- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 14, 2002

"Despite the ghastly events of September 11, 2001, another September day 139 years earlier remains the bloodiest single day in America. The 6,300 to 6,500 Union and Confederate soldiers killed and mortally wounded near the Maryland village of Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862, were more than twice the number of fatalities suffered in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001."
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson's opening paragraph of his latest book, "Crossroads of Freedom, Antietam 1862: The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War," sets the stage for an examination of why this bloodletting was so important and why Antietam may have been the most decisive battle of the Civil War.
This book could well be subtitled "A Primer on the First Two Years of the Civil War." As Mr. McPherson aptly points out, morale on both sides took a roller-coaster ride during this period.
Southern spirits both at the front and at home were high in 1861. Bolstered by Confederate victories at the Battle of First Manassas, Wilson's Creek and Ball's Bluff, Southerners no doubt began to believe the boast that "one rebel could take on 10 Yankees."
In the North, after the Union debacle at Second Bull Run, Washington Roebling, an officer with a New Jersey regiment and the future builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, wrote, "Our men are sick of the war" and "they have no confidence in their leaders."
Later that year, this began to change. In the so-called Western theater (the region west of the Allegheny Mountains and east of the Mississippi River), a new Union commander by the name of Ulysses S. Grant captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. The fall of these two important bastions had dire consequences for the Confederacy. More than 14,000 soldiers were captured, a serious blow to Southern manpower. Worse, Southern waterways leading into the heartland were now open to Union gunboats.
What followed was a domino effect upon Confederate control of the region. Soon, Nashville, Tenn., fell to Union forces, the first Southern state capital to be captured, and the major agricultural and industrial center of Florence, Ala., came under Union occupation.
While this was going on, combined army and navy operations under Gen. Ambrose Burnside managed to capture all major forts and ports along the North Carolina coast except Wilmington.
Things were no better in the trans-Mississippi theater (the region west of the river). AtPea Ridge in northwestern Arkansas March 7 and 8, a small Union army struck a decisive blow. For all practical purposes, this victory secured Federal control over Missouri for the rest of the war.
The Confederate slide toward defeat continued for the next several months. In April, the Rebels were stopped at the Battle of Shiloh, causing the loss of their highest-ranking general, Albert Sidney Johnston, and eventually the important Southern rail center at Corinth, Miss. April also saw more Confederate losses, culminating in the Union capture of New Orleans, the South's largest city.
Not since the late historian Bell Wiley's seminal work on Southern morale, "The Road to Appomattox," written more than 40 years ago, has a historian used firsthand accounts as effectively as Mr. McPherson relying on newspaper editorials, diaries and letters to track the morale of both sides in the first five months of 1862.
While civilians in the North such as Elizabeth Blair Lee would write, "Our people are in a frenzy of exultation over New Orleans," even such staunch Confederate fire-eaters as Edmund Ruffin believed this event raised "the possibility of the subjugation of the Southern states." Diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote simply, "New Orleans gone and with it the Confederacy."
Things looked bad east and west for the fledgling nation. Mr. McPherson points out that there was a great dip in Southern morale when CSS Virginia (aka Merrimack) was scuttled, and the largest Confederate navy yard, Norfolk, was abandoned, leaving the James River open to the Union Navy. Confederate Ordnance Chief Josiah Gorgas declared, "No one event of the war, not even the disaster of Fort Donelson, created such a profound sensation as the destruction of this noble ship."
Across the Atlantic, the leaders of England and France were paying the closest attention to the affairs of the blue and the gray. Foreign policy studies sometimes seem dry and pedantic; Mr. McPherson, however, is both a great scholar and a fine writer and manages engagingly to weave diplomatic matters into his narrative.
It has been fashionable in recent scholarship to dismiss the possibility of European intervention on behalf of the Confederacy. One study summed up this belief in its title, "The Glittering Illusion." In contrast, Mr. McPherson makes a strong case that in the fall of 1862, foreign recognition of the Confederacy was by no means foreclosed.
The author notes, "Most European observers and statesmen believed in 1861 that the Union cause was hopeless." This began to change with the Confederate defeats in early 1862, and the European powers began to hedge their bets. The repulse of Gen. George B. McClellan's army on the Peninsula and news of "Stonewall" Jackson's exploits in the Shenandoah Valley, however, renewed the viability of foreign recognition that summer.
The English and French press were vehemently pro-Confederate. In August 1862, the London Times proclaimed that the breakup of the United States would be good "riddance of a nightmare." Indeed, the French foreign secretary told the American minister in Paris that these events proved "the undertaking of conquering the South is impossible." The British chancellor of the exchequer, William Gladstone, believed, "It is our absolute duty to recognize that Southern independence is established."
Hopes for European recognition of the Confederacy were buoyed by Lee's invasion of Maryland. Before word of the Battle of Antietam reached England, a Cabinet meeting was planned to discuss Confederate recognition. Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston and Foreign Minister Lord Russell agreed to take no action "till we see a little more into the results of the Southern invasion."
Lee's repulse in Maryland stopped any plan for foreign intervention in its tracks. Confederate diplomatic envoy James Mason was so crushed that he considered terminating the mission there. "He decided to stay on, but never again did his mission come so close to success as in September 1862," Mr. McPherson writes.
The author believes that the Battle of Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation had a "signal impact abroad." Cotton and slavery were certainly key issues in England. Though the press and certain members of the elite may have favored recognition, the people were overwhelmingly anti-slavery. The final version of the proclamation issue in January 1863 prompted mass meetings in England that produced pro-Union resolutions.
The Emancipation Proclamation influenced affairs stateside also. Conventional wisdom says it had an adverse influence on Republican control of Congress. Nothing of the sort, Mr. McPherson writes. "Republicans retained the governorships of all but two of the eighteen Northern states and the legislatures of all but three. They made an unprecedented gain of five seats in the Senate. And they kept a majority of twenty five in the House after experiencing the smallest net loss of House seats in twenty years."
All too often, cynics and critics then and today have been quick to point out that the proclamation barely freed any slaves. To be sure, a quick read of the fine print reveals that to be the case, but as Mr. McPherson argues, it changed the character of the war
It also should be noted that the proclamation certainly was thought to be important by blacks. Frederick Douglass announced, "We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree." Henry Turner, a black Methodist minister, was ecstatic: "The first day of January, 1863, is destined to form one of the most memorable epochs in the history of the world."
This is not a "blood and guts" Civil War campaign story. It's not meant to be, though the author devotes a vivid chapter to the fighting. Of course, no study of the Maryland Campaign would be complete without an examination of McClellan, his methods, motives and actions.
What Mr. McPherson has given us is a coherent and integrated view of the political, diplomatic, economic and military issues leading up to, surrounding and following the Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam.
Ted Alexander is senior historian at Antietam National Battlefield

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide