Civil War Book Review: Unholy Sabbath: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory

by Brett Schulte on February 28, 2012 · 3 comments

Jordan, Brian M. Unholy Sabbath: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory, September 14, 1862 (Savas Beatie, January 2012). 408 pages, illustrations, 12 maps, bibliography, footnotes, index. ISBN: 978-1-61121-088-0 $32.95 (Hardcover).

UnholySabbathTheBattleOfSouthMountainInHistoryAndMemoryJordanWas the Union surrender at Harpers Ferry or the Battle of South Mountain the more important event in the 1862 Maryland Campaign?  Although proponents of the Lost Cause would have you believe the former, author Brian Jordan argues forcefully for the latter, going so far as to elevate South Mountain to equal importance with Antietam.  Although this argument involves downplaying Antietam a bit too forcefully, Jordan is correct in elevating South Mountain to a stronger position.  The author ultimately succeeds in writing both a solid tactical history of the battle as well as placing it in its proper context within the Maryland Campaign, showing a good grasp of the existing literature while skillfully utilizing a multitude of primary sources.

Author Brian Jordan holds a BA in History and Civil War Era studies from Gettysburg College and is currently pursuing his Ph.D.in history at Yale University.  Jordan has been published multiple times, including in the pages of Civil War History.  He decided to write this book after seeing how badly South Mountain is ignored today in official literature at Antietam National Battlefield.  What he found is sure to interest anyone fascinated with the 1862 Maryland Campaign.  Jordan is currently working on a book about Union veterans and their lives after the Civil War.

The Battle of South Mountain was fought on September 14, 1862 and is often looked at as a trifling prelude to the bloodiest single day in American history at Antietam.  The battle has three distinct phases: the first two at Fox’s Gap and Turner’s Gap west of Middletown, Maryland, and the third at Crampton’s Gap, miles south near Burkittsville, Maryland, now unfortunately better known in connection with the fictitious Blair Witch.

Portions of D.H. Hill’s Confederate division defended Fox’s Gap against the Union Ninth Corps, led by Jesse Reno.  Other portions of Hill’s division, reinforced by Evans’s Brigade and D.R. Jones’ Division, attempted to hold off the Union First Corps at Turner’s Gap and along the National Road.  Six miles to the south, portions of Lafayette McLaws’ Division attempted to hold off Franklin’s Union Sixth Corps.  In each case, despite very strong positions on the mountainside, the numerically inferior Confederates were pushed from the gaps in confusion and sent sprawling west in retreat.  The individual battles for the gaps all seemed to display marked levels of confusion, hesitation and incompetency on the Confederate side, though Rodes’ defense of Turner’s Gap was conducted more competently than the others.

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Ultimately, argues Jordan, the Federal victory at South Mountain wrecked Lee’s ultimate goal of invading Pennsylvania and caused the Union army to discover a new found confidence never seen since the early days of the war.  The author believes this defeat utterly demoralized Lee to the point of not truly wanting a battle at Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862.  Lee expected to bluff McClellan with a mock stand and nearly paid for it with the destruction of his army.  Federal soldiers writing during and after the war agree with Jordan.  He unearthed many sources which looked at South Mountain as one of the decisive victories of the Union armies during the Civil War.  These men routinely talked of the energy and determination this battle gave them in time for the massive clash at Antietam only a few days later.  The previously invincible Confederates were shown to be human, and more importantly, beatable.  He argues for a reevaluation of South Mountain and Antietam in which the former battle plays a much more prominent role than it is currently given today.

Union veterans tended to place almost as much importance on the South Mountain fighting as on Antietam itself.  In a last chapter designed to explore how South Mountain fared in the intervening years, Jordan asserts Confederate proponents of the Lost Cause school of historiography attempted to downplay South Mountain at every opportunity, instead arguing for Harpers Ferry as the turning point of the campaign.  Daniel Harvey Hill, in charge of the Confederate defenses at Fox’s and Turner’s Gaps, led this charge.  He argued that his job was to defend the passes long enough to allow Harpers Ferry to fall, not to prevent McClellan from breaking through entirely.  Jordan dismisses these claims as post-battle revisionism and an effort to make the Maryland Campaign fit the Lost Cause model.  Ultimately, however, these Lost Cause efforts proved fruitful, and Jordan uses Antietam National Battlefield pamphlets from the late 19th Century and today to prove just how successfully the Confederates “refought” South Mountain, this time with pen and paper rather than with musket and bayonet.

