The casualty figures for the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, are astounding: Approximately 6,000 Union and Confederate soldiers killed; approximately 17,000 wounded. It was the single bloodiest day of combat in American history, with four times as many American casualties as occurred on D-Day in World War II.
Historian and cultural critic Richard Slotkin, an emeritus professor at Wesleyan University, is the author of an award-winning trilogy of scholarly books on American cultural history (Regeneration Through Violence, The Fatal Environment and Gunfighter Nation), among other works. In The Long Road to Antietam, he has written a riveting, perceptive analysis of the Civil War campaigns of 1862, of the reasoning behind the Emancipation Proclamation and of the complex power struggle between President Abraham Lincoln and the 35-year-old Union Commander of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. George B. McClellan.
Slotkin writes, "The significance of Antietam lies not in the battle itself but in the campaign that produced it … a radical turn in strategies of both Union and Confederacy … Before Antietam it was still possible for Americans to imagine a compromise settlement of sectional differences. After Antietam, and the Emancipation Proclamation," only an outright military victory by one side could settle things. And either way, Slotkin points out, would spell "a revolutionary transformation of American politics and society."
At the heart of this book is the persistent political and psychological contest between Lincoln and McClellan. Lincoln believed that "conciliation" with the South was conditional. He thought a president had the power to alter slavery, and he insisted that slavery "be started down the road to eventual extinction." McClellan, an archconservative white supremacist with strong political (yes, presidential) ambitions firmly, and correctly, believed that the South would never accept this.
But, by Antietam, Lincoln, seeing no other way to a solution to the crisis, was "determined to fight a war of subjugation, to restore the Union and begin the destruction of slavery by force."
Slotkin informs us that behind Lincoln's back, McClellan, the popular and promising commander of the Army dubbed "the Young Napoleon" by the press, would refer to Lincoln as a "well-meaning baboon" and "the original gorilla." And, as to the general's loyalty toward his commander in chief, Slotkin quotes McClellan's Aug. 9, 1861, letter to his wife, Mary Ellen: "I receive letter after letter ---- have conversation after conversation calling on me to save the nation … I will cheerfully take the Dictatorship."
As commander of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan was criticized during his life and after for dithering with his army in Washington in the fall and winter of 1861-62 while he should have been engaging the enemy. Even when rebels had managed to plant fortifications along the lower Potomac, subjecting Washington to an embarrassing blockade, McClellan refused to take action.
It's true that the troops under McClellan's command around Washington were raw and that his huge army was in a state of incomplete organization, but Slotkin believes that the reasons for McClellan's military inaction were political: If he didn't risk battle, he could never be defeated or, more calculatingly, risk offending those Northerners with Southern sympathies who could further his political aspirations.
Slotkin tells us that one of the strategic aims of Gen. Robert E. Lee's invasion of Maryland was, in accordance with Confederate President Jefferson Davis' plan, to pressure slaveholding Maryland to secede to the Confederacy. And that is the reason Lee, with approximately 68,500 troops, found himself facing McClellan's 72,500 — although McClellan, as usual, exaggerated that figure greatly.
Antietam is named for the river which runs near the small town of Sharpsburg, Md. The area upon which the battle took place on that hot day in September was made up of grassy, rolling fields, cornfields, some forest. While Slotkin's descriptions of the various maneuverings of the armies are complex, requiring a certain level of military expertise to understand fully, his vivid combat scenes, sometimes told in participants' words, are horrific yet filled with human compassion: "Men and officers of New York and Wisconsin are fused into a common mass, in the frantic struggle to shoot fast … Men are falling in their places or running back into the corn."
The author goes on to tell us how the overly cautious McClellan held the field while he allowed Lee's forces to slip away during the night of Sept. 18; how Lincoln, confident after the Antietam "victory," signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22; and how the president finally replaced the scheming, hesitant McClellan with Gen. Ambrose Burnside in November 1862. This is one of the most moving and incisive books on the Civil War that I have ever read.