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Antietam's Bloody Intersection of War and Politics

Battle of Antietam--Army of the Potomac. Lithograph, 1888.

On Wednesday, September 17, 1862, the bloodiest single-day battle in U.S. history was fought at Antietam Creek in Maryland, the first major Civil War engagement on Union soil, leaving more than 23,000 Confederate and Union soldiers dead, wounded or missing.

At Antietam, Union forces under “the Young Napolean” General George B. McClellan turned back the invading Confederate army under General Robert E. Lee, but the cautious McClellan failed to take advantage of his numerical superiority to pursue and decisively defeat Lee’s army. Nonetheless, the nominal victory enabled President Abraham Lincoln to announce the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, effective January 1, 1863, and somewhat ironically, to relieve the “victorious” McClellan of command.

In his new book, The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution (W.W. Norton) acclaimed cultural historian Richard Slotkin details not only the military campaigns of the summer of 1862 and the brutal hour-by-hour combat at Antietam as he brackets this story with an intricate account of the politics that made compromise impossible and led to all-out war inevitable after Antietam. His lively account captures the fragility of the Union at this perilous time as the egomaniacal, white supremacist McClellan mocked Lincoln, opposed abolitionism, and obsessed on a military coup -- the most serious threat to civilian authority in American history, while Lincoln urged a more aggressive war that eventually would deprive the Confederacy of billions of dollars of property, including enslaved human beings.

The Long Road to Antietam has been praised for vivid writing, extensive research, and thoughtful consideration of the social, economic and political context of this costly battle. Historian and acclaimed Lincoln biographer Allen C. Guelzo commented: “Richard Slotkin has made us understand how very delicately the entire fate of the American nation trembled in the wind at the Battle of Antietam -- not only for the high military states between the Union and Confederate armies in this, the single bloodiest day in our history, but for his clear-eyed dissection of the ambitions that led George McClellan to the brink of a treason greater than that contemplated by Benedict Arnold.”

Dr. Slotkin a professor emeritus of Wesleyan University and is one of the preeminent cultural critics of our times. His award-winning trilogy on the myth of the frontier in America, Regeneration Through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation, offers an original interpretation of our national experience. His other histories include Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality and No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864. His has also written three historical novels: The Crater: A Novel of the Civil War; The Return of Henry Starr; and Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln (Winner of Michael Shaara Award for Civil War Fiction). In 1995 he received the Mary C Turpie Award of the American Studies Association for his contributions to teaching and program-building.

Dr. Slotkin generously responded to a series of emailed questions about his new book on Antietam and his career.

* * * * *

You’re an expert on violence in American history and the Civil War in particular. What does it mean when you describe the war as a “Second American Revolution”?

Dr. Richard Slotkin: Actually, it was James McPherson who characterized the Civil War as the “Second American Revolution,” a description justified by the profound and far-reaching changes the war produced in American government, politics, society and economics.

Long Road to Antietam is focused on what I call a “revolutionary crisis.” The South’s secession broke the frame of constitutional government, and created a fluid and violent political atmosphere in which the most radical and hitherto unimaginable transformations came to seem possible.

To appreciate the decisions made by Lincoln and Davis -- to see the crisis from their perspective -- we need to understand that they were not simply the presidents of stable national governments. They were leaders of embattled political movements, whose regimes were vulnerable to the play of uncontrollable social and political forces. They had no assurance that the war would not end in the destruction of constitutional government in either or both of the rival sections.

Presidents Lincoln and Davis had hoped to control the forces unleashed by the war, to gain the victory and preserve the constitutional order as they understood it. By the summer of 1862, both had realized that victory would require more radical action. Events would pressure Lincoln and Davis to stretch their constitutional authority to or beyond the breaking point, to intensify the scope of combat operations beyond all precedent, to inflict loss and suffering on civilian populations as an instrument of policy. Lincoln would accept the necessity of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation -- to defeat the South’s political revolution, he would inaugurate a social revolution.

