A Savage Thunder: Antietam and the Bloody Road to Freedom


In September 1862, two great armies faced off across Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, knowing that the fate of the United States and the future of millions of slaves were at stake. From behind-the-scenes conversations to the action on the front lines, renowned nonfiction writer Jim Murphy provides an in-depth look at the battle that prompted Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and changed America forever. Murphy uses photographs, maps, and first-person accounts to sweep young readers ...

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In September 1862, two great armies faced off across Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, knowing that the fate of the United States and the future of millions of slaves were at stake. From behind-the-scenes conversations to the action on the front lines, renowned nonfiction writer Jim Murphy provides an in-depth look at the battle that prompted Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and changed America forever. Murphy uses photographs, maps, and first-person accounts to sweep young readers into the chaos and confusion of battle. Gritty and utterly engaging, this is a powerful portrayal of a day on which 22,717 people were killed or wounded—the single bloodiest day in American history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A stirring, well-researched addition to Civil War shelves." — Booklist, starred review

"Replete with excellent-quality archival photos, reproductions, and maps, this is an outstanding account of a battle that was truly a savage thunder. " — School Library Journal, starred review

"...what makes this impassioned volume speak — literally — are the many primary-source quotations of those involved, from the least to the most." — Kirkus, starred review

A stirring, well-researched addition to Civil War shelves. Starred Review
Children's Literature - Lynn O'Connell
"The bloodiest day in American history" … the Battle of Antietam, September 16-17, 1862. Author Jim Murphy provides in-depth details of the happenings before, during, and after this critical battle of the Civil War, while also making it come alive for young and old readers alike. In late 1862 the Confederate army, led by General Robert E. Lee, launched its first invasion of the north with hopes that this offensive action would draw European recognition and support for the Confederacy. The Confederate troops met the Union army, led by General George B. McClellan, at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. By the time the battle ended, there were 23,000 casualties. As Murphy tells the story, he intersperses the well-researched text with phenomenal photos, first-person accounts from both soldiers and civilians, and maps of the troop movements. The book provides insights into Lee and McClellan as well as the ordinary soldiers involved. Murphy also gives some focus to both the African Americans involved in the battle (on both the Confederate and Union sides) as well as the 200-400 women soldiers. Teens and adults, as well as young readers, will find this book a helpful read about the battle of Antietam; it would also be useful in homeschooling or as an independent study project. Reviewer: Lynn O'Connell
School Library Journal
Gr 4–8—"It is terrible to march slowly into danger, and see and feel each second your chance of death is surer than it was the second before." These words from a Union officer begin to provide some reckoning of the horror that was the 1862 Battle of Antietam, which surely changed the course of the Civil War and provided Lincoln with the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Murphy provides readers with a lucid and compelling narrative, drawn mainly from firsthand accounts, of the deadliest day in American military history. From the drama that unfolded in the cornfield to brutal confrontation on the sunken road, the unflinching prose compels readers forward in anticipation of the events yet to unfold. Ever-present throughout the narrative is the dichotomy in leadership styles between the two generals. Lee is presented as firm and resolute, while McClellan is crippled by his fear of Lee's "phantom soldiers." Replete with excellent-quality archival photos, reproductions, and maps, this is an outstanding account of a battle that was truly a "savage thunder."—Brian Odom, Pelham Public Library, AL
Kirkus Reviews
Murphy returns to the War Between the States for this account of Antietam, known as the bloodiest battle in American history. As the subtitle suggests, the author makes a direct connection between the battle and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, opening by reminding readers that up to this point, the war was being fought nominally over the preservation of the Union, not the underlying issue of slavery. He sketches in the major players-Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and the truculent commander of the Union's Army of the Potomac, George McClellan-and how political and military maneuvering led to the blood-soaked standoff northwest of the nation's capitol. The liberal inclusion of both archival material and maps showing troop movements during skirmishes helps to draw readers in, but what makes this impassioned volume speak-literally-are the many primary-source quotations of those involved, from the least to the most. The author deftly develops his characters, most notably the stubborn, vainglorious McClellan, whose inadequate intelligence and low regard for his commander-in-chief led him to botch the campaign and arguably to prolong the war. Grand. (notes, bibliography, index) (Nonfiction. 10-14)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780689876332
  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
  • Publication date: 7/7/2009
  • Pages: 112
  • Sales rank: 454,387
  • Age range: 8 - 12 Years
  • Lexile: 1180L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 10.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jim Murphy is the author of more than thirty books about American history, including An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 and The Great Fire, both Newbery Honor Books. He lives with his wife and their two sons in Maplewood, New Jersey. For more information visit his website at jimmurphybooks.com.

