Union right (the Miller Cornfield, Nicodemus Heights, East & West Woods, and Sunken Road) to center (Middle Bridge, Cemetery Hill, and Cemetery Ridge) and, finally, to the climactic left (Rohrback Bridge, the 9th Corps assault, and A.P. Hill's Confederate counterattack). The author's skill at writing immersive tactical narrative, both descriptive and analytical, ranks among the very best in the literature. Seemingly every regiment and battery that actively participated in the battle has its story told in detail appropriate to its contribution. The author manages to convey all of that micro-tactical information without causing the reader to lose grasp of the larger picture in each sector and across the battlefield. A strong measure of attention is paid to marching, maneuvering, and fighting formations employed at the regimental, brigade, and divisional levels, and Hartwig's assessments of how many of those deployment decisions, good and bad, fostered victory or defeat during key moments of the battle display uncommon insight. The battle is also deeply humanized in the text, as Hartwig writes with earnest pathos about the personal experiences of those on both ends of the muzzle. In addition to documenting the battlefield's horrors and heroics as revealed in firsthand letters, diaries, and reports from both sides, the narrative also evokes compassion for those forced to make difficult split-second decisions under the most trying of physical and psychological conditions.

Hartwig's expert knowledge of the mid-nineteenth century topography of the Antietam battlefield and the manner in which he conveys that essential information in his text descriptions of the fighting are something to behold. Even very experienced readers already deeply familiar with the natural and man-made features of the Antietam battlefield will likely find themselves, after finishing this book, with enhanced knowledge and appreciation of the landcape's nuances and how those affected the course and results of the fighting. The book's 21 maps, all fine creations from prolific modern military cartographer Hal Jesperson, heartily assist Hartwig's vivid writing in creating for the reader a comprehensive mental atlas of the battle. These maps, as the publisher's description notes, represent combat intervals ranging from twenty minutes to two hours. If any complaint can be lodged it would be that some maps among the latter variety, the longer intervals, are stretching it a bit in terms of how much back and forth action over the same ground can be suitably conveyed in a single static representation.

With approximately three-quarters of the volume's nearly 800-page main narrative devoted to the battle itself, the sheer number of trenchant leadership quality, unit action, and event observations and analyses (going both with and against convention) are far too large to list let alone discuss in full here, so a small selection will have to suffice.

In largely persuasive fashion, Hartwig agrees with those who maintain that Army of the Potomac First Corps commanding general Joseph Hooker's wounding was a major turning point in the course of the battle (more on that later), as his dynamic leadership up until that moment had succeeded in sweeping the Confederate left thoroughly enough to place it on the brink of collapse. As one example of the book highlighting underappreciated units or formations on that front, the author lauds the contributions of Second Division/Twelfth Corps, led by George Sears Greene, which played a key role in both seizing much of the West Woods and in repulsing several strong Confederate counterattacks with great slaughter. Greene and his men did much to ensure that the worst fears of Second Corps commander Edwin Sumner never came close to fruition.

According to Hartwig, the activities of Stonewall Jackson on September 17 are very poorly documented, and this is represented by how surprisingly little the wing commander appears in the text. The author goes much further down the order of battle to find those he deems chiefly responsible for saving the Confederate left. In Hartwig's informed opinion (persuasively expressed), it was the quick thinking, deft maneuvering, and hard hitting displayed by a strong group of Confederate brigade leaders, many of whom were let down by their respective division commanders, who did most to achieve stalemate in the north. Of course, Confederate division leadership on the left was not all bad, and Lafayette McLaws is singled out for his front-saving shattering of John Sedgwick's Second Corps division in the West Woods. Though the Confederates successfully managed to fight their opponents to a standstill, the author does insightfully question whether those results might have been achieved at far less human cost. While Lee's army was heavily outnumbered overall, relatively even numbers confronted each other in several places along the battlefield's northern front, and Hartwig maintains that those moments were not exploited by the Confederates using anything like an efficient expenditure of soldier lives. The frequent result of reflexive counterattacks and other costly offensive maneuvers employed there was unnecessarily catastrophic casualties that essentially annihilated entire layers of leadership and reduced units and entire formations to shadows of their former selves.

The book's detailed descriptions of fighting on left, right, and center all properly and quite strikingly call attention to the oft-quoted "Artillery Hell" nature of the battle. Hartwig's text repeatedly reveals moments in the battle when long-range frontal and enfilading fire coming from rifled Union batteries expertly positioned across Antietam Creek had a major hindering effect on Confederate maneuvers and deployments. Even so, the Union long arm, for all its contributions, inevitably had lapses of its own during the battle. As one example, Hartwig opines that Union forces failed to achieve a decisive breakthrough at the Sunken Road not from Second Corps division commander Israel Richardson's untimely mortal wounding but rather from insufficient tactical artillery support. On the other side, in response to Union assaults against Jackson's wing, the Confederates struggled to mass their own artillery; however, the book duly credits Robert E. Lee and his other wing commander, James Longstreet, with success in concentrating guns along the center. With exhausted infantry reserves, their patchwork artillery line was key to holding the Confederate center. More generally, Lee, who skillfully dispatched both arriving reinforcements and quiet sector defenders to the most dangerously threatened parts of the battlefield, is justifiably commended for his clearheaded responses to the mounting crises of the day.

Opposite Lee and Longstreet, Union cavalry and horse artillery crossed Middle Bridge, and the threat they posed was considerably enhanced that mid-afternoon through subsequent reinforcement by Fifth Corps Regulars. Hartwig is deeply impressed with the performance of the Regulars who, though relatively small in number, managed to dangerously threaten the Confederate center. Indeed, the author is enamored with the prospects of what they might have achieved had McClellan and Fifth Corps commander Fitz John Porter supported them with reinforcement instead of pulled them back (though Hartwig is careful to also point out that he doesn't believe that piercing the center at that moment would have led to the complete destruction of Lee's army, rather just a more clear-cut, morale-boosting tactical victory).

Hartwig, like most others today, does not put much faith in the truthfulness of Porter's alleged staying of McClellan's hand with the dire admonition "Remember, General, I command the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic," but he does powerfully assert that the army high command mishandled its reserves on the 17th. One potential source of support for the center was Sixth Corps, but those reserve troops were used to shore up the Union right. McClellan is not solely censured for this, as Hartwig attaches a large share of the blame to Sumner. High on Hooker's attitude, judgment, and performance, Hartwig laments that Hooker's wounding, and to a lesser extent Mansfield's mortal wound, rendered a panicky and unreasonably pessimistic Sumner the de facto voice of the Union right. Sumner's determination that the Union right was on the brink of collapse decisively swayed McClellan toward sending the Sixth Corps reinforcements to bolster that front, a decision that robbed the army of a powerful option for backing promising prospects in the center or strengthening Ninth Corps on the left.

McClellan was initially pleased by Ninth Corps's performance (at least before his 1863 battle report, which was heavily critical of Burnside, was written), and Hartwig also gives Burnside and Cox fairly high marks. The text praises the corps leadership for overcoming a tough, rugged defensive position and quickly concentrating the divisions on the west bank for the climactic assault. As for alleged lateness in getting to that point, the author blames McClellan and his staff for poor reconnaissance of the fords and for micromanaging inefficient placement of corps camp sites the night before the attack. Hartwig isn't quite as high on Cox's tactical performance (both during the attack and in responding to A.P. Hill's counterattack) as Carman was, but his criticisms of Cox (ex. not providing enough flank protection for the corps assault) are applied judiciously.

With Ninth Corps gearing up for its initially promising yet ultimately unsuccessful attack, most Antietam books are starting to wind down. However, Hartwig's still has 300 pages to go. Porter's adept exploitation of ANV artillery chief William Nelson Pendleton's mishandling of the Confederate rear guard at Boteler's Ford along with A.P. Hill's blunting of Porter's pursuit at Shepherdstown are both covered at some length, Hartwig also explores in great detail, on both personal and more general levels, the physical suffering and post-battle care of the battlefield's wounded, the psychological suffering of survivors (a topic much less commonly addressed in books like this), and the impact of the battle on the local civilian population (including their struggles when it came to getting financial compensation from the government for their property losses).