Among the dangers that faced Lincoln and Davis was the possibility that their republics would succumb to military dictatorship. Lincoln’s conflict with General McClellan in 1862 posed a very serious threat of that kind. The Confederacy would actually follow that course in the last days of the war, when Davis’s powers as commander-in-chief were transferred to General Lee. As Americans in the 1860s were well aware, that had been the historical fate of republics in the past, from ancient Athens down to the French republics of 1789 and 1848-52. Lincoln’s fear that if the Union failed, republicanism itself might “perish from the earth,” was not just a rhetorical flourish.

What inspired your recent book on the 1862 battle of Antietam in Maryland?

Several factors came together. The issues raised by the Civil War are so fundamental to American politics and social organization that the arrival of the sesquicentennial inevitably suggested parallels with contemporary events – in particular, the extreme polarization of contemporary politics, so reminiscent of the divisiveness that produced the Civil War, embracing basic concepts of government, the role of the nation-state, race.

The crisis that led to Obama’s election, and the opportunity for transformative change that appeared to exist, also led me to think of the ways in which Lincoln used the political plasticity produced by the Civil War crisis to transform the nation.

How is your book different from earlier works on Antietam?

I think it’s the first narrative history of the Antietam campaign to fully integrate the unfolding political drama with the development of strategy and the course of battlefield events. It’s more typical to treat the politics that led to the Emancipation Proclamation as if they existed in a separate sphere -- or at least in a separate chapter -- from the development of the military campaign. For the participants, action in these two realms was simultaneous and interdependent. Lincoln’s handling of military affairs was shaped by the complex politics of preparing the ground for Emancipation -- and especially by his awareness that General McClellan, who commanded his strongest army, was unalterably opposed to his policies.

McClellan’s handling of the military crisis was, in its turn, shaped by his belief that he was fighting a two-front war -- against the Confederates in front and against the Radical Republicans in his rear. I’ve tried to show how the crisis unfolded, through decisions or pronouncements made day by day, viewing each event through the subjective point of view of the actors -- careful to describe the limitations of knowledge and political bias under which they operated, and the effect of personal character on their thoughts and actions.

I also think the concept of “revolutionary crisis,” which I use to interpret the events of the summer of 1862, offers a useful way of understanding both the significance of what was happening and the psychological and political dynamics that shaped the consciousness of the key decision-makers, and their supporters.

It will also be the first to focus on the genuinely revolutionary possibilities that were inherent in that historical moment.

Some historians see Antietam as the most significant battle of the Civil War. Do you agree?

“Significant” is an interesting word. In a military sense, the battle was not at all decisive. It was a tactical stalemate, which frustrated Lee’s plan of campaign; but despite their heavy losses, the Rebel army was not decisively weakened by the defeat. Within two months it was as strong as it had been before the battles of Second Manassas and Antietam, and its morale was sky-high.

The significance of the battle was political: it allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which transformed Union war aims, undermined the Southern economy, and added black manpower to the Union armies. It also allowed Lincoln to fire General McClellan, whose political opposition to the administration made him an unreliable and indeed dangerous instrument of war.

And although it was not apparent at the time, Lee’s defeat at Antietam marked the failure of the Confederacy’s best chance to win the war in a single campaign.

The war was not going well for the Union in 1861 and until Antietam in September 1862. Was there a chance the South could have won the Civil War if Confederate General Robert E. Lee had prevailed at Antietam?

The Confederacy had a unique opportunity to win the war in the summer of 1862. The failure or dissipation of Union military offensives in June and early July allowed the Confederate armies to mount counter-offensives on every major front, from Mississippi to central and eastern Tennessee, to northern Virginia and Maryland. More importantly, the Northern states would be holding midterm elections in a few months. If Lee could defeat a Northern army in Maryland -- or even take up a position where he could maintain a long-term presence -- Northern voters might elect Democratic majorities to Congress and the state legislatures, weakening the Lincoln administration. A strong enough revulsion might even empower a Northern peace movement.

