Unholy Sabbath (Book) Review

by Cathryn Prince
Unholy Sabbath

Released: 31st August 2011
RRP: 18.99
Publisher: Savas Beatie
Author: Brian Matthew Jordan
Type: Hardback
ISBN: 978-1611210880
Pages: 312

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“I do not remember ever to have experienced a feeling of greater loneliness. It seemed as though we were deserted by all the world and rest of mankind.” So uttered Daniel Harvey Hill after a battle for Maryland’s South Mountain one sunny September afternoon. Although the General was specifically referring to the fight, his words apply to the how this battle, which preceded Antietam by just three days, has been largely lost to history. That is until historian and Yale University PhD candidate Brian Matthew Jordan decided to pluck the story from the past and return it the collective memory of the American Civil War.
On September 14, 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac defeated the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the mountain passes of South Mountain in Maryland. The battle pushed the Confederate Army to mass along the banks of Antietam Creek, setting the stage for the war’s bloodiest day. Not only did the Battle for South Mountain give the Union its first decisive victory, the battle opened the way for Emancipation and lifted the morale of Union troops: “Moreover, victory would not only emancipate the army, it would permit Lincoln to issue a document freeing the slaves.”
Unholy Sabbath, explains how the battle was fought, and why it faded from public memory. A first time author, Jordan faced many challenges in recounting the battle’s narrative. He not only needed to get the armies positions and sequence of events correct. He had to tell the story in a way that readers could easily digest. Although Jordan succeeds in the former, he falls short in the latter. If one isn’t a Civil War expert the drumbeat of names, regiments and statistics will prove daunting. More streamlined writing would make this story more compelling and therefore more accessible. That in turn would serve one of Jordan’s purposes in writing this compelling history: to rescue the book from history’s shadows.
Still there are many moments where Jordan shines. For example, there is a moment when, just before the battle begins, a cluster of soldiers becomes nearly paralyzed with fear because of a rattlesnake. Jordan beautifully relates the incident, showing the vulnerability of these men and boys. In another particularly moving passage Jordan brings the readers inside a hospital after the battle. Readers ache for the soldiers on both sides and for the surgeons and nurses attending the wounded and dead.
It’s important to examine these so-called footnotes of history to understand the larger story. In Unholy Sabbath Jordan draws from a wide range of sources including diaries, postwar reunion materials, letters, photographs and public addresses. Meticulously researched, Unholy Sabbath thus adds a great deal to the historiography of the Civil War.

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