Thursday, 2 February 2012

JAMES MCPHERSON'S ANTIETAM

There are certain battles that seem to exhibit an endless historical fascination. In the Civil War, it's Gettysburg, the three-day epic in which the ultimate fortunes of the Confederacy swung back and forth. And although James McPherson acknowledges that the Union victory at Gettysburg, coupled with the fall of Vicksburg on the same Fourth of July in 1863 had a major impact on the war, he makes a persuasive argument that it was Antietam in 1862 which marked the actual turning point of the war. Crossroads Of Freedom (the title reflects McPherson's monumental one-volume history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom) appeared in 2002 as part of Oxford University Press' series 'Pivotal Moments in American History' and McPherson makes his case eloquently and succinctly.

In 1862 the early successes of the Union forces in the West (along the Mississippi, in Tennessee and Kentucky, in West Virginia, and along the coast) had been reversed, and a series of victories brought about primarily by better Confederate generalship, had brought the South to the brink of success. McPherson's thesis rests on the political importance of Antietam, for two reasons. First was the effort to get Britain and France to recognise the Confederacy—something their own cotton embargo (and the Union blockade) had failed to do. But with Union armies stalling, and losing major battles, it looked increasingly as if the South could argue it was a viable independent country. That argument would be reinforced by the second factor, the 1862 mid-term elections. McPherson notes that the incumbent party had lost control of the House in such elections for the past 20 years, and given an unsuccessful war, President Lincoln's opponents, whether they were 'war' Democrats or 'peace' Democrats, were strong enough to win the election by a margin which might persuade the Europeans as convincingly as the battlefield victories themselves.

The political situation was made worse because Lincoln's top general, George McClellan, in command of the Army of the Potomac, was a Democrat, and appeared to show little interest in providing Lincoln with the kind of victory he needed to convince Europe and his own electorate. Furthermore, Lincoln had decided to announce the emancipation of slaves in Confederacy—a move which would not only align the Union with those countries in which slavery was already banned, but could potentially rob the South of a great resource. It was a part-way measure, since it applied only to states actively in rebellion, and not those under Federal control, and it was still tendentious enough for Lincoln to shelf the proclamation, waiting for a victory substantial enough to allow him to announce it. This was a victory McClellan was proving both unwilling and unable to provide.

In a brief over-view such as this, there is little space to develop characters. With Lincoln this is not a problem—we have such a strong image of the man and his contradictions we can fill in much ourselves. Other players in the drama, the Union general Pope, the Confederates Jackson and Longstreet, might need somewhat more fleshing out. But the one character to whom McPherson does justice is McClellan, who fancied himself an American Napoleon, but fell far short. McClellan was beloved by his troops, and a master of organising and drilling them quickly into fighting shape. But he was hopeless at the fighting itself, fearful of making any move unless he were convinced he had an overwhelming superiority, something of which he was rarely, if ever convinced. His constant cries for more soldiers, his claims to be outnumbered by Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, by as much as two to one, when the reality was that he always held a vast superiority in both men and materiel, and his outright refusals to obey direct orders to attack, even from the President, put him at a distinct disadvantage when facing men like Lee or Jackson, willing to take great risks to gain great rewards.

Lee's basic strategy was defensive, knowing the longer the war went on, the more discontented Lincoln's supporters would become. But his tactics were aggressive; twice he was faced with situations where he felt he could eliminate Union resistance with a major victory on their soil; Antietam was the first of those attempts. As it happens, he might have won the battle had not a copy of his battle plan, wrapped famously around some cigars, fallen into Union hands. His second attempt also failed, but the inability of the Union forces to stop his retreat after Gettysburg, while not as glaring as McClellan's failure to even pursue Lee during Antietam, ensured that the war would continue for two more bloody years.

Antietam was finally McClellan's perfect situation. Although he believed otherwise, he had far more soldiers available than Lee did; they were better equipped and fresher. And he knew Lee's battle plan, knew that Lee would split his forces, giving him an even bigger advantage. McPherson is very good at giving a broad but comprehensible picture of the battle itself, and particularly McClellan's failures at a number of times when decisive action might have provided an overwhelming victory. At one point McClellan, with more fresh troops in reserve than the Confederates already had on the battlefield, failed to bring them into battle, and thus allowed Burnside's attack to fail. AP Hill, having captured Harper's Ferry, brought his men to Sharpsburg (site of the battle, the Confederates called battles after the towns, the Union after topographical features, like the Antietam Creek) and saved the day. When Lee retreated, McClellan's failure to pursue him for six days finally led to his removal at the head of the Army; Lincoln was livid at his inaction, while McClellan believed he had single-handedly saved the Union. He would run against Lincoln for the presidency in 1864, and lose badly.

The battle fought near Sharpsburg on 17 September 1962 remains the bloodiest in American military history; four times as many casualties as the D-Day landings; more casualties in one battle than in all the other wars of the 19th century put together. McPherson draws a parallel with 9/11 which I find forced and a bit strained, but that is really the only off-note in the book.

Antietam proved victory enough for Lincoln's Republicans to hold on to Congress, for the British and French to stay out of the war, and for the Emancipation Proclamation to be issued. That changed the tenor of the war; no longer was it being fought, nominally, to keep the Union together, now the central issue of slavery was finally at the forefront. Were the Confederacy to lose, the Union would be reformed with the institution of slavery destroyed. It did define the Civil War, just as the Civil War defined then, and, along with race itself, in many ways continues to define America.

Crossroads Of Freedom by James M. McPherson
Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 0195135210

1 comment :

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