Book Review Antietam: The Soldiers Battle by John Michael Priest

Harms88

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 13, 2019
Location
North of the Wall & South of the Canucks
Title: Antietam: The Soldiers' Battle
Author: John Michael Priest
Pages: 394
Price: 45.67 (hardback), 34.39 (paperback), 11.49 (kindle)
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What drew me to the book (besides the description) was the cover shown in the image posted above. However, this is one of only 4 different covers. The above image is the cover for the Kindle version of the book.

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The above three images are for hardback (image #1), paperback (image #2) and for an earlier edition of the book (image #3). So that is the first thing one needs to keep in mind when wanting to buy this book. My copy was a used paperback, so I got the black and white Burnside Bridge cover.

Mr. Priest has a singular objective with this book. Tell the battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg from the viewpoint of the soldiers. This is not a study of the overall plan of battle. There is no time spent delving into the overall plans of McClellan or Lee for this battle, outside for the need to keep the Harper's Ferry Road open. This book if focused on what the soldiers saw, their very small sphere of influence as opposed to the more overarching view of the battle as would be seen by their commanders.

As such, Corps and Army commanders only appear as cameos in the stories of the soldiers. McClellan only appears at the very periphery of an aide of the V Corps who is sent to ask for additional troops to allow the Regulars to attack the exposed center of the Confederate lines. Burnside appears for only one brief moment. JEB Stuart isn't even seen in the book, outside of mentions that he has passed along orders.

The way this book is written, it challenges the idea that Antietam was a one day affair. It starts with the Union shelling of Sharpsburg on the 16th and ends with the skirmishing on the 18th, skirmishing that saw one regiment lose over 50 men. It also challenges the image of the nicely segmented battle. The one that starts in the Cornfield, stops when the Bloody Lane is attacked and the Burnside's Bridge being it's own separate thing that starts only after Bloody Lane ends. Instead, it shows the Bloody Lane as simply an extension to fighting in the Cornfield and the many woods of the right flank combat.

For example: even though the middle of the Confederate line was pushed back, the Union troops not only down to it's last rounds but was being flanked by Confederates streaming from the right, painting a picture where perhaps a continued assault with those troops were not the best idea. The book does it's best to disabuse many of the myths of Antietam, not by specifically stating such, but by showing through it's prose the realities facing these men.

Due to it's focus on the individual, there are many accounts that you don't hear about in the broader works on this battle. Such as Confederates in the West Woods murdering wounded Federal soldiers or Union soldiers continuing to shoot into the corpses of fallen rebels in the Bloody Lane. Or the soldier who wanders from the front line, starts picking apples only to have Robert E. Lee show up and berate him as a traitor to the cause. Or a horse that after loosing his master after being shot, returns to his side to try nudging him awake, only to get shot down because the horse had the audacity to be living.

This is clearly a book that has a Confederate leaning. While it is true that it does not paint the Confederates in a purely rosy light (such as you can clearly see Robert E. Lee's nerves and temper getting shorter and shorter each time he appears in the story until he's unfairly berating his officers for not crushing the flanks of the AOTP), it's very clear that Mr. Priest holds the Union in very low regard.

He describes Hooker as basically a scatter-brained idiot running around like a chicken with it's head cut off. Hancock's actions are described as "histrionics". Mansfield is a old fool whose only saving grace was Hooker doesn't communicate the situation with him. The terms "absurd", "stupid", "idiotic", "cowardly", "blundering" are used rather liberally for the average Union soldier. On the other hand, the terms "heroic", "gallant", "courageous" are applied to many of the Confederates. The way the book is written, it's clear from even the level of the private, that the Confederates are at a level of manhood and generalship that simply can't be competed with by the Union. Which is true for the latter but not so much on the former.

There are a few weird typos. The author uses a lot of words that are either archaic or are correct only on a very technical level. Like someone who is not a native English speaker. One such that kept popping up is the terms "mow grass" and "mow field". I don't know if it's Civil War era slang for mowed grass or what have you, but it appears without fail almost every other page. Or at one point, he says a horse "stove in" a soldier's chest, which is correct but has been out of use for a long time.

It's not a bad read, but I do not feel that it gives as balanced a look at soldiers Blue and Grey as it seems to strive toward. The use of the archaic language at times feels like the author is trying to hard to sound smart by using words and phrases that are not common.

The anecdotes are great though (such as an aide getting trapped in a traffic jam on Burnside Bridge after the glorious triumphant assault which really wasn't an assault at all). And it gives a rather unique look at the battle that shows something far more complex then the general consensus would have it.

I give it a 3.5/5.
 

Rusk County Avengers

1st Lieutenant
Forum Host
Joined
Apr 8, 2018
Location
Coffeeville, TX
Excellent review! I would steer clear of it, but any book that describes Hooker as you relate deserves a look see in my book! Just for amusement.

