BOOK REVIEW by Phil Andrade
This is a weighty book, not in the literal sense, since being barely more than 120 pages long it is easy to carry, and to read, too. The style and lay out are such as to convey the history of this dramatic and controversial campaign in a concise and effective manner.
Kevin Pawlak succeeds in providing disciplined and informative narrative history. This is what the Casemate Illustrated series purports to do, and here the task is fulfilled.
The first significant feature of the book conforms by offering a straightforward and essential timeline, showing the sequence of events in the three months between 22 July and 22 September 1862. Throughout the book there is an admirable balance between the discipline of the narrative and the author’s awareness of the need to stress the impact of these events on the people that lived, bled and died through those three intense and harrowing months of war.
The combination of profuse and varied illustrations – many of them contemporary photographs, along with famous paintings and sketches from the Library of Congress – is a pleasing aspect of the book. What is especially gratifying is the array of modern photographs from the author’s own collection. Here his knowledge, interest and discernment are apparent, as befits his experience as an Historic Site Manager and a Certified Battlefield Guide. The clear and well-coloured maps are sufficient in number to explain complex actions without overwhelming us. The broad sweep of the campaign is depicted, as are the tactical deployments on the battlefield.
There are large numbers of profiles provided, with the photos of high-ranking officers and some politicians – sometimes the two were conflated – attached to biographies which give all necessary information and occasional anecdotes that intrigue us. We read, for example, that Col Joseph Jackson Bartlett was recommended for promotion to Brigadier General on account of his “stellar performance in front of Crampton’s Gap”, and that he named his horse “Crampton” thereafter.
There are, it has to be said, many such books that provide us with this formula, but I can honestly say that there is “that little something extra” in Pawlak’s book that reaches out and piques our interest.
An important attribute of the book is the adherence to narrative history, telling us what happened, and when, and how and why. Few, if any, of the war’s campaigns have generated such heated controversy. It culminated in the bloodiest day of battle in American history and allowed Lincoln to pass the Emancipation Proclamation. The scope for argument about the conduct of commanders and subordinates is limitless. Despite this – or maybe because of it – Pawlak refrains from venturing his own opinions, allowing the narrative to speak for itself. He does, however, make occasional comments that have implications. One such, under a classic photograph of President Jefferson Davis, states:
“Davis believed he had a good military mind and personally intervened often into the affairs of generals.”
The implication in the word “believed” is exquisite!
The “Author’s collection” of photos contains a number showing houses which became important for various reasons. One such photo features Harrison Hall in Leesburg, an attractive stately building which “…offered a welcome reprieve for Lee and is staff. Next door still sits the home of Doctor Samuel Jackson who worked on Lee’s injured arms.”
This last reference to Lee’s painful condition after his accident demands some reflection. How far might Lee’s breath-taking courting of extreme risk in this campaign be attributable to the discomfort he was enduring? Pawlak does not opine here, but he manages, in passing, to stir our interest and nudges us into our own forays of research. This is a hallmark of good education.
The story of The Lost Order is given due prominence, with the photograph of the document and accompanying commentary occupying a full page, but, again, Pawlak does not enter the lists in the arguments about the culpability of those who lost it, or of those who might have failed to exploit the luck of its finding.
The chapter titled “Fire on the Mountains” is a triumph. It clarifies the course of the rather complex development of the fighting at the South Mountain Gaps and the concurrent struggle at Harper’s Ferry. It certainly exhibits Pawlak’s skill at using maps, photographs, profiles and anecdote to enrich the textual narrative. Here again he provides snippets of information that inspire further research by the reader. It came as a shock to read of the destruction of Drayton’s Brigade at Fox’s Gap. He cites casualty figures for this unit: from a complement of 1,300, it suffered a loss of 206 killed, 227 wounded and 210 missing. Those of us familiar with the statistical record of this war’s battles will be aware that, in the final reckoning, after allowing for those who died from their wounds, there were two fatalities for every five-surviving wounded. In this case, the number of the dead nearly equalled that of the wounded.
