An Interview with the Author of Unholy Sabbath
Edited by James W. Durney
Books about the Battle of South Mountain do not crowd the bookshelves. Any you find are normally part of an Antietam Campaign study. Amazon lists three books dedicated to this battle. One is The History’s Press The Battle of South Mountain (MD) by John David Hoptak that is part of the Civil War Sesquicentennial Series. Another is Before Antietam: The Battle for South Mountain by John Michael Priest and Edwin C. Bearss first published in 1992. The third is Brian Matthew Jordan’s Unholy Sabbath: The Battle of South Mountain in Memory and History.
Q: What inspired you to write a book about the Battle of South Mountain?
Brian Matthew Jordan: I set out to determine why Civil War Americans viewed the Maryland Campaign as a turning point, and in the process, I discovered the Battle of South Mountain. Little had been written about the September 14, 1862 fight with most historians deeming it a trifling skirmish — nothing more than an insignificant clash three days prior to Antietam. Yet, in veterans’ accounts, regimental histories, diaries, letters, as well as regimental standards heralding the great battles of the war, South Mountain consistently earned a prominent place. Many of the veterans considered the battle to be the decisive turning point of the Maryland Campaign. When I first visited Antietam National Battlefield, I expected to find the story of South Mountain well told. I asked for directions to the mountaintop, only to discover that much of the land had been developed. There was hardly any available interpretation of the battle. So I decided to write something about it. (Note: It is difficult to find the sites. I spent the better part of two hours driving in circles looking for the Gaps.)
Q: Why has the Battle of South Mountain received so little attention from historians?
BMJ: First and foremost, the Battle of South Mountain has been completely overshadowed by the staggering number of losses at Antietam. A dozen hours of combat one unassuming September day added some 23,000 men to the Civil War’s grisly register of men killed, wounded, missing, or captured, rendering Antietam the single bloodiest day in American history. Some of our most vivid images of the Civil War are the photographs captured by Alexander Gardner, “The Dead of Antietam,” depicting rows of stiffened, bullet-riddled bodies strewn across the Hagerstown Turnpike and the Sunken Road. I think there is a tendency among Civil War chroniclers to consign great significance to great slaughter; in an attempt to rationalize such catastrophic losses, modern historians have “explained away” the staggering death toll by informing readers that the end of slavery and the future of freedom demanded such unprecedented sacrifices. The tragedy of the Battle of Antietam is minimized by the notion that it prompted the issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation – a reassuring explanation of what Antietam’s harvest of death accomplished. We remain uncomfortable with the contingencies of lived experience during war, and are reluctant to see the ability of small, random, unplanned events to force large ripples in the stream of historical events.
Secondly, the legacy of the battle of South Mountain suffered from the active post-war revisionism of its rebel participants. Confederates had little desire to remember a battle in which the federals wrestled such an unprecedented victory. There was simply more romance in the story of boldly striking north, fighting it out at Sharpsburg, and making an organized but not demoralizing retreat. South Mountain was a problem for the Confederates to overcome, but the remedy was ready-made in the Lost Cause mythology.
Q: Why should we remember the Battle of South Mountain?
BMJ: The Battle of South Mountain served as one of the first examples of hand-to-hand combat in the American Civil War. It was a fight that involved two future presidents, including one, Rutherford B. Hayes, who was seriously wounded. And it was on the passes of South Mountain that the Iron Brigade earned its now immortal moniker. But more importantly, Union veterans remembered South Mountain as a decisive turning point in the Maryland Campaign – the critical moment that transferred the momentum of the campaign to the Army of the Potomac. While it is uncertain what Lee’s ragtag force would have been able to accomplish had it remained unchecked by Union troops, the battle was nevertheless the point at which Robert E. Lee’s hopes for a “perfect” campaign north of the Potomac were dashed. South Mountain became the first decisive federal victory in the eastern theater of the war. Lee’s plans were foiled, his initiative halted. He found himself in the unprecedented position of having to issue orders for retreat – the clearest admission we have that he deemed the Battle of South Mountain significant enough to unravel his dreams of tenting on the Susquehanna. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, South Mountain is a cautionary tale for students of the Civil War. What we in the 21st century deem significant very often has little correlation to what the men themselves felt and experienced.
