In less than a week in late September 1862 almost 30,000 American soldiers were rendered killed, wounded, or missing in one of the most crucial military campaigns in our nation’s history. At stake was the very existence of the United States as a single nation. Had Confederate intentions been successful, it is very likely that the late nineteenth century would have seen at least two independent nations between Canada and Mexico. On September 17 at one location near the small town of Sharpsburg in rural western Maryland 23,000 of those campaign casualties occurred in just a single day. Our country has never seen such bloodshed or loss of human treasure on any other single day in any other conflict we have ever fought. Although considered by many to be a tactical stalemate, the battle of Antietam was an operational victory for the Union for several reasons. None the least of which was the opportunity presented to President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation which changed the nature of the war on the world stage from one nation’s struggle for independence to another nation’s moral crusade to end the institution of slavery.
I am a native of Hagerstown, Maryland. As a child I played among the monuments at Antietam National Battlefield during many family picnics to that area. I also remember Saturday afternoons watching my father play pool with his friends at Captain Bender’s Tavern in Sharpsburg. When I got old enough I was allowed to visit the battlefield and the refreshment stand at Bloody Lane on my own. I have literally walked Antietam since I was knee high to the proverbial grasshopper. As a boy scout I remember several camping trips around Burnside Bridge. After a stint in the U.S. Navy I earned a Bachelor of Science Degree from Frostburg State College and a Master of Arts from Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. I taught in the Washington County Public School System for ten years. One of the high points my fifth-grade students looked forward to in the spring was the day long field trip to the Antietam Battlefield. Eventually I made a career change into civil engineering and my new employment took me to Frederick where I spent over twenty years. My morning commute throughout those years carried me directly through the South Mountain battlefield.
In 1988 I became extremely interested (my wife would say obsessed) in the fate of 58 dead Confederate soldiers dumped down a farmer’s well at Fox’s Gap after the battle of South Mountain. I knew that Fox’s Gap, just like Antietam, was a real place and this led me to seek out the location and story of those unfortunate souls dumped in that well. That search resulted in my becoming a founding member of the Central Maryland Heritage League in 1989. I served as the group’s Historian and briefly as President before my departure in 2000. The league gained a modest amount of success in not only increasing the public’s knowledge of the battle of South Mountain but in also preserving portions of that battlefield. I have also served as a part-time volunteer and historical consultant for the fledgling South Mountain State Battlefield. My research into the fate of those dead 58 Confederate soldiers put into the well at Fox’s Gap resulted in the publication of The Bivouacs of the Dead: The Story of Those Who Died at Antietam and South Mountain, Toomey Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 1992.
Recently, Savas Beatie, LLC, announced the August 2019 release of Too Useful to Sacrifice: Reconsidering George B. McClellan’s Generalship in the Maryland Campaign from South Mountain to Antietam.
The importance of Robert E. Lee’s first movement north of the Potomac River in September 1862 is difficult to overstate. After his string of successes in Virginia, a decisive Confederate victory in Maryland or Pennsylvania may well have spun the war in an entirely different direction. Why he and his Virginia army did not find success across the Potomac was due in large measure to the generalship of George B. McClellan. History has typecast McClellan as the slow and overly cautious general who allowed opportunities to slip through his grasp and Lee’s battered army to escape. I disagree and argue persuasively that he deserves significant credit for moving quickly, acting decisively, and defeating and turning back the South’s most able general.
For most of my life the story of Lee and McClellan in the Maryland Campaign of 1862 has been little more than a comic book caricature pitting Robert the Bold against George the Timid. The accepted stereotype of George B. McClellan as the slow, overly cautious timid commander who did not want to fight has assumed the status of historical consensus. It is my sincere hope that this book not only contributes to an accurate historical account of McClellan’s accomplishments during the campaign, but also debunks the myths surrounding McClellan and leads to a better more balanced understanding of one of the most capable commanders of the Civil War.
A visit to the Antietam National Battlefield can sometimes be a very confusing experience. There are so many monuments, so many interpretive markers, so much information and so little time to take it all in. I offer my services to families and groups of all sizes from the individual to the busload and the novice to the serious history buff. I try to concentrate on the story of the soldiers, who they were, where they fought, and what they accomplished or failed to achieve. Every visitor to Antietam is unique and comes to the battlefield with their own set of beliefs and preconceptions. I strive to accommodate all viewpoints with an open mind and ask that the visitor do the same. The men who gave up that last measure of devotion on this field did so for a variety of reasons that we may, or may not agree with. It was their war, not ours and no matter what their cause they were Americans and I would like to think that we can come together as Americans to appreciate their sacrifice.
The battle of Antietam did not occur in a vacuum. It was an integral part of the Maryland Campaign of 1862 and to fully appreciate its significance requires some knowledge of the events of the campaign both before and after. Understanding an event such as the Maryland Campaign is an ongoing process and I have been involved in that process for almost 40 years (and still amazed at how much I have yet to learn). I feel uniquely qualified to provide the visitor to Antietam a rich experience and better understanding not only of the significance of the battle, but of the sacrifice of those 30,000 men who wore the uniforms, both Blue and Gray.
In addition to tours of Antietam and/or South Mountain I can also offer the following lectures:
- The Story of Barbara Fritchie
- The Legend of Wise’s Well
- All the Injury Possible: The day between South Mountain and Antietam
- Too Useful To Sacrifice: Reconsidering the Generalship of George B. McClellan during the Maryland Campaign
- John Pope at Antietam
You can book a tour with me by calling the Antietam Museum Bookstore at 301-432-4329 or 866-461-5180. Of course, you can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org for Lectures and Tours. I am generally available most any time other than Sunday afternoons because that is the time I have set aside for meeting and greeting visitors at the Antietam National Cemetery.