Moreover, Union failures and Confederate successes had led the British government to actively consider diplomatic intervention. Their action waited on the result of the Rebel offensives, especially Lee’s in Maryland -- but also on the results of the midterm elections. The British wanted some assurance that the North would not go to war in response to British intervention, and the triumph of a pro-Southern opposition would provide that assurance.

The stakes were so high, the opportunity so unique, that Lee felt justified in taking extreme risks to achieve his aims. In the end, his army lacked the strength to carry out his plan of campaign. By the time he faced McClellan at Antietam, his force was so weakened that he had little chance to achieve the kind of success he needed.

Did you learn anything new about President Lincoln in your work on this book?

Any close study of Lincoln leads one to appreciate the depth and subtlety of his mind, his peculiar blend of the devious, the closely calculating, and the morally profound. Two moments in particular stand out for me. The first is his decision, as early as July 12, to issue an Emancipation Proclamation. It was made at a moment when his forces faced setbacks on every front, and his administration’s prestige was at a low point. The decision was based on a mercilessly clear understanding of the fact that winning the war for the Union would cost far more in blood, treasure, and suffering than he had originally believed; that to win that war he would have to break down the South’s economic and social structure by attacking slavery. On a deeper level, he understood that slavery had caused this war, and as long as slavery existed it would provoke dissension and division. The longer, costlier war for the Union that now seemed necessary could only be justified if it removed the root cause of conflict. But it would take a revolutionary use of federal power; and it would make a compromise peace impossible.

The second moment was his decision to reappoint McClellan to command on September 2, after having spent two months trying to shelve him. The move was a military necessity -- only McClellan could restore the army’s morale after its defeat under General Pope at Second Manassas. But Lincoln had to make the appointment over the strenuous objections of his strongest cabinet ministers, Chase and Stanton, who thought McClellan should be shot as a traitor for refusing to go to Pope’s aid -- and despite his own belief that McClellan was determined to resist his policies at every turn.

The relationship of Lincoln and McClellan is at center stage in your book. How did they see one another?

Lincoln was all too aware of his own lack of military knowledge, and hoped to find in McClellan the professional skills needed to organize an army and win victories. In the end he came to see McClellan as a superb organizer, but as a general who became “nervous” in a crisis, unable or unwilling to act decisively to seize military opportunities.

Although he presented himself as a pure-minded professional, McClellan was in fact a partisan Democrat, who wanted to preserve slavery as a guarantee of white supremacy. By virtue of his position he became the most powerful Democrat in Washington, symbolic leader of the opposition party. He also believed he had a divinely appointed mission to save the Republic from what he saw as the twin menaces of Secession and Radical Republicanism. So he fought a two-front war, fending off the Confederates in front and using every resource of politics and public relations to unseat his enemies in Lincoln’s cabinet.

Worst of all, McClellan was a social snob, who dismissed Lincoln as “the original Gorilla,” a well-meaning but weak-minded “baboon” surrounded by fools and traitors; refused to inform the president of his plans and deliberately flouted or balked at following presidential orders.

What made McClellan dangerous were his political commitments and his personality, which combined grandiosity with something like paranoia. He was nicknamed “the Young Napoleon,” and in 1862 that was a specific reminder of very recent events: the Second French Republic, established by the 1848 revolution, had been overthrown by Napoleon III in 1852.

McClellan continually reverted to the idea of a military dictatorship, which might come to him through congressional action, the abdication of his opponents in Lincoln’s cabinet -- or even a military coup. Although that last was an extreme idea, he liked to entertain it. He took pleasure in telling his wife, “I have commenced receiving letters from the North urging me to march on Washington & assume the Govt!!” In August, 1862, a few weeks before Lincoln reappointed him to command of the Army of the Potomac, he mused: “If I succeed in my coup everything will be changed in this country so far as we are concerned & my enemies will be at my feet. It may go hard with some of them in that event, for I look upon them as the enemies of the country & of the human race ...”