Q: How does Unholy Sabbath differ from other works about the Battle of South Mountain?
BMJ: Because of the confusing nature of the fights, historians seeking to understand the battle have narrowly focused on tactics, neglecting South Mountain’s larger, strategic significance within the Maryland Campaign. Unholy Sabbath considers the three gaps as a part of a strategic whole, and situates the campaign not only within the context of Lee’s invasion of Maryland, but also within the larger political, social, and military history of the Civil War. As such, readers come away with a stronger sense of South Mountain’s overall significance. My book is also the only existing study of the battle that considers its aftermath – the experience of tenting on a battleground wrestled from the enemy, the task of burying the dead, and the contested process veterans faced when remembering (or, conversely, forgetting) the past. Finally, the book contains a unique chapter on the Battle of South Mountain in historical memory.
Q: Describe some features of Unholy Sabbath you think readers will enjoy?
BMJ: Well, I hope readers will find this an engaging, vivid account of the battle. My goal was to provide readers with a deeply researched, accessible blend of political, social, and military history. Moreover, I think the readers will be delighted with the maps. The narrative is supplemented with 12 state-of-the-art maps generated by skilled Civil War cartographer Bradley M. Gottfried. All previous works on the Battle of South Mountain have relied on rather incomprehensible, hand-drawn maps. I think the maps alone are worth the price of the book! The narrative is also enhanced by the beautiful battlefield photography of Henry F. Ballone.
Note: Bradley M. Gottfried does the maps for the Savas Beatie Maps of series. His work is well known to our community. Henry F. Ballone is a highly respected photographer specializing in Civil War activities. In 2007, he was one of 12 winners in Xerox’s annual Print Sample Contest.
Q: What was your approach to writing Unholy Sabbath?
BMJ: I attempted to write a book that seamlessly blended academic history and military history in a way that would appeal to a general audience. To their peril, I think many historians within the academy are reluctant to embrace military history, just as military historians too often dismiss the work of academics. This book is not just another account of rectangles and arrows moving across the battlefield. Instead, I hope Unholy Sabbath is an example of the type of work that can be realized when academic history and military history merge with one another.
Q: What do you hope Unholy Sabbath accomplishes?
BMJ: My sincere hope is that Unholy Sabbath fosters a greater public appreciation for the events of September 14, 1862. This is especially important when you consider that the South Mountain battlefield has been routinely placed on the Civil War Trust’s list of the top ten most endangered battlefields in the nation. To be sure, the battlefield retains some hidden gems: large portions of all three gaps are meticulously preserved, the original stonewall held by the North Carolinians at Fox’s Gap still stands, and the Old Mountain House (now the Old South Mountain Inn) remains perched atop Turner’s Gap. Maryland’s Gathland State Park operates a small visitor contact station and, most recently, launched an in-depth walking tour of the Crampton’s Gap battlefield. But my ultimate dream is that we will one day have the South Mountain Unit of Antietam National Battlefield, and that the interpretive experiences for visitors will continue to expand in the coming years.
Q: Where did you conduct your research?
BMJ: I used diaries, letters, and manuscript collections from the rich holdings of the Library of Congress, the U.S. Army Military History Institute, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, Ohio Historical Society, Western Reserve Historical Society, Virginia Historical Society, and New York Public Library, among others. I also surveyed a wide array of regimental histories, published letters and diaries, veterans’ newspapers and magazines, and the official reports of commanders. Future students of the battle will have an easier time of it with the publication of Ezra Carman’s seminal manuscript on the Antietam campaign: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, edited and annotated by Tom Clemens.
Q: Are you currently working on any other projects?
BMJ: I am writing a cultural history of Union veterans, tentatively titled, When Billy Came Marching Home. Recently, my interest has shifted to the post-war years and the veteran experience. I suppose you can already see that interest developing in the pages of Unholy Sabbath. My next book will offer, I hope, the most detailed exploration that we have to date of the experience of coming home from the Civil War, the challenges of being a veteran, and the complicated tensions between veterans who could never forget, and civilians who refused to remember.