Monday, September 17, 2012

Antietam 150

150 years ago today, the battle of Antietam was fought. I wrote about it two years ago - tried writing about it last year, though I didn't post anything - saving it for this year, partly... This is a big anniversary. (For me anyway - I wasn't around for the 100th anniversary, and won't be around for the 200th (unless I am a very old man indeed) - so 150 is it...) Antietam was a fascinating battle, and very important - probably the most important of the war. It's importance goes beyond its military and strategic significance (though those were big) - it is as important politically - the occasion of the definition of the war. The Emancipation Proclamation changed the nature of the war, made it into a revolution of sorts - and it came as a result of Antietam. The war itself changed shape, from something consisting of a series of battles, with both sides hoping to capture the enemy’s flag and win outright, to something like a total war - where the two sides would build and fight and cut each other up.

In military terms, Antietam was important enough. The South could have won the war in the fall of 1862 - by gaining foreign recognition; by swinging Northern elections far enough to break the Republicans' control of the war. Antietam put that to an end (along with Perryville and Corinth in the west.) I spent more time 2 years ago writing about the Union failure at Antietam - Lee's army was wrecked - it could have been finished off, as far as any army could be finished off in the Civil War. That was harder to do than anyone thought; both sides were constantly hoping for a modern Cannae, but it was almost impossible to do it in the 1860s. Killing power had grown, but communication power lagged, and the fact was that both sides were usually wrecked in every battle - one more than the other maybe - but most of the time, when one side chose to leave, the other side had less choice than they thought about whether to let them go. The logistics of the day made it very difficult to sustain battle. (In a couple years, if I keep posting these anniversary posts, we'll get back to that when we get to Grant in Virginia. A bloody mess, but something new, a genuinely sustained campaign... we're a long ways from that in 1862.) But at Antietam, while much of McClellan's army was shot to hell, all of Lee's army was - McClellan had two complete army corps that saw virtually no action. They could have broken the confederates - if they had captured the only ford across the Potomac, they could have finished them off. But they left it where it ended...

And yet - it is a turning point of the war. That's an overused phrase - one that can mean a bunch of different things. You can classify different battles as turning points. Like - Which battles determined who WOULD win the war? Which determined who COULD win the war? Which determined that the side that should win the war, really and truly WOULD? (This is different in subtle ways from #1.) And I suppose, finally - which battles determined what the war was going to be ABOUT?

1) is Vicksburg, basically - that cut the Confederacy in half, forced the east to fend for itself, gave the North access to invade the South from many angles... after that, the north was going to win, as long as it remained a war. (Though there wereways for the politics to play out differently - thus #3.)

2) is Gettysburg, more than anything else - especially alongside Vicksburg. Before Gettysburg, you can imagine the South forcing some kind of peace on the battlefield. Forcing negotiations, something like that - after Gettysburg, that wasn't going to happen. The SOuth might survive to force a peace, but they weren't going to win it.

3) this, I think, is Atlanta - because that was the point where there were no longer any ways for the south to survive. This is different than the other two - you see this a lot in the literature - that even in 1864, the south could still survive. It’s true. What Vicksburg and Gettysburg did was make sure the south could not win the War - but they could still win politically. They could still survive, hang on, create political crisis in the North, etc. But after Atlanta - they could not win. They could still fight it out - costing a lot of people their lives and causing immense suffering and despair - but they were going to lose.

4) and so we're back to Antietam. This stopped the South's best chance, probably, at forcing foreign intervention, some kind of armistice - but more importantly, this is where the war was defined. The freedom of the slaves, the remaking of the republic, into something - to be honest - closer to the ideals of the declaration of independence, to the dream of America, instead of its rather nasty reality. But also (as a consequence) into a total war - a war for the definition of the nation. It’s about the Birth of a Nation - this is pretty much where it was born. The irony of Griffith's title shouldn’t fool us - he was right, that the nation was born out of this war - born out of the freeing of the slaves. And this is where the North accepted that. For the South, from the start, the war was about slavery - don't let 150 years of revisionism fool you. They were fighting for slavery, from the beginning to the end; the North tried to fight for union first, and only came to accept it as a fight for slavery later. Here, basically, or 5 days from now, with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. A direct result of Antietam - which makes it quite justified in saying, it's the day the Nation was saved - maybe the day the nation was born. A better nation (though it would take another 100 years to make it stick...)


Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

Sam Juliano said...

Haunting photos Weeping Sam, and authoritative writing on a subject that I have also had a lifelong affinity for. My own favorite work on the subject in Ken Burns' THE CIVIL WAR, which of course focus on Antitam in one episode. Idid read McPherson's BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM years back and I was riveted, and I have also completed Shelby Foote's CIVIL WAR NARRATIVE. If I may ask my friend, is there a single volume that deals with the Battle of Antietam that you would recommend?

Anmyway, your reason #4 pretty much says it all as far sthisbattle being the south's last real chance. Then came Gettysburg, which was I guess the "official" turning point.

weepingsam said...

Sam - the Stephen Sears book ("Landscape Turned Red") is good - a very detailed military account. McPherson also has a book about Antietam - "Crossroads of Freedom" - which covers the political background a lot more... there are undoubtedly others, but those I've read recently...