A Field Guide to Antietam

A Field Guide to Antietam

Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People

Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler

University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2016, 360 pages

Book Review published on: June 16, 2017

Antietam, or Sharpsburg as it is known to the South, holds a special place in the Nation’s history for more than just the joining of two opposing armies in armed conflict. Standing on the sacred grounds of Antietam presents many other meanings that enjoy a strategic significance to present day. These include the birth of Dr. (Maj.) Jonathan Letterman’s use of ambulances and triage (the inception of the modern evacuation systems and philosophy) to clear the battlefield saving thousands of wounded over the next three years of combat; the Emancipation Proclamation, which gave the war a higher and much nobler purpose; and the end of Gen. Robert Lee’s invasion of the North and saving what may have changed the course of a nation from the threat to Washington, D.C. To support these tactical through strategic tenets, this guidebook is an in-depth and well laid out composition of elements that describes every aspect, to include many not terribly well-known human interest components of the engagement.

Following the guide it quickly becomes apparent that the battle actually rolled out in several distinct phases versus one overall plan. The first phase was the move of the Union 1st Corps and related elements out of the North Woods. Once beaten back, the second phase consisted of the 12th Corps coming out of the East Woods and meeting a similar baptism. The third phase consisted of Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner’s Division (as large as half the entire Confederate forces on the field that day) heading to the West Woods to be attacked on three sides and losing thousands of men in under an hour while the other two divisions of this Corps moved off to the infamous Sunken Road. The last two phases included the initially failed crossings of Burnsides Bridge and then the attack on Lee’s right by the remaining 9th Corps elements under Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, only to be met by the same element that outflanked Union commander, Col. Miles Division at Harpers Ferry (the South Carolinian Division under Gen. A. P. Hill). The late arrival of Hill after quick marching all the way up in a day and upon arriving on the field immediately attacking the left flank of the 9th Corps, turned the battle back again for the Confederates. All told, the actions of all these disparate and seemingly uncoordinated efforts resulted in the single bloodiest day in American history. Roughly 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing. Some units suffered over 80 percent casualties in one engagement such as the 1st Texas of John Bell Hoods Division in the first phases of the contest.

This guide provides a very real and neutral review of this exceedingly bloody battle that then transitions to addressing the thousands of wounded that lay on the battlefield without a true ambulance system to evacuate and save many of them. The volume of casualties included both Union and Confederate (the later were mostly left behind for the Union to treat) with no cogent system available to address the need. Antietam sparked medical innovations in casualty collection, evacuation, and treatment that still survive today. The sheer numbers overwhelmed an already antiquated system to the point of despair for many as they lay on the battlefield until they succumbed to their wounds. Many could have been saved and otherwise treated in a timely manner but both sides lacked the necessities to make it so. In addition to the enormous efforts of Letterman, we also need to give credit to the Union commander, Gen. George McClellan, who authorized the fleet of “flying ambulances” that would otherwise have been used to bring up men and ammunition vice medical supplies and evacuate casualties. This synchronous effort required the understanding and cooperation of all elements in the chain of command and across branches to selflessly share resources.

Follow this up with the relevance of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the end of the invasion of the North, overall, it was a success. The costs of this success are debatable with current knowledge and understanding of medical requirements, unity of command, and use of mass. As a result of these great achievements and the objective style in which this guide is written, it is truly an asset for the Civil War historian, interested reader, or true novice as they make their way to these locations and see for themselves the excellent layout provided. Having surveyed the battlefield several times during the review of this guide, I can attest to its authenticity but also its validity in testing the knowledge on the local Park Service personnel as well as some active guides present. Although it is difficult to replace hearing it from one of those experts, this guide works perfectly for those of us who enjoy historical prose and have the benefit of being able to walk this hallowed ground. I returned to lead my unit from a Staff Ride to Antietam in April 2017 and the primary text by which to explain the events and solicit input and questions is the Field Guide to Antietam.

Book Review written by: Col. Thomas S. Bundt, PhD, U.S. Army, Fort Detrick, Maryland