Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Just Finished Reading - A Fierce Glory

For decades the Battle of Gettysburg, the so-called "highwater mark of the Confederacy" was viewed by many historians as "the" turning point in the Civil War. However, over the last twenty-five years or so the Battle of Antietam has largely replaced Gettysburg as "the main" turning point in the conflict, if one has to chose one specific event.

Antietam, or the Battle of Sharpsburg, as it is often referred to by those with Southern leanings, has received its fair share of historical scholarship. Some of the subject's best researchers and writers have taken on Antietam - James McPherson, Stephen Sears, and Gary Gallagher, among others, have produced either books or collections of essays on the battle or parts of it.

A Fierce Glory: Antietam-The Desparate Battle that Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery by Justin Martin is a welcome addition to the works that have preceded it. Martin, no stranger to the Civil War-era, tells the story of Antietam, from the slug fest in Cornfield to the battles for Burnside's Bridge and the Bloody Lane, to A.P. Hill's timely arrival from Harpers Ferry, in a see-saw manner and with such descriptive detail that it almost places the reader among the terrifying action. In fact, the primary strength of A Fierce Glory is how this story is told. For example, on pages 49 and 50, Martin writes: "The Hagerstown Pike ran along one side of the cornfield. It was just an ordinary country road. On this morning, it became a ferociously contested demarcation, both sides struggling to keep the other from crossing. Never mind that hoary whites of their eyes; pupils dilated in terror must have been nearly visible as the soldiers fired across the road, sometimes trading bullets over a space of less than 100 feet." Martin's ability to paint word pictures is second to none.

Another strong point of the book is how Martin contextualizes the battle by telling its associative stories. President Lincoln's mourning of son Willie, Clara Barton's courage and Jonathan Letterman's medical advancements, Alexander Gardner capturing images for Matthew Brady, and of course, the Emancipation Proclamation as a product of the fight, and other people, places, and events figure prominently into and benefit the narrative.

While Martin could have explored some of the less familiar soldiers' stories by diving deeper into available primary sources instead of relying so heavily on secondary sources, the highly descriptive way he tells many of the stories breaths new life into them.

Calling a book a "page turner" has become rather cliche, but in this case it sincerely fits. I recommend A Fierce Glory, particularly to new students of the Civil War, as its literary pull is sure to make it an influential book for years to come.

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