By ECW Correspondent Nicholas Youngs
That Field of Blood: The Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, the newest release in the Emerging Civil War Series, was a story Dan Vermilya has always wanted to write, due in part to his personal interest in the battle—and his personal connection.
“It’s always important to be engaged in what you’re writing,” said Vermilya. “If you’re not engaged with the topic it just won’t resonate.”
Vermilya’s interest in this bloody American conflict started at childhood when a family member told him that he had an ancestor in the 106th Pennsylvania Regiment who had been slain in the fields in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Vermilya would grow up to write a book introducing people to this battle, including details that the general public might not know about this bloodstained day in American history.
Even with his family connection to the conflict and the fact that he “worked at Antietam every day” for five years as a park ranger, he’s only now writing the story of Antietam after two previous books, The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain and James Garfield and the Civil War. He tackled the others books first because he wanted to “diversify” because he enjoys “writing about things that aren’t well known.”
His Kennesaw Mountain book was based on his senior thesis at Carroll University, connecting his home state of Ohio to the Civil War. “My master’s thesis talked about the experiences and the motivations of various Ohio soldiers who served under the command of William T. Sherman in the Atlanta Campaign,” said Vermilya.
The inspiration for Vermilya’s second book, James Garfield and the Civil War, was the fact that he lived 15 minutes away from President Garfield’s old house. “Not very many people know about James Garfield’s involvement in the Civil War,” said Vermilya, “which is why I found it so interesting.”
Vermilya finally wrote That Field of Blood when Series Editor Chris Mackowski invited him to write for the Emerging Civil War Series. “We needed an Antietam book for the series. It was an obvious gap—a big, obvious gap,” Mackowski explained. “Several people I really respect recommended Dan as a smart up-and-coming historian who knew the battle well, so that’s how we got connected and why we extended the invitation. And Dan has certainly lived up to the high praise people gave him.”
In Emerging Civil War Series fashion, That Field of Blood “is meant to be a great introduction to Antietam,” Vermilya said. “It shows the main players, testimony from the soldiers and conveys the story in a new fashion.”
That “new fashion” includes discoveries from the last 20 years from such historians as Joe Harsh and Tom Clemens, who challenge the idea that General George B. McClellan was “a bumbling fool” and instead theorize that maybe he was thinking strategically.
Vermilya didn’t spend “a set amount of time” researching this book, for it combines both recent research and everything he’s learned about the battle since he was a child. However, he “sometimes had to put writing on hold” due to his day job as a park ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park.
“It [research for this book] wasn’t just standard sources,” said Vermilya. “It was also letters from soldiers, historical accounts, facts I learned from working at Antietam, facts I knew as a historian—and it was just distilling them all together.”
The title of the book, That Field of Blood, captures the “attention and significance of this battle,” Vermilya said. He describes Antietam as not only one of the bloodiest days in American history, claiming more than 23,000 casualties in a single day, but also as “the most important battle of the Civil War.” This was due to the fact that the outcome of the battle was enough of a victory for the Union that Lincoln felt confident enough to release the Emancipation Proclamation.
“He was waiting for a victory,” said Vermilya, “He couldn’t release it after a defeat because it would look like an act of desperation instead of as a show of strength.”
This book illustrates our history as Americans and how the men on that battlefield were fighting for our future—“but they were fighting for two very different futures,” said Vermilya. “Thankfully the Union future won.”
“The past is who we are,” said Vermilya. “You can’t understand what our country is today, without knowing what events made it.”
That Field of Blood: The Battle of Antietam, published by Savas Beatie as part of the Emerging Civil War Series, contains a foreword by historian John Hoptak, maps by Hal Jespersen, never-before-published photos of the park’s development, and groundbreaking interpretation about the bloodiest day in American history. Click here for more details.