To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of 1862, Sept. 3-16

The Maryland Campaign of 1862 was one of the pivotal moments of our Civil War.  It resulted in the bloodiest single day of the war, with the Battle of Antietam on September 17, the largest surrender of U.S. soldiers until World War II, at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (not yet West Virginia) on September 15, and the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, which transformed the war into one to both save the Union and destroy slavery. Yet, for all its importance the campaign resulted in few books. Francis Palfrey, a Union veteran of the battle, published The Antietam and Fredericksburg in 1883 and James Murfin wrote A Gleam of Bayonets in 1964.  In 1983 Stephen Sears produced his superbly written Landscape Turned Red.  It was this overall dearth of scholarly studies of the campaign and battle that prompted me to write about it.  When I embarked on this project I was somewhat naïve about just how massive it was.  I did not want to duplicate Palfrey, Murfin or Sears and write a book covering the whole campaign that focused primarily on the decisions of the opposing commanders and the Battle of Antietam, while giving the rest of the campaign a more superficial treatment.  I intended to plumb the depths of the entire campaign.  The siege and capture of Harpers Ferry had never been thoroughly examined and the September 14 Battle of South Mountain, fought to seize the mountain gaps through South Mountain, and the first defeat Robert E. Lee experienced as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, had been only lightly covered.  It was important for readers to understand the challenge of command that Lee and McClellan faced, but I also wanted them to feel the campaign as it was experienced by the rank and file.  Commanders experience battles and campaigning differently than those who must execute their orders. 

As I researched the subject it became apparent to me that to cover the campaign and its events in the depth I desired required two volumes, which is how To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of 1862 came about.  Volume two will cover the Battle of Antietam, the aftermath of the battle and the end of the campaign up to Union commander General George B. McClellan’s removal from command.  I chose to end To Antietam Creek on the night before Antietam partly because it was a good point to end the narrative, but also because that night was in some sense the end of an America that had been and the beginning of an America that would be, because the battle the next day unleashed forces that eventually led to the end of slavery and permanent change in the social landscape of the country. 

Digging deep on a historical subject reveals things that are often not apparent on the surface.  It can also uncover complexities that were simplified or modified either to shield a reputation or shape a certain narrative.  For example, I discovered the latter with Confederate numbers in the campaign.  Confederate veterans and post-war writers sought to portray the Army of Northern Virginia as David facing a Goliath in the Army of the Potomac.  This fed the Lost Cause narrative that the North had only won the war through overwhelming numbers.  A Union veteran declared of this effort, “A few more years, a few more books, and it will appear that Lee and Longstreet and a one-armed orderly, and a casual with a shotgun fought all the battles of the rebellion, and killed all the Union soldiers except those who ran away.”  My research stood this narrative on its head.  Lee’s army began the campaign nearly as strong as the Army of the Potomac, with around 74,000 men, but straggling and sickness removed over 30,000 from the ranks in three weeks so that Lee ultimately fought the Battle of Antietam with slightly less than 40,000 men.  That these 40,000 were tough is without question, but why was nearly half the army absent when they were most needed?  This was the real question that needed to be answered.      

I had no specific agenda for To Antietam Creek.  I tried, as much as is humanly possible, to have an open mind as I conducted my research and began to write.  One of the pitfalls of some historians is to begin with a thesis or theory and seek evidence to support it.  I looked at what the evidence revealed to me to form opinions. Ultimately, the historian/writer must form conclusions and interpretations from this evidence.  I hope that I have succeeded in telling this dynamic and dramatic story honestly, and that it is fair to the memory of the men who lived and suffered through it.

D. Scott Hartwig was the supervisory park historian at the Gettysburg National Military Park for twenty years. He is the author of To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 and The Battle of Antietam and the Maryland Campaign of 1862: A Bibliography.

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