Convinced that this must be a mistake, I embarked on my own research and found accounts of the fighting that reveal just how fierce this South Mountain fighting was. Drayton’s Brigade was caught in a deadly predicament in the Old Sharpsburg Road at Fox’s Gap, caught in enfilade by the enemy, and also suffering from friendly fire. Most harrowing is the revelation that many of the wounded rebels were crushed to death by heavy Yankee ammunition wagons that surged forward in pursuit of a broken enemy. This might account for the grotesquely high proportion of fatalities. Had it not been for Pawlak’s book, I would never have realised, or even imagined, that the Battle of South Mountain had its own version of Antietam’s Bloody Lane. Pawlak propels us into a trajectory of our own research, and that’s to be admired.
In his account of the great battle of the 17 September, the author divides the narrative into two sections, the first dealing with Antietam’s Northern Front, the second with the Southern. He provides us with the usual Order of Battle for the two armies. Alongside the first of these he provides an important and interesting information box regarding the armament of the two armies, in which he reveals that the Army of the Potomac enjoyed significant advantage. McClellan’s infantrymen were more widely armed with rifled weapons: 88% shouldered them, compared with 67% of Lee’s infantry. The disparity in the artillery was not quite so marked, with 56% of the Yankee gunners firing rifled cannons compared with 47% of their rebel counterparts. This qualitative edge was amplified by a great quantitative preponderance fielded by McClellan. That Lee stood to fight against such odds will strike many of us as astonishingly (and needlessly?) risky; with a river to his back, and with no recourse to entrenching. That he offered battle again the following day beggars belief.
One revealing quote cited by Pawlak stands to balance the account. A civilian overhead Lee and Longstreet discussing their predicament and reported that they said that “it was the most splendid position they could possibly have.”
Pawlak’s succinct summary: “Lee’s assessment of the terrain was correct.”
The ensuing account of the battle follows the familiar formula. It is definitely enhanced by the landscape scenes the author provides from his collection, giving us a good feel for the dimensions and nature of the various sectors of the battlefield. He tells us that in the Northern sector alone, in seven hours of fighting, there were 18,000 casualties sustained in an area of less than one and a half square miles.
As for Pawlak’s verdict on the battle’s outcome, many of us might feel uncomfortable. He avoids criticising Little Mac for failure to pursue and exploit. He allows implication to flourish, however, when he writes “….Lee no longer had a barrier between himself and the Federal Army. The five major Antietam Creek crossings were in Federal hands. McClellan could now bring the full weight of his strength against Lee’s line. The Confederates were caught between the Federal army and the Potomac River.”
Why didn’t Little Mac finish the job? Pawlak leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
Citing the 23,000 casualties – 12,500 Union and 10,500 Confederate – he states “Nonetheless, the battle was a Union victory.”
In strategic terms, we must agree. Few, perhaps, will agree that the tactical honours went to McClellan. It’s significant that Pawlak states that for Lee’s army the battle “…. was one of its best fought in the war”. Some, including Lee himself, opined that it was THE best fought.
The chapter dealing with the final action at Shepherdstown has all the attributes that make this a good book. A map, evocative photographs from the past and present, profiles and text that explains how the battle developed and ended.
The photographic legacy of the Battle of Antietam is defined largely by its unflinching focus on the Confederate dead. Pawlak provides four of these. The first one, in the opening of the book alongside the Timeline, is a desperately poignant photo of a very young-looking rebel soldier who has died alone. His face is clearly depicted, and the effect is powerful. It reminds me of my grandson.
The last photo of the southern dead is truly harrowing: a festering mass of dead in the Bloody Lane, virtually unrecognisable and grotesquely contorted. It makes you recoil in horror. The contrast between the two pictures is striking: a forlorn individual on the one hand, and a charnel house of horror on the other. I wonder whether Pawlak made some kind of statement about the course of the campaign here.
The final chapter – Afterword – gives us details of the campaign’s consummation: The Emancipation Proclamation. It’s fitting that the final picture in this chapter is of the Proclamation itself.
The very last picture in the book – again from the Author’s Collection – is a truly exquisite photograph, taken on 17 September 2012, on the battle’s 150th anniversary. It shows the sunrise over the Miller Cornfield.
All honour to Kevin R Pawlak for giving us this attractive book. It does what it sets out to do, joins up the dots, and encourages us to find out more. Even though we might have overburdened bookshelves, this will be a welcome and worthy addition.