Or the soldier who wanders from the front line, starts picking apples only to have Robert E. Lee show up and berate him as a traitor to the cause.

I know exactly which soldier your referring to, and I've been debating re-reading his memoir and reviewing it.
 

Harms88

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 13, 2019
Location
North of the Wall & South of the Canucks
Excellent review! I would steer clear of it, but any book that describes Hooker as you relate deserves a look see in my book! Just for amusement.

I know exactly which soldier your referring to, and I've been debating re-reading his memoir and reviewing it.

The book very lightly makes the argument that Hooker was the only reason that Mansfield didn't deploy like he should have entering the battle, although it does completely ignore the fact that Mansfield had almost zero combat experience despite being in the army for 40 years.

One of the best examples of the Confederate bias comes from two similar situations that are described in the book. The first incident is Winfield Scott Hancock is riding in-front of the 49th Pennsylvania in an attempt to rally them to plunge into battle to save the batteries of Cothran and Frank. This is called "staged...rather melodramatic histrionics".

The second incident involves Stephen D. Lee. As Garnett's Brigade fell back around the middle ridge and abandons an artillery battery, he goes berserk and grabbing a flag tries to rally them. This is described as "heroically" done. Basically they very much the same type of story, with the only difference being one about to enter the fray and the other retreating from it. When the Union officer tries to bolster his men's nerves, it's "staged", "melodramatic" and "histrionics". Yet when the Confederate flips out and attempts to rally them, it's "heroic".

However, the anecdote in the story that nearly caused me to stop reading is this scene in the book: A Union soldier has been severely wounded and is begging his friend, who was only lightly wounded if I recall, to drag him away. The soldier tells his buddy basically, "Look, I got a wife and kids at home that depend on me. You're life doesn't matter as much because you're a bachelor without the responsibilities." The author calls his arguments, which are actually decent enough when considering the fact that the married soldier is trying to be saved, as "absurd". I am willing to concede that perhaps he's using the wordage that these men used in letters and diaries back home. But calling a soldier who is in immense pain and needing help and pleading for his life "absurd" leaves much to be desired.
 

Bruce Vail

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Jul 8, 2015
I think you a rather generous in rating this book.

Althogh I too appreciate what the author was trying to do -- tell the story of the battle from the point of view of the soldiers who actually fought it -- I don't think it succeeds that well. I got the book from the library a few years back and was delighted to read the sections that related to a particular regiment that I was especially interested in, but found the rest of the book unreadable. You need to know a lot about the War before you start the book to make any sense of it. It's really a book for a very specialized audience.
 

Cavalier

First Sergeant
Joined
Jul 20, 2019
@Harms88 I got it when it first came out years ago. Didn't really care for it. You gave it a higher mark than I would have but my gripes are essentially the same as yours.

John
 

Harms88

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 13, 2019
Location
North of the Wall & South of the Canucks
@Harms88 I got it when it first came out years ago. Didn't really care for it. You gave it a higher mark than I would have but my gripes are essentially the same as yours.

John

If it wasn't for the fact that I think that much of the choice of words comes from the written accounts of the men and he was trying a different approach to the topic, I'd have graded it lower. But I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
 

dlavin

Sergeant Major
Joined
Jun 1, 2015
Location
North Balt Co., MD
I bought this a while back as another antietam book as I have taken an interest to that campaign and battle but it has say on my shelf. I am dissapointed in the comments only because I had high hopes for the book, but really value the opinions here and seems to be a book that will continue to sit on my shelf.
 

Harms88

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 13, 2019
Location
North of the Wall & South of the Canucks
I bought this a while back as another antietam book as I have taken an interest to that campaign and battle but it has say on my shelf. I am dissapointed in the comments only because I had high hopes for the book, but really value the opinions here and seems to be a book that will continue to sit on my shelf.

If you are pro-Confederate, part of the religion of the Lost Cause Myth and have a good grasp of the Antietam fight, you'll have no problems with the book.

If you are none of these, especially if you are both looking for a more balanced read or not nearly as intimately familiar with the subject matter, it can be both a dreary read and one that can make the reader very easily confused. Especially when it appears too demeaning for the author to clarify things or give any larger context to what's going on.
 

Cavalier

First Sergeant
Joined
Jul 20, 2019
@dlavin I have been reading this stuff for a real long time, and have become very opinionated in my reading. Just a thought, but if you have already purchased the book why not give it a read, and judge for yourself. You may enjoy it. I found what I considered the authors judgemental remarks irritating. You may not have a problem with that, you may not even agree with it.

I have some books that I cherish and have read many times over, that others seem to have a low opinion of.

Besides, as soon as anyone makes any disparaging remarks about my hero Hancock, my cheeks get all red and I want to invite them outside.

John
 
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