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From the beginning paragraph of “When Hell Came to Sharpsburg,” Steven Cowie weaves a story of an oft-forgotten aspect of the Civil War: the effect on the populace in the middle of a battlefield.  

Some conflicts were waged over small villages, while many were fought in the streets of larger cities, but almost every engagement interrupted a civilian’s life. An interesting facet is Steven Cowie’s use of local maps and the information about village lot owners as of September 1862. It sets the tone for an in-depth looks at what happens if a major battle is waged in your neighborhood. 

Nowhere was this disturbance of tranquil peace of the common citizen demonstrated better than in the small community of Sharpsburg, Maryland. Iconic photographs have already shown the impact of war on the area. Who could imagine what the parishioners of the Dunker Church thought after gathering back at their small building, now strewn with the dead and broken pieces of weaponry? What about the families having to navigate the now infamous Bloody Lane as they made their way back to their home? Who could ignore Louisiana Col. Henry B. Strong’s majestic horse sitting as if resting but actually lifeless, captured so poignantly by photographer Alexander Gardner? Cowie gives us a fresh account of what the local inhabitants encountered amid the carnage waged on America’s Bloodiest Day. 

One of the more interesting parts of the book is the Army of the Potomac’s supply crisis. Clara Barton noted a marked lack of materials to treat the wounded because the Union Army of the Potomac had posted its wagons miles away from the battle to avoid their capture. Food for the Federals was obviously limited by the number of post-battle claims for lost cows, swine, poultry and sheep from the families in the area. Fence rails used as campfires meant animals went missing. Houses, barns and other buildings were commandeered as hospitals and headquarters during the conflict and in its aftermath. 

Here, Cowie covers in grand fashion a Civil War subject rarely explored. Whether you’re a professional historian or general reader, “When Hell Came to Sharpsburg” is a great read.  

When Hell Came to Sharpsburg

The Battle of Antietam and Its Impact on the Civilians Who Called It Home 

By Steven Cowie,Savas Beatie, 2022

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