Justin Martin is the author of the new book A Fierce Glory: Antietam--The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery. His other books include Rebel Souls and Genius of Place. A former staff writer for Fortune, his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Newsweek and Money. He lives in Forest Hills Gardens, New York.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on the battle of Antietam in your new book?
A: This was the Civil War’s most pivotal battle. I would argue that it was more important than Gettysburg.
The battle took place near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on Sept. 17, 1862, and it was the culmination of a first-ever Confederate invasion of the North.
The Rebels had cooked up a diabolically clever scheme. Score a victory on Northern soil and England and France might interfere on the South’s behalf, the Union midterm elections might be disrupted, the state of Maryland might even secede and join the Confederacy.
However, Lincoln had a sly secret plan of his own, contingent on a Union victory. He planned to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which to this point was hidden away in his desk, known only to his closest advisors. By freeing the slaves, the Proclamation promised to invest the Union war effort with a new and nobler purpose.
So the stakes were huge. Whatever side won at Antietam was likely to win the Civil War.
Q: You note that Lincoln is a bigger part of your book than he is in many other studies of Antietam. Why did you choose to focus on Lincoln?
A: Given that Antietam was a battle that promised repercussions far beyond the battlefield, I figured readers would benefit from having the tale told in a fresh fashion.
Other Antietam books tend to focus strictly on the battle action: page upon page devoted to troop formations and movements. Sadly, it’s possible to lose the enormity of the battle in an endless stream of military action. It’s valuable, I think, to take periodic breaks so as to get reoriented to the larger picture.
So why not work Lincoln directly into the narrative, I figured. During the battle, he was offstage, as it were, in Washington, D.C. He was desperate for any news from the battlefield, yet he remained in the dark even though he was only about 50 miles away from the action. Hey, this was a pre-CNN era.
But Lincoln’s lack of real-time information also has the potential of generating serious suspense. It had the added advantage of allowing me to craft a modern-style narrative, where I take readers back and forth between the battlefield and a nervous Lincoln. He’s a fascinating character to spend time with.
Q: How did you research this book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: At the outset, I read a number of books about Antietam. But that was mostly to help ground myself in this massive event.
For my research, I focused on primary accounts of the battle, produced by participants. These were things such as letters, diary entries, and officers’ reports. Some of these items I was able to track down in old books; others required archival research in places such as the New York Public Library and Library of Congress
One thing that surprised me is the sheer number of primary accounts that exist. Then again, you have to consider that more than 100,000 people (soldiers, medical personnel, townspeople) participated in the battle in some fashion or other. The result is a vast number of written accounts.
It’s an embarrassment of riches, especially given how poorly documented even some of history’s most significant events can be. Wading through the mass of first-hand accounts was a bear, but also made my job very rewarding.
Q: What do you see as the legacy today of the battle of Antietam and its aftermath?
A: For starters, it remains the bloodiest day in U.S. history. More than 3,500 soldiers died at the battle, making it more lethal even than other days of infamy such as Pearl Harbor or 9-11.
But light came out of that darkness. Because Antietam was a Union victory, it became the occasion for Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, lending the Union war effort that new, higher purpose–freeing the slaves.
Of course, America has never achieved completion or finality; our country is more of an idea, ever in flux. Antietam’s legacy–indeed the legacy of the entire Civil War–remains evident today in various divisions that still rend the nation. Our country remains contentious along North-South lines that mirror what existed in the 19th century, and even before that.
Nowadays, too, there’s another divide that isn’t so much geographical as what might be termed progressive versus conservative.
The Civil War was notorious for pitting brother against brother. Well, anyone that has recently gotten together for a family dinner may have experienced the modern incarnation, a progressive-versus-conservative split capable of sparking serious tensions between mothers and sons, brothers and sisters.
America has always been a fractious place, an uneasy union, and now it's at a particularly fevered inflection point. The resonance between Antietam’s time and current times is something that drew me to this project.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Currently, I’m on the hunt for my next book idea. I don’t tend to finish a project with another book idea in mind; I envy writers that work in such an orderly fashion. I finish a book and think, “Now what?”
This may partly owe to the fact that I enjoy ranging broadly in subject matter. I’ve written books on everything from Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan to a group of unruly artists that hung out in a Manhattan bar during the 1850s, rightly considered America’s first Bohemians.
I enjoy the variety and I often discover surprising connections between my subjects.
For example, I wrote a book on Frederick Law Olmsted, the pioneering designer of Central Park. It required me to learn about landscapes, and how to describe them. When I embarked upon my Antietam book, I had no idea that I’d be drawing on this skill.
But Antietam was an intimate, 19th century battle (no drone strikes, no bomber planes flying high in the sky). In fact, sometimes opposing soldiers faced one another across frighteningly short distances. As a consequence, even modest-seeming features of the landscape (bridges, country lanes, cornfields) loomed very, very large.
For my latest book, I’d like to think readers benefitted from my ability to understand and describe landscapes. And for my next book, I suspect I’ll find new ways of connecting dots.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Earlier I mentioned that I set out to render Antietam in a new way. Well, that didn’t only involve upping Lincoln’s presence in the story. I also wove into the narrative some other nonmilitary participants.
There’s Clara Barton, for example, and also Jonathan Letterman. At Antietam, Barton made her debut as a battlefield nurse. Letterman would come to be known as the “Father of Battlefield Medicine.” Neither figured in the military action, strictly speaking, yet both played vital roles in the battle’s outcome.
Likewise, at Antietam, photographer Alexander Gardner created a series of landmark images that forever changed the way the public viewed warfare.
Clearly, Antietam was no mere gunfight; it’s a vast tale with many dimensions: military, medical, political, and journalistic. I hope readers enjoy my more expansive approach to this crucial historical event.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb