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Novel tells story of bloody
Antietam (FLS 10/15/05)

To Make Men Free: A Novel
of the Battle of Antietam
by Richard Croker
By Michael Aubrecht, FLS Town & Country
Date published: 10/15/2005 CIVIL WAR

For most Civil War enthusiasts, September 17, 1862, will always be remembered as "The Bloodiest Day of the Civil War." This is the date of the Battle of Antietam, which marked Gen. Robert E. Lee's first attempt at an invasion of the North. More importantly, it is the date on which more soldiers were lost than any other day in American history.

Although they had been repeatedly successful in defending their own land from invasion, most high-ranking members of the Confederacy felt compelled to take the fight to the North. Many believed that one well-executed victory on Union soil would impress Britain or France enough to pledge their support to the Southern cause.

Gen. Lee believed this, as well, and moved his Army of Northern Virginia across the river into U.S. territory. To support the mission, he sent the majority of his army under Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson to Harpers Ferry, with orders to seize the area and open up supply routes to the Shenandoah Valley. This was a crucial step in establishing the "lifeline" that was required to maintain the Confederate army while they marched abroad on "foreign" soil. Lee then stationed the rest of his army at Sharpsburg, Md., near Antietam Creek. It was there that he was intercepted by an opposing force of 75,000 men under the command of Gen. George B. McClellan.

What followed was one of the most grotesque Civil War battles of all and before the sun would set over this once-beautiful farmland, more than 23,000 men would be killed, wounded or missing in action. Although many historians would consider the outcome indecisive, Antietam was ultimately a major success for the Union and led directly to President Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

It is with this backdrop that Richard Croker's "To Make Men Free: A Novel of the Battle of Antietam" is presented. Reading much like a movie script, Croker spends a great deal of time establishing his cast of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. From the government in Washington, to their commanders and subordinates in the field, each member of the Union is depicted with all of his strengths and weaknesses. The same is portrayed on the Southern side as the Confederate chain of command also struggles with eccentric egos and personality conflicts in their own camp.

Throughout the story, we are introduced intimately to President Lincoln and his Cabinet, Union Gens. McClellan, Hooker and Burnside, Confederate Gens. Lee, Jackson, Longstreet and Stuart, and many other subsequent participants in the battle. As a result, with a glimpse of each major player, we are able to fully understand the internal conflicts that plagued each of them.

From the first line of the book, Croker immediately sets the stage for the devastation and suffering that is to follow. It reads: "A wagon filled with dismembered men rolled gently down Pennsylvania Avenue, the driver trying desperately not to jostle his fragile cargo." He then goes on to take the reader on a bittersweet journey while alternating back and forth between the fighting in the boardroom and on the battlefield. However, unlike the wagon driver, Croker has no qualms about jostling us, and his story line is filled with the horrors of war.

The plot of "To Make Men Free" unfolds on two fronts. The first takes place in the field as commanders on both sides attempt to seize the day and end the war. With a gripping account of the battle from start to finish, Croker depicts both the strategies and stresses of generals coordinating multiple engagements simultaneously. We are introduced to both major and minor participants of the battle and witness death and destruction through the eyes of soldiers, civilians and journalists.

The second takes place within the walls of the White House, where President Lincoln struggles with insubordination in his own Cabinet as well as that of Gen. McClellan, who is referred to as "Young Napoleon." Throughout the story, we are given insights into closed-door meetings and debates over the liberation of slaves. By presenting both the military and political aspects of the fight, the reader is provided with a complete overview of the state of the Union in 1862. Although the conflict would drag on for several more years, both Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation changed the focus of the Civil War forever.

In an e-mail interview with me, Croker explained his intent. He stated, "To my way of thinking, history is not about divisions, brigades and regiments. History is about heroes. It's about colonels, captains and corporals. 'History as fiction' is the best way to tell these individual stories whether about Presidents or privates. (What writer worth his salt can pass up a good alliteration--or two--or three?) I spent years researching "To Make Men Free" and the history is as good as I could make it."

He added, "Ted Alexander, the chief historian at the Antietam National Battlefield Park, proofed the battle segments for accuracy prepublication. There are no fictitious characters or events (sorry, Rhett and Scarlett). This is just the story of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Antietam told as a story of devotion, courage and sacrifice on both sides."

The author's meticulous attention to detail shines through in this book, and his creative style makes it a very pleasurable read. I could hardly put it down, and it was far from a chore to read the 400-plus pages. After completing it, I felt that the book had both entertained and educated me. I now have a much better understanding of the events leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation and an even greater respect for the men who fought and died at Antietam.

As a bonus, Croker provides a thorough breakdown of characters and causes, detailed battlefield maps and a listing of references for students looking to further their studies. In addition, there is a complete biographical index that explains what will become of each major character.

Croker's next book, entitled "No Greater Courage; A Novel of the Battle of Fredericksburg" (published by HarperCollins) will be available this March. I, for one, cannot wait to get my hands on a copy, as this story takes place in our own backyard.

For more information on "To Make Men Free," visit the author's Web site at

MICHAEL AUBRECHT of Spotsylvania County is the author of "Onward Christian Soldier: The Spiritual Journey of Stonewall" and "Christian Cavalier: The Spiritual Legacy of J.E.B. Stuart." Visit his Web site at...




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Historian tackles big question of "What Caused CW?" (FLS 1/28/06)

What Caused the Civil War? Reflections on the South and Southern History
by Edward L. Ayers
By Michael Aubrecht, FLS Town & Country
Date published: 1/28/2006 CIVIL WAR

On April 9, 1865, after four long years of fighting, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the control of his Confederate forces to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the village of Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Nine days later, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston also turned over his army to Gen. William T. Sherman near Durham, N.C. By the end of May, all of the remaining Southern forces laid down their arms, bringing to conclusion one of the worst trials in American history and reuniting a country that had been divided in a bloody Civil War.

As a battered and broken nation began the long march toward reconstruction and reconciliation, countless families in the North and South grieved for more than 620,000 men who had sacrificed their lives in the name of their country.

Although these events took place more than 140 years ago, the debate over the cause of such a tragedy still rages to this day. Historians, preservationists, civil rights organizations and re-enactors from both sides of the Mason-Dixon line have argued vehemently for decades over topics such as slavery, secession, states' rights and forced government. It is, at times, as if the war had never ended; many of these issues have become "hot button" topics in today's litigious society.

One can hardly open a newspaper without reading about the political incorrectness of displaying the Confederate battle flag or the enduring disagreement over heritage versus hate. Across the country, information-technology departments scramble to increase the hard-drive capacities of their servers as they strain under the volume of letters to the editor that arrive every day in support, or protest, of the "right to remember."

From small high school classrooms to mammoth college lecture halls, teachers preach a lesson plan that could have any number of titles, depending upon their location. Some simply teach an impartial history of the Civil War, while others choose to present a more biased version, referring to the time period as "The War Between the States" or "The War of Northern Aggression."

Regardless of the medium or approach, the one question that remains consistent is, "What caused the Civil War?" It is a universal question for which, perhaps, there is no answer; a query that can never truly be defined and one that is responsible for a "culture war" in which no end appears in sight. Few people outside of the Civil War community are comfortable with this topic and even fewer would be willing to present their arguments in bold, black print for everyone to read.

In order to define, at minimum, a portion of the cause and more importantly to do so effectively, one would have to possess a thorough and unbiased understanding of 19th-century America, firsthand experience with both Northern and Southern cultures and the ability to discriminate historical fact from fiction. The project would require that equal time be given to both the liberal and conservative sides of the country in the 1860s, while taking into account the social, spiritual, psychological and economic facets that separated them. As with a baseball purist, the subject's conclusion would have to be built on a foundation of statistics and not legends and folklore. It is a risky and daunting task that could be presented only by an academic study with no political agenda. Sounds impossible, right? Not quite.

Edward L. Ayers, the Hugh P. Kelly professor of history at the University of Virginia, and one of the country's leading historians, has made a career out of tackling these very tough topics. In addition to publishing several critically acclaimed books on Southern society, he is also one of the first historians to embrace the concept of digital history and its educational uses for the World Wide Web.

A founding father of U.Va.'s famous "Valley of the Shadow" project, Ayers helped to establish an ever-expanding online archive that focuses on the American Civil War as experienced in two communities in the Great Valley of Pennsylvania and Virginia. He is also the author of the groundbreaking book "The Promise of the New South" (1992), which won several prizes and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Ayers' latest offering, titled "What Caused the Civil War? Reflections on the South and Southern History," takes this study of the conflict to a whole new level. The book is composed of a collection of essays, covering the lifelong experiences and academic findings of the author, that present a fresh perspective on American culture and a call to revive the "tradition of skepticism" in Civil War history.

