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“Interpretations of historical events evolve over time, driven by the discovery of new evidence and the introduction of fresh ideas,” Alexander Rossino opines in the introduction to his deep dive into the Antietam Campaign from the viewpoint of the Army of Northern Virginia and its commanding general, Robert E. Lee. “Thus, it benefits us every so often to re-examine subjects that may be considered settled in the historical literature.”
How much benefit the reader may derive from Rossino’s meticulously researched analysis will depend on his ability to follow the author’s minutely detailed investigations. For the novice reader, it poses a challenge that is well worth accepting. Relying on a rich repository of primary source material, Rossino hopes “my interpretations of these sources enhances our knowledge on some subjects, and corrects the record on others.”
Their Maryland: The Army of Northern Virginia From the Potomac Crossing to Sharpsburg in September 1862
By Alexander B. Rossino
Savas Beatie, 2021, $32.95
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Rossino begins by asking what Lee hoped to accomplish from the Confederacy’s first foray into Maryland, a slave state that did not secede. Was it a massive food raid to feed his hungry army? Did Lee believe he could challenge the security of Washington, D.C., or Baltimore? Did he expect that a second dramatic victory over a much larger Federal force, hard on the heels of his overwhelming success at Second Manassas, would impress foreign governments enough to recognize and aid the Confederacy?
Rossino argues, convincingly, that Sept. 6 was a pivotal date in the evolution of Lee’s thinking. While initially believing that the mere presence of his army would foment an uprising from thousands of sympathetic Marylanders, on that date Lee became convinced that only a battlefield victory on Northern soil could arouse the overwhelmingly apathetic citizenry his army encountered.
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Rossino goes on to discuss various expectations voiced by soldiers in the ranks as they arrived in Maryland and their subsequent interactions with the locals. He then proceeds to locate the encampments of the Rebel army, noting that they were more widely situated than concentrated around the Best Farm south of Frederick, as most historians document. Identifying specific units and where they camped is critical when seeking to answer the many questions surrounding Special Orders No. 191 — one of the most tantalizing mysteries of the entire war. Another chapter is devoted to identifying the timing of a rare photograph showing Rebel soldiers in the streets of Frederick. The final two chapters assess Lee’s strategy during the Battle of Antietam and his personal conduct during the fighting.
Rossino’s appendices are an integral part of the narrative. One of them discusses the author’s investigation into who probably lost Special Orders No. 191, Lee’s battle plans that found their way into the hands of Union commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. Rossino also provides an extensive bibliography, and Savas Beatie does scholars a distinct service by putting footnotes at the bottom of the page rather than at the end of chapters or, worse yet, at the end of the narrative.
The different takes offered in “Their Maryland” challenge many long-accepted paradigms. Readers may not agree with all of Rossino’s conclusions, but inviting new debates into old topics may be the most important aspect of this intriguing collection of essays.