Book Review: The Cornfield, Antietam’s Bloody Turning Point

Alongside Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle and Shiloh’s Hornet’s Nest, the fighting in David Miller’s Cornfield on the Antietam battlefield ranks as one of the toughest Civil War landscapes to make any sense of. It should then come as no surprise that it has taken over 150 years since the Battle of Antietam for a micro tactical work detailing the Miller’s Cornfield fighting to be published.

David Welker’s The Cornfield seeks to make sense of the back-and-forth actions that swept across the Miller farm on September 17, 1862, and stake its importance in shaping the outcome of the Battle of Antietam. The book briefly recounts the events of the Maryland Campaign leading up to the Battle of Antietam before giving the Cornfield action of September 16 and 17, 1862 a detailed tactical treatment. Despite the depth of the fighting which the book delves into, Welker brings the intense combat and tragedy of the Cornfield to a personal level by interspersing the text with various human interest stories.

Aside from utilizing the usual suspect of sources to craft his tactical narrative, such as the Official Records, Welker made good use of Joseph Hooker’s military papers and some of the thousands of letters that veterans wrote to Antietam’s “Historical Expert” Ezra Carman and the Antietam Battlefield Board.

The author’s personal visits to the Cornfield also came in handy, as understanding any battle at such minute detail is difficult to understand without having walked the same ground that the reports and letters discuss. Welker’s terrain analysis opened one of the important aspects of the Cornfield and why, with the lines drawn as they were, it became important for both armies to occupy it: tactical depth. The key to the northern end of the Antietam battlefield was the Dunker Church Plateau (site of today’s Visitor Center). Stonewall Jackson defended that key piece of terrain by deploying his line out in front of it, providing his line with tactical depth and forcing the Federals to fight for several intermediate objectives, such as the Cornfield, before they could secure the plateau. When Robert E. Lee and Jackson attempted to regain the campaign’s initiative and attack the Federal right on the afternoon of September 17, the possession of the East Woods and the Cornfield and the adjacent open ground provided the Federals with enough depth of their own on Lee’s left flank to fend off those Confederate efforts.

The Cornfield does not fall into the trap of laying out individual attacks, counter-attacks, and casualty counts without exploring why all of that matters in the larger picture of Antietam. As the book’s subtitle suggests, Welker postulates that the roughly 16,000 combined casualties sustained by both armies in the greater Cornfield area have a larger story to tell on September 17, 1862, than waves of men moving back and forth between the rows of corn.

In this vein, Welker heavily examines the Cornfield fighting through the eyes of Army of the Potomac commander George B. McClellan and his battle plan. He concludes that McClellan’s lack of innovation in battle and his linear thought process hampered the Union effort in the Cornfield sector of the battlefield. Welker argues that these traits of McClellan forced him to use more than half of his available forces to achieve one objective: capturing the Dunker Church Plateau south of the Cornfield, “which stuck the Union plan in place for hours at the cost of thousands of lives” (266).

The Cornfield‘s analysis of the performances of both armies’ high command is especially intriguing. Here, Welker at times deviates from the traditionally trodden path. For example, Joseph Hooker gets a low grade for his Antietam performance while Joseph Mansfield’s short stint controlling the 12th Corps on the battlefield receives faint praise.

For a book that deals with fighting in tactical terms, the reader could benefit from maps that break down the action in regimental terms to accompany the text; the book’s 26 maps often only denote brigade formations. Several times in the text, as well, a brigade’s order of battle is listed incorrectly. For example, Hartsuff’s brigade is at first said to include the 11th, 12th, and 13th Massachusetts and 33rd New York. But just a few pages later, the brigade’s correct units are included: the 12th and 13th Massachusetts, 83rd New York, and 11th Pennsylvania.

Overall, David Welker’s The Cornfield creates a thoughtful microhistory of the action for Antietam’s Miller Cornfield. Students of the battle will want to pick up a copy for Welker’s analysis alone. This book demonstrates the intense complexity of one of the bloodiest pieces of ground soldiers fought for during the Civil War.

David A. Welker, The Cornfield: Antietam’s Bloody Turning Point.

Casemate Publishers, 2020.

356 pages.

Maps, endnotes, bibliography, index.

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