In Unholy Sabbath, author Brian Jordan spends a good deal of time looking at the war up until September 1862.  In fact, he spends much more than might typically be spent in this endeavor, with one chapter each focusing on the two sides in the book’s first forty pages.  When Jordan reaches the tactical portion of the book the narrative for Fox’s Gap tended to be a bit confusing in places, though this improves when the author covers Turner’s Gap and Crampton’s Gap.  Part of my confusion may have stemmed from the number of maps.  While an author interview appendix at the back of the book lauds the number of maps, I argue there should have been at least several more.  The maps are almost all “zoomed in” greatly and provide little idea of what was going on elsewhere on the battlefield at the same moment.  In addition, no map exists covering the advance of Hatch’s First Corps division in the fight for Turner’s Gap, a curious omission.  Please do not misconstrue my overall impression of the maps based on the comments above.  Those that exist were extremely well done, with elevation lines, fence lines and types, fields and types, and other features very well done.  The tactical maps go down to the company level in places and were magnificently done by Brad Gottfried.  The author’s frequent comments on leaders of both sides are refreshing.  He refuses to pull his punch and calls things as he sees them, a much appreciated trait and one that should serve him well in future efforts.

I like to compare battle and campaign studies with other similar books for my readers.  Unfortunately in this case I am not as able to do a even a sufficient job.  I last read John Michael Priest’s “uber-micro-history” in the early 1990’s.  With that said and based on my recollection, Priest’s maps were all hand drawn.  He attempted to go into great detail and provide a moving picture of the tactical situation in very short intervals.  Jordan’s book provides more of an overall view of each main stage of the fighting, with arrows indicating advances and retreats.  John David Hoptak’s book on the battle from the History Press is on its way to my house as I type this review.  I hope to provide a better comparison of Hoptak’s and Jordan’s books when I review the former.  I welcome any comments from students of the Maryland Campaign who have read one or more of these books.

Jordan’s sources are many and varied.  He uses the foundation of any book on the Maryland Campaign, Ezra A. Carman’s The Maryland Campaign, Volume 1 of which was recently published by Savas Beatie.  The author also seems to be somewhat of a disciple of Joseph Harsh, whose trilogy of books on the Maryland Campaign have done so much to change previously held popular views of the campaign.  Jordan also is well versed in Timothy Reese’s views of Crampton’s Gap as an entirely separate battle from the northern gaps and discusses this briefly in the text and a footnote.  The author appears to have made good use of unit histories from various regiments which participated in the fighting as well as letters and diary entries from those who were there.  His main thesis rests on the use of these items, in fact.  In any case, those who challenge the author’s findings will not have any ammunition in terms of the number and types of sources used.

The book contains three appendices.  The first two are the Union and Confederate orders of battle.  They contain casualties suffered at South Mountain as well as regimental and battery commanders where appropriate.  Unfortunately, unit strengths are omitted, with the added caveat that unit strengths during the Maryland Campaign, particularly for the Confederates, will probably remain a mystery for all time due to the flowing nature of the campaign and its occurrence at the end of a very active period of operations from May-September 1862.  The interview with author Brian Jordan is a nice summary of his views on South Mountain, Antietam, and Harpers Ferry and their respective importance on the outcome of the 1862 Maryland Campaign.  I don’t recollect too many author interviews at the back of their own book, but it results in a positive end to the book and a nice summation of what a reader has just read.

At the very end of my early e-book copy of the text, an excerpt from Ezra A. Carman’s the Maryland Campaign is included.  This is a nice inclusion by Savas Beatie and a smart way to advertise another of their books which contains further reading for those who enjoyed Unholy Sabbath.  It also gives readers a small taste of the monumental efforts of editor Tom Clemens and the amount of research required to fully annotate Carman’s original unpublished manuscript.

Unholy Sabbath: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory, September 14, 1862 is the best overall treatment of the battle I’ve read.  The author argues for a reevaluation of the battle based on a review of veterans’ own words.  He strives to give the battle greater importance in overall view of the 1862 Maryland Campaign at the expense of Harpers Ferry, and uses historiography to show that the Battle of South Mountain was continually and purposefully reduced in importance by Confederates in the post-war years who were seeking to make the campaign fit the Lost Cause model.  Unholy Sabbath is well-written, accompanied by a good number of excellent maps, and goes beyond the fighting to fully cover the Battle of South Mountain.  The author sought to combine academic history with more traditional military history and did well in this effort.  Students of the Maryland Campaign will want to own this book as an essential new volume in the literature.

This book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.
The links to the product reviewed in this article are affiliate links. If you buy this product after clicking one of my links, I’ll make a small amount of money.  The possibility of earning something from the affiliate link has not influenced the objectivity of the review and my opinions are honestly offered.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Savas Beatie February 28, 2012 at 11:27 am

As always, thank you for the great review of our book, Unholy Sabbath. If your readers would like more information about the book, including an excerpt, or its author, please check at http://tinyurl.com/3tme26b.
Savas Beatie LLC
Publisher of Historical Titles of Distinction
http://www.savasbeatie.com
http://www.facebook.com/savasbeatie

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Brian Jordan February 28, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Brett,

Thanks for the great review and your kind words. I appreciate all that you do for Civil War History. Your readers can follow Unholy Sabbath on Facebook here:

http://www.facebook.com/UnholySabbath

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