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British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
First, let’s go over our main associations with the Battle of Antietam. We probably know it was one of the major engagements of the American Civil War, thanks to Ken Burns’ watershed PBS series, the folksy, charismatic storytelling of Shelby Foote and the shelf-sagging weight of Civil War tomes in bookstore and library. We may even recall that the battle was fought in 1862 (Sept. 17, to be exact) and that it earned the epithet “the Bloodiest Day in American History.” Between daybreak and nightfall, nearly 25,000 Americans were shot in the cornfields, woods and pastures along Antietam Creek, hard-by the small town of Sharpsburg in western Maryland. Six thousand were dead, more than four times the number of Americans killed during “The Longest Day” (D-Day, June 6, 1944).
But with hundreds of books written about the war, and dozens on campaigns like Antietam, why do we need a fresh look at this battle? Especially when the bibliographic essay in “Crossroads of Freedom” declares, “Two superb narratives of Antietam … have achieved the status of classics.” True, Antietam belongs to that inexpressibly sad group of battles in the Civil War that stand alongside history’s most savage, but it does not bear the load of superlatives that mark other battles; there were longer fights, with larger harvests of death. Union Gen. George McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign in the spring of 1862 featured sizable engagements over seven days, with larger armies on both sides than those at Antietam. Why not a new peek at one of those battles, say, instead of yet another rehash of Antietam?
Because, first of all, the author of “Crossroads of Freedom” is James McPherson, Davis Professor of History at Princeton, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the magnificent Civil War survey “Battle Cry of Freedom.” If McPherson thinks he knows something worth sharing about the Civil War, I’m inclined to hear him out.
And within a few pages, the illustrious author makes good on his reputation. Indeed, this deceptively slim volume emphasizes why fine history is always worth reading. Don’t fear an arid chronicle of charging regiments. “Crossroads of Freedom” is not specifically a work of military history. Rather, it meticulously, seemingly effortlessly, constructs a context through which the reader can clearly see the pivotal nature of the battle by witnessing its consequences. It delivers the “what if” mode of historical writing, but always sticks to the facts. This is a great achievement.
Second, McPherson’s book shines a lucid light on a compelling, often tragic story. The Union war effort was not going well by the late summer of 1862, especially in the prominent eastern theater. Even the most casual observer of the war has heard of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, but would be hard-pressed to name their Northern counterparts of 1862.
And no wonder. Inept nonentities like Nathaniel Banks and John Pope were quickly shamed into obscurity by the brilliance, speed and audacity of Lee and Jackson, who more than compensated for the South’s chronic inferiority in men and materiel. Before Antietam, the South triumphed at Second Manassas and in the Shenandoah Valley — and managed to turn back McClellan’s invasion of Virginia. Meanwhile, the North gained some advantages in the west, but played musical commanders in the east, squandering opportunities pretty much until 1864, when Ulysses Grant assumed full command.
Before Lincoln turned to Grant, he placed his faith in McClellan. While McClellan excelled at creating a viable army from a diffuse collection of forces, he failed at harnessing that army to its best advantage. McClellan faced Lee in Virginia during the Peninsular Campaign in the spring of 1862, where the Confederate quickly took McClellan’s measure as a man and a general. Sadly for his reputation, McClellan had a penchant for overstatement and megalomania, not to mention bouts of projection straight out of a Freud 101 textbook — his opinion of Lee, for example: “Cautious and weak under grave responsibility … likely to be timid and irresolute in action.” As McPherson points out, “A psychiatrist could make much of this statement, for it really described McClellan himself. It could not have been more wrong as a description of Lee.”
Sadly for the country, McClellan had a paranoiac’s willingness to grossly overinflate Confederate strength and to treat criticism as conspiracy, which generally rendered him inert even when he enjoyed overwhelming numerical superiority over rebel armies. Such would be the case at Antietam, when he let slip several chances to end the war in a single day. Think of the thousands of lives that might have been saved, had McClellan acted, rather than procrastinated! After months of frustration, Lincoln would relieve the general in November 1862. The president famously likened spurring McClellan to fight to trying to “bore with an augur too dull to take hold.”
McPherson masterfully paces the story, guiding us through the tangle of the domestic and international prelude to the battle with prose at once elegant and economical. He deftly narrows the focus as the skeins of military, political, diplomatic and social events intertwine. While McClellan failed utterly to destroy Lee’s army (his subsequent boasting notwithstanding), he managed to turn back the Confederate invasion of the north. This was a severe blow to Confederate morale — the momentum had been theirs in the east up till then — and a boost for the already war-weary north. But many previous and successive battles would have these effects on both sides.
What made Antietam different from other engagements, according to McPherson, was that it decided the fate of the country in at least two lasting respects. Prior to the battle, Lincoln performed an excruciating tightrope act, suspended between a northern political mosaic that exerted “crosscutting pressures from various quarters for and against emancipation as a Union war policy” and a “need to keep border slave states and Northern Democrats in his war coalition.” Lincoln himself stated: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” but he knew the limits of both his constitutional power and his political base too well to jeopardize the war effort by being aggressive on freeing the slaves. Five days after Antietam, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
He had tried half-measures before then, however; as Union generals, without Lincoln’s official approval, began to confiscate slaves as war contraband, Lincoln would urge the border-state representatives to accept government compensation — literally, payment for their former property – in return for a gradual emancipation of their slaves. It didn’t work — but Lincoln’s efforts prompted some great rhetoric from the master orator “[Gradual emancipation] would come gently as the dews of heaven, not rending or wrecking anything. Will you not embrace it? You can not, if you would, be blind to the signs of the times.”
It is fascinating to watch Lincoln’s supple, precise mind develop public policy on slavery as he attempts to harness the centrifugal energies of the war effort, and worth the price of admission to read his magnificently succinct, often witty statements. McPherson has the wisdom to let Lincoln, along with numerous others who participated in these epoch-defining moments, do the talking. First-person impressions of war (including harrowing accounts of battle) and politics and newspaper accounts of the home-front mood fill the book. These lend real vitality to the narrative, and help McPherson rise to the challenge of saying something new about the war.
Lincoln had drawn up the Emancipation Proclamation months before the battle of Antietam, but it waited in a desk drawer for a victory that could legitimize the edict in the eyes of the president’s opponents. As Lincoln put it, “I don’t want to issue a document the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope’s bull against the comet!”
Antietam, which only the delusional McClellan could interpret as a complete victory, was still good enough to serve the purpose. As McPherson states: “Perhaps no consequence of Antietam was more momentous than this one.” Certainly Antietam served as a catalyst for the transition from slavery to freedom for African-Americans. Frederick Douglass exclaimed, “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree.” Count on McClellan, though, to miss the point. He called the proclamation “infamous” and an incitement to “servile insurrection.” The fired general would also mount a run against his former commander in chief in the 1864 presidential election.
Antietam blunted Lee’s momentum and sent him retreating south. McClellan, predictably, did not pursue with any haste. Nonetheless, the diluted victory of Antietam was still deemed a victory, and the battle’s outcome sent ripples that reached the great powers of Europe, where England and France had watched events with great concern. As McPherson cites: “The textile industry was the leading sector of the British economy and was important in France as well. Four-fifths of British and French cotton imports before the Civil War came from the American South.”
The Union blockade of southern ports was rapidly strangling southern cotton shipments. Southern gentlemen had a good deal of sympathy from English aristocrats, including Parliamentarians, in spite of official British opposition to slavery. As McPherson relates, the policy of Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston’s government was “coldly pragmatic” — as summarized by Lord Cecil: “Well, there is one way to convert us all — Win the battles, and we shall come round at once.”
Lincoln, his Cabinet and American ambassador to England Charles Francis Adams (son and grandson of two presidents), worked feverishly to keep a lid on British inclinations to intervene either diplomatically or militarily. When New Orleans fell, Henry Adams had the foresight to preserve for posterity the extraordinary sight of his reserved father, the ambassador, dancing across the room and shouting for joy.
However, Second Manassas, in which the South routed the North just prior to Antietam, was nudging even a realist like Palmerston toward a decisive move on the Confederacy’s behalf: “If the Federals sustain a great defeat … [their] Cause will be manifestly hopeless … and the iron should be struck while it is hot.” While an English military presence in America may not have been likely, it is startling to realize how close diplomatic recognition for the Southern cause actually was — until news of Antietam reached London.
Arrive at the end of this remarkable book, and the meaning of McPherson’s title — “Crossroads of Freedom” — becomes all the more profound. Antietam was the fulcrum of freedom, even if the victory wasn’t decisive, even if the war didn’t end then and there. Ensuring that the Europeans didn’t intervene meant that numerical superiority, which belonged to the North, would probably eventually ensure victory. The North was now destined to win. And if the North were to win, the slaves would go free, and the union would be preserved. Extrapolate even further, and realize that without an intact union, America would not have been strong enough to win the wars of our own century — and preserve freedom today, embattled as it may be.
Katharine Whittemore is the editor of American Movie Classics magazine. More Katharine Whittemore.
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