Friday, October 19, 2012

Library Corner: The Long Road to Antietam

Lincoln and McClellan after the Battle of Antietam.
Photo by Alexnder Gardner. Library of Congress
The Long Road to Antietam
By Richard Slotkin
Published in 2012
Liveright Publishing Company

Today I branch out a bit on the Backstories Blog. I've said all along that I reserve to right to stray off of Gettysburg from time to time, and today is one of those days. This morning I finished Richard Slotkin's The Long Road to Antietam. It seems that many Civil War folks highly anticipated this book, and that it has gotten mixed reviews so far. Several other bloggers have discussed their impressions of the book already, including Al Mackey and Brooks D. Simpson.

I must admit that I bumped the book up on my queue after taking a look at the "summer reading list" put together by my alma mater, Gettysburg College. Allen Guelzo selected the work as his choice, writing that the book, "for the first time, dramatically interweaves the military history of the battle with the political history of George McClellan’s near-treason.”

On the first page of the book, Slotkin outlines his thesis:
The significance of Antietam lies not in the battle itself but in the campaign that produced it. That campaign was the result of a radical turn in the strategies of both Union and Confederacy--a series of political and military decisions made over a four-month period in the summer and fall of 1862 that transformed the policies, principles, and purposes that had hitherto governed the conduct of the war.  Before Antietam it was still possible for Americans to imagine a compromise settlement of sectional differences. After Antietam, and the Emancipation Proclamation, the only way the war could end was by outright victory of one side over the other. Either way, the result would be a revolutionary transformation of American politics and society.
Slotkin places at the center of his narrative the evolving story of George McClellan and his quarrelsome relationship with the Lincoln Administration. He discusses the growing split between the President and the Army of the Potomac commander over issues related to the prosecution of the war, most specifically the question of slavery. To a lesser extent, the book also follows the relationship of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, and their concurrence on Confederate War policy in the summer and fall of 1862.

The book has many strengths, including Slotkin's excellent ability weave an entertaining tale. I found myself pleasantly surprised that I counted his battle narratives for South Mountain and Antietam among these strengths. I had never read any of Slotkin's books before, but I noted that he is most known as a social historian. Given the book's stated focus on interweaving political and military history, I anticipated feeling underwhelmed by his battlefield descriptions.  As someone who enjoys reading military history, I believe you can always tell when an author has visited and walked the ground. Understanding terrain is so key to successfully describing a Civil War battle - it is one of the reasons why I mostly stick to Gettysburg on my blog, the ground I know best. However, I found Slotkin had an excellent understanding of the terrain of the Antietam battlefield, and how it impacted the fighting and the decisions made on September 17, 1862. I also noted that Slotkin provided keen evaluations of the leadership (or lack of leadership) at the divisional, corps, and army levels on both sides during the battle.

The book does have several weaknesses, though some I would classify as nitpicks. I was annoyed at some some sloppy mistakes. For example, early in the book Slotkin states that the firing on Fort Sumter took place on April 14th, 1861, rather than April 12th. I also found the maps included to be very poor and hard to use with the text.

The major, and non-nitpicky weakness I found was the source material. The book relies very heavily on secondary source literature, and in particular on a handful of relatively modern studies. Stephen Sears must feel honored, for Slotkin cites his biography of McClellan and his study of the Antietam campaign, Landscape Turned Red, again and again and again. In addition, Sears' study of the Peninsula Campaign, To the Gates of Richmond, appears frequently in the end notes of the early chapters as well. For a Confederate perspective, Slotkin turns to Joe Harsh's two works, Confederate Tide Rishing: Robert E. Lee and the Making of Southern Strategy, 1861-1862, and Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862. For more particulars on his battle narrative, Slotkin turns to John Michael Priest's Antietam: The Soldiers' Battle. Indeed, nearly the entirety of Slotkin's description of the battle of Antietam comes from three books: Landscape Turned Red, Taken at the Flood, and Antietam: The Soldiers' Battle. I suppose there is nothing wrong with this, if you aim to provide a survey study of the Antietam Campaign, but I would have appreciated a more diverse array of sources, and more primary materials mixed in.

Some might claim that Slotkin's book remains a valuable addition to the historiography for two reasons:  (1) his emphasis on showcasing the interconnected nature of political and military policy, and (2) his interpretation of McClellan's generalship, which paints a picture of a commanding officer on the brink of treason. Slotkin believes that McClellan saw himself fighting a two-front war to save the Union: Confederates in his front, and a radical administration in his rear. Only by preserving his army, and the political influence he wielded in controlling that army, could McClellan defeat both enemies. Slotkin argues that the two-front war in McClellan's head may explain why he frequently hesitated to commit his army in battle. I think he may have a valid point here.

Slotkin certainly is not the first author to recognize the political divide between McClellan and the Lincoln administration, though perhaps he carries this conclusion farther than most - arguing that this divide nearly led McClellan to attempt to seize power in Washington. Sometimes I felt as though Slotkin stretched his evidence to prove his depiction of the general accurate. However, I do believe he is most persuasive in his final chapters, powerfully painting McClellan's potentially treasonous state of mind in the aftermath of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

Though this book has some definite weaknesses, I think it is a good one to have on your shelf. It certainly justifies its place in the literature on Antietam because of its unique twin focus on the fight near Sharpsburg and the political fight in Washington.

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