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MAubrecht
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To Make Men Free: A Novel of the Battle of Antietam by Richard Croker
Review 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 rcroker.com.

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