by Dan Vermilya
In taking the time to reflect on the Emerging Civil War series and all of its accomplishments over the past decade, I wanted to pen a few words about my entry, That Field of Blood: The Battle of Antietam. In doing so, a quote comes to mind from the great Bruce Catton:
“What America is and hopes to be dates from the fight along Antietam Creek. The fight cost an enormous number of lives, and inflicted pain and disability on many thousands more; but in the infinite economy of the advance of the human race it may have been worth what it cost.”
Catton penned these words for a 1958 article titled “Crisis at the Antietam,” in the American Heritage Magazine. They are a fitting summary of what September 17, 1862 means for so many of us who study and revere its history.
The American story has many different epochal dates that have shaped it—July 4, 1776, December 7, 1941, September 11, 2001, just to note a few. Antietam—September 17, 1862—stands with those as a singular event that dramatically altered the course of American history in innumerable ways. From the staggering amount of blood shed in a single day, the far-reaching implications of battlefield photography carrying the horrors of war to a civilian population, or the military consequences of a daring Confederate campaign into U.S. territory having been thwarted, Antietam was a crucial point in the American Civil War.
No consequence of the battle looms larger in history, though, than Abraham Lincoln’s decision to use the Union victory at Antietam as the moment to launch his Emancipation Proclamation. Rarely in history has the freedom of millions been so closely connected to blood shed on a battlefield as it was in September 1862.
For these reasons, and for so many more, Bruce Catton was right. Antietam summarizes what America is and what it hopes to be.
It is also for these reasons, and for many more, that I was honored to write about such an important event in history for the Emerging Civil War Series, publishing That Field of Blood back in 2018. This was my third book; I had previously written a battle narrative, The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014), and a focused biography of 20th President James Garfield’s oft-overlooked Civil War career, James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015). While I very much treasure those projects, the chance to write a book on Antietam was a very special one for me as well.
Having worked as a park ranger at Antietam National Battlefield for five years, and having been a licensed guide there as well, I had spent countless days immersed in studying that one day of September 17, 1862, and its far-reaching consequences. In That Field of Blood, I tried to make sense of such a vast story in a new and relatable way, one that would appeal to the first-time battlefield visitor but still capture the interest of those who are well accustomed to the Dunker Church, the Sunken Road, and Burnside Bridge.
In the past three decades, new scholarship has emerged on Antietam, challenging some of the traditional interpretations of the battle and shedding new light on its participants. Joseph Harsh, Tom Clemens, Ethan Rafuse, Scott Hartwig, John Hoptak, and many others have published excellent works on this campaign. These volumes have reevaluated how many park rangers, licensed guides, and other students of Antietam view the battle and the campaign. Reevaluations of George McClellan’s generalship, the goals and strategy of Lee, the impact on civilians, and even the ebb and flow of the battle itself reveal that the story of Antietam many of us learned growing up had some misconceptions in it. Recent historians have done great work giving us a clearer picture of what happened in September 1862.
Even the notion that Antietam was a stalemate has been reconsidered. I agree with those before me who have noted that the battle was a clear Union victory in the same spirit as Gettysburg. A Confederate incursion into U.S. territory was thwarted with massive losses on both sides, and while both armies lived to fight another day, the United States was far better off for the battle’s outcome than was the Confederacy. In That Field of Blood, I tried to capture recent thinking on the battle and provide a fresh perspective on such a well-known and important event.
For these reasons and more, writing a new book on Antietam was an exciting opportunity for me. But I also had another motivation for this project, a very personal one.
Catton’s quote on Antietam’s importance rings true not only for the country, but for myself as well. My own interest in what history is dates from the fight along Antietam Creek.
My great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, was killed at Antietam. A private in Company D of the 106th Pennsylvania, he was last seen fighting in the West Woods in the mid-morning hours of September 17, 1862. Having shaved his beard just before the battle, burial crews did not recognize Ellwood’s remains, and like so many others who died during the Civil War, he was buried as an unknown soldier. Today his grave could be in the Antietam National Cemetery under an unknown marker, or it could rest near where he fell in the fields north of Sharpsburg, MD.
Ellwood was more than a statistic in America’s bloodiest day. He was a 32-year-old husband and a father. He was a shoemaker. And he was and is an inspiration to his descendants who were born over a century after his death. His story, and his death at Antietam, reminds me today that one individual—and one day—can change the world.
Ellwood’s story inspired my interest in history as a kid. It inspired my career in the National Park Service, which began at the same battlefield where Ellwood died. And it inspired my contribution to the Emerging Civil War series with “That Field of Blood.” I was honored to have a chance to write about Antietam, and in turn, write about Ellwood and thousands of others whose stories altered the American story on September 17, 1862.
Many thanks to Chris Mackowski and the fine crew of ECW for the opportunity to tell this story and help keep Ellwood’s legacy alive.
That Field of Blood: The Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862
by Daniel J. Vermilya
Savas Beatie, 2018
Click here to read more about the book, including a book description, reviews, and an author bio.