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ACW Book Review: Antietam-The Lost Order

By Tom Clemens
11/20/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

Antietam: The Lost Order

by Donald R. Jermann (Pelican Publishing Co.,Gretna,La., 2006,$24.95)

Antietam:The Lost Order claims to be the first book-length treatment of the famous Lost Order of the 1862 Maryland campaign (actually Special Order No.191,Series 1862,Army of Northern Virginia).Unfortunately,Jermann’s narrative of the campaign is flawed.

Jermann provides footnotes only for direct quotes,while injecting huge amounts of unsupported judgments and opinions that comprise the bulk of the study.Many times opinion will be stated as fact, and with no reference to the originator of the opinion. The lack of references is only one piece of evidence in that assessment.

The language used in the narrative is full of slang,modern colloquialisms and bizarre comparisons.For example,Jermann belittles the march of Maj.Gen.William B.Franklin’s two divisions on September 14 that took them from Jefferson,Md.,at sunup to Burkittsville by noon. He flippantly states that “an old lady pushing a baby carriage…could easily reach Burkittsville by 10:00 a.m.” Not only is this jarring assessment by the author inappropriate for a serious military study, it is flawed because Franklin marched from Buckeystown, several miles east of Jefferson and on the other side of the Catoctin Mountain. However, with no footnotes to back up this claim, the reader is wholly dependent on the author’s incorrect information and flawed judgment.More shocking is Jermann’s comment that a colonel’s failure to go to the summit of Elk Ridge during the fight for Maryland Heights was due to hemorrhoids and that the battle was lost “due to a lack of a tube of Preparation H.” Similar examples abound in the book.

For a project of this breadth and complexity, the brevity of Jermann’s bibliography is shocking. Only 20 sources, most of them secondary, grace his bibliography, and include such dubious entries as the TimeLife Civil War Series “Antietam” volume. No campaign studies are listed whatsoever, and only the Official Records and two other sources can be considered primary.Based on such a narrow foundation, the book necessarily topples from its own weight.

In the unindexed galley proofs furnished to this reviewer,typographical errors abound, and the author’s problems with research are apparent.For example,he consistently refers to Edwin Vose Sumner as “Voss Sumner” and Robert Toombs as “Augustus Toombs,” despite Ezra Warner’s Generals in Gray specifying that his nickname was “Bob.”William Nelson Pendleton inexplicably becomes “Nat,”and the Dunker Church is described as “clapboard” when contemporary photographs—not to mention the now standing reconstruction—indicate that it was constructed of brick.Brigadier General Isaac P. Rodman, killed during the late afternoon assault on Confederate lines,dies,according to Jermann,before Burnside Bridge was carried at 1 p.m.The distance from Boonsboro to Hagerstown is several times mentioned as being 17 miles, although maps, as well as modern road signs, show it as 12 miles. In short, the author’s own mistakes are compounded by a lack of references and a lack of careful editing by anyone familiar with the campaign.

Familiar caricatures appear throughout the book:Robert E.Lee the saintly knight. “Stonewall”Jackson the godly,omnipresent warrior.Abraham Lincoln the omniscient sage. Henry W. Halleck the Machiavellian meddler. George McClellan the incompetent bumbler. In fact, Jermann offers such characterizations as “Halleck,in his heart of hearts,probably believed that McClellan was an incompetent who was being duped by the Confederates.”Without any frame of reference for that assessment, readers are left wondering how the author might know such things.

If the intent of Jermann’s work was to provide analysis of the impact of the Lost Order on the campaign,the book falls short of that goal.Only a few chapters are devoted to the many ambiguities of who lost it, where and when it was found and how important it was to the campaign.No new evidence is introduced,so readers are again left solely to Jermann’s logic to explain it.

If the intention was to provide a readable overview of the campaign for general consumption, the author might well have invested some time reading Joseph Harsh’s Taken at the Flood,the definitive study of Lee’s thoughts and actions during the campaign. He might also peruse Ethan Rafuse’s McClellan’s War, a much more nuanced treatment of the war’s most controversial Union general.

Jermann accepts unquestioningly the account of John Walker’s conversation with Lee in Frederick, taken from Battles and Leaders,which Joe Harsh exposed as false in 1999.

Jermann also suggests that Lee’s army maintained a strength of around 40,000 throughout the campaign, despite hard marching, casualties and straggling. Harsh demonstrated clearly that Lee entered Maryland with a much larger force than was present on the banks of Antietam Creek.

One strength of Antietam:The Lost Order is that Jermann’s treatment of McClellan’s initial reaction to the discovery and his verification and actions shows insight and knowledge that refutes the myth of lethargy on McClellan’s part.Why he does not do more in that vein elsewhere is puzzling.The maps are numerous and helpful,although with some unusual symbols representing troops. These are good points,but not good enough to save an otherwise seriously flawed book.

 

Originally published in the May 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.  

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