Book Review: When Hell Came to Sharpsburg: The Battle of Antietam and its Impact on the Civilians Who Called it Home


by Steven Cowie

El Dorado Hills, Ca.: Savas Beatie, 2022. Pp. lii, 500. Illus., maps, notes, biblio. $34.95. ISBN: 1611215900

Civilians Under Fire

Steven Cowie opens When Hell Came to Sharpsburg by describing the Battle of Antietam (Sept. 19, 1862), with its over 23,000 men killed, wounded, or captured, with distinctive attention given to the fight’s effects on the local residents and their possessions, both in Sharpsburg and among the many farms in the surrounding area that would lend their family designations to famous places of fighting, loss of lives, and devastation. Cowie focuses on the consequences of the fighting, its innumerable effects, the voices and memories of soldiers, civilians, property owners, and the landscape itself. This investigates how the battle and opposing armies inflicted emotional, physical, and economic disorder on the citizens of Sharpsburg.

The field hospitals that took care of the wounded of both sides are surveyed in one chapter. Another explores the supply difficulties the Army of the Potomac experienced following battle, a predicament that some believe limited McClellan's ability to follow Lee's withdrawing troops. The damaging effects of the combat on Sharpsburg, local farms, and the landscapes are surveyed in detail. Cowie also considers how the battle led to outbreaks of disease that were a direct result an environmental domino effect, as the effluvia and carcasses of animals and people who lived and died there, tainted ground water, enabling the transmission of disease.

After the battle, homes and churches in Sharpsburg were appropriated for hospitals, with families sometimes expelled from their property and sometimes allowed to remain, often limited to a single room, while suffering and festering wounded filled their homes. Residents were often not permitted to return for weeks, and when they did, they found their homes with significant damage.

Cowie notes that the troops of both armies had foraged through the area, stealing whatever they could find especially on unattended farms – coffee, salt, sugar, flour, butter, vegetables, fruits,. Many farmers lost crops valued at more than $400 (perhaps $1.5 million today in relative economic value), while cattle and other animals were stolen, wandering away, or injured.

He also explores the impact of the struggle the two armies had on the landscape, such as the destruction of trees and buildings, the effects of the waste of thousands of men and horses on water and soil, and the burial of over 5,000 soldiers and many animals.

And the physical destruction often led to complex legal proceedings, as people attempted to obtain compensation for damages to their property, which often went on for years, so that, in many cased, people were reduced to poverty and bankruptcy.

Cowie follows the experiences of several families, the Mummas, Roulettes, Millers, and many others, ordinary people thrust into traumatic conditions, as they attempted to recover from their unforeseen and often overwhelming losses. He also considers the emotional costs on civilians, especially young children, many of whom experienced the horrors of battle at first hand, while others fled, to return to see the devastating consequences of the battle.

Cowie's exhaustive research drew upon a wealth of primary sources, letters, diaries, regimental histories, damage claims, and many individual accounts, to give us an insightful look at this seldom considered side of war. He is to be commended for his efforts to examine the consequences of fighting on communities, civilians, and the environment.

When Hell Came To Sharpsburg is highly recommended, not only for those interested in Antietam, but for anyone seeking to better understand the impact of a battle on the local people and their environment.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include Stephen A. Swails, The Great ‘What Ifs’ of the American Civil War Chained to History, Grant vs. Lee: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War, Spectacle of Grief, Braxton Bragg: The Most Hated Man of the Confederacy, First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Ellsworth, Their Maryland, The Lion of Round Top, Rites of Retaliation, Animal Histories of the Civil War Era, Benjamin Franklin Butler, Dreams of Victory: General P. G. T. Beauregard, Bonds of War, Early Struggles for Vicksburg, True Blue, Civil War Witnesses and Their Books, and Love and Duty



Note: When Hell Came To Sharpsburg is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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