Streetwise Professor

September 16, 2023

I Dread the Thought of the Place: A New Standard in Civil War Battle History

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 6:49 pm

Tomorrow (Sunday, 17 September 2023) is the 161st anniversary of the Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg to those daring enough to admit Confederate leanings). I have spent the days leading up to the anniversary reading D. Scott Hartwig’s massive account of the battle and its aftermath, I Dread the Thought of the Place. It is almost certain to be the definitive account of the battle for years to come.

Antietam is a battle with many moving parts, many of them moving simultaneously. Hartwig does a masterful job of describing each part down to the regimental and sometimes company level, and crucially, helping the reader understand what was going on elsewhere in the battle when X was happening at location Y.

Antietam was the bloodiest single day in American history. Perhaps the most impactful part of the book is how it gives some sense of how much carnage occurred in short periods of time in small spaces. Many paragraphs in the book describe the killing or wounding of several individual soldiers–often by name–in a single company or regiment in a period of a few minutes. The serial slaughter of color guards is particularly notable in this regard. Although of course nothing can possibly convey the shock of such violence experienced by the participants, the book individualizes the combat and its human consequences in a way that allows us to glimpse, at least distantly, how intense and concentrated the violence was.

One thing that the book makes abundantly clear is the often decisive role played by artillery in the battle. Stephen D. Lee, a Confederate artillery battalion commander at the battle, called Antietam “artillery hell.” It was for Lee, given the pounding that his batteries took on the Dunker Church Plateau. But it was an artillery hell especially for infantry on both sides who were pounded by guns that had unobstructed fields of fire seldom found on Civil War battlefields. Hartwig shows that artillery played a more decisive role at Antietam than at any other battle of the Civil War, including Gettysburg. Before reading the book, I did not appreciate role of Confederate artillery in stymying Burnside’s assault on the Lower Bridge.

The book is also remarkable in its integration of the entire vertical of the battle, from the commanding generals down through each echelon to the lowest private. It describes the actions of each, and is judicious in its judgments on the command decisions at every level of command, from the captains of companies; to the field officers of regiments, to the brigade, division and corps (or wing) commanders; and finally to army commanders McClellan and Lee. These judgments are well reasoned, and often surprising: I can’t say that I’ve ever seen anyone write favorably of Samuel Sturgis, as Hartwig does! Some come in for praise–such as Hooker. Others, not so much. The acerbic D. H. Hill would certainly take issue with Hartwig’s critical assessment of his generalship. The book’s treatment of Edwin Sumner is particularly brutal, but completely warranted given the brutality that Sumner’s soldiers experienced as the result of his blundering.

Hartwig does not shy from criticizing icons, notably Stonewall Jackson. And he comes to the defense of the often-maligned, most notably Ambrose Burnside, whose generalship at the Lower Bridge (sarcastically called Burnside’s Bridge by posterity) Hartwig treats with understanding of the challenges posed by terrain, bad staff work (notably by the Army of the Potomac’s Topographical Engineers), and equivocal orders issued by AoP commander McClellan. Hartwig makes it painfully clear that McClellan did Burnside dirty in his final report on the campaign, unjustly and counterfactually putting blame on Burnside (who by that time was discredited by the disaster at Fredericksburg) in order to distract from his own failings.

The book could have used some more careful editing. There are numerous who/whom mixups. At times left and right flanks are also mixed up, which led me to have to re-read a few descriptions, map in hand. I caught at least one curious name mistake. Union brigade commander Colonel William Howard Irwin suddenly became Colonel Irvin, and remained so for the rest of the book. Although perhaps the shade of Colonel Irwin is grateful, as his rather appalling–and perhaps drunken–incompetence (that led to the butchering of the 7th Maine) can be laid at someone else’s gravestone.

I therefore heartily recommend I Dread the Thought of the Place. But be warned!: it weighs in at a massive 790 pages (and 4.25 pounds). It is not for the faint of heart or anyone looking for an introduction to the battle.

Reading the book brought home how Civil War scholarship has developed and improved in the 50 plus years that I have been devouring books on the subject. When I first went to Antietam on my own, in 1978, the standard work was James V. Murfin’s A Gleam of Bayonets, published in 1968. It was a good, say, 20,000 foot view of the battle. Stephen Sears’ 1994 A Landscape Turned Red was more detailed, giving a say 10,000 foot view of the engagement. In subsequent years, microhistories focusing on specific parts of the battle have appeared: these give you a drone’s eye view of particular actions.

Examples include David Welker’s The Cornfield and two volumes by Marion V. Armstrong on the disastrous attack of Sedgwick’s Division–one focusing on the Union side of the action, the other on the Confederate side. John Micheal Priest’s Antietam: A Soldier’s Battle focuses (as the title suggests) on the action from the perspective of those with muskets in their hands. The Brigades of Antietam and The Artillery of Antietam describe the actions of each brigade and battery in some detail. Ezra Carman’s early detailed history has been republished, including as Visual Antietam (in 3 volumes, edited by Brad Butkovich). Then there are tour guides, like Carol Reardon’s and Tom Vossler’s A Field Guide to Antietam or Ted Ballard’s Staff Ride Guide: Battle of Antietam. Moreover, there are two excellent compendiums of maps, Bradley Gottfried’s The Maps of Antietam and Brad Butkovich’s The Antietam Battlefield Atlas. (Although the maps in I Dread the Thought of the Place are good, I strongly recommend reading it with either Gottfried or Butkovich in hand.)

Thus, there is an abundance of choices to those who want to take a deep dive into Antietam. But D. Scott Hartwig’s book is pretty much one stop shopping. It tells the fascinating story of America’s bloodiest single day of battle in incredible detail. It represents a new standard in battle history.

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  1. I have grown weary of reading histories of stupidity, malice, and slaughter. I no longer read about WWI, WWII, the Nazis, the Bolsheviks, the English Civil War (aka The War of the Three Kingdoms), the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, Vietnam, … I don’t much care for the Old Testament either.

    On the Ukraine War I read almost nothing, confident that nobody writing about it is likely to have access to accurate information anyway.

    One of the best histories I’ve read in the last twenty years is

    It’s cheering because he concentrates on the maritime skills and enterprise of the Polynesians rather than on their propensity for eating each other.

    Comment by dearieme — September 17, 2023 @ 6:45 am

  2. @dearieme
    I know what you mean.
    Goya knew better than most the horrors of war – geriatric politicians and generals send young men to their death
    This painting in particular sums it up:

    Comment by Simple Simon — September 17, 2023 @ 10:57 am

  3. So long as they are volunteers, dearieme.
    Personally I love nothing better than to curl up with a book on a dark and stormy night and read about arctic explorers eating their own boots, or Belgians discovering recipes for penguins while imprisoned in the ice.

    Comment by philip — September 18, 2023 @ 6:36 pm

  4. Being in Texas, you should consider reading of the US Civil War battle of Glorietta Pass, even if only a Wikipedia blurb. Massively underappreciated battle. The Texans walked there. Drivable now. The Texans almost succeeded. The world would be a different place had they succeeded. And yes, it is all stupidity, malice, and slaughter.

    Comment by jeff — September 29, 2023 @ 8:20 am

  5. @Jeff–I’ve been there, actually. Ironically, I got pulled over by Border Patrol who asked to search my car apparently thinking there was no legitimate reason for an Anglo to be driving out there. Apparently not history buffs, they. When I told them about the battle it was news to them.

    Comment by cpirrong — September 30, 2023 @ 5:53 pm

  6. I’m confused Craig. What was Border Patrol doing in northern New Mexico?

    Comment by Ty Kelly — October 4, 2023 @ 8:24 am

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