How familiar are you with the American Civil War? Can you tell McClernand from McClellan from McPherson? Did you know there was a General Ewell of importance for both the Union and Confederacy? One more miniquiz question: in what states would one find Shiloh, Corinth, and Fredericksburg?
What I am trying to say is that this tome, which is either the definitive work on the battle at Antietam or a strong contender, is written for those of us who are pretty well versed in the basics. It won’t explain the essentials as it moves along; there is an assumption inherent in about 400 pages regarding the approach to this battle (about the first 100 pp), the battle itself, and the consequences regarding same. Sears writes with precision and authority, but he does not write for beginners.
As you can see from the rating, I loved it.
Sears isn’t on a mission to merely recount, blow by blow, what happened when. If he were set on hundreds of pages of injury and carnage, I don’t know that anyone but a masochist would care for that many pages of horrifying detail.
Instead, he sets out to prove that General McClellan, who essentially held the Union Army hostage for the duration of his tenure as commanding general, systematically and deliberately prevented the Army of the Potomac from crushing the Confederate forces. He proves the point. Beyond any question, McClellan chose not to send his soldiers to fight because he was sympathetic toward the slaveocracy and wanted the Confederacy to achieve its goal.
He contemplated participating in a coup d’etat,unseating Lincoln and tossing out the Constitution, but the vast groundswell of demand for such a thing,which he believed existed and might carry him to power, never unfolded. Though he had carved out a base of support for himself and his views within the Army of the Potomac sufficient to cripple its use for the duration of the war, there were also soldiers in this army who were sick of not fighting for their country, and who were pleased to see him leave.
I have read other histories of the Battle of Antietam, and they served the purpose of explaining who fought where, and how much blood was shed. What no one else has done is to lay the blame where it rightfully belongs. This battle should have been an open-and-shut deal, and the Confederate forces should have been disabled and the war brought close to a conclusion. Instead, through his reluctance to fight at all and then only because it was clear that to do otherwise would cost him his job, McClellan managed to make the whole thing a bloodbath that was almost a stalemate.
Technically, it was a Union victory, and that was what Lincoln had to have to declare Emancipation and prevent Europe from recognizing the Confederacy. McClellan opposed (of course) the Emancipation, but he was already about to be fired. The question was a political one; no one wanted him to leave before the elections, lest he make a mess of them. Once Congress was once more filled with majority Republican forces on both sides, it was safe to cut the connection and send him packing.
The manner in which he was fired was done with careful attention to military procedure so that he could not contest it without clearly committing a crime.
I had long felt that too much was going unsaid about General McClellan, but I couldn’t tell what it was. I had a hunch it would not do him credit. It was a little bit like childhood, when the grown-ups around you use coded phrases designed to protect you from the terrible truth, and the longer you are aware that you can’t be told something, the worse that something appears to be. And so it was with McClellan. I don’t know whether he has a bunch of really proud ancestors that other writers feared to offend or why he hasn’t been held suitably accountable before this. Perhaps the evidence was buried too deep.
One thing is certain: Sears has built his case as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. Once the book is done, there can be no doubt whatsoever. For the serious American Civil War scholar, this outstanding volume provides information that is generally not in circulation, and that is key to understanding Antietam, as well as much of what took place before it.