Reviewed by Tim Talbott
Despite being among the forefront of Civil War battles that have received a significant amount of scholarship, few historians have taken the time and effort to fully examine Antietam’s impact on the area’s civilian population.[i] Ably filling this void is Steven Cowie’s When Hell Came to Sharpsburg: The Battle of Antietam and Its Impact on the Civilians Who Called it Home.
With a thought-provoking introduction by respected area historian Dennis E. Frye to prime the reader for what is coming, Cowie, over the next twelve chapters, delivers a powerful and informative narrative. While reading it, one almost feels like a participant. Here is the fearful anticipation of the armies, the terror and devastation of the battle, and the long rebuilding process that Sharpsburg area citizens experienced as Federal and Confederate forces unleashed a fury that resulted in that September day being the bloodiest in American history.
To give vivid evidence of the destruction caused directly by the armies before, during, and long after the battle, Cowie seemingly leaves no archival stone left unturned. Amassing what must have been countless hours of research in the National Archives, Cowie mines the claims made by civilians against the U.S. Government in attempt to recoup some of their losses.
First occupied briefly by the Army of Northern Virginia, and then by the Army of the Potomac for a more extended period, the area on and around the Antietam battlefield changed drastically. Once carefully manicured farms with bountiful herds of livestock and fields of crops ripening for harvest suddenly turned into unexpected resource depots for the belligerents. The armies commandeered animals. Soldiers slaughtered civilians’ hogs, sheep, and cattle to supplement army rations. Army horses, mules, and cattle consumed farmers’ hay, corn, oats, wheat, and other grains. Woodlots fell victim to soldiers’ axes. Likewise, soldiers repurposed miles and miles of fence rails for impromptu shelters and as fuel to cook rations, provide warmth, and heat water for laundry. Combatants looted evacuated homes for valuables. The ground that grew crops before the battle now held the bodies of soldiers killed in battle or who died shortly thereafter from their wounds or disease.
Cowie also utilizes primary sources from the soldiers who participated in and witnessed much of the damage and destruction, as well as letters and oral histories from those civilians who lived through it. Local, state, and U.S. Government records like population census information and agricultural census data help inform Cowie’s conclusions and strengthen his arguments about the amount of destruction endured and to show the long-term effect it had on folks attempting to recover. Death registers and doctor reports illuminate the area citizens’ health crisis following the wake of the battle. Cowie uses all of these sources effectively throughout the book.
Although most citizens suspected of being disloyal did not receive any payment for damages, those with the strongest verifiable ties to the Union often received meager reimbursements in comparison to their losses. Many claimants endured drawn-out suits that required enormous amounts of evidence, seemingly endless affidavits, and other red-tape hoops to jump through, ultimately dragging out well into the 20th century.
Readers will appreciate that with a book of this nature, which incorporates a tremendous amount of source material, the text includes the footnotes at the bottom of the pages rather than endnotes at the back of the book. Also helpful are the several fine maps that are included. These not only show the paths of the armies as they approached Sharpsburg and the placement of troops as the battle played out, but they also indicate the locations of the area’s farms discussed throughout the book. Of particular interest and help is the Sharpsburg Village Lot Owners map and accompanying chart.
Steven Cowie’s When Hell Came to Sharpsburg gives students of the Civil War a vivid reminder that the long-term impact of the conflict included others than just the soldiers on the battlefield. Here we see war’s tragic toll on civilians, both Black and White, free and enslaved, and how they attempted to cope with it and recover over several generations. When Hell Came to Sharpsburg should claim a respected essential-reading place as accompaniment to the dozens of titles by renowned historians that focus primarily on the strategy and tactics of the Maryland Campaign.
[i] An exception that Cowie notes in his acknowledgment as being influential on his own interest in the subject is: Kathleen Ernst. Too Afraid to Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign. Stackpole Books, 2007.