An Interview with The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Volume II: Antietam editor Thomas G. Clemens

Scroll down to see an interview with Tom Clemens on The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Volume I: South Mountain

: Why did you decide to write The Maryland Campaign, Volume II: Antietam?

TC: I had always set my sights on doing the entire Carman manuscript even though it was an ambitious goal and would take many years. Carman’s account was just so fascinating and I wanted to continue after Volume I: South Mountain was written. I’m a very stubborn person, and once I decided to do the whole thing, there really was no choice.

: Can you give us some background information on Ezra Carman?

TC: Ezra Carman was from New Jersey. He entered into the Union army in late 1861. He was a Colonel of a recently-recruited regiment in the Maryland Campaign and he fought at Antietam. He was fascinated with the Campaign and the battles, so he started documenting it. Carman was often exposed to combat and was in more than 20 battles. He later became a member of the Antietam National Cemetery Board of Trustees. He then landed his dream job in 1894, and was appointed to the recently-created Antietam Battlefield Board, where his job title was “historical expert.” Here he was able to study the battlefield and was instructed to write a “pamphlet” as a guide for Congress about future development of the Battlefield. The pamphlet he wrote continued to grow and eventually became his 1,800 page manuscript.

: How did Carman gather his information, and from whom?

TC: Carman gathered his information from a wide variety of sources. He used the after-action reports of various commanders in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion that were printed and published by the government in the1880s. He also read and used regimental histories as well as newspaper stories. He spoke with hundreds of survivors from the war to gather personal accounts, from Generals to Privates, for his narrative. Many veterans also sent letters and returned map sections marked with the positions their regiment occupied during the battle.

: What do you think motivated Carman to write this manuscript?

TC: I don’t know that I could put my finger on it exactly, but he mentioned several times in his diary that he wanted to create the most accurate account of the story as possible, and he seems to have done this very successfully. It remains the most authoritative narrative of what happened at the Sharpsburg battle that has ever been printed.

: Is there evidence former Confederates trusted Carman to tell their story accurately?

TC: Yes, for example, J. Thompson Brown from Richmond, Virginia, wrote several letters about how Carman was the right man in the right place. Brown said the Confederates could send Carman their stories because he was trustworthy and that their stories would be told accurately. In his papers Carman has an after-action report of a Confederate brigade that is not in government records. This speaks about how Carman was trusted to use information fairly and accurately.

: How do you rate Carman as a historian?

TC: Carman is a very good historian, although he was not professionally trained, as few were in those days. He understood the importance of having primary accounts and getting these accounts from people firsthand. For example, in order to get the most accurate story for finding the famous Lost Order, Carman wrote to the officer who verified the signature and he got that officer’s memoirs about what happened. This shows how much Carman cared to have the most truthful story possible. Having said all that, Carman was not perfect. He seemed to take the testimony of an awful lot of senior leaders at face value when modern historical investigation suggests that these people were not being entirely honest with him.

: How does The Maryland Campaign, Volume II: Antietam compare with other books on Antietam?

TC: Well, obviously what I’m doing is annotating Carman’s narrative, not changing it. I tried to summarize new information in the footnotes of the book to make it as accurate as possible. Very early in the process it became clear I could not, and would not, try to write the definitive story of Antietam in the footnotes of Carman’s manuscript.

: How were the maps created?

TC: The maps that Carman created traced the action of the battle from daybreak to dusk and are the most accurate maps of any Civil War battle fought. Carman expended an extraordinary amount of time and energy to get these maps as accurate as possible. He cut out small portions of a base map and sent it to hundreds of veterans asking them to mark on it where their regiments were in the battle. He also met and walked the field with hundreds of veterans that came to visit the battlefield so he could place the regiments as precisely as possible.

: Can you tell us about the maps within this volume?

TC: The level of detail he includes in the maps is extraordinary. From his research, he added what types of crops were in the field, the type of fencing, farm layouts, plus roads that are in the area of Sharpsburg. When they were completed in 1904 he sent copies of them to veterans of the war and solicited their response. In 1908, the maps were re-issued with the corrections that veterans had sent Carman.

: What kinds of research did you do for Volume II compared to Volume I?

TC: The research process in this was in some ways simpler than Volume I in that I didn’t have to delve into politics, presidential directives and a lot of strategy, but the tradeoff was even though it was more focused on the battle itself, I had to gather, categorize, read, and then use literally thousands of pages of letters written to the Battlefield Board by veterans. Carman used those letters but he would not always cite where he was getting his information from. I also had to consult a large number of regimental histories and memoirs. Many of these are quite scarce, but luckily are available online.

: How long did it take you to complete Volume II?

TC: I began it probably a little over two years ago after Volume I was published. Of course, I spent many years before that acquiring other materials such as the Battlefield Board letters and the Gould papers. From there, I organized the material into a database categorizing the information for Volume II since I needed it for Volume I. I was surprised at how much I had to dig into the memoirs and personal accounts of dozens of soldiers in order to complete Volume II.

: In the introduction to Volume II, you mention that you negotiated several flights of stairs after a hip replacement while trying to do your research. Can you tell us more about this story?

TC: That was going up to the New Jersey Historical Society where a friend of mine had discovered a cache of photographs that were taken while Carman was working on his narrative. I wanted to use these photos because they would help me interpret Carman’s notes and letters. I had just had my hip replaced and was in the midst of recovery when my friend offered to take me to the Historical Society to see the pictures. We walked in the front door and were told that the library was on the 5th floor and that the elevator had just broken down. I had driven hundreds of miles to come see the photographs so nothing was going to stop me now. Carman’s diary is also there at the Historical Society, where he talks in detail about what is going on during the war.

: What are some features of Volume II that you think readers will really enjoy?

TC: The book is by far the most detailed and complex narrative of the battle. By having it coordinated to the maps, I think readers can get a great sense of the layout of the battle. The maps really show the terrain of the battlefield as well as great details about the vegetation and crops. If the soldiers were attacking uphill in the woods, you are able to see that because of all the detail Carman recorded and included on the maps. It really takes the reader into the footsteps of these soldiers. You get that sense from the maps and description about what is going on in the battle. Carman is able to do this because he takes from the words of the veterans themselves. Something that is critical about this manuscript is that everyone who has ever written on the Maryland Campaign or on Antietam, has used the Carman manuscript. The same question is posed to every researcher: How does Carman know what he’s talking about? This became the driving question that I tried to answer. Even though Carman was a participant in the battle, his participation was limited, so he had to have been getting his information from other sources in addition to his memory. A pleasant surprise was that after many years of research, most often, Carman was very accurate. It was only in a few places that I have questioned his reliability. I found very few factual errors. This is incredible for someone who wrote over 100 years ago.

: Thank you for your time, we appreciate it.

TC: You're welcome.

An interview with Thomas G. Clemens, editor of The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Volume 1: South Mountain by Ezra A. Carman

: I know you have spent a lot of time working with the Carman manuscript. Let’s set up what you are publishing and then dig into the details.

TC: Sure. I am publishing what is known as The Carman Manuscript on the Maryland Campaign of 1862 in two volumes. Volume 1, which comes out in May 2010, covers all the preliminary matters of interest through the South Mountain fighting, and Volume 2 will cover the rest of the campaign, with the focus of course being on the September 17th battle of Antietam.

: What got you interested in Carman and his work, and when did you begin?

TC: I had been aware of it for many years, but never really paid much attention to it. It was in the mid-1990s when I was assisting Professor Joseph Harsh in teaching his summer “Touring Battlefields” course at George Mason University that we first discussed it. By the way, the course title was a misnomer . . .

: How so?

TC: We didn’t tour — we studied, in depth! It was an unforgettable experience. Joe was working on his Confederate trilogy of the Maryland Campaign and told me he was typing out Carman’s manuscript. When I expressed surprise and asked him why he did not pay someone to do it for him, he replied, “I learn so much doing it myself.” Now, roughly fifteen years later, I understand what he meant. When I was finishing up my degree there I needed a dissertation topic and Joe suggested I finish his typescript and edit the manuscript. When the committee discovered the typescript was roughly 1,200 pages, they quickly suggested that the first seven chapters would be fine for the dissertation! I graduated in 2002 and for a few years some personal issues took precedence, but began to seriously work on it again in 2004.

: What is so special about the Carman manuscript?

TC: Carman’s work has an immediacy and an intimacy about it that no other work on this (or probably any campaign) possesses. The strength of his work was his connection with the campaign (he fought in it as a Union officer) and with the participants. He wrote to hundreds of them, read firsthand articles in the National Tribune and Battles & Leaders, and guided them on tours of the field when they returned to visit in the 1890s. The Battlefield Board amassed hundreds, and probably thousands, of letters from veterans of the battle on both sides.

: So Carman both knew things nobody else could know, and learned things few others knew.

TC: Exactly right. And because of that, his narration is the most thorough and complete ever done. While modern historians can cite memoirs, regimental histories, etc., only Carman could talk to the men who wrote them and then receive their personal replies. There is good reason why his manuscript is recognized as the starting point for all studies of the Maryland Campaign in general, and the battles of South Mountain and Antietam in particular.

: Tell us about those letters. Where are they now?

TC: Well, they are not in one place. Many are in the National Archives in the Antietam Studies boxes. Others are at the Library of Congress, and a substantial number are in the New York Public Library. Carman’s friend and fellow historian John Gould collected hundreds of letters pertaining to the East Woods fighting and Mansfield’s death. He and Carman shared many letters too, so I needed to look at all these letters to understand what Carman knew, and how he came to know it. I eventually wound up copying them and sorting them by regiment and brigade so I could examine what Carman was told by these men and then compare it to what he wrote in the manuscript.

: That is a monumental job in and of itself!

TC: It was tedious and time-consuming, but very enjoyable. The database has well over 2,000 entries so far. More letters turn up now and then in private hands. Some brigades have hundreds of responses, others almost none, which makes me suspect some of these letters have been lost or have unfortunately “migrated” over the years.

: How do your footnotes and annotations enhance Carman’s original manuscript?

TC: What I have endeavored to do with the footnotes is allow the reader to see where Carman got his information, and give them some idea of how reliable the source might be. Although Carman cited some sources, he often copied others word-for-word, without attribution at all.

: So is it fair to say that tracking down his sources was something of an investigative nightmare?

TC: That’s a good way to put it! Luckily, there were substantially fewer books in print back then for him to work from, which narrowed the search a bit. My hope is that the reader can now study the footnotes and judge for themselves whether Carman’s descriptions of events and people are accurate and balanced, what influenced his judgment, and so forth.

: Can you provide an example or two?

TC: Carman seems to take Confederate General John G. Walker’s Battles & Leaders account at face value, but additional research shows Walker’s recollections are hopelessly flawed. I have alerted readers to that fact, and why that is so. Some stories that Carman related in the manuscript have a single letter as their sole source, so the reader needs to be alerted to that fact. That doesn’t mean they are not true, but just that the story cannot be confirmed by other sources. Overall, I hope readers find that this enhances Carman’s manuscript as a narrative of the campaign, and also as a source for those writing detailed studies of portions of the campaign.

: Carman was not a professional writer or literary master . . .

TC: (laughing) Far from it. It is important to keep in mind that Carman was, as I like to phrase it, “a government employee writing a government report.” Although occasional bursts of eloquence slip in now and then, his writing style in the manuscript is straightforward and usually mundane. Sometimes it has all the charm of a grocery list! What is compelling to me and others familiar with his work is that Carman wrote to veterans asking specific questions about positions, movements, and bivouac sites, and often got back incredible detailed personal recollections and anecdotes, most of which he ignored. He was just collecting facts, not looking for human interest stories, many of which are buried in the letter collections.

: Tell us about the maps that appear in Volume 1 on South Mountain.

TC: I am thrilled with the maps! Gene Thorp, cartographer for the Washington Post and a certified Maryland Campaign maniac, put a lot of his art into these maps. In fact, I frequently had to restrain him from depicting virtually every regiment or brigade in certain maps. Occasionally he even wanted to display individual cavalry squadrons! I kept telling him that Carman was more general than that, and we needed to go a little more in-depth—but not to that level!

: We were very pleased to see the first round of maps and discover the creative style Gene employed.

TC: Aren’t they something? Gene used miniature figures rather than the usual rectangles and they appealed to me right away. We created maps for every day of the march to Sharpsburg for both armies, which includes, of course, the battles at South Mountain. There was not much to go on sometimes, and Gene did a fabulous job of making things clear, while still providing sufficient detail.

: What can you tell us about Carman’s methods?

TC: As I alluded earlier, Carman collected a huge amount of material. He and the other board members, Jed Hotchkiss, Henry Heth, J. C. Stearns, George B. Davis, and George W. Davis, collected material from all available sources. They agreed upon what they judged as the most reliable and honest accounts and summarized them, both for the manuscript, and also for the cast iron interpretive plaques that mark the battlefield to this day. Often these summaries are in Carman’s papers, and they cite whose letters they relied upon.

: Did Carman exhibit any bias in his work?

TC: He did, but not, perhaps, the ones you might think. Although a veteran of the battle, he did not degrade the Confederate cause or its leaders. In fact, if anything his admiration of Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson reflects the historiography of his time, the 1890s to early 1900s, when the dominant theme was “both sides were right, both sides were brave” and most differences were buried.

: Any particular lapses in bias come to mind?

TC: Yes, I would say the way he treated Union General Henry W. Halleck. Carman obviously loathed the man and never missed an opportunity to bash Halleck, to a point where it almost makes the reader sympathetic to “Old Brains.” Almost. On the other hand, many Confederates complimented Carman for his help and interest in their memoirs.

: When do you think Volume 2 on Antietam will appear?

TC: Well, that’s a tough question because I am still working on the notes and annotations. My guess is at least a year. There is so much there to unravel, so many letters to read, so much to digest and map out. Typically I work on one chapter at a time, getting it to where I think I have discovered all the proper sources, and then send it to several other experts to make sure I have looked at all the angles. I have to say Steve Stotelmyer and several of the rangers at Antietam have been patient and helpful critics, making this work much better for their input. This all takes time, but I’d rather have it right than fast, and I hope that in the end the wait will be worth it.

: You mentioned earlier something called the Battlefield Board. What exactly was Carman’s role on the Battlefield Board?

TC: The Board was charged with three main tasks. One was to mark any points of interest and prominent roles of Regular troops. This resulted in creating the cast iron plaques that still mark the field today. Carman and the board members used the Official Records, regimental histories, and the letters from veterans to create the text for these plaques. Many of the drafts for these are in the National Archives. In a way, they are a summary of the battle and campaign. The second task was to create maps of the main features of the terrain and the principle movements of the armies. This resulted in fourteen time-sequenced maps depicting the most detailed tracking of the ebb and flow of the battle that has ever been created. These maps will be featured in Volume 2. The third task was to create a pamphlet to guide Congress in the future development of the field. And, believe it or not, the original 1,800-page manuscript researched and written by Carman is this “pamphlet.” Much of it is keyed to the maps as the two were designed to complement one another.

: Did Carman create maps for the rest of the campaign, or just the battle of Antietam?

TC: He created maps for the routes of both armies from September 4, 1862, through September 14. These are crude, just colored pencil blocks on a large map, and they do not show starting and stopping points for each day. We decided not to use them, and instead created new maps with Gene Thorp that are much more detailed. Carman did, however, mention making maps of South Mountain, but I have not found any so far. Likewise, no Carman maps of Shepherdstown Ford or the subsequent campaign in Virginia have been found.

: Did Carman have anything to do with the monuments on the battlefield?

TC: He did. Carman helped many veterans organizations visit the battlefield and locate where they fought. When they wanted to erect monuments, he helped them negotiate with private property owners to buy small parcels of land. He attended many of the dedications, too.

: I assume Carman visited the battlefield before it was created in 1890?

TC: Yes, he was a frequent visitor to Sharpsburg. He served on the Board of the National Cemetery for several years and spent a lot of time on the field. He also got to know some of the people in the community.

: Another book of the edited version of Carman’s manuscript appeared in 2008. How does your differ from that effort?

TC: While they are similar in some aspects, my version has more footnotes and more detailed analysis in them. To be fair, the previous author acknowledged that he was just annotating Carman’s study, and so did not go into as much depth as I do. This edition also has a lot of maps—22 of them—and they are quite detailed. The earlier version does not contain maps. Volume 2 on Antietam will have many more maps than Volume 1. Personally, I believe it is critical to be able to look at maps while reading the descriptions of the movements of the armies and the various engagements. I also included a photo gallery, not enough to distract from Carman’s narrative, but some unusual images that have not circulated widely. I also included various photos of Carman that show him from wartime through his older years. He was a very distinguished looking fellow and deserves to be included in a book based upon his own work.

: Thank you, Tom. What an achievement.

TC: Thank you. I hope others find it worthwhile.