The book is clearly written by an academic and it flows nicely from one conclusion to the next, resulting in a smooth and uniform read that should please scholars and laymen alike.

From the opening chapter, in which Ayers reflects on reluctantly coming to terms with himself as a Southerner, to the retrospective period, when he discovers a passion for history, the reader is presented with a firm foundation of credibility that sets the stage for the forthcoming arguments and conclusions.

Throughout the story, we walk alongside Ayers as he grows from a disenchanted youth to a leading historian and professor. That alone is worth the read, as his very personal reflections cover growing up in the South, and then eagerly abandoning his roots for the hustle and bustle of the Northeast, only to return home with a newfound respect and appreciation for his people and culture. It is a journey that comes full circle and is one to which many can relate.

Ayers discusses the early origins of the Internet and how a group of his colleagues immediately recognized its potential for the study of history. Through trial and error, this group of computer-literate scholars ultimately developed a new form of reference material that continues to evolve to this day. A thoughtful essay on the late historian C. Vann Woodward balances the book, as the author pays tribute to his intellectual mentor.

Ayers also defines the recurring difficulties in studying a period of American history that has been constantly under a reformation of sorts. History, he maintains, is messy and undetermined. And more often than not, the truth is buried beneath decades of propaganda and editorializing. The events of the Civil War are so much more than just a series of battles to set people free. The roots of the conflict go much deeper than a fight for independence.

Over the last 140 years, most of the general public has become lazy regarding the study of history; most people accept whatever "facts" are spoon-fed to them without question. In the North, public opinion dictates that the Union simply fought to free the slaves. And in the South, the Confederacy is depicted as simply defending its land against an invader. Clearly, Ayers understands this dilemma. His efforts to provide the reader with a glimpse of the very fabric of Southern culture challenge any preconceived notion that a war that turned brother against brother could be so easily defined.

By introducing other aspects, including regionalism, idealism and a completely opposite optimism, the author shows how neither region was on the same page when it came to America's future. The rapid progression of commerce and industry in the North clashed with the romantic visions of an agricultural and self-sufficient South and forged a social division that went far beyond mere politics.

Moving fluently between the past and the present, Ayers also comments on the sensitive subject of race relations, both prewar and postwar. He insists that the culture of both white and black Southerners has become a trend-setting novelty of sorts that is routinely hijacked by the rest of the country for entertainment purposes. Television, radio, film and the advertising industry are all guilty of using redneck clichés and black stereotypes that perpetuate ignorance on some levels.

One of the more controversial issues presented by Ayers is his opinion about the "revisionist" interpretation of the causes of the Civil War made famous in the '30s and '40s by James Randall and Avery Craven. According to them, the Civil War was not simply the result of a conflict over fundamental issues like slavery, but more a reaction to extreme party politics and an irresponsible press.

He also spends several pages commenting on other works, including James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" (1988) and Ken Burns' nine-part PBS documentary film on the war (1990). Both concluded that the Civil War was the inevitable consequence of slavery, fought nobly on both sides. Ayers argues, by contrast, that Confederates told themselves they were fighting for a new nation built on slavery, telling themselves in the process that they were idealistic patriots rather than defenders of an indefensible institution. In my opinion, the author is to be applauded for including these counter-points, as he obviously intended to offer the arguments of his peers.

Although not everyone will be of the same mind about it, all who read this book will probably find themselves looking at the division of the country at that time with a new insight and a different perspective.

In an e-mail interview with me, Ayers stated: "I wrote this book because I love the American South. I love it not with blind devotion, but with a love that acknowledges all that the South has been and is. The essays in this book look at the South from different angles--past and present, autobiographical and global, political and cultural, defensive and critical. My hope is that readers, whatever they think about the South, will find something in these essays that may surprise them about a place we all seem to know so well."

I truly enjoyed reading this book, and I feel that Ayers has accomplished his goal. In the end, we may not be any closer to agreeing on exactly what caused the Civil War, but studies like this certainly help both sides to gain some new perspectives. For more information on the author, visit his faculty bio webpage at For access to "The Valley of the Shadow," go to

MICHAEL AUBRECHT of Spotsylvania County is the author of "Onward Christian Soldier: The Spiritual Journey of Stonewall" and "Christian Cavalier: The Spiritual Legacy of J.E.B. Stuart." Visit his Web site at...


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