March 15, 2008

The Gleam of Bayonets

In an earlier post, I touched on some Antietam books, but glossed over James V. Murfin’s The Gleam of Bayonets, which is considered the first scholarly modern study of the battle and in some quarters is still deemed a standard work. Having finally found a nice first edition in jacket, I thought I’d give it a bit more discussion. As I mentioned before, for a book of such fairly recent vintage, finding that nice first edition copy was unusually difficult. The book was first published in 1965 by the small publishing house of Thomas Yoseloff, Inc. Some readers may recall that Yoseloff was an aggressive publisher of Civil War books from the mid-1950’s and well into the late 1960’s. In addition to new works, he brought back into print such classic, multi-volume sets as Battles & Leaders, the Photographic History of the Civil War, and the 16-volume Campaigns of the Civil War, no doubt all connected to the war’s centennial. As a sidebar, Yoseloff passed away late last year at the age of ninety-four.

The book was well received from the outset. It won the Fletcher Pratt Award of the New York Civil War Roundtable for the best nonfiction Civil War book of 1965. Its current publisher, LSU Press describes the book thusly: “The gentleness and patience of Lincoln, the vacillations of McClellan, and the grandeur of Lee—all unfold before the reader. The battle itself is presented with precision and scope as Murfin blends together atmosphere and fact, emotions and tactics, into a dramatic and coherent whole. Originally published in 1965, The Gleam of Bayonets is now recognized as a classic and the standard against which all books on Antietam are measured.” I would agree, for I found that as I was working on my regimental history of the 26th NYSV, I consulted this work considerably more than other, more recent works on the battle. According to Nevins, the book is “detailed and well-documented, [however] this account is strongly anti-McClellan and opinionated.”

Virtual Antietam also reports, and I was not aware of this, that Murfin’s book was until recently, the only published work based on the landmark 'Carman Maps'. Ezra A. Carman, a veteran of the battle and its first historian, produced an indispensable set of troop movement maps and edited them with prodigious input from Union and Confederate veterans alike, but never published the accompanying manuscript. Of course, most Civil War bibliophiles are now aware that Carman’s legendary work has just been published by Routledge Press. Those maps, however, are not in the new book but online for reader access.

James V. Murfin (1929-1987) spent most of his life studying the all-day engagement that took place close to his boyhood home of Hagerstown, Maryland. As historian James I. Robertson observed in his Introduction to the book, Murfin was not a professional historian by training nevertheless his book was surely “a labor of love” produced over years of prodigious research “and scores of hours spent trampling over the battlefield.” Murfin later worked for the National Park Service in the Publication's Division at Harpers Ferry for seventeen years and was ultimately authored or edited more than a dozen books, including Harpers Ferry and National Parks of the U.S.A. In fact, the Murfin Theater at Antietam National Battlefield Visitors Center is named in his honor.

The book has been in print consistently since its initial publication forty-three years ago. Bonanza Books did an inexpensive hardcover reprint I believe in the 1970’s while more recently, Easton Press rewarded the title with its full leather-and-gilt treatment in 1995. It was also reissued in paperback by LSU Press in 2004 with a new foreword by Scott Harwig.


Harry said...


I got my first edition, in an OK jacket, for $12.50 about 3 years ago. It's still, IMO, the best of the "traditional" interpretations of the campaign. As such, it is interesting who Murfin takes time to specially thank with a full paragraph in the acknowledgements on page 12:

"Sharing an important part of the credit for this manuscript is a young graduate student at Rice University, Joseph L. Harsh...Joe Harsh's keen awareness of history and its complexities makes him a likely subject for future Antietam honors."

That was pretty prescient of Mr. Murfin. Of course Joe Harsh is viewed by many as the father of the McClellan revisionsism that, many years after he wrote "On the McClellan Go-Round", has begun to take hold among both academic and popular historians and writers.

Paul Taylor said...


Very interesting observation! I did not see that, and as you state, Harsh is a leading authority on McClellan and the Maryland Campaign.