A Fierce Glory
Antietam—The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery
Da Capo Press, New York, 2018, 336 pages
Book Review published on: March 22, 2019
Justin Martin, a widely published author and professor of history at Oxford University, has delivered another outstanding book with A Fierce Glory: Antietam—The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery. A Fierce Glory provides an unprecedented portrait of the Battle of Antietam by weaving key elements of the battle with personalities, social and political events, and experiences of participants. President Abraham Lincoln is central, as Martin describes the tumultuous period during which Lincoln experienced his son Willie’s death, a series of Union army defeats, a contentious relationship with Gen. George B. McClellan, the possibility of foreign intervention, and his gaining support for the Emancipation Proclamation.
Martin’s description of Gen. Robert Lee and Gen. George McClellan portray two men who could not be any more different. Lee stood five foot eleven; he was trim with ramrod-stiff bearing and was twenty years senior to McClellan. Lee had served in the war with Mexico. His father, Henry Lee III, was one of Gen. George Washington’s most favorite and trusted commanders during the American Revolution. Other Lee relatives were signers of the Declaration of Independence, and three were members of the Continental Congress. This was in contrast to a much shorter, thirty-five-year-old McClellan who liked to claim he was five foot nine inches tall. McClellan left the army shortly after graduating West Point to become one of the youngest and highest paid executives in the country. While McClellan is credited as a great organizer and speaker, Martin describes a combat-inexperienced commander who was paralyzed by secret doubts and hesitancy when it came to engaging Confederate forces in battle.
McClellan’s acrimonious relationship with Lincoln may be the worst between a president and general in American military history. Martin asserts McClellan took an instant dislike to Lincoln in the 1850s when McClellan was a young executive for the Illinois Central Railroad and Lincoln represented the railroad as a lawyer. McClellan was put off by Lincoln’s rambling stories and “aw shucks” aphorisms. McClellan’s disdain for Lincoln was reflected in his withholding, delaying, or conveying little information on ongoing military operations to the president. Martin describes an illuminating moment between Lincoln and McClellan during the waning days of the disastrous days of the Peninsula Campaign. Lincoln travelled to Virginia aboard the steamship Ariel to meet with McClellan in hopes of pressing him into battle. Upon boarding the Ariel, McClellan simply handed Lincoln a letter that requested the president abstain from any declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery. Furthermore, McClellan suggested that Lincoln relinquish his constitutionally prescribed role as commander in chief of the Armed Forces, ceding it to McClellan. Lincoln read the letter as McClellan looked on, then folded it and placed it back in the envelope without uttering a word.
A Fierce Glory is more than the story of the Battle of Antietam, it’s the story of Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation during a tumultuous period that threatened not only Lincoln’s presidency but also the preservation of the Union. Martin draws on a range of primary source materials—personal accounts, government records, and military correspondence—in providing an unprecedented view of the Battle of Antietam from major actors and participants. A Fierce Glory suffers from the lack of maps depicting key troop movements, battle formations, and local terrain. Readers will find themselves referring to maps in outside sources, but this should not dissuade them from reading this work. It may be one of the most interesting works on Antietam in several decades. It is an excellent addition for any historian or student of the Civil War.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas