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PostPosted: Thu Jun 16, 2011 3:49 pm 
McPherson, James. Antietam: Crossroads of Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

(Note to Club Members - an old College Report again, excuse the length but professors love to read!)

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Antietam: Turning Point of the War?

The Civil War from the firing on Fort Sumter to the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox lasted roughly 1,450 days. Of these days about 50 of them were spent in desperate battles which determined the fate of the Nation. From Vicksburg in Mississippi to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the nation watched as armies continually came to grips across the nation. James B. McPherson though has chosen one single day which determined the outcome of the other 1,449 days: September 17, 1862.

McPherson’s book Crossroads of Freedom makes the case which many have supported since the end of the war, namely that the battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg) was the pivotal moment of the war. Lee’s invasion of Maryland, after striking victories across Virginia, created a situation in the North that made victory and restoration of the Union seem impossible. Yet the subsequent invasion and repulse of Lee, McPherson argues, gave the North the confidence, willpower, and foreign support that was needed to endure the obstacles to come on the way to victory. This is a very fine argument and one that is hard to even contend with. McPherson makes his points very clearly and with an ease that makes the book easy to read.

McPherson begins by recapping the events of 1861 and 1862 and the events which have led up to September of 1862. He recounts the Union defeats at Bull Run, the Seven Days battles and Second Manassas. He also includes the changing situation in the western theater which had seen early successes by Grant’s army at Forts Henry and Donelson, and the subsequent capture of Corinth, be jeopardized by the dispersing of Union forces to cover the miles of supply and communication lines leading north. But his book concentrates on the Antietam campaign in particular and the battle which decided it.

The Confederate setbacks of early 1862 had been forgotten by September of 1862 as Confederate forces under Lee advanced from the smoldering battlefield of Second Manassas northward. While to the west Bragg’s Army of Tennessee linked with Smith’s Army of Kentucky for a dual invasion of that border state. But fate and the Gods of War were not on the Confederate side this September as McClellan fought Lee to a standstill at Antietam Creek in Maryland, and Bragg was likewise stalled at Perryville, Kentucky. In McPherson’s book it appeared that the Southern armies were unstoppable and that the end of the war might come sooner than expected if Bragg and Lee could have achieved victories. Perhaps though it wasn’t the armies of Buell and McClellan that ‘miraculously’ stopped these invasions from succeeding (both Buell and McClellan could manage no better result than a strategic draw in battle), but Lee and Bragg themselves. Allow me to play devil’s advocate.

McPherson argues that Lee had a probability of success in Maryland which warranted the invasion north, but this is hardly the case. Lee’s army had been all but wrecked by three months of continual combat from the peninsula of Virginia to the fields around Manassas, and Jackson’s men had fought another whole other campaign in the Shenandoah Valley that Spring. Lee’s men were grizzled veterans there is no doubt, they were the finest of the 1861 volunteers that still remained with his army. Yet they were also at quarter-strength in many cases and questionably led by men whom had never before led at a regimental, brigade, or division level. Taking a quick look at Lee’s command structure as he launched his invasion we find his army full of new commanders in unfamiliar situations. In Jackson’s Corps we find one of his divisions (Richard Ewell’s Division) under a temporary commander as Ewell had been wounded at Groveton during the last campaign. Another division was led by A.P. Hill, who was currently under arrest by Jackson for failing to promptly obey orders. His third division under Daniel H. Hill was recently added to his Corps and had yet to see much combat. And his own old division (under Brigadier General Starke) was so much depleted from combat that its total strength was hardly enough to justify its designation as a division (its largest brigade being no more than 1,000 men). In Longstreet’s Corps McLaws’s Division and Walker’s Division were also recently added to the command structure of his corps (although many of the units were experienced veterans). His best division under Hood entered the campaign with its commander (like A.P. Hill) under arrest for an altercation over the use of ambulances. To add the frosting to the cake of problems, Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet were soon all traveling in ambulances because of various minor injuries along the march north. This is hardly an army bound for a successful invasion.

By September the Army of Northern Virginia was long overdue for a rest. Its men were exhausted and suffered greatly from ‘battle fatigue’ as McPherson points out in his book. Many units were no longer ably led, many being headed simply by whomever was left standing after the prolonged campaigns of 1862. They needed rest and refitting before a serious offensive move should have been made. Despite the outward enthusiasm of the soldiers and the confidence they may have exuded, an army commander cannot ignore the reality of a situation. His army needed supplies, reorganizing and rest. Lee’s greatest weaknesses though were over-aggressiveness and over-estimating the ability of his men. Perhaps Lee’s ultimate mistake of the war was this doomed invasion north with an army that needed anything but an offensive campaign.

Lee admitted as much to Davis when he wrote him, “The army is not properly equipped for an invasion of an enemy’s territory. It lacks much of the material of war, is feeble in transportation, the animals being much reduced, and the men are poorly provided with clothes, and in thousands of instances are destitute of shoes.” Not the most stirring endorsement for offensive action. But Lee went on, “The present seems to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate Army to enter Maryland.” Lee declared that the Federal forces defending Washington were “much weakened and demoralized” and the new recruits arriving from the North, whom he estimated at 60,000, were not yet trained or organized. He admitted that exploiting this situation involved a major risk: Still, he could not afford to be inactive. “Though weaker than our opponents in men and military equipments,” he would “endeavor to harass if we cannot destroy them…. I do not consider success impossible.” Lee is bold to a point of folly at this point unfortunately. Lee was very much incorrect about the state of the Union army at Washington D.C. as well.

The vast majority of the Army of the Potomac had indeed played no part in Pope’s failed campaign at Second Manassas and were anxious for battle again. Those who might have been hesitant to once again engage Lee were likely driven to a patriotic fervor by Lee’s invasion of the North and the rousing welcome they received from the Unionist citizens of Maryland. Despite McClellan’s difficulties with Lincoln and Washington in general, he had his own army in the palm of his hand. It was well-equipped, rested, confident in their commander (as were Lee’s), but perhaps most importantly, they were repelling an enemy invasion. Those ‘demoralized’ soldiers Lee counted on encountering were anything but demoralized. To be sure Pope’s army had been thrashed, but it would bounce back quickly. Case in point would become the Potomac’s I Corps and its XII Corps. The elite I Corps under Hooker, mentioned by McPherson for its gallantry at Antietam, was originally McDowell’s III Corps of the Army of Virginia which had fought and been defeated at Second Manassas with Pope. Furthermore, Nathaniel Banks’s II Corps Army of Virginia would become XII Corps Army of the Potomac under Mansfield, which along side Hooker’s I Corps would launch the fiercest attacks on Jackson’s Corps during the battle. Hardly the demoralized soldiers.

Lee began a campaign in early September that he could hardly expect to succeed. His Army did not know the land as well as they did in Virginia, they had to extend and guard a supply line south (the reason for capturing Harper’s Ferry was to open up a needed supply line), they were vastly outnumbered and were exhausted by months of campaigning. The losing of Special Orders 191 would further add to their list of reasons why success was improbable. At the moment of discovery of this loss Lee should have retreated south, in fact he contemplated it. But in the end Lee decided to stay in Maryland. He simply hoped Jackson would rejoin him from Harper’s Ferry in time to try to fight McClellan‘s legions. Lee’s ‘offensive invasion’ quickly turned into a forced defensive battle for the army’s survival. Despite being routinely outnumbered Lee usually had an offensive plan to his battlefield tactics (as at Second Manassas and the Seven Days battles). The ‘one-two’ punch of Longstreet and Jackson would not even be fathomable at Antietam. Instead all Lee could do with his force was react to McClellan’s punches and try to weather the storm.

McPherson argues another key component to Lee’s invasion was the attainment of foreign recognition. This is very true indeed. But what if Lee had not invaded Maryland? The earlier remarkable victories in Virginia thus far had pushed Europe to the brink of intervention, why risk an offensive campaign in enemy territory when one more big defensive victory might be all that was needed? It would have been more advisable for Lee instead to draw a defensive posture across the Rappahannock River immediately following Second Manassas (as he would do anyway following the Antietam Campaign) and regroup, rest, and reequip his forces. ‘Let the enemy come to you’ should have been Jefferson Davis’s advice to Lee in early September. Instead of ‘weathering the storm’ in Maryland as I previously made illusion to, Lee should have been behind firm breastworks along the opposite side of the Rappahannock in September. Instead Davis gave the permission that Lee sought and thus came the turning point of the war for the South. Davis’s permission set in motion a long-shot invasion into enemy territory, the act of which would bring about a strategic defeat and would cause Europe to cease intervention talks. And perhaps more importantly the death and wounding of over 10,000 men the Confederacy could not spare.

McPherson argues that the turning point of the war was McClellan’s ‘victory’ over Lee at Antietam. I argue this is hardly the case. Even McClellan, with all his faults and slowness, couldn’t help but defeat Lee at Antietam. Had Pope, Burnside, or even Lincoln himself been in command the battle and campaign likely would have ended the same - with Lee’s defeat. McPherson’s thesis about the turning point of the war at Antietam is correct enough, but I argue that the turning point is more the decision to invade Maryland, not the act of being defeated in it, which as previously argued was all but inevitable. Had Davis denied Lee the permission to invade Maryland the war might well have been different: Lincoln would not have gotten his ‘victory’, McClellan would have remained in command longer (presumably), the Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t have been issued so soon or at all, and foreign recognition might still have been coming. Lee would have remained on the defensive with a rested and reinforced army and been ready for McClellan’s next move, instead of being assaulted by Union troops in Maryland in a battle he could never have won.

Lee wouldn’t make the same mistake again in 1863. Instead he rested, reorganized, reinforced, and equipped his men as much as possible before their second invasion North. Learning from past mistakes Lee made sure he had every man and gun the South could spare before moving. His second invasion had a much higher probability of success than did his first invasion. Perhaps the stakes weren’t as high as in 1862 concerning foreign intervention if victory were won, but had Lee crushed Meade in the Pennsylvania fields that July, it could have offset the defeat at Vicksburg and perhaps turned the tide of the war. Maybe that is the real turning point. McPherson gives that argument credit in his final chapter. He also gives Sherman’s successful Atlanta campaign credit as well, it is right that he should. Without Sherman’s success in August and September of 1864 it is not altogether unlikely that Lincoln would have lost the election to McClellan, and the outcome of the war would have been different to say the least. Yet McPherson makes the fine statement that without the victory over Lee in Maryland in 1862 these events would never have occurred. Yes, but had Meade been defeated or Sherman routed outside of Atlanta it would have made Antietam simply another battle which only temporarily turned the tide of the war.

Of the 1,450 days of the war there were indeed pivotal moments. Of the 50 or so days which armies engaged in major combat, each of them were pivotal in their own right. To pinpoint Antietam as the definitive turning point of the war is incorrect in my estimation. For myself it is Sherman’s campaign and victory at Atlanta which sealed the fate of the Confederacy. This campaign brought the ill-suited Hood to command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee and gave Lincoln a major victory which propelled him back into the White House. But any one event did not determine the war though, just as no one event caused it. But it was a combination of pivotal moments during those 50 days that decided the fate of our nation and the course of the war. Then again, a lot happened in the other 1,400 days which determined what occurred in those 50; but that is a topic for another day.

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 09, 2012 9:55 am 
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Joined: Sat Jun 17, 2006 7:45 am
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Crossroads of Freedom is a fantastic book. I've read it twice, in fact. Unlike some military history books that might focus very closely on the battle itself, McPherson places the battle of Antietam in the context of the entire Civil War. As such, he concludes that for a variety of reasons the Antietam Campaign was the turning point of the war. His approach and conclusions are very logical and as is usual for McPherson, his research provides strong support for his position. Undoutedly, Landscape Turned Red is a great book about the battle of Antietam (Stephen Sears) and is worth a read as well. For those looking for an strong analysis of why the battle was important to the outcome of the American Civil War, however, I think the McPherson book is a better read.

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