New book on the fighting in the Miller Cornfield in the Battle of Antietam

The battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, remains the bloodiest single day of combat in American military history. Several of my relatives on my father’s side were there, serving in the 7th Virginia (in the Union Second Corps), later the 7th West Virginia, during the Sons of the Mountains’ unsuccessful attack on the Sunken Road. The Chambers boys lived to fight again the following year at Gettysburg,  but Antietam remained seared in their consciousness and memory.

So many places on the relatively compact, neatly cultivated battlefield became killing grounds. Names such as Bloody Lane, the West Woods, the Dunker Church, Burnside’s Bridge, and the East Woods have come down in history. Units such as the Iron Brigade, the Louisiana Tigers, the Texas Brigade, and others enhanced their respective reputations, but at a high cost in lives lost or ruined.

Perhaps the worst carnage of the day came in the repeated attacks in a heretofore nondescript cornfield belonging to a Maryland farmer named David R. Miller. He, like so many of his neighbors, had no clue as September 1862 began that their lives would forever be changed as two opposing armies slugged it out in their fields, woods, and farmyards. A number of books have described the fighting in some detail, including James V. Murfin’s classic book from my childhood, his 1965 edition of The Gleam of Bayonets. Since that time, the works of many other authors, including Sears, Alexander, Jordan, Priest, McPherson, Gottfried, Recker, Hartwig, Frassanito, Clemens, Harsh, and a host of other Antietam authors have graced my bookshelves.

Now, Dr. Phillip Thomas Tucker, had been added to that assemblage with his new book, Miller Cornfield at Antietam: The Civil War’s Bloodiest Combat.

The impressive monument to the 130th Pennsylvania Infantry at Antietam. The regiment, largely from York County, “saw the elephant” during the bitterly-contested battle. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Between 5:30 and 7:30 a.m., a series of brutal assaults resulted in little tactical gain for either side, but a tremendous number of dead and wounded men littered the ground. Cornstalks were sheared off from the artillery fire and musketry, or from the tramping of thousands of soldiers across the gently rolling cornfield. Brigade after brigade on both sides were thrown into the fray as artillery roared, so much so that eyewitnesses later deemed it as “artillery hell.” Among the Confederate reinforcements that slammed into the Union lines in the cornfield were the howling Texans of John Bell Hood.

Tucker focused much of his attention (and praise) on Hood’s Texans, as well as to the black-hatted Iron Brigade and its supporting Battery B, 4th U. S. Light Artillery. At times, it almost seems as if he is overemphasizing their contributions that day more than the earlier combatants but, in retrospect, with Hood suffering almost 60% casualties, the Texans bore their fair share of the fighting. Tucker relies both quotations from both primary and secondary sources to pepper his account with several eyewitness accounts, though he uses far less soldier accounts than, say, John Michael Priest in his earlier work on Antietam.

Tucker’s narrative of brigade commander Colonel William Wofford’s and the Texans’ fight is accurate and well written, but the book perhaps could have been stronger with a much longer, more detailed account of the earlier fighting. Dr. Tucker devotes less than 25 pages to the early morning phase of the fight for cornfield and 150 or more to the westerners’ battle with the Iron Brigade and other Yankees. Perhaps a different book title, such as The Texas Brigade in the Miller Cornfield, would have been much more descriptive of the contents. Once I realized that the book was going to focus on “the gallant Hood’s” boys, I settled in to read of their exploits with less expectations of stories of Meade, Ricketts, Harry Hays, the Stonewall Brigade, and the others whose bodies lay in the field when the Iron Brigade and, later, the Texans arrived.

Still, to me, this was a useful book, with many accounts of the latter phases of the fight for the cornfield that I had not previously seen in previous works. As one with a life-long interest in Antietam from my own relatives and from a short book of human interest stories from the Maryland Campaign that I wrote a few years back, I enjoyed Dr. Tucker’s new book and found it interesting and well worth my time. It’s an easy read, flows well, and highly descriptive. The orders of battle in the back of the book were useful, as I found myself referring to the organizational structure several times.

Several times, I lamented the lack of detailed battle maps in the style of Gottfried (or, even more so, like Laino’s excellent short-time frame reference maps for Gettysburg in his Atlas). This book could have used perhaps 10 to 15 maps showing the various phases of the battle as the combat ebbed and flowed with the arrival of fresh troops. I would recommend having Dr. Gottfried’s map book on hand as a reference while reading this book.

The back cover touts the fighting in David Miller’s cornfield as “a forgotten turning point of the Civil War.” I would suggest that the fight for the cornfield was certainly critical to the overall actions that day, but it certainly has not been forgotten or ignored in the historiography or in the popular media of the past four or five decades.

All in all, this book needs to be read with the understanding that it is heavily slanted from the Texans’ perspective (particularly the First Regiment, Texas Volunteer Infantry), but it is a story well told and helped fill in several gaps in my understanding of Colonel Wofford’s fight against the Iron Brigade.

Dr. Philip Tucker Thomas, Miller Cornfield at Antietam: The Civil War’s Bloodiest Combat (The History Press, 2017), 255 pages, illustrated, annotated, indexed. ISBN 978-1-62585-865-8.

 

 

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