- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2007

In a sequel to his publication about Gettysburg a year ago, Scott L. Mingus Sr. provides a panoramic commentary on the bloodiest single day of the Civil War. “Human Interest Stories From Antietam” is a behind-the-scenes view of what was in the hearts and minds of residents and combatants as a terrible nightmare unfolded in Western Maryland during September 1862.

The stories of people caught up in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North span a period of about two weeks. During this time, Union Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac pursued and confronted Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Preliminary fighting took place in the South Mountain vicinity of Maryland before a grim encounter occurred on Sept. 17 a few miles farther west along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg that reaped more than 23,000 casualties.

Before this pastoral landscape turned red, however, the convergence of thousands of men in uniform produced myriad memorable experiences for those involved. Lee was disappointed, if not shocked, when the large majority of Marylanders looked upon his troops as invaders rather than liberators. Lee had been under the misapprehension that people living in a slave state below the Mason-Dixon line would flock to his cause, but this part of Maryland turned out to be heavily Unionist.

Lee experienced other problems as well. His forces were outnumbered, and he lost many stragglers and deserters along the route, further reducing combat effectiveness. Also, unknown to Lee, a copy of his operational plans fell into McClellan’s hands when a Union soldier found them in a field near Frederick wrapped around three cigars. Someone’s carelessness placed the Rebels in an even more difficult situation.

Nonetheless, the timidity of the opposing commander helped offset these drawbacks for the Rebels. McClellan held his counterpart in awe and perceived Lee’s army as an immense host despite his own considerable superiority in numbers. This mind-set led McClellan to be overly cautious in pursuit, thereby relinquishing his advantage.

As the two armies marched through towns and villages toward their ultimate destination, local residents either greeted or shunned them, depending on their political views. An old lady in Leesburg took one look at the shoeless, emaciated horde of Southern soldiers passing by and called out, “The Lord bless your dirty ragged souls.”

After crossing the border into Maryland, the intruders often were met with blank stares from unsmiling, hostile locals. A Frederick woman commented, “There isn’t a decently dressed soldier in their whole army.” In Middletown, young girls defiantly waved Union flags at Lee’s army.

In contrast, the people of Frederick welcomed McClellan like a conquering hero when he entered the town. The Union troops also demonstrated the high esteem in which they held their commander by lustily cheering and crowding around him. This adulation would not save McClellan’s job, however, when President Lincoln later found his leadership and aggressiveness to be wanting.

Along the route, both armies spent a good deal of time foraging for something to eat. Cows, pigs, geese and chickens in the area were prime targets. The Rebels requisitioned livestock and foodstuffs from stores and farmers and paid in nearly worthless Confederate money.

As the time for battle drew near, some of the men experienced presentiments of death. One older soldier from the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves continuously had this feeling and in the past had managed to be elsewhere when the fighting began. He could no longer avoid going into battle, and it was not long before he died from multiple gunshot wounds.

The human drama that played out at Antietam includes stories about a 15-year-old Medal of Honor winner; Charlie the dog, who was a mascot and happy warrior; locals caught in the middle of the opposing armies; a soldier saved by his Bible; another who discovered his father’s body on the battlefield; Lee meeting his own son during the battle and not recognizing him; Gen. James Longstreet stepping into the breach to serve as an artilleryman; a commissary sergeant and a brave colonel who both would become future presidents of the United States; and women in combat disguised as men.

The author gathered these accounts from a variety of primary sources, including letters, diaries, newspapers and regimental histories. The selection is varied, and the cadence is good. The narrative moves back and forth between events taking place in both the Union and Confederate armies.

Mr. Mingus’ “Human Interest Stories From Antietam” is a worthy addition to the body of works about one of the Civil War’s most sanguinary events.

Thomas J. Ryan of Bethany Beach is president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table.

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