We subscribe to National Geographic Traveler, as I still cling to that dream of a vacation to Nepal. I figure someday all those travel tip columns will come in handy. Seriously, I find the magazine one of the better of the travel mags, and enjoy living vicariously through the articles.
The June/July edition caught my eye after dinner this evening, with a cover headline “Ghosts of the Civil War: Venturing into the Past.” Turning to page 68, I find yet another article on the Civil War by Tony Horwitz. (I’m still working through the irony of Confederates in the Attic written while he lived in the land of the Unionists in the Confederate attic….) Now granted, Horwitz is not a historian, per-say, but he has put out enough print material over the last ten to fifteen years to wear the historian’s robe. Deserving or not.
Horwitz provides this introduction for the battle of Antietam:
The battle at Antietam is easy for the non-Civil War buff to appreciate. Unlike the more famous Gettysburg, which spanned three days, and miles of terrain, Antietam was a Napoleonic clash that lasted 12 hours. Gettysburg was fought in July, when sweaty hordes now flock to the battlefield; Antietam occurred in mid-September….
To paraphrase the late George Carlin, that passage is full of things that tick me off.
First question: if the battle is “easy for the non-Civil War buff to appreciate” then why did Horwitz have to secure the services of top notch guide Stephen Recker? I know Stephen through Facebook and mutual friends. He’s very knowledgeable on the battle. If Horwitz walked away with a sound appreciation of the battle, then it speaks volumes for Stephen’s skill and ability. But let’s face it, Antietam is a complex battle that even the best historians have difficulty interpreting. Generations of historians clung to the “three phases” in order to conveniently step around the complexity. But with a sweep of the hand, Horwitz says this battle is now easy to appreciate simply because it was a brief and geographically limited fight. Go figure! I dare say one can spend a lifetime trying to “appreciate” the West Woods in isolation, much less gain a firm handle on the entire battle of Antietam.
“Napoleonic clash”? What the heck? Paddy Griffith is rolling in his grave. Napoleonic tactics featured well integrated combined arms forces moving rapidly across the battlefield (or at least that’s what folks like Nosworthy and Rothenberg would have us believe). Not a lot of combined arms work at Antietam. Cavalry activity (not during the campaign, but during those 12 hours Horwitz mentions) conform closely to that old jib referencing the lack of dead cavalrymen. While the Artillery played an important role in the battle, I’d be hard pressed to call it a “Napoleonic” employment. And even if we lay those aside, September 17, 1862 lacked those grand, sweeping, fast movements characteristic of “Bony.” So where was this Napoleonic clash?
Twelve hours? That’s all we get of Antietam? Nay! This is one of the great stumbling blocks of those who attempt to lay some sporting analogy across military history. The battle is but part of a broader, more important, grand-scale activity called… a campaign. You want to appreciate a battle, then you need to study what brought the forces to the battlefield. You need to study the marches, logistics, and sparring that occurred in the lead to the battle… and in the aftermath. The Maryland Campaign (as is probably more accurate) featured more than just 12 hours of fighting. Orders rolled around cigars, South Mountain, School House Ridge, Shepherdstown, … all rather important marks in the campaign that occurred outside that 12 hours.
Lastly, I’m at a loss to explain why visitors would opt for a “sweaty Gettysburg” over a “temperate Antietam.” I’m sure it has nothing to do with the highway infrastructure, 150 years worth of writings, and a Ted Turner movie. You know, all that ancillary stuff…. Also unexplained – why hot, humid Vicksburg does not attract a wave of “sweaty” visitors every July to rival Disneyland.