I’ve known NPS Historian Scott Hartwig of Gettysburg National Military Park for about a decade, and every time I’ve met up with him over the years I’ve asked him the same question: “How’s the Antietam book coming?” Well, I guess I’ll need to come up with a new greeting, because his massive work To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, has been published by Johns Hopkins. This is the first of two planned volumes, and takes the reader to the eve of the Battle of Antietam. Scott took a little time to answer a few questions about this, probably the most important Civil War book of 2012.
BR: While I’m sure many readers know you from visits to Gettysburg or from dozens of PCN Anniversary Battle Walks, can you tell those less familiar a little bit about yourself?
SH: I am a supervisory historian in the division of Interpretation at Gettysburg National Military Park. What this means is I do public history and manage the park’s day to day interpretive program. I grew up in Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, but had the itch to live out west and went to University of Wyoming. By pure luck I stumbled onto a Civil War historian teaching there named E. B. Long. For those today who don’t know him, E. B., or “Pete,” as his friends called him, was the research editor for Bruce Catton’s magnificent three-volume centennial history of the Civil War. E. B. knew more about the Civil War than anyone I have ever known and could talk about the people who lived the war as if he had known them. I ended up taking nine credit hours from him on the Civil War and he was a major influence on my decision to seek a career at a Civil War park in the National Park Service. I have worked 33 years for the NPS, almost all of it at Gettysburg. I can honestly say that I have never been bored there a single day. In fact, some days I wish things would be a little more boring. There is never enough time to get everything done. I have written a number of essays and articles for magazines and books, and seminar proceedings, and back in the 90’s appeared in a number of History Channel documentaries relating to Gettysburg, some of which still show but only really late at night.
BR: Who or what were your early Civil War influences?
SH: The earliest influence was the Time-Life magazines in the early 1960’s that followed the course of the war and featured original art of battles, which was the sort of thing that excited a 7-year-old. Next was probably Hugh O’Donnell, my 8th grade history teacher, who encouraged critical thinking not just about the Civil War, but about history in general. Bruce Catton was also a major influence. I read everything he wrote. My parents also always actively encouraged my interest in history.
BR: Why did you decide to study the Maryland Campaign?
SH: I think Catton’s Mr. Lincoln’s Army was the initial catalyst. His chapter on Antietam was unforgettable. The other reason was, when I first started contemplating this, the only two books on the Maryland Campaign were Jim Murfin’s Gleam of Bayonets and Francis Palfrey’s The Antietam and Fredericksburg, which had been written in the 1880’s. I thought the campaign could use a thorough study that employed the wealth of sources that had come to light since Murfin’s book.
BR: Besides the scale (652 pages of text, plus appendices and an online bibliography available here), what does To Antietam Creek contribute to the existing literature?
SH: This volume gives focus to several aspects of the campaign that have only really been brush stroked to this point. I spend two chapters carefully assessing the two armies so the reader can understand their strengths and weaknesses. This part of military campaigns is often overlooked, but when we know the character of an army it helps us understand why it performed well, or poorly, or was mediocre. The bulk of the book examines the Harper’s Ferry operation and battles of South Mountain in detail, but also in the context of the larger campaign. South Mountain has been studied by others but there is no in-depth study of Harper’s Ferry existing. So this volume gives needed attention to what precedes Antietam, which was quite significant, since this encompassed the largest surrender of U.S. troops until World War II, and Robert E. Lee’s first defeat as an army commander, at South Mountain.
BR: Your book has been in the works a long time – as long as I’ve known you. Can you describe how long it took, what the stumbling blocks were, and what you discovered along the way?
SH: It took at least twenty years. A big reason it took so long is working a full-time job and raising three kids is not conducive to writing. But I was very disciplined and pecked away at it. There were certainly times that I despaired I would ever finish it, but there was also something about the learning and writing process that I really enjoyed which always pulled me back. Much as I enjoy writing it does not come easily to me. There were many nights I would sit staring at the computer screen and never write a word, and more times that I would struggle to find the right words to describe something. It was like getting stuck in the mud. You had to keep pushing and eventually you broke free and started moving again.
