Battle of Antietam, 150 years ago

This video from the USA is about the battle of Antietam.

By Tom Mackaman in the USA:

Prelude to the Emancipation Proclamation

150 years since the Battle of Antietam

17 September 2012

One hundred fifty years ago, on September 17, 1862, in the second year of the American Civil War, the armies of the Union and the Confederacy met by Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The battle that ensued remains the bloodiest single day for US troops in American military history. In one day of fighting there were some 23,000 casualties, with nearly 3,700 soldiers killed.

Yet the significance of the Battle of Antietam goes far beyond its casualty toll. The strategic union victory—resulting in the expulsion of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from Maryland and the North—had immense ramifications. Most importantly, it set the stage for President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order that led to the freeing of the slaves.

Lincoln abhorred slavery. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” he had said. But until 1862 he had articulated a position that would have restored the Union to its state prior to the war, with slavery permitted where it already existed but blocked from expanding to new territories.

The first year of the Civil War had changed Lincoln’s thinking. Southern success and Northern futility in the field had convinced him that it was not possible to achieve the aim of preserving the Union without aiming a death blow against the entire social order in the South. Slavery had to be destroyed.

“This government cannot much longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing,” he said. Emancipation was “a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or ourselves be subdued.”

This effectively transformed the war into a social transformation—the second American revolution.

In July 1862, Lincoln told his cabinet, to their astonishment, that he intended to issue an executive order of emancipation. Frustrated with the lack of support for even modest anti-slavery measures from the slaveholding border states still in the Union, Lincoln had determined to bypass Congress by invoking his military power as commander-in-chief. But on the suggestion of his secretary of state, William Seward, Lincoln agreed to wait for some success on the battlefield before making public the proclamation. That success turned out to be the Battle of Antietam.

The leaders of the South were making their own calculations. If the Army of Northern Virginia could follow up its successes in the late summer of 1862 with an invasion of the North—simultaneous invasions of Kentucky and Union-held parts of Mississippi were to be launched from the western theater— it would take the burden off the ravaged Virginia countryside, deliver a blow to Northern morale and, most important, make more probable diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy by Great Britain and France, and perhaps their intervention in the war.

It was with these goals in mind that Robert E. Lee, fresh from his victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run on August 30, 1862, took the Confederate Army across the Potomac.

There was no doubting the numerical and material superiority of the Union army. But Lee had taken the measure of his opponent, General George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac. Experience had taught that McClellan would not engage his entire army in a battle, that he would not concentrate his forces for an attack, and that he would not pursue the Confederates even when he had achieved a tactical victory.

For a year, McClellan had resisted Lincoln’s entreaties to press the attack in Virginia. From his telegrams, diaries and letters, historians have found that McClellan overestimated two- or three-fold the size of the Confederate forces he faced. Objects that McClellan thought to be massive cannons turned out to be logs. The Army of the Potomac, for one reason or another, was never ready to attack. “All Quiet on the Potomac,” the northern press mocked.
McClellanGeorge McClellan

But McClellan was not a fool. From an elite Philadelphia family, McClellan was a master organizer—a skill much appreciated by Lincoln after “the boy general” was elevated to commander in the wake of the humiliating Union defeat in the First Battle of Bull Run at the war’s beginning. He was also, prior to Antietam, much loved by the rank-and-file soldiers of the Army of the Potomac. These factors prevented Lincoln from dumping McClellan. “I will hold his horse,” Lincoln told an exasperated secretary, “if he will bring us success.”

McClellan’s blunders and unwillingness to commit to a fight grew out of his political position. He did not oppose slavery, and he neither sought nor desired a total defeat of the South. A northern Democrat, McClellan hoped to maneuver the Army of the Potomac to confront Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, in such a way as to force a negotiated settlement and a return to the status quo ante: the restoration of the southern states to the Union with slavery intact.

150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation: here.

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16 thoughts on “Battle of Antietam, 150 years ago

  1. I’m not totally convinced by your informants suggestion that McClellan wanted to restore the status quo. Even when he was being pressured by the Democrats to stand as the presidential candidate against Lincoln, after he’d been dismissed from his command, McClellan remained committed to the Union position in the war, which was why in the end he didn’t stand for the Democrats And he was a basically decent person who would not have been playing a double game.
    This is splitting hairs at this stage in history!


    • Hi Valerie, McClellan was indeed “committed to the Union position in the war” in the sense that he opposed secession of the southern states. However, he was indeed an opponent of abolition of slavery.

      Wikipedia about McClellan


      “Unlike some of his fellow Union officers who came from abolitionist families, he was opposed to federal interference with slavery. So some of his Southern colleagues approached him informally about siding with the Confederacy, but he could not accept the concept of secession.”


      “McClellan’s first military operations were to occupy the area of western Virginia that wanted to remain in the Union and later became the state of West Virginia. He had received intelligence reports on May 26 that the critical Baltimore and Ohio Railroad bridges in that portion of the state were being burned. As he quickly implemented plans to invade the region, he triggered his first serious political controversy by proclaiming to the citizens there that his forces had no intentions of interfering with personal property—including slaves. “Notwithstanding all that has been said by the traitors to induce you to believe that our advent among you will be signalized by interference with your slaves, understand one thing clearly—not only will we abstain from all such interference but we will on the contrary with an iron hand, crush any attempted insurrection on their part.” He quickly realized that he had overstepped his bounds and apologized by letter to President Lincoln. The controversy was not that his proclamation was diametrically opposed to the administration’s policy at the time, but that he was so bold in stepping beyond his strictly military role.”


      “He favored a war that would impose little impact on civilian populations and require no emancipation of slaves.

      McClellan’s antipathy to emancipation added to the pressure on him, as he received bitter criticism from Radical Republicans in the government.[32] He viewed slavery as an institution recognized in the Constitution, and entitled to federal protection wherever it existed (Lincoln held the same public position until August 1862).[2] McClellan’s writings after the war were typical of many Northerners: “I confess to a prejudice in favor of my own race, & can’t learn to like the odor of either Billy goats or niggers.” But in November 1861, he wrote to his wife, “I will, if successful, throw my sword onto the scale to force an improvement in the condition of those poor blacks.” He later wrote that had it been his place to arrange the terms of peace, he would have insisted on gradual emancipation, guarding the rights of both slaves and masters, as part of any settlement. But he made no secret of his opposition to the radical Republicans. He told [his wife] Ellen, “I will not fight for the abolitionists.” This placed him at an obvious handicap because many politicians running the government believed that he was attempting to implement the policies of the opposition party.”

      From the Tom Mackaman article:

      “Still camped at Antietam, McClellan was furious [about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation]. “I cannot make up my mind to fight for such an accursed doctrine as that of servile insurrection,” wrote the top Union general.”

      And, from Wikipedia again::

      “McClellan maintained his estrangement from Abraham Lincoln by his continuous call for reinforcements and by writing a lengthy letter in which he proposed strategic and political guidance for the war, continuing his opposition to abolition or seizure of slaves as a tactic.”

      McClellan did become the Democrats’ presidential candidate, though disagreeing with the party platform:

      “McClellan was nominated by the Democrats to run against Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 U.S. presidential election. Following the example of Winfield Scott, he ran as a U.S. Army general still on active duty; he did not resign his commission until election day, November 8, 1864. He supported continuation of the war and restoration of the Union (though not the abolition of slavery), but the party platform, written by Copperhead Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, was opposed to this position. The platform called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy. McClellan was forced to repudiate the platform, which made his campaign inconsistent and difficult.”


        • Hi Valerie, thanks so much for your kind comment!

          I also sometimes have changed my mind on aspects of history after seeing new evidence about them 🙂

          I knew there were conflicts between Lincoln and McClellan, but until this week I thought they were mainly about military strategy and, as I noted, I only learned about McClellan and slavery this week.


  2. On “Interview with historian James McPherson: 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation”

    Dear Tom,

    McPherson, as a student of the American Civil War, came of age, historiographically speaking, in an era that rejected the reactionary arguments of the “Progressive school”, which denied slavery was the central element leading to the Civil War. This “revisionism” portrayed the Southern planter class as victims of Northern aggression, especially Northern abolitionist agitators, arguing that the conflict could have been resolved amicably and reasonably, as long as the Slave Power had been accommodated.

    In this academic milieu was written Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, as well as the film version in 1939. McPherson discusses these matters in his book of essays This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War.

    The early period in McPherson’s career, in the years leading up to the 100th anniversary of Civil War, is graced with hundreds of fine essays from many excellent historians of that conflict—Arthur Bestor, Grady McWhiney, Eugene D. Genovese, David Donald and C. Vann Woodward come to mind, and there are many, many more. These are some of the historians upon whose shoulders McPherson stands, and we should be grateful to him for conveying so perfectly the historiography of that social and political period to us in the early Twenty-first Century.

    To those of your readers who wish to understand the historical significance of the American Civil War during these sesquicentennial celebrations, I suggest McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, the Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the American Civil War and its causes. This, and the fine essays by Tom Mackaman at the WSWS will do.

    Randy R
    Arizona, USA
    7 November 2012


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  5. On “ 150 years since the Battle of Antietam ”

    I recently re-read the excellent article by Tom Mackaman on the Battle of Antietam, which led to the Emancipation Proclamation. One aspect of the war that is highlighted in this battle, and is often overlooked, is that the Confederacy’s leadership had inherent self-destructive tendencies. General Lee made some strategic blunders leading up to this battle that affected its outcome, mistakes that he never made when fighting in the south. The most critical of these involved the location of the Antietam battlefield; it was backed up against a bend in the Potomac River, which prevented Lee from using the mobile tactics he had used with great success in campaigns on southern territory. There were many other locations in Maryland that would have been better suited to Confederate success.

    Similarly, in the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania a year later, in July 1863, Lee again made some errors that he did not make when fighting in the south. He did not have to fight at Gettysburg, particularly after the first day of that battle, when Union forces coalesced into a tremendously strong defensive position. He could have disengaged his army and moved to a more advantageous position, saving them to fight another day. Once again, Lee fought a battle that he did not have to fight, and destroyed the Confederate army’s offensive capabilities. While the Confederates were able to continue fighting effectively on the defensive for almost two more years, they were never again able to mount a large-scale offensive.

    When fighting in the north, when there was a hint of battle in the air, Lee’s usually sound military thinking abandoned him, and he committed his forces to battles that did not have to be fought (from a southern perspective) at those particular times. The fact that Lee made these critical errors points to flaws in his (and by extension, the leadership of the Confederacy’s) thinking, and to some contradictions that played out in his mind. First of all, there was Lee’s extreme aggressiveness. This characteristic was common among members of the Planter class in the south (of which Lee was a member). They developed this trait because they needed to completely dominate every aspect of the slaves’ lives, in order to prevent rebellions, and to keep the slaves working. The Planter class was predisposed to militarism and violence. This aggressiveness helped Lee when he was fighting on southern territory, but while there he was able to control this impulse. When fighting in the north, his better judgment abandoned him, and he fell back on his instincts.

    Lee undertook both invasions of the north because he believed that, in spite of the south’s numerous victories over northern forces, they would not win the war without taking the conflict into the north. This strategy conflicted with the Confederacy’s stated war aims of fighting a defensive war against “northern aggression.” This contradiction must have played out in Lee’s mind, and helps to explain why Lee made the mistakes that he did.

    These military errors on the part of Lee were a crucial factor in the Union’s ultimate victory, but were not the decisive factor. The south still could have won the war, were it not for the extraordinary leadership that Lincoln provided. Lincoln kept the Union focused, and he was not afraid to fire ineffective and incompetent generals. The south’s leadership could not have anticipated what Lincoln brought to the conflict, and were overmatched by him.

    Andy H

    7 January 2013


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