An Interview with Bradley Gottfried, author of The Maps of Antietam: An Atlas of the Antietam (Sharpsburg) Campaign, including the Battle of South Mountain, September 2 - 20, 1862
: SB: Let’s start with a basic question: how long have you been interested in the Civil War and how did you get interested in this period of our history?
BMG: The answer to this simple question is rather complicated. My first round of interest began when I was about 12. I started collecting books and my parents took me to a few battlefields. When I went off to college, I put the books into boxes and didn’t open them again until I was about forty-three! I never had the heart to get rid of those books, and moved them from place to place as my career evolved. The urge to open those boxes hit me when I moved back to my home town of Philadelphia. That was twenty years ago. My interest was renewed as soon as I started flipping through those books.
: This is your ninth Civil War book. Why drives you to research and write?
BMG: I am a researcher and writer by nature, and I enjoy sharing what I learn with others. It is also a way that I can honor those who fought and died during that horrible period of American history. We owe it to them to tell their stories in a fair and balanced way.
: You are the president of a college with three campuses spanning three counties in Southern Maryland. How do you find the time to write?
BMG: It’s all about time management and dealing with interruptions. I get up very early every morning, about 3:00 a.m., and that’s when I do my writing. Sometimes I’m forced to spend that time on work-related matters, which can be frustrating. But my day job comes first. I never let more than three days pass without conducting research or writing.
: You began writing about the Gettysburg Campaign and have written a number of important and well-received books on that topic, including The Brigades of Gettysburg, The Roads to Gettysburg, The Artillery of Gettysburg, and of course, The Maps of Gettysburg. So the obvious question: why Gettysburg?
BMG: Because I love the topic. I’ve been criticized for spending so much time on Gettysburg, but any researcher knows that there is a gold mine of primary material on the subject. My philosophy is that if I am going to write, choose a topic that people are interested in learning more about, and something I have an interest in spending so much time working on.
: The Maps of Gettysburg was your first book in what would become the Savas Beatie Military Atlas series. How did you come up with the idea?
BMG: As odd as this might sound, I’m not really sure. It evolved over time—a realization that really took form when I was writing The Brigades of Gettysburg. It was then that I recognized that I was spending untold hours trying to figure out what unit was where and when. No book on the subject had enough maps to satisfy my needs, and even if they were good maps, they only covered a snapshot in time and so rarely matched the text. For the work I was doing, I needed maps—lots of maps—and they just were not available. So I settled on a concept to offer a lot of text tied to a single facing-page map. And then tell the story of the campaign that way, map by map, from beginning to end.
: There are not many authors who research, write, and draft their own maps. How did you learn cartography skills?
BMG: (Laughing) I learned out of sheer desperation. I initially worked with a Civil War cartographer. I wrote the text to accompany each map and prepared a rough sketch map for him. It is a time-consuming process, and he decided to go in a different direction. I collaborated with a second cartographer, but we had a significant difference of opinion on the projects’ direction and parted ways. It was then that it dawned on me that the only way this series was going to be realized was if I learned how to produce the maps myself. I think they are better than some, not as good as others, but they get the job done.
: How do you conduct your research for these atlas books?
BMG: I begin by preparing an outline of the major components of the campaign and a rough estimation of how many maps will be needed to adequately tell the story. Then I dig into the literature—primary and secondary. I also spend a lot of time visiting various repositories and battlefield libraries to review unpublished materials and visiting the battlefields to get a better sense of the topography and nature of the terrain. Once these materials are in hand I begin the writing process. I prepare the text first, and then the map.
: Have you ever prepared a map and then thought, “That can’t be right?”
BMG: Actually, I have. I look at the map and realize the text isn’t quite right—that some of the literature is flawed and this event or that event could not have happened as reported. A simple example might be a soldier of one regiment claiming to have fired into a particular enemy regiment, but when you look at the terrain and walk the field, you know that could not have happened as the soldier later recalled. Visualizing the action really helps in this regard.
: After The Maps of Gettysburg you turned to First Bull Run. Why?
BMG: I have always wanted to “run the table,” so to speak and complete all of the major campaigns in the Eastern Theater from first to last. Readers have certain favorites, and if I am to succeed Bull Run has to be covered, so I reached back and completed it. I am trying to concentrate on some of the most popular campaigns first. I am 62-years-old and hope one day to complete the project, but if I don’t, at least the most popular campaigns will be covered.
: Why was Antietam the third book in the series?
BMG: After Gettysburg (and having completed First Bull Run), the second most popular campaign for students of the war is Antietam. The invasion of Maryland in 1862 is a fascinating and rather complex affair that really needs to be visualized to be fully understood.
: What were some of the interesting things you learned while writing this book?
BMG: I have to say it was the fighting at South Mountain on September 14. I didn’t know all that much about the three major fights (Fox’s, Turner’s, and Crampton’s gaps), and I didn’t fully appreciate the impact that Union victory had on the campaign. They are each quite fascinating and are now among my favorite places to visit.
: Any particular personalities stand out for their valor or accomplishments that surprised you?
BMG: There are many. Let me pick a recognizable personality from each side. For the Confederates, I really have to say Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill’s performance impresses me. With a depleted division he was assigned the task of stopping two large Federal army corps from penetrating the gaps in South Mountain. His 5,000 or so men faced upwards to 30,000 enemy troops. He had far too few men to hold the line he was assigned, but he did a good job, used the terrain as best as he could, and held off the enemy all day. It was not until after dark that the Federal I Corps captured Turner’s Gap. In the end this was a Union victory, but Hill did a remarkable job given what he had to work with. Hill also held the center of Lee’s line at Antietam along the Sunken Road, and he fought well there, too.
: And on the Union side?
BMG: I would probably say Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commander of the I Corps. He fought very well at Antietam—certainly much better than did any other Federal corps leader. Hooker was visible to his troops and right out there with them, and he was outspoken in his interactions with George McClellan.
: Given its wide interest and its importance to the Civil War, why aren’t there more books on this campaign?
BMG: That’s a great question. I wish I knew the answer. Until very recently there was almost nothing of substance written about South Mountain and only a couple good books on Antietam. Unlike Gettysburg, which had scores of authoritative treatments by distinguished writers such as Edwin Coddington, Harry Pfanz, David Martin, Earl Hess, Eric Wittenberg, J. D. Petruzzi—the list is a very long one, nothing like it exists for Antietam. There are great books on Fredericksburg and the Overland Campaign, and micro-studies on Gettysburg, but Antietam has been overlooked. The field is almost completely intact, too. I can’t explain why.
: The Maps of Antietam contains 124 maps. Does it differ in any significant ways from your first two books in this series?
BMG: It really doesn’t differ that much in approach. All three books begin with the onset of the campaigns and course through the major events, and then end in what I think is an appropriate place. I think my writing and cartography has matured, however. At least, I like to think so.
: Was Antietam a good place for Lee to offer battle?
BMG: One of the maxims of war is that you don’t fight a battle with your back to a river. And that’s what Lee ended up doing. Had he been defeated he almost certainly would have effectively lost his army because there was only one ford behind him. As I explain in the book, I don’t think he intended to fight there, but once McClellan crossed Antietam Creek on September 16 and blocked Lee’s route north, Lee had little choice. From the Confederate point of view, I don’t think it was a good place to wage a defensive battle given the depleted and exhausted state of Lee’s army. He didn’t even have enough men to anchor his flanks.
: What are you working on now?
BMG: Several things. Ted Savas and I are excited about producing books to coincide with the Sesquicentennial. I am finishing an atlas book on the 1863 fall campaigns. This covers the fascinating and always overlooked period after the end of the Gettysburg campaign through the turn of the year. (Ted and I are also finished up The Gettysburg Encyclopedia, which we hope will be available for a Sesquicentennial release in 2013.) This post-Gettysburg atlas includes some cavalry actions, the Bristoe Station Campaign, Rappahannock Station (where two of Lee’s finest infantry brigades were essentially destroyed), and the Mine Run Campaign in late November and early December. Once that is completed, I will begin begin work on the 1864 Overland Campaign. The first volume will include the Wilderness and Spotsylvania and related actions.
: What sort of feedback do you get about these atlas books?
BMG: Quite a bit, and I am really appreciative that people take the time and trouble to share their thoughts with me, often at book signings. One thing I hear a lot is that these books unlock all the other material written on the same subject, so they will read a different book on, say, Gettysburg, using my map atlas to help understand it. Even people who have a good knowledge of Gettysburg have told me that their understanding of the campaign is deeper and richer because they can now visualize it better. That gives me great satisfaction. And I also hear about the mistakes, which is fine and we work to correct them. That just make the books better.