Lincoln’s conflict with McClellan was far more dangerous to constitutional government than the later clash between President Truman and General MacArthur during the Korean War. The Lincoln-McClellan conflict occurred in the midst of civil war and revolution, when the authority of constitutional government itself was under challenge. Like Napoleon, McClellan had created a cult of personality in the Army of the Potomac; and his army was not half a world away, but was entrusted with defense of the president, his government, and the capital of the nation. Even a failed or abortive coup attempt by a few disgruntled officers would have done severe, perhaps irreparable harm to the Union cause, and set a dangerous precedent for the future of constitutional government.

Why did Lincoln retain McClellan as commander of the Union forces after a series of defeats and McClellan’s insubordination in the summer of 1862?

There were several reasons for Lincoln to keep McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac, despite his defects as a general and his political opposition. Lincoln needed the support of the “War Democrats” to broaden the popular base of support for the war effort, and McClellan was a leading figure in that faction. McClellan had also created a cult of personality in his army, centering the loyalty of the troops -- and of the brigade and division commanders -- in himself. It was feared, with reason, that the army would not loyally support an outsider appointed in McClellan’s place; and until the winter after Antietam, none of McClellan’s fellow generals would agree to supplant him. Finally, there were not that many other options available in July 1862. Few generals then had the requisite experience in independent command of large bodies of troops, and the best of these (Grant and Buell) were already in charge of other field armies. The paucity of Lincoln’s choices is suggested by the fact that the Ambrose Burnside was thought to be the general most capable of filling McClellan’s shoes. Burnside was offered the command, and refused it, at least three times before Antietam. He accepted after that battle, and proved a complete incompetent.

Was Lincoln aware that McClellan mocked him, staunchly defended white supremacy, spoke of a military coup, and saw Radical Republican abolitionists and Lincoln as almost as great a danger to union as the Confederacy?

In general yes, although he was not privy to McClellan’s personal letters, which contain his most radical fulminations and fantasies of a military coup. However, McClellan’s staff was very free in its accusations against Lincoln and Stanton and in threats of a “countermarch on Washington.” Their talk was reported in the press, and relayed to Stanton and others by generals friendly to the administration or hostile to McClellan.

What was the role of the news media in the McClellan-Lincoln relationship?

McClellan used the press very effectively to mount a campaign for the removal of Secretary of War Stanton. He believed that if he could force Lincoln to alter his cabinet, he himself would gain moral and political ascendancy within the administration. He used surrogates to pass information and accusations to the anti-administration newspapers, especially the New York World and New York Herald. The campaign was so effective that even the Republican New York Times attacked Stanton, and forced Lincoln to make a public defense of the secretary.

One of McClellan’s most interesting ploys was the use of a false leak: the tale of a threat of military coup by McClellan’s staff, which one of McClellan’s officers passed to a reporter of the New York Tribune – the most Radical, most anti-McClellan paper in the country. The Tribune gave the plot sensational coverage, and the threat went “viral” (in nineteenth-century terms). The idea, I argue in the book, was to use the threat of a coup to pressure Lincoln into bowing to McClellan’s wishes.

Rather than a decisive victory, wasn’t Antietam more of a draw as Lee retreated and McClellan’s forces failed to pursue Lee’s army -- and yet the battle paved the way for Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and, somewhat ironically, relief of the “victorious” McClellan from command?

The battle was militarily indecisive, but it did allow Lincoln to make two decisive moves: to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which transformed the nature of the Union war effort; and to fire McClellan. Although the general’s prestige soared immediately after the battle, even his supporters were disappointed by his failure to attack Lee’s army after the first day of battle -- when McClellan’s army was reinforced, and Lee was caught with his back to the Potomac River. But whatever McClellan’s prestige, Lincoln was (in my view) determined to get rid of him as soon as possible. McClellan was simply too indecisive in battle, and too disloyal to the president, to be an effective instrument of federal policy. Once Lee had retreated, and the crisis was past, Lincoln could make the replacement without risk to the army. He did not wish to diminish the good morale effects of the victory by firing McClellan before the fall elections; but less than a day after the polls closed, Lincoln wrote the order for McClellan’s relief.