There were plenty of stumbling blocks along the way. Many have faded from memory but George McClellan was one. He was not so much a stumbling block as much as he was a conundrum. The first chapter of the book is his story from his arrival in Washington after First Bull Run to his return to command after Second Manassas. I tried to avoid that chapter at first. Everyone analyzes McClellan. I thought I could avoid his controversial personality and history and just focus on the campaign but that proved a foolish thought. You cannot separate the McClellan of the Maryland Campaign from his history before that campaign. To understand the campaign the reader had to know McClellan’s history. I also wrestled with how to treat McClellan. My initial approach was to follow the lead of a host of writers and historians and bash him as a weak and vacillating commander with a monumental ego. McClellan is easy to bash, but the more I studied him, his campaigns and his relationships with the Lincoln administration, I felt my initial treatment too critical and I re-wrote the chapter, this time taking a more sympathetic perspective. I let this re-write sit and when I read it again decided that it too failed to achieve a balanced assessment. I had strayed too far in the other direction. This lead to more research and a third re-write, which is what ended up in the book. My final analysis of McClellan is critical but I think it is honest and evaluates him in the context of the circumstances and conditions he faced both politically and on the military front.
When you work on a project of this size and for this long you are constantly encountering things you did not know, or uncovering evidence that challenges convention. Two examples are the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia. The legend is that the Army of the Potomac was an immense host that failed to win a decisive victory at Antietam because McClellan was too cautious and inept and the Army of Northern Virginia, vastly outnumbered and reduced by the summer’s fighting to a hard-core of less than 40,000 men, simply outfought them. I discovered the reality was considerably different. The Confederates fought well in every engagement in the campaign, but the reason they ended up with an army of 40,000 or less at Antietam was the result of straggling on a scale the army would not experience again until the Appomattox Campaign. Confederate logistics utterly failed their soldiers, and when combined with the arduous marching required during the campaign, men broke down by the thousands sick or exhausted. During the Battle of South Mountain some of Longstreet’s brigades lost far more men to straggling on the march from Hagerstown to Boonsboro than they did in the battle. If you don’t believe the Confederates experienced a crisis in straggling then read Lee’s correspondence immediately after the Maryland Campaign. As for the Army of the Potomac, it was not as large as is commonly believed, and was beset by numerous organizational and logistical issues the impaired its effectiveness.
BR: Can you describe your research and writing process? What sources did you rely on most?
SH: I typically like to assemble my research for a chapter before I start writing. The research also guides the story the chapter needs to tell. But I sometimes was so eager to write – because I really enjoy the process – that I would get started before I finished the research. I don’t recommend this method as it leads to an excessive amount of re-writing when you discover evidence that contradicts something you have already written.
The U.S. Army Heritage Education Center, Dartmouth College, the National Archives and Library of Congress were four of the most important archives among many I accessed for this project. USAHEC houses the finest collection of Union related manuscript material in the country and it is an absolutely first class resource to use. Besides all the official documents, correspondence, regimental books, etc., that the National Archives houses they had an obscure collection called Antietam Studies, which contained dozens of letters from veterans of the battle mainly to Ezra Carman, a veteran of the battle, and its historian in the late 19th Century, documenting in great detail their unit’s part in the battle, and sometimes, in the entire campaign. The Library of Congress had Ezra Carman’s massive unpublished manuscript of the Maryland Campaign, which is indispensable to any study of the campaign. Thankfully, Tom Clemens did a masterful job of editing this manuscript and it has been published by Savas Beatie. Dartmouth College housed the John Gould Collection. Gould was an officer in the 10th Maine Infantry at Antietam who in the 1890’s initially set out to determine where General Joseph K. Mansfield fell at Antietam, but the project expanded until Gould was receiving correspondence from dozens of Union and Confederate veterans who fought in the cornfield and East Woods. Although there is a great deal of correspondence from Confederate soldiers in the Antietam Studies and Gould Collection, for wartime manuscript material the Southern Historical Collection at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the largest.
When I started this project the web as we know it did not exist yet, but in the last few years I used it quite a bit. The best on-line source for the Maryland Campaign is [Brian Downey's] Antietam on the Web. It is an excellent resource.
BR: What’s next for you?
SH: Next is volume 2, which will cover the Battle of Antietam, the end of the campaign and the aftermath of Antietam, both in the battlefield area and nationally. My guess is it will take three years.
We’re all looking forward to that – but good luck with that three year schedule!