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It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it… Robert E. Lee

Before Antietam : the battle for South Mountain  John Michael Priest ; foreword by Edwin C. Bearss  New York : Oxford University Press, 1996  Softcover. Originally published: Shippensburg, PA : White Mane Pub. Co., c1992. xix, 433 p. : ill., maps ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 405-417) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG 

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Photograph from the main eastern theater of the war, Battle of Antietam, September-October 1862. 1. Col. Delos B. Sacket, I.G. 2. Capt. George Monteith. 3. Lt. Col. Nelson B. Sweitzer. 4. Gen. George W. Morell. 5. Col. Alexander S. Webb, Chief of Staff, 5th Corps. 6. Gen. George B. McClellan. 7. Scout Adams. 8. Dr. Jonathan Letterman, Army Medical Director. 9. Unknown. 10. President Lincoln. 11. Gen. Henry J. Hunt. 12. Gen. Fitz-John Porter. 13. Unknown. 14. Col. Frederick T. Locke, A.A.G. 15. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys. 16. Capt. George Armstrong Custer.

Civil War scholars quickly recognize the dates of September 16-18, 1862 as the period marking the bloodiest battle of the entire campaign – Antietam. But until now, the ten days prior to that event have remained in relative obscurity. In Before Antietem,  Priest offers the first book-length, tactical exploration of the Maryland campaign and the Battles of South Mountain, describing the decisive events leading up to the famous battle and elevating them from mere footnote status to a matter of military record.

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Chronicling Robert E. Lee‘s turnabout from defensive maneuvres, Priest demonstrates how this tactical change brought about a series of engagements near Sharpsburg, Maryland that came to be known as “The Battle of South Mountain” in which the Federal and Confederate forces struggled fiercely over territory.

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It was here that George B. McClellan, the new Northern commander, led his Army of the Potomac to a furious action that produced one of the war’s few successful bayonet charges. Written from the perspective of the front line combatants (and civilian observers), the book recounts the Confederate movements and the Federal pursuit into Sharpsburg that set the stage for Antietam.

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From September 5-15, a total of twenty-five skirmishes and three pitched battles were fought. Priest provides graphic descriptions of the terrible conditions surrounding these events and so thoroughly enters into the common soldier’s viewpoint that military history quickly gives way to gritty realism.

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He vividly shows that, had Robert E. Lee not been bested at the gaps along South Mountain, there would have been no Antietam. Lee’s decision to make a stand along Antietam Creek was a point of pride – he had never been “whipped” before and would not return to Virginia defeated.

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Priest’s revealing narrative establishes that, at this stage of the Civil War, the Federal cavalry was better equipped and just as well trained as the Confederate cavalry but lacking the esprit de corps that drove the South they would never triumph and it would take more bayonet charges, more trenches and more artillery coupled with an absolute abscence of morality to win the final victory. Historians argue over whether Napoleon’s last battles or the Civil War campaigns like Atlanta, Petersburg and Richmond were the origin of modern combat. This study of McClellan – and his successors – may tip the balance in the latter’s favor but it is a dubious honor at best.

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