- A Fierce Glory: Antietam—The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery by Justin Martin
Justin Martin's new book on the battle of Antietam argues that this desperate, savage battle of September 1862 was the most critical engagement of the Civil War. Not only did the Union victory end General Robert E. Lee's [End Page 704] attempt to invade Maryland and win the war for the Confederacy, but also the victory provided President Abraham Lincoln with the opportunity to issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and allowed the Republicans, despite losing seats, to retain control of Congress after the 1862 midterm elections. Thus the battle transformed the Civil War and saved Lincoln's presidency.
There is nothing original in Martin's interpretation of the importance of the battle of Antietam, as previous authors have made similar arguments. What sets Martin's work apart is its discussion of a wide range of topics that do not always get much attention in books focused on a single battle. These topics include the actions of Clara Barton, who first rendered frontline aid to soldiers at Antietam; Union doctor Jonathan Letterman, who devised innovative methods for caring for the wounded that were first used at Antietam; and photographer Alexander Gardner, whose famous photographs of the dead of Antietam changed the way people viewed war. Martin gives a great deal of attention to Lincoln, describing his first year in the presidency (including a detailed discussion of the death of his son Willie), his decision to write the Emancipation Proclamation, and his movements on the day of the battle and immediately afterward. Martin provides an excellent summary of the engagement that captures the human drama of the battle, while not getting bogged down in too much detail, but he gives very little space to the Maryland campaign as a whole. His focus is on the battle of Antietam.
A Fierce Glory: Antietam—The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery is well researched and sourced, making use of numerous primary and secondary sources, including official records, newspapers, regimental histories, and autobiographies. The book does not follow a strictly chronological narrative, as the first few chapters alternate between the engagement itself and details of the first year of the war, biographies of Lincoln, Lee, and George B. McClellan, and the movement of the armies before Antietam. So, for example, while the battle starts on page 38, the famous "lost order" occurs on page 76. For the most part this organization works, but there could have been better descriptions of the armies' movements and the command decisions made in the days leading up to the battle.
Overall, Martin's book is a well-written, engaging work that, while shedding little new light on the battle itself, succeeds in widening the scope of the story of Antietam, providing readers with a narrative that is not obsessed with the movement of regiments and discusses topics not normally encountered in such a book.