"To Antietam Creek" with Scott Hartwig

How odd this is: D. Scott Hartwig, the supervisory park historian at Gettysburg writes a book, and it is The Maryland Campaign of September 1862. The Maryland Campaign! (The first volume, To Antietam Creek, is out now.)

And, if you were the supervisory park historian at Gettysburg with an itch to write about Maryland, of all topics, what one major qualification would you bring to the table? What is the main thing you have learned at Gettysburg? That thing that defines your job? That thing that the public pounds into your skull every day of your waking life and again at night, in your dreams?

You would know controversy. You would know it as well as any man can know anything. And for you to know controversy through Gettysburg and then march your readers through 794 pages of the Maryland Campaign as if it were a controversy-free zone, that is very odd. I can’t even say how strange that is.

If you tasked me to write about Gettysburg, I would research and write outwards from the points of scholarly contention to the general account. I cannot imagine another way. And yet here ...

Perhaps “controversy-free zone” is overstatement for this new book. There are whiffs of controversy in the end notes but these are shrunk smaller than pick six tickets and then resolved with speed and certitude or sidestepped entirely.

For instance, the command crisis of early September would easily make a 794 page book of its own, but Hartwig spares much ink by deciding that Halleck’s unsubstantiated testimony to the CCW is the whole story: Lincoln ordered McClellan to the field. Lincoln contradicts this, McClellan contradicts this but in Hartwig’s lottery system, he picks one answer out of hat and declares it the winner.

In related strangeness, Hartwig gives kudos to Ethan Rafuse’s McClellan War which reports the command crisis correctly and in some detail. Could he trouble himself with a comment to say why he rejects Rafuse's account?

Sometimes, these bizarre resolutions work in the reader’s favor. Hartwig has no use for the ridiculous claim that McClellan issued no directives after finding SO 191; he discusses a couple of afternoon orders in particular. Again, he does so without bringing on a general engagement with the authors who he says influenced him. Let’s refresh our memories on this point:
Every writer agrees that Little Mac erred egregiously when he failed to order an immediate march toward the west on the afternoon of September 13. [...] Instead, McClellan squandered the afternoon and evening of the 13th, sending orders after dark for a two-pronged advance the next morning... A. Wilson Greene, "I Fought the Battle Splendidly," Antietam: Essays on the 1862 Maryland Campaign, Gary Gallagher, ed.

A full 18 hours would pass before the first Yankee soldiers marched in response to the discovery of 'all the plans of the rebels.' Stephen Sears, A Landscape Turned Red

Instead of setting his troops in motion immediately, McClellan made careful plans and did not order the men forward until daybreak on September 14, 18 hours after he had learned Lee's dispositions. As things turned out, this delay enabled Lee to concentrate and save his army. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom
The LOL foolishness above is quoted en bloc because these very authors and these same books are named explicitly by Hartwig as having influenced his own work.

In fact, these three plus Harsh, Carman, and Rafuse are almost the only secondary sources named in the context of influencing our author’s work. Praise for them is fulsome. But why if their views are put to curb like broken furniture? Can’t we then call Hartwig's praise insincere or meaningless?

The impression given by the end notes is that Hartwig built this book out of the OR, some diaries, Landscape Turned Red, Sears' bio of GBM, and what Hartwig imagines to be McClellan’s "letters to his wife." That is a simplification but that's what the notes convey. The severe shortage of secondary source analysis is unforgivable. The absence of Harsh and Rafuse here is especially striking.

So, bad controversy and evidence handling prevail over good. Hartwig first narrows the field of contestants in a controversy, then picks a lottery winner without resorting to argument.

Let me give a severe but representative example.

McClellan had ridden out of the city limits to meet Pope’s returning command. Hartwig recaps Jacob Cox’s account of the encounter of McClellan, Pope, and McDowell and he notes the account with an aside: “For McClellan’s fanciful and largely innacurate account of this meeting, see McClellan, McClellan’s Own Story, 537.”

So there are two versions of the event, one by a principal (GBM) and one by an observer (JC) and we are to take the observer’s version as real and the principal’s as “fanciful” and “innacurate.”

Why? No answer is given.

The distinctions in the two stories are simplicity and complexity. Cox tells a simple story: Pope’s party, looking tired, approached, received orders where to position units, saluted, and moved on. McClellan’s version recounts the substance of the conversation with Pope aside from the matter of positioning units in the defenses. The content of this conversation had to do with status of units and firing in the distance. This is what Hartwig says is “fanciful” and “largely innacurate.”

Hartwig continues in his note to say, “Also see Sears, George B. McClellan, 262, for Cox’s comments on McClellan’s account.” We turn to that work with high expectations and on said page we read: “In preparing a review of McClellan’s Own Story, Cox, a witness to the encounter, jotted in the margin of his copy, ‘Certainly not true.’”

And there you have it. Cox is the winner through the magic of simple assertion. We now know what happened when McClellan met Pope. All we had to do was debit GBM's account 100% and credit Cox's the same amount.

I could go through the end notes compiling a list of these, where a variant account is acknowledged in the back of the book and then disposed of by coin toss or lottery.

If history were only that easy. Gettysburg teaches us that it isn’t.

I have a couple of suspicions about this book.

- Hartwig started the book one way, many years ago, and resolved not to be influenced by the many new works or their implications before he finished his study.

- He believes the determinative outcome on all controversies lies with the author; the author must make the call.

- He believes that once the author makes the call, the qualities of the narrative and the reading experience, not the evidence, will determine for the reader if the calls were right.

- He believes he has written an authoritative account of the campaign.

And this takes me to another assumption. In my 794-page first volume, I see an introduction of two and one-tenth pages length. I see a bibliographical essay of three and one quarter pages length. Astonishing. My surmise is that Scott was compelled to add these by his publisher and did so with the greatest haste (if not reluctance).

We have in this large volume nowhere that the the author states his case for this book, why he wrote it, what it’s supposed to do for us, how it relates to the field in which it appears.

And that is the oddest thing of all.

p.s. It is with great reluctance that I criticize at length someone’s labor of love, especially someone with the good-guy reputation of D. Scott Hartwig. This book is readable and on levels enjoyable. I found things I did not know and Mr. Hartwig, to my great fun, rolls over some conventional wisdom like a steamroller when his sources lead him to do so. The extended criticism in this post is a recommendation with caveats - I don’t link to authors I can’t recommend.

The problem is his is no broad view of the evidence; there is narrative driving analysis; there is a haste to close open questions and to avoid engaging in controversy in a deep or meaningful way.

Epistemology is at the root of history - why do we believe that we know this or that as “fact”? Evidence handling flows from that. If we don’t ask the right questions we are left with a story that obeys the inner logic of fiction plotting.

I am going to post on some individual topics out of this book and dissect them in detail in the weeks ahead. This is not an all-out assault on Scott Hartwig but an opportunity to review failings across the spectrum of Civil War history.

This is a criticism blog and critics will be critics.

p.p.s. Harry has an interview with the author here.