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Read an Excerpt


"The present seems to be the [best] time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate Army to enter Maryland."
— A message from General Robert E. Lee, commander, Army of Northern Virginia,
to Jefferson Davis, president, the Confederate States of America, September 3, 1862

"There is every probability that the enemy, baffled in his intended capture of Washington, will cross the Potomac, and make a raid into Maryland or Pennsylvania. A movable army must be immediately organized to meet him again in the field."
— Orders from Henry W. Halleck, general-in-chief of Union Armies, to General George B. McClellan, commander, Army of the Potomac, September 3, 1862

With these simple messages two great armies were set on a collision course that would end fourteen days later at Antietam Creek, just outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland. If we could ask any of the 140,000 soldiers composing these armies why they were willing to fight and possibly die, the overwhelming response from the men of both sides would have been remarkably similar: They were fighting for their freedom.

Jefferson Davis spoke for the Confederate side when he insisted the Civil War was declared to maintain "the political rights, the freedom, equality, and State sovereignty" won by our Revolutionary War forefathers. By "State sovereignty" Davis meant the right of every state to enact any laws it wanted. And if the federal government objected, the state could decide not to be a part of the United States.

"We all declare for liberty," the president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, replied, "but in using the same word we do not mean the same thing." He then made clear that the conflict was necessary to "settle this question now...Whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose."

Whether to preserve the Union or not was certainly an important reason to fight. Our lives — indeed the lives of people around the world — would be quite different now had the South succeeded in separating itself from the United States. But nowhere during the first year and a half of the war did this talk about fighting for freedom and liberty include mention of the real reason for the war: the enslavement of four and a half million African-American men, women, and children.

It was, at best, hypocritical for both sides to send soldiers into combat without addressing this issue honestly. Lincoln, for instance, came under heavy criticism, both from those opposed to slavery and from political opponents, for his lack of candor. One prominent African-American leader, Frederick Douglass, pointed out the obvious: "To fight against slaveholders, without fighting against slavery, is but a half-hearted business....War for the destruction of liberty must be met with war for the destruction of slavery." Yet even as casualties mounted and the criticism heated up, Lincoln refused to make the conflict a war against slavery.

All of this changed when a series of surprising Confederate victories in 1862 left the Union armies dazed and demoralized and put the very existence of the United States in doubt. By July, Lincoln had come to realize that the emancipation of the slaves was "absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union...."

As the Confederate and Union armies marched toward each other, very few of the men realized that the idea of freedom — and with it the nature of the war — was about to change. Nor did they know they were going to take part in an epic battle that would prove to be the bloodiest single day in American history.

Copyright © 2009 by Jim Murphy

The first Confederate troops began crossing the Potomac before sunrise on the morning of September 5.
Union soldiers in the foreground would fire a few shots, then head back to camp to report what they had seen.

Copyright © 2009 by Jim Murphy


Cheer, boys, cheer, we'll march away to battle,
Cheer, boys, cheer, for our sweethearts and our wives,
Cheer, boys, cheer, we'll nobly do our duty.
— "The Southern Boys" by Henry Russell, 1861

On Friday, September 5, 1862, the rattle of drums accompanied by sharp, insistent bugle notes summoned the Confederate army to march. The heavy tramp of boots and clomping of horse's hooves on the dry dirt road soon had clouds of dust swirling in the warm air. An hour later the lead brigade of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia reached the banks of the Potomac River.

The 10th Virginia was the first to enter the water at White's Ford. In places, the water was waist-high, and many men removed their boots and trousers to keep them dry during the half mile journey. "Never did I behold so many naked legs in my life," recalled Private Draughton Stith Haynes.

Crossing with the troops were hundreds and hundreds of wagons carrying food, equipment, and ammunition, most driven by African-American slaves. Several wagons became stuck in the mud and had to be pushed free by grumbling drivers. Mules refused to leave the cool water and were "cussed" onto the opposite shore of Maryland.

When the lead brigade's musicians finally scrambled ashore, they formed up into a neat line and played "Maryland! My Maryland!" Soldiers cheered loudly when they heard the melody and could be heard singing above the teamsters' curses and officers' shouted orders:

"The despot's heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,

Avenge the patriotic gore That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!"

As he approached the ford, Sergeant James Shinn was amazed by what he saw. The golden autumn sun "caused the rippled surface [of the water] to sparkle with the brilliancy of a sea of silver studded with diamonds set in dancing beds of burnished gold....The scene was one of grand & magnificent interest."

Copyright © 2009 by Jim Murphy

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 21, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Jim Murphy did it again!!!!!

    This is profoundly moving history. This book is about a single day -- not only was it the deadliest day in American history but it was also the day that turned the war from a war about state's rights into a fight for freedom.. The writing, the images and the voices of the participants are so powerful you feel like you are there. This book is also a perfect window into the history of the war as a whole. I am a Jim Murphy fan and this book delivered.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2009

    Exciting Account of Civil War Battle

    This book is an exciting and enlightening account of one of the major battles of the Civil War--in fact, a turning point in the war. Murphy's vivid narrative covers events leading up to the battle, the battle itself, and the aftermath. As the outcome of the battle seems to favor first one side and then the other, readers will find themselves unable to put the book down. Through excerpts from diaries and letters, Murphy brings to life the personalities of both the generals who were in command and the ordinary soldiers who fought heroically. An epic story, wonderfully told, ideal for readers 8 to 12 and fascinating for older readers as well.

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