You detail every maneuver of the battle of Antietam and many readers may be stunned by the bloody human toll and seeming indifference of both McClellan and Lee to the massive carnage as they ordered action after action. How did these generals view the devastation?

I treat the battle in some detail for two reasons. I believe that the peculiar and inept tactics McClellan employed were shaped by his politics -- his belief that he was fighting a two-front war, and must minimize the risk of a setback in the field until he had won his fight against his enemies in Washington. The other reason is essentially moral: when writing about the politics that shape a war, it seems to me essential to show the price paid for those political decisions on the battlefield.

All the principal decision-makers involved in the campaign were aware of the blood-price paid by their soldiers, and none were unmoved by the losses. Nevertheless, the most effective commanders I studied -- Lee and Lincoln -- have a certain ruthlessness about them, an understanding that victory will require the payment of a terrible price -- and a willingness to pay that price, or have their soldiers pay it, to achieve ends they see as worthy and necessary. McClellan is often regarded as a “softer” type, sensitive to the sufferings of his men. Perhaps he was; but to me he seems utterly egocentric, whose effusive sympathy for his men is self-aggrandizing sentimentalism -- and an excuse for his excessive caution.

How did Lincoln expand the powers of the chief executive? Can he be considered the first in the line of what Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., called “Imperial” presidents?

Lincoln is certainly the father of the modern presidency, which arguably became “imperial” in the twentieth century. He defined the president’s war powers as far more extensive than previously imagined, not quite unlimited but close to it. He gave real content to the Constitution’s vague assignment of the role of commander-in-chief of the armed forces; and used his war powers to suspend habeas corpus, arrest suspected subversives without trial, and (in the Emancipation Proclamation) to expropriate or annihilate private property without judicial process.

What happened to McClellan after Lincoln relieved him of duty?

He went to New York to write his official report, which was also a justification of his military and political ideas. His political backers in the city were also the leaders of the Democratic Party. He ran against Lincoln for president in 1864, on a platform calling for rescinding the Emancipation Proclamation (which he supported) and an armistice to allow peace negotiations (which he did not support). He lost, but got 45 percent of the vote.

Was Lincoln undermined by the Democratic victories in the 1862 election just a few weeks after Antietam?

Not substantially. He continued his successful courtship of War Democrats (like John McClernand) while pursuing such radical policies as the recruitment of black troops.

What did the rather limited Emancipation Proclamation do, and how did it change the character of the war?

Its expansion of presidential powers was revolutionary. Lincoln asserted that, as commander-in-chief, he had the power to confiscate the property of citizens inhabiting rebellious districts, without judicial proceeding. In purely economic terms, this was expropriation on a colossal scale. At a stroke of the pen some 3.5 billion dollars worth of property was legally annihilated -- this at a time when national GDP was less than 4.5 billion, and national wealth (the total value of all property) was about sixteen billion dollars. It guaranteed that if the Union was restored Southern society would be revolutionized.

Two codicils had especially radical implications. One enjoined blacks “to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense.” This was intended to offset the accusation that Lincoln was fomenting a “servile insurrection” and race-war. But by suggesting that blacks could use violence for self-defense, the proclamation attacked the fundamental principle of plantation law and discipline, which absolutely forbade the slave to physically resist abuse by a legal master, and even denied the slave the right to appeal to a court.

More radical still was the declaration that freed slaves “will be received into the armed service of the United States.” The right to participate in the common defense is a civil right, which not even the free states then recognized. As Frederick Douglass said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”

A total of 180,000 Black men would serve, roughly nine percent of the two million total Union armies enlistments, and their actual contribution was significantly greater, since these enlistments were concentrated in the last two years of the war, when the total strength of the Union armies varied between 700,000 and one million men. The war would have been lost without them.

