The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution. Richard Slotkin. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. ISBN: 97808740665.
Wesleyan University professor emeritus Richard Slotkin is among the nation’s most respected military historians. That’s a discipline that hasn’t been fashionable for a while. Luckily Slotkin also excels at integrating social history into his war accounts. The Long Road to Antietam shows how it can be done.
As the title promises, Slotkin shows that much happened prior to September 16-18, 1862 and not just because the Civil War was already 17 months old when Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia clashed on nominally Union soil with the Army of the Potomac. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that a lot hadn’t happened in the case of Union troops. General George B. McClellan, a pompous man with a Napoleon complex, commanded the Army of the Potomac after July of 1861. He proved to be good at dash and drilling, but not so good at actual fighting. The Confederacy, by contrast, benefitted from one of history’s more fortuitous bullet wounds. When General Joseph Johnston was wounded during the Peninsula Campaign in June of 1862, Lee assumed his command and promptly routed McClellan (whenever he could entice him to fight). It was an open question in Washington whether McClellan, a racist Democrat, was wisely cautious, incompetent, or treasonous. As Slotkin suggests, it was for want of an alternative that Lincoln deflected Cabinet members who wanted McClellan removed and/or shot. In retrospect, this may have been among Lincoln’s poorer judgment calls.
McClellan comes across as an unlikable man whose monumental ego outstripped his talents. Was he also a traitor? It depends on how the term is parsed. His troops loved him and why not, Slotkin asks. He certainly didn’t place them in harm’s way much, even though Lincoln implored, even ordered him to engage the enemy. McClellan made no attempt to hide his distaste for Lincoln, whom he openly ridiculed and whose orders he countermanded on several occasions. It is hard to determine at this late date whether this as prompted by disloyalty or his conceit that he alone could save the nation, but if one needed further confirmation of the quality of Lincoln’s character, it comes in how much the president tolerated from an unworthy man whose career he could have ended instantly.
Slotkin’s book, when not delving into battle minutiae, is largely constructed around two dual relationships: McClellan and Lincoln, and Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. One could conclude that one of the things that prolonged the war was that Northern commanders–McClellan and post-McClellan–lacked the will to enact Lincoln’s orders. Although Lee’s relationship with Davis was also strained, Davis had the wisdom to defer to his tactically savvy commander. McClellan finally exhausted Lincoln’s patience at Antietam, first by nearly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and then by settling for a draw when he could have dealt Lee a crippling (perhaps fatal) blow when the battleground was secured. Lincoln made two fateful decisions after Antietam. First, he relieved McClellan. Until Grant, no commander proved much better than McClellan but at least, none would treat “Lincoln’s orders as if they were merely advisory.” (364)
The second decision was the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, which transformed the war from one over union to one resting on an expanded conception of liberty. The latter was, Slotkin insists, nothing less than a “revolution,” one that “legally annihilated” some $3.5 billion worth of property and opened the door for reconsiderations of liberty and citizenship. (364) First, though, the war had to be won. In that sense, Antietam left behind an “everything changed, nothing settled” (393) situation.
This is an admirable volume, though I was not enthralled by Slotkin’s blow-by-blow descriptions of combat, material that makes up roughly two-thirds of this 414-page volume. Antietam was the template for what scholars dub the Civil War “bloodbath,” with its 22,717 deaths on September 17 remaining the largest single-day loss of life in American history. This horror could have been conveyed more economically as much of the exposition of maneuvers and battles will be of interest only to military trivia buffs. I am also of the school that sees endless speculation over what would have happened if a particular regiment had done X instead of Y a dead end form of counterfactual history. It must also be said that the cover claim that Slotkin has written a revisionist history is false; historians have long linked Antietam to the timing of the Emancipation Proclamation and routinely view that document as revolutionary in implication. These, however, are quibbles with a magisterial look at Antietam and a masterful job of amassing primary sources.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst