The Battle of South Mountain, John Hoptak, The History Press, 222 pp., maps, illustrations, order of battle, notes, bibliography, index, 2010, $21.99.
The History Press is causing a stir with its clear, concise, accurate, well illustrated and mapped, and well designed Civil War Sesquicentennial Series. Indicative of the series is its newest addition: The Battle of South Mountain by John Hoptak. In the preface, the author recognizes John Michael Priest's Before Antietam: the Battle of South Mountain and others of being the giants upon whose shoulders upon which his own work stands. And a remarkable work it is.
Within the confines of 222 pages, Hoptak and the History Press have produced an exemplary work with seven fine maps and 50 period illustrations and photographs. Hoptak's five chapters are focused and have a fine degree of clarity. Lee's decision to drive North and McClellan's state of mind after Second Manassas are aptly described. The marches of both armies to South Mountain are presented with close attention to the men in the ranks. The combat is fully covered at each of the gaps in South Mountain. Fortunately, in a single chapter Hoptak tells the entire story of the fights at each gap. Taking the reader back and forth between the gaps would be confusing. Crampton's Gap, Fox's Gap, Turner's and Frostown Gaps, each have their own chapters, combatants, and topography. Hoptak organization creates a fullness in his story telling and even lends itself to building suspense.
Hotpak's use of biography is attractive. Clear and pertinent descriptions of many of the commanders are everywhere present in the book. Extensive, dramatic and effective quotations from both commissioned officers and enlistment men are frequently provided. Hoptak does not ignore the cavalry but puts them on the field. The reader may compare the similarities of Confederate cavalry commander Jeb Stuart's conduct at South Mountain and the Gettysburg Campaign and conclude that he did indeed have his bad days.
The work leaves the reader with questions of contingency. Jesse Reno, commander of the Federal Ninth Corps was killed at Fox's Gap on September 14. What if Jesse Reno had been in command at Burnside's Bridge on the 17th? Hoptak sides with Joseph Harsh, author of Sounding the Shallows: A Confederate Companion for the Maryland Campaign of 1862 , in that at Crampton's Gap on South Mountain, the Army of Northern Virgina suffered one of its worst defeats. What if the Federal Sixth Corps had on September 15th stormed into Pleasant Valley and trapped McLaws Division? Hoptak refrains from speculation and encourages readers to ponder the situations.
With such a geographically concentrated event and with four gaps, nine relevant towns and eight roads, readers would have been aided by at least the first map being to a measurable scale or with distances between locations written on it. Additionally a topographic map showing the steepness of the path which attackers faced would be helpful. Also, readers may have been aided if muster numbers had been included in the Order of Battle and possibly if the order of battle had been organized with forces attacking the gaps and the forces defending the gaps on the same page.
Such small discomforts do not detract from the overall usefulness and enjoyment that The Battle of South Mountain by John Hoptak offers the reader. Certainly anyone who is traveling to the Antietam National Battlefield Park, the Harper's Ferry National Park or Maryland's South Mountain Civil War Trails, will find Hoptak's book essential to their understanding of the Maryland Campaign.