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Art Callaham: Two books paint brutal pictures of Civil War

June 10, 2012|By ART CALLAHAM

As I have promised, during this sesquicentennial period commemorating the American Civil War, here is another column, this one relating to events from March through September 1862.

The Civil War was actually fought in two separate theaters of war; one in the West and one here in the East. Most of us from this area (the mid-Atlantic) know a lot about the war as it took place in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia and maybe a little about North and South Carolina’s involvement. Yet a thousand miles away from the Union Capitol in Washington and nearly a similar distance from the Confederate Capitol in Richmond, Va., numerous battles were fought and strategy formulated in states like Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Georgia. That area is often referred to as “the Western Theater” or the “trans-Mississippi Theater.”

The months of April and September of 1862 brought to America arguably two of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare throughout the entire world. Certainly the Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg if you’re of a mind) is clearly the bloodiest one-day battle fought on American soil in our nation’s history.

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That battle was fought about nine miles south from Hagerstown’s Public Square — in the war’s Eastern theater — on the 17th of September 1862.

In the aftermath of that fateful battle, America’s “little Napoleon,” a general hamstrung with “the slows,” was sent packing for a second time; President Lincoln received enough of a victory to free the slaves “within the States in rebellion,” and a Confederate juggernaut was repulsed insuring the war would not be over quickly.

In the spring of that same year — April 6 and 7 — near a Methodist meeting house called Shiloh Church (the battle commonly bears the church’s name), two armies made up of mostly volunteers and generally ill equipped met in bungling mortal and bloody combat. The Battle of Shiloh (or Pittsburg Landing), fought using antiquated Napoleonic tactics, cost the Confederacy its “finest soldier” and sealed the military prowess of a future American president.

One short newspaper column will not do justice to the “big picture” surrounding the times, the players, the geography or the battles of Shiloh and Antietam. So allow me to recommend two new books that paint that big picture in the East and the West surrounding these historically significant Civil War battles.

First, “September Suspense — Lincoln’s Union in Peril,” Dennis Frye’s new book, focuses on the Civil War battles of Antietam, South Mountain and Harpers Ferry, including the perilous times facing Abraham Lincoln in the summer of 1862. Frye’s book will hit bookstores soon. In fact, Dennis will be signing copies of the book on June 15, from 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. at the Convention and Visitors Bureau in downtown Hagerstown.

You may take it to the bank: this is Frye at his best. Using newspaper articles and opinion letters from the time, Frye paints a picture of life as it manifests itself to Lincoln and ties that life into what goes on in the halls of Washington juxtaposed onto the battlefield terrain.  “September Suspense” is good history and a great story. The book is a quick read and will keep readers focused on the politics and the political outcomes during this momentous period in the history of America.

Second, “Shiloh 1862” by Winston Groom is available in bookstores now. Groom is famous for novels like “Forrest Gump” and non-fiction works like “Vicksburg, 1863” and “A Storm in Flanders.” He takes you inside the minds of many “Shiloh” participants by detailing long forgotten facts about Confederate and Union leaders, their successes and their failures.

Groom is a master storyteller who blends facts into a seamless period piece that smells of cannon fire, feels of murky swamps and rancid pond water, and captures the horror of the battlefield. All the while, telling of the backroom political deals that seal the fate of soldiers on both sides of the firing line.

It is unimaginable to me to conceive of .58-caliber (that is a barrel size greater than 1/2- inch in diameter) projectiles being fired at distances of less than 50 yards by soldiers standing in opposing lines.

Or political leaders sending volunteers to fight without proper food, shelter, equipment or arms and ammunition; however, such was the case for both sides in 1862.

Frye and Groom do great justice to the stories of the time and will leave you with a true sense of the horrors of the Civil War.

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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