Formal federal emancipation and its close connections to the 1862 Maryland Campaign have already been exhaustively addressed in the modern literature, and in the book Hartwig dutifully provides a solid synthesis of current scholarly opinion on the topic. He does disagree with those who argue that the combination of Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation marked the turning point of the war, maintaining instead that it was just one among many turning points on the road to ultimate military victory, restoration of the Union, and destruction of slavery. In terms of gross assessment of McClellan's actions during the battle, the subsequent pursuit, and his behind the scenes politicking (in likely partnership with General Porter), Hartwig's interpretations firmly align with the more traditional ones, leavened only in a few places with some concessions to elements of the budding revisionist trend that has gained at least some wider traction of late.

The volume's examination of the straggling issue is fascinating, both in addressing the sheer scale of the problem and in documenting the pace at which Lee's army regained its strength. Though some estimates are as high as ten thousand officers and men, Hartwig believes that it is reasonable to suggest that six to eight thousand stragglers returned to the Army of Northern Virginia's ranks by the 18th. However, the near annihilation at Antietam of entire units and the catastrophic losses incurred there in officer leadership largely mitigated the immediate positive impact of that manpower infusion, and Hartwig estimates that there was a full three-week period during which Lee's army was critically vulnerable after it recrossed into Virginia. While the author is somewhat sympathetic to the difficulties involved in quickly reorienting the Army of the Potomac's logistical apparatus to western Maryland, he nevertheless sees McClellan's adoption of a defensive stance covering the Potomac crossings to be an exercise in very poor military judgment on the army commander's part and a major missed opportunity.

The study's supplemental material is very strong. In addition to a brief primer on small-unit formations and tactics (that those without much of a background in those areas can readily use as a reading aid), the appendix section contains fully annotated orders of battle and September 17 strength & loss tables. There's also an add-on casualty table for the Shepherdstown battle. The source essay informs readers where the full bibliography can be found on the publisher's website.

Given how often major Civil War campaigns are revisited in the literature, one should hesitate to call anything truly definitive, but a project like this certainly evokes that kind of label. Tastes and trends in reading, writing, and publishing are always changing, and there's absolutely no guarantee that any future author of Hartwig's caliber and background might attempt to best this truly monumental history of the 1862 Maryland Campaign and Battle of Antietam. Taken together, To Antietam Creek and I Dread the Thought of the Place indisputably form the new gold standard treatment of a Civil War military history topic second only to Gettysburg in the amount of ink spilled over it. Some awards are almost certainly in the offing.


  1. Drew: Wonderful and comprehensive review of this sprawling 1,000+ page (including 55-page online bibliography) book. One of the finest Civil War books I have ever read. A few comments. Hartwig does criticize Burnside for doing inadequate reconnaissance before his attack on the Rohrback Bridge with the caveat that he was misled by federal engineers inexplicably misidentifying Snavely’s Ford. He also greatly credits A.P. Hills’ performance at Antietam and then at Shepherdstown, which many would argue were Hills’ finest moments in the war before his later slide into chronic illness and mediocrity. I appreciate your comments on the 20 maps (plus one for Shepherdstown), which otherwise are quite good. While I am loath to defend McClellan for many reasons, especially given his August 1863 revisionist history, Steven Cowie in his recent When Hell Came To Sharpsburg book points out a number of facts hindering the AOP, at least initially, from pursuing the ANV, which are not in in Hartwig’s book. Also, given Cowie’s work, I think Hartwig gives a slightly rosier outlook on the ability of Sharpsburg citizens to recover from their losses than does Cowie. Hartwig does cite the Cowie book in footnotes (as well as contributing a nice blurb to the dust jacket). In fairness, Hartwig’s book was probably in the latter stages of editing when the Cowie book came out so significant changes to the text were not in the cards at that point. It was worth the 11-year wait between Volume 1 and Volume 2 of this excellent work. There have been some great books on South Mountain and Antietam. From my perspective, Hartwig’s volumes now stand as the classic accounts. Thanks for the insightful review.

  2. Drew: This is (as always) an insightful and thorough review. I have only read scattered portions thus far but based on those I concur with your assessment. One area I found persuasive is Hartwig's analysis of McClellan's (customary) exaggerated calculation of his opponent's strength and his failure to apply evidence he had at hand, in the context of the inaction on September 18. It's difficult to remove from one's mind McClellan's testimony before the JCCW in March 1863 - nearly a full 6 months after the battle - that on September 17 he faced 100,000 Confederate troops and was outnumbered by 25,000 - 30,000.

  3. Thanks for the great review. Look forward to reading this. Antietam has always fascinated me and Hartwig is a master of it.


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