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Friday, March 25, 2011

To Make Men Free: A Novel of the Battle of Antietam by Richard Croker

This Civil War buff thoroughly enjoyed it

This sweeping novel, like an epic feature from the 1950s, features a cast of thousands which is both its strength and weakness.

George B. McClellan (1826-1885)
A lot of reviewers complain about the lack of depth in the characters, which is fair to say about the book. Unlike Shaara's The Killer Angels, the gold standard of Civil War fiction, there is not much character development. But, to be fair, Shaara focuses on precious few personalities of the War while Croker includes Lincoln, many cabinet members, Lee, McClellan and at least a dozen of the generals, not to mention colonels, sergeants and even a couple of privates.

The inclusion of so many characters does contribute to a lack of character exploration but it also contributes to a wide view of the mayhem of the battlefield. Croker also delves into political intrigues that went hand in hand with this bloodiest day in American history.

Croker's writing style is quite enjoyable - he flows effortlessly from one character to another while moving the story along at a quick pace. There's enough detail to give the Civil War novice a good grounding in the basics and enough focus on small parts of the battle to keep a serious student of the war like me interested. Humor and tragedy often go hand in hand in this book - none illustrates this more than page 301 of my paperback version. I chuckled out loud at a neat turn of phrase and then felt as though I'd been kicked in the gut four paragraphs later. I was so moved that I had to close the book and do something else.

Croker noted that he researched this book for three years. He includes many antecdotes that are left out of most histories. As a born and bred Hoosier I was proud of determination demonstrated by the story of the Hoosier soldier who was shot in the belly early in the battle - a fatal injury in those days. He was ordered back to the medics but he refused, saying, "Well, I guess I'm hurt about as bad as I can be. I believe I'll go back and give 'em some more." (p. 267)

Robert E. Lee (1807-1870)
Croker has another novel about the Civil War entitled No Greater Courage: A Novel of the Battle of Fredericksburg. They are stand alone novels (I read them out of order) but they would probably be more enjoyable in the order that they actually happened. I hope that Croker is working on a Chancellorsville novel. Croker's command of the Union political situation is very strong and these three battles are, in reality, intricately related to each other. Chancellorsville's bold maneuvers are a response to the mindless forward attacks of Fredericksburg which were a response to the hesitancy of Antietam. I would love to see Croker get into the head of Hooker at Chancellorsville.

Highly recommended.

Pet Peeve note: On page 136 of my paperback edition Croker refers to "Indianians." There have never been and never will be Indianians. We are Hoosiers. Always have been, always will be.

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: To Make Men Free: A Novel of the Battle of Antietam.

Reviewed on April 6, 2009.

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