Symposium Spotlight: Kevin Pawlak


Pawlak, KevinWith your back to the river, what sort of defense do you put up when you’re forced to stand and fight? That’s the question Kevin Pawlak will tackle at the Fourth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge.

Kevin’s talk, “Water to his Front, Water to his Rear: Robert E. Lee Defends the Confederate High Water Mark at Sharpsburg, September 17, 1862,” delves into one of the Civil War’s great do-or-die defenses.

“There was no other decision that Robert E. Lee made in his entire military career that is more criticized and questioned than his decision to stand and fight outside Sharpsburg, Maryland in September 1862,” Kevin contends.

“What compelled him to fight with a river at his back and a superior enemy in his front? Or is it even as simple as that?” Kevin asks. “Regardless, Lee beautifully orchestrated his obstinate defense at the battle of Antietam, and brought on the bloodiest single day in American history. In the annals of the Army of Northern Virginia’s history, it was one of the army’s best days.”

Kevin is the director of education for the Mosby Heritage Area Association, and he works as a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Antietam National Battlefield. Kevin also sits on the Board of Directors of the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association, the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University, and the Save Historic Antietam Foundation.

Kevin has worked and completed internships at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, The Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, and the Missouri Civil War Museum. In 2014, he graduated in 2014 from Shepherd University, where he studied Civil War History and Historic Preservation. He is the author of Shepherdstown in the Civil War: One Vast Confederate Hospital, published by The History Press in 2015.


Tickets for this year’s Symposium, Aug. 4-6, 2017, are available for $125 (order here). They include Friday night’s reception, speakers, keynote address, and historians’ roundtable; Saturday’s line-up of talks; coffee service and lunch on Saturday; and Sunday’s tour of the Brandy Station battlefield.

6 Responses to Symposium Spotlight: Kevin Pawlak

  1. I have ypur book and i loved it, nearly all Antietam studies leave out Shepardstown or devout a page or two only. Also people like me who love the Campaigns and tactical books need to be reminded of how dark war is, great book Kevin!!! I would respectively disagree about a couple conclusions in this very well written and enjoyable article. Lee’s decision to fight with a river to his back being his most criticized, I believe that to be Pickett-Petigrew ect. charge. As for being one of the ANV best days I feel 3 reasons for that not to be so. First despite whatever everyone’s opinion on who won Antietam at the Tactical or Strategic level the South or the ANV could not loose that many unreplaceable men defending land in the North. Second I am one of those who firmly believe they (ANV) did loose the battle on a tactical and strategic level. On a tactical level come morning Lee was flying to Shepherdstown and leaving A.P. Hill to stop any pursuit. Does anyone believe Lee would give up Northern land voluntarily? Third on a strategic level Antietam was such a overwhelming disaster even many mid-level readers are unaware of why. If you read Lee’s and Jefferson Davis’s correspondence in the months leading up to and during the campaign not only was Pennsylvania the goal (so the Southern army could feast off the rich, plentiful fields, gain new mounts, shoes, allow the Southern farmers to harvest Shenandoahs crops) and after that to possibly take Baltimore so the Europeans would possibly intervene. When you look at the goal of the campaign compared to the result it’s very hard to see how the battle of Antietam was the ANV finest day. Lastly as always due to a disability I use talk to text so please forgive the horrible grammer.

    1. Hi there,
      Thanks for your reply and sorry about my delay in getting back to you. First, your compliments are great and I’m very happy to hear that you enjoyed the book!

      Respectfully disagreeing is fine, and you are right, that Lee’s decision for what we now call is Pickett’s Charge is certainly questioned by many within the field. One early historian of the Civil War called Lee’s decision to stand and fight at Sharpsburg “beyond controversy one of the boldest and most hazardous decisions in his whole military career.” Confederate E. P. Alexander phrased it this way: “it will be pronounced by military critics to be the greatest military blunder that Gen. Lee ever made.” Of course, those are opinions, and we are all entitled to those.

      Last, thank you! I am in complete agreement with you that the Battle of Antietam was both tactically and strategically a Federal victory (see my post on it here: That said, the odds facing the ANV were long, and tactically, though they lost, look at the tenacious fighting that the common soldiers, line officers, and even general officers performed on September 17. It truly is incredible. At every crisis point, Lee was able to shift artillery and mass his guns and whatever men he could find to meet the crisis and, for the most part, avert it. Walter Taylor called the men in the ANV at Sharpsburg the flower of Lee’s army. He truly had the best of the best there, and they showed it on the day.

      — Kevin

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