Martin, Justin. A Fierce Glory: Antietam–The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery. New York: Da Capo Press. 2018. 318 pages, 256 pages of text. Index, notes, b/w photos, three maps. ISBN 9780306825255, $28.00.
When it comes to Civil War battles there are several that are most prominently mentioned: Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Antietam. Gettysburg is of course by far the most widely studied and written about with microhistories on topics that can not begin to be comprehended by the average reader. Antietam has not reached that level yet. In his recently published book A Fierce Glory, author Justin Martin attempts to provide a more general history of the battle; one that the novice can sink their teeth into and use as a springboard for some of the more dense works like those by Carmen, Harsh, or Sears.
Antietam was the deadliest single day in American war history. Martin uses the generic number of more than 3,500 killed on both sides (XIII). The National Park Service provides us with the approximate number 3,650 killed and a total of 22,720 casualties (dead, captures, wounded). As John Meade Gould is quoted “how mighty easy it was to get killed or wounded that day.” (XI)
Martin has two focuses in his text; the Maryland battle including the main leaders McClellan and Lee and then Washington D.C. and the tragic hero Abraham Lincoln. Robert E. Lee is shown in a positive light, especially in light of the injuries suffered in a fall from his horse Traveller. Martin states that Lee was radicalized, truly turned into a Rebel, with the seizing of Arlington by Union forces. (132) McClellan however is described as being “…inflated; his broad shoulders, puffed-out chest, showy uniforms, and the alpha-rooster bearing.” (59) Despite this negative view Martin does stray from the often stated view that McClellan did not act in a timely manner when presented with Lee’s “lost order”; “McClellan responded with uncharacteristic alacrity.” (76) Lincoln is often portrayed in a tragic light, with the sickness and death of his son Willie being a major focus. With the White House being a sad place for him, the President was known to spend many of his nights in the Soldier’s Home, located a distance from the hum of the capital. The Emancipation Proclamation is discussed throughout the story as Lincoln waited for the perfect time to make his announcement. The book is finished with a section titled Further Explorations; suggestions for readers to visit.
Overall, this is a good book for someone just learning about the Battle of Antietam or for a general reader. They will not be overwhelmed with regiments, lower ranking officers, troop movements, and in depth battle analysis. Instead, a general history with coverage of major events such as the Rohrbach Bridge (soon to be nicknamed the Burnside Bridge), the cornfield, the sunken road, the Confederate retreat, and a fine section on the medical situation in the area during and after the battle, coupled with accessible writing is a good launch point for more in depth study.
This is not to say however I don’t have some quibbles with the book however. My guess that most of these are publisher related rather than author choices. Having three maps, one of which I consider useless (the map from the Soldiers Home to the White House), is unjustifiable in my mind. The general battlefield map is serviceable but hardly good enough and provides no real perspective. The map placing the town of Sharpsburg area is of limited value to the story. Another issue for me is the formatting of the endnotes. Sure, I prefer footnotes so as to not have to flip back and forth but I am willing to work with publishers. Instead of the traditional numbering system which lets a reader know there is a note there is nothing. Instead, there are page numbers listed and the reader is forced to hope there is a note for something they want to check on. Rather inconvenient in my view. Finally, the lack of a proper bibliography is quite bothersome.
For readers with a grasp of the battle or looking for new research leads this is probably not for you. For a reader new to the Civil War, the armchair traveler, or somebody with a casual interest this is certainly a book to consider. The writing is easy to follow and the pace of the book moves along well. The book will certainly find a place on the Antietam shelf in my library.
Thank you to Da Capo Press for providing a complimentary review copy.