High-Water Mark, final thoughts

We have spent the last few weeks going through High-Water Mark: The 1862 Maryland Campaign in Strategic Perspective because it is exemplary of good work done in an awful discipline. And I felt the need to offset my daily citations of history offenders with a positive example.

What makes this book good is worth summarizing.

Author Tim Reese argues a point that has been made before, that the Maryland Campaign represents the high-water mark of the Rebellion's national potential. Although this offends a widespread Gettysburg bias among Civil War readers, it is still a safe enough view to be extolled by consensus mongers like James McPherson in his Crossroads of Freedom. (McPherson does make Antietam the high-water mark, rather than the campaign itself.)

The way McPherson handled his responsibilities in Crossroads of Freedom underscores problems with the discipline of Civil War history in general: the commercial interest is foremost (the book sports an anniversary tie-in) and old content is arranged into familiar patterns to produce stale conclusions that repeat everything you have already read - this in exchange for your new money. It's the history-writing equivalent of lounge bands skating through jazz standards.

With Reese, both old and new material are combined into new patterns, after which new arguments deliver us to a familiar conclusion from strikingly new directions.

Why all this trouble to reach conclusions generally shared (outside of Gettysburg fandom)? Finish the question and you have your answer: "Why all this trouble to reach conclusions arrived at through old, bad and incomplete effort?" The broken clock may be right twice a day – yet we fix it. If you take pleasure in how the clock works, and in making it work, you are the deeper sort of history reader and Reese is your writer.

New content is always exciting to encounter; it strengthens or weakens the pre-existing scholarly equations; these discoveries, together with the responsible handling of their meaning, produce the best sort of reading and thinking experiences. High-Water Mark is a book rich in new findings and Reese's discoveries will be the starting point for anyone's next works on the Maryland campaign.

In addition to discoveries, a great book is marked by revisiting commonly known "facts" and exploding or recasting them: the potential British intervention is given flesh and bones by assembling published data on Royal troop movements; McClellan's famous telegram to Lincoln on September 13 is correctly dated to midnight, not noon, bursting old timelines; Lee's quotes on the significance of Crampton's Gap are collected and presented in one place as a concentrated testimony about cause and effect. And, of course, the *full* Union order to Franklin on the 13th, so little known or understood, in analyzed in detail.

These new combinations not only create a symphonic crescendo, but they open major new avenues of research and discussion for the future:

  • Can we get McClellan's decision and processing timelines correct for the 13th of September?

  • What is the full story of the strange McClellan/Franklin silence on the Crampton's Gap order?

  • Are there other "lost" pieces of McClellan orders outlining strategic contingencies?

  • How do British navy deployments overlay the Canadian land forces buildup?
I could go on at length but if you are a certain type of Civil War reader, these points already resonate with you.

After years of concentrated Civil War reading, I know of only two other living ACW historians who can function at Reese's level. So when a book like High-Water Mark comes out, it is a rare and wonderful treat, one demanding mind-space as much as shelf-space.

If you would like to revisit earlier HWM posts, here are the links:

General | one | two | three | four | five | six | seven | eight | nine | ten | eleven