Saturday, November 24, 2018

A Fierce Glory

A Review of Justin Martin's New Antietam Book

Second perhaps only to Gettysburg, Antietam remains a highly studied and quite pertinent battle of the American Civil War. Waged on September 17, 1862, the fierce clash in western Maryland became the bloodiest day in American history--inflicting more American casualties than D-Day eight decades later. The literary canon chronicling the Maryland Campaign is a long and distinguished one. Historians Ezra Carman, James Murfin, Stephen Sears, Tom Clemens, and Scott Hartwig have each left their left valuable imprints and observations on Antietam's story. All that being said, one might be left to wonder what else could be written about this momentous campaign.

This is ultimately the question author Justin Martin attempts to answer. Stemming from his previous works on poet Walt Whitman and renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, readers should be immediately aware that this is not a typical analytic strategy study. Only three maps can be found in the book. If anything, Martin's A Fierce Glory is a cultural study of the engagement that engulfed Sharpsburg and how it molded people, society, and politics.

Balancing out the narrative of combat itself is the approachable story of Abraham Lincoln's struggle to maintain the fragile Union and his simultaneous attempts to slowly dismantle slavery. Martin presents a fair portrait of an imperfect man attempting to achieve great tasks in the process. This story line serves as a fitting prologue to the broader military summations that follow. Lincoln's time in Washington was consumed by woe and death. The killing of his trusted military aid-de-camp Elmer Ellsworth in 1861 and the death of Willie Lincoln in 1862 were only a sampling of the tragedies to befall Lincoln during his tenure as commander-in-chief. Amidst all this heartache, Lincoln sought refuge at the Old Soldier's Home on the outskirts of the city. Here, the president further pondered the emancipation of the South's four million slaves. The Maryland Campaign had the potential to sway Lincoln's decision making as he navigated troubled political waters.

Diehard Civil War buffs seeking new, revelatory information on the bitter military struggle that ensued are unlikely to find much new here. Martin's comparatively concise 250 page work is overshadowed by the meatier studies done by the likes of Sears and Hartwig. Many of the highlighted anecdotes have been culled from post war reminiscences and digitized regimental histories. The book, however, is well suited for general audiences wishing to gain an introductory overview of this important moment of the 1860s. Undergraduates in my Civil War course would enjoy a book such as this. The story is presented in a way that is highly personable and digestible. Martin's mission is not to convey every conceivable element of a military engagement but rather interpret a searing, human experience.

While far from comprehensive in its scope, the book nonetheless shines in its visceral descriptions of the battle. Some opening description of the fight's initial phases in and around the Miller Cornfield come to mind:

The battle was getting frantic. The topmost section of the field fairly crawled with soldiers; they were in the corn, the surrounding pastures and meadows, and the woods that girded the open spaces. The sound had grown deafening. There were the pops of muskets, the peculiar whistling of bullets, the clip when they hit a cornstalk, the crack of striking wood, the thud of connecting with a body. Cannon fire poured in from all directions. The heavy shells screamed and sizzled, clattered in the treetops; shrapnel plopped in the soft earth or ricocheted with a metallic zing. "If all the stone and brick houses of Broadway should tumble at once the roar and rattle could hardly be greater," Alpheus Williams, a Union general, would recall of the cornfield fighting (Martin, 45-46).

Such visual descriptions of the fray carry well throughout the book's text. Elsewhere in the book, additional cultural context is offered through the themes of religion, mourning, and the infancy of battlefield photography. Slavery also comes to the forefront of the conversation, including Robert E. Lee's association with the institution, which has so often been misinterpreted by Civil War aficionados.

There were two elements of Martin's book I found particularly refreshing. Firstly, he did not succumb to the perennial military bashing of Federal commander George McClellan. In comparison to the caution he exhibited in earlier campaigns, the general is depicted as comparatively aggressive in his approach to the battlefield and his plans to resume the fight on September 19. While McClellan exhibited his fair share of despicable traits in his lifetime, his performance at Antietam should not be considered among them, Martin asserts.

Secondly, readers can truly tell that the author spent much time hiking the battlefield. He has a keen sense of the terrain and cites in the end notes park ranger tours he attended while conducting research. He traveled to the New York Public Library and National Archives as his quest for information continued. This extra effort pays off in the long run.

A Fierce Glory is a highly recommended read for anybody with a fledgling interest in the Battle of Antietam. Martin reminds us that battles are not merely the stories of right wheels and left flanks but of common individuals shaped by the dramatic circumstances of their times.

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