Home » OL Weekly

In Paperback: The Long Road to Antietam

By (June 30, 2013) No Comment

The Long Road to Antietam:LongRoadToAntietnam+(1) How the Civil War Became a Revolution

by Richard Slotkin

Liveright, 2012

The battle fought between Union and Confederate troops on 17 September 1862 at Sharpsburg near Antietam Creek is famously the most bloody day in American military history, with nearly 23,000 men killed, wounded, or missing by day’s end. The battle is also famous because its status as a technical Union victory (the Southern forces under General Robert E. Lee retired first from the field, although from some perspectives they had a better day than the Union forces commanded by General George McClellan) gave President Abraham Lincoln the tiny shred of Northern momentum he was advised he needed in order to make his Emancipation Proclamation look like a moral statement rather than a logistical ploy. The battle (and its preliminaries and aftermaths) has been the subject of countless studies in the last 150 years, the most famous of which in modern times is probably Stephen Sears’ 1983 Landscape Turned Red, which one critic praised for its “flash of the bayonet, thundering of the hooves style.” But Antietam has featured prominently in every full-dress Civil War history ever written; more people by far have heard of it than ever fought in it; it’s a Landscape Turned Read.

Historian and sometime-novelist Richard Slotkin turns his attention to it in his latest book, The Long Road to Antietam, now in paperback, and although he agrees with Sears & Co. on how bloody the battle was, he’s far less excitable on how significant it was, especially, and refreshingly, with regards to its alleged crucial role in discouraging European powers from throwing their support behind the hitherto largely victorious Confederacy.

In fact, he’s less excitable about nearly everything. Although he can be at times sly and even funny, he’s an unapologetically cranky historian, impatient with shibboleths and perfectly comfortable relating his opinions right alongside the facts. It makes for a bracing, incredibly welcome reading experience, and it makes The Long Road to Antietam truly memorable, perhaps even something of a classic. The reader may not agree with everything Slotkin growls about, but the conviction of the growling is unmistakable, as when the debits and credits of the Emancipation Proclamation itself are tallied:

While the Proclamation did make the destruction of slavery a war aim equivalent to restoration of the Union, and pointed the way toward its abolition by constitutional amendment, neither the Proclamation nor the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were able to turn America into a multiracial democracy or prevent the failure of Reconstruction and the eventual imposition of Jim Crow laws throughout the former Confederacy. Even in the former free states, to which Blacks were now free to migrate, the acquisition of civil rights was a slow and painful process. The blood price of the Civil War, the 620,000 dead soldiers and uncounted “collateral damage,” ought to have purchased more justice than that.

Nobody in this history walks on water; Slotkin does a first-rate job with the strategy and tactics (the book’s 100-page set piece describing the day of battle itself is a tour de force), but his main strength is in characters, and he knows it. The actors on his stage glow with life; Slotkin has searched through the primary sources for the anecdotes that will best illuminate these famous names, and his summaries of the players are universally quick and deft. Take that sterling son of Massachusetts, for instance:

“Fighting Joe” Hooker was forty-eight, fair, floridly handsome, and clean-shaven, with a reputation for bravery, unscrupulous ambition, and a rakehell social life … While his courage and competence as a combat general were never questioned, Hooker had a well-earned reputation as a striver and schemer for personal advancement.

Or the Confederate figure who was in many ways his counterpart:

Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was a unique character and an eccentric military genius. His uniforms were worn and rumpled, his shaggy black beard often unkempt, and he often sucked fresh lemons as he rode. His most striking feature were pale blue eyes that had earned him the nickname “Old Blue Light.” Their glare expressed his fierce combativeness and a commitment to his cause that could be merciless to friend as well as foe. Jackson was a ferocious disciplinarian who did not hesitate to rebuke general officers and arrest them even for minor infractions.

One of the chief things that distinguishes Slotkin’s book from those of his predecessors is the broader view he takes of how politics and fighting mesh together. In his view – and very likely in reality as well – the two are so intricately connected that it’s almost juvenile to talk about them like two separate planets (as so many Civil War histories tend to do). Slotkin is very convincing in espousing this view – although, alas, the view itself can’t help but convince him to further history’s blackening of General McClellan’s reputation, since the most natural combination of politics and fighting throughout history has been the military dictator, and The Long Road to Antietam furthers the accusation that McClellan wanted to become one. Specifically, that his infamous hesitation to pursue Lee’s army at the close of the battle – and his general habit of caution overall – were signs that McClellan was listening to the blandishments of the New York money men who wanted to rush legislation through Congress declaring “Little Mac” some kind of Tammany Caesar. According to Slotkin, the very concept had a simple but magnetic appeal:

The idea appealed for several reasons, apart from the fear that Lincoln was inexperienced or inept. It is worth noting that Confederate leaders were also drawn to the idea of dictatorship, despite the fact that President Davis was a West Point graduate, a combat veteran, and a former secretary of war. Behind such proposals was the assumption that military and political affairs could be treated as distinct and separate realms of activity and that military measures were best conducted by politically disinterested professionals, without the interference of politicians. In fact it is neither possible nor desirable to separate the operational conduct of war from consideration of political questions, since every war is ultimately political in its causes and objectives – especially a civil war.

Of his villain Slotkin tells us, “Every calculation he made in the field was calibrated not only for its effect on the Rebel army but for its possible impact on McClellan’s quest for power in Washington.” No doubt in the matter; the subject is tried and convicted of this wheedling, slow-burn treason. The Long Road to Antietam should be treasured for its many argumentative certainties; that’s why customers should buy and read this new paperback. The occasional doubt might have strengthened an already strong book, but George McClellan is past caring anyway.