I also have a few questions on your stellar career. Your earliest acclaimed books were on the history of violence and the American frontier. What sparked your interest in violence in our history?

I was born in 1942, and my childhood interest in American history developed against the background of World War II and Korea. When I was a young man, in college and graduate school, politics were dominated by the Vietnam War and the violence associated with the civil rights movement. I published my first study of American violence in 1973 -- at that point the U.S. had been involved in a major war for fifteen of my thirty years, not counting brief invasions of Latin America and Lebanon. So for me, violence and racism were the aspects of American history most in need of explanation.

You have focused on the Civil War in recent years. What prompted this emphasis after your wide-ranging studies of violence?

The Civil War has always been central to my understanding of American history. American history -- the whole idea of what it means to be an American -- was very important to me when I was growing up, in a Jewish household in the war years. I always vaguely associated FDR and Abraham Lincoln as the twin icons of America the liberator nation. Then in 1951, when I was nine, my family took a summer's driving tour through the South to Florida, stopping at Civil War battlefields -- and stopping also at racially segregated hotels and restaurants, stopping to pee in segregated bathrooms at the very battlefield museums consecrated to the war that freed the slaves. I had a particularly humiliating encounter with the system when -- ignorantly, not in protest -- I used a “Colored” bathroom at Luray Caverns Park in Virginia. I couldn’t make sense of it: why would Americans ... why would grown-ups ... do something so cruel and stupid and seemingly un-American? In a sense I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to answer that question.

But perhaps because of the way I began my studies, I was too close to the Civil War, emotionally speaking, to write about it with the fair-mindedness essential to the historian. I was too much the partisan. However, I was able to write about it as a novelist, as I did in The Crater (1980). By projecting myself into the subjective positions of my characters -- by accepting the limitations of their points of view -- I was able to accept and acknowledge the range of beliefs that shaped the war, and recognize its essentially tragic character.

Finally, after many years, I was able to bring that same sensibility to a non-fiction treatment of the war. Novelizing was for me a kind of discipline that enabled me to appreciate and understand the world-views and actions of all the participants, and write a history that accounts for their differences, enables an appreciation of what was distinctive about that time in the past -- and postpones and refines the moral judgment I find inescapable.

You are an award-winning writer and have won praise for your talents as a storyteller and researcher. Who are some of your influences or some writers and historians you like to read?

Bruce Catton got me started on Civil War history, and though his work is dated he certainly influenced me as a writer. Among contemporary historians, I particularly admire James McPherson and Eric Foner for the way they get make sense of complex and controversial historical questions, and develop their ideas in compelling narrative.

I’ve also learned a great deal, about history as well as writing, from novelists. I’d particularly cite Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which integrates an account of history with a searching exploration of historiographical issues -- how history is told and remembered. Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Norman Mailer’s Naked and the Dead show how one can move between “big picture” history and subjective history-as-lived. And Hemingway teaches the power of simple language, exact description.

What advice do you have for those who would like to write about history?

To write good history you need the ability to imagine the life of other times and places -- which you know primarily through reading. So read everything, the words of people who lived your history to see what they saw, learn what they knew; read other historians, but also read fiction for its ways of expanding your imagination, your sympathies, and above all your understanding of the limits of the subjective point of view.

Do you have anything you’d like to add, or anything else you hope readers take from your new book?

I’d like them to learn something about the relation between war and politics, the way political choices can produce a catastrophic cascade of violence, which historical actors must struggle to control. And also, to appreciate the role of individual character and decision in shaping historical action. Of course large forces of economic and social development shape and constrain the choices of historical actors. Nonetheless, in moments of genuine crisis, the action of individuals can significantly shape the outcome. American history would be very different if Abraham Lincoln had been the hack politician most people thought he was; or if McClellan had been capable of living up to the implications of his nickname, “Young Napoleon.”