A Talk with Justin Martin, author of A Fierce Glory

Why is Antietam important?

The battle produced the bloodiest day in American history, resulting in 3,650 deaths, still the country’s highest single-day toll. It was also hugely consequential. If the South won, Britain and France were poised to intervene, Maryland might flip to the Confederacy, and Robert E. Lee would be free to attack northern cities, even the capital. But if the North won, Lincoln stood ready to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves and infusing the Union war effort with a new higher purpose. The stakes couldn’t have been higher.


Was Antietam a more critical battle than Gettysburg?

Yes. Gettysburg gets all the glory. It was a marathon three-day battle that broke the Confederacy. But Antietam was fought in 1862, nearly a year earlier. If the South had won, they likely would have won the Civil War then and there. There would not even have been a Battle of Gettysburg. And today, what we know as the “United States” would be two separate nations.


How is your book different than others about the battle?

I’ve chosen to tell a story as opposed to writing a military history. As such, I’ve worked Lincoln into the tale. Though he wasn’t on the battlefield, he was down in Washington anxiously awaiting the outcome. If the Union won, he was resolved to issue his Emancipation Proclamation.

Lincoln also stood in opposition to both of the generals on the field that day: Confederate Robert E. Lee, obviously, but also the Union’s George McClellan. Lincoln and McClellan had a very troubled relationship; to manage his general required the president to summon all of his considerable skills. So to properly tell the story of Antietam, you really want to work in Lincoln, which I’ve done.


What else would you like to highlight about the battle?

Some of the most important “action” at Antietam didn’t involve fighting. The battle resulted in a vast medical emergency. Two important medical innovators—Jonathan Letterman and Clara Barton—made their debuts at Antietam. The battle was also the occasion for the photographer Alexander Gardner to create a pioneering series of images. Clearly, Antietam was so much more than a mere gunfight.


How is Antietam relevant today?

The Battle of Antietam, indeed the Civil War, grew out of tensions that go way back in America’s history. Those tensions still exist today, and are rooted in some of the same issues such as regionalism and race.

Here’s another way that Antietam is relevant: Invariably, any list of presidents rates Abraham Lincoln as number one. And arguably, the Emancipation Proclamation was his masterstroke, the finest expression of his political genius. Quite a contrast can be drawn between Lincoln’s leadership and presidential leadership in the current era.