Friday, September 17, 2010

Antietam Remembered

Though my mind is on vampires, and making fun of crazy republicans (craziER republicans, since it's hard to find any sane ones), I and though the day is almost over, I wanted to write a word or two about the date, September 17, the 148th anniversary of the battle of Antietam. Ta-Nehisi Coates has been writing about Drew Gilpin Faust's Mothers of Invention - a book about the experiences of Southern White women during the Civil War. He notes, more than once, the ways Southern ideas handicapped them - their racism, of course, their commitment to slavery, which quickly became a major source of weakness; their ideas of femininity kept them from employing women in home front positions (like nursing) the North did; their inability, as a country, to operate en effective infrastructure - to get the mail delivered, to keep their trains running. It's a point that came up more than once in the Civil War books I read this summer as well, Grant's Memoirs and McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom - all the inefficiencies of Confederate politics, all the ways their ideology undermined the war effort. You might wonder how they survived four years - the Southern view, I suppose, is that they were just much better fighters, something like that. But that doesn't hold up very well as an argument. Northern armies fought as well as Southern armies, consistently. What difference there was came down to generalship - though even there, not to the quality of the generals each side had - but to the coincidence of where those generals were, and when they took their places. The truth is, in the west, the North outgeneraled and outfought their enemies pretty consistently - the big delay there was logistic - finding ways to move armies into an enemies territory. Once the Union got itself going, it made fairly short work of the Confederacy, in the west.

But the East... And here we're back to Antietam. Because when you read about Antietam, you soon realize just how astonishingly lucky the South was in the Union's generals. It is hard to imagine a more incompetent leader of a large army than George McClellan. When I was young, I was a Civil War buff, steeped, particularly, in Bruce Catton's books - back then, I picked up the traditional idea of McClellan as a charismatic, popular, skillful general, with a fatal streak of coution and self-doubt. But now, rereading Catton, along with McPherson and Grant, I can't help marvel at what a complete idiot McClellan seems to have been. There might have been worse generals in charge of the Army of the Potomac, but it is hard to imagine any of its other commanders botching Antietam as badly as he did. And what's worse than that - it might not even be his most incompetent campaign! The Battle of the Seven Days might have been worse, as Lee beat up pieces of the Union army (at great cost to the Confederates), while McClellan did nothing to counter him, and promptly retreated, without ever being beaten.

But Antietam was different - because Lee put all he had into the fight, and the Army of the Potomac basically beat him completely. But exhausted itself in the process - partly because McClellan committed his troops one corps at a time, never getting anywhere near the bulk of his army into action at once. And then - left almost 2 complete army corps completely out of the fight. One of his officers remarked somewhere that at the end of the fight, 10,000 fresh soldiers could have ended the war - 20 or 25,000 fresh troops were in reserve - but McClellan didn't use them. He was convinced all along that Lee outnumbered him - an amazing fact itself - but here, it is astonishing, and it is directly damning of him. It is crucial that in none of his battles did he ever actually take the field himself - he was able to maintain his delusions about Lee's strength by staying in his headquarters, never venturing out to check the lines himself, never even sending trusted staff officers out to see how things really were. I believe this was consistent - he was an absentee general on the peninsular as well. Compared to the later commanders of the Army of the Potomac, some of whom (Burnside and Hooker especially) were quite overmatched by the job - he didn't suffer so much from loss of nerve or imagination, as from an inability of really imagine war as something that is actually happening.

It's never fair to compare other generals to Grant - he was in another class from most of them - but still... you can't help it - everything McClellan got wrong, Grant consistently got right during the war. Committing all his strength; refusing to stop when he still had a chance to win; making sure he had at least a working knowledge of the real situation. Thinking, in short, that he would win this battle, no matter what was happening - at least, never thinking he was going to lose. It's a quality you see with Lee, too, of course - sometimes to a fault - if the union generals before Meade and Grant had been half as good as Grant, it's not likely he'd have gotten away with many of his battles. If he'd faced Grant at the Seven Days or Antietam or Chancellorsville, he'd have been defending the Carolina's in 1864, not Richmond...

Still. What did happen at Antietam forced the Confederacy back, put it on its heels. Gave the north breathing room, and emboldened them to start the revolutionary parts of the civil war. And - ought to remind you just what an insane, horrifying thing warfare was in the 1860s. The sheer standup brutality of the battle - pretty much a straight, toe to toe, battle lines drawn shootout between some 80-90,000 people armed with rifles - is mind boggling. There was almost nothing in the way of tactics in the fight - just sending union soldiers forward to fight whatever confederates they found, with the confederates basically there for the finding... It was something. A bloodbath, mainly... but something.

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