Sharpsburgon September 17, 2012 at 7:05 am
We’re heading through a parade of sesquicentennial anniversaries of the Civil War. Today is the anniversary of Antietam. Mac Owens remembers (well, not literally — I’m pretty sure he wasn’t there):
The Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg was a tactical draw. McClellan deployed his troops piecemeal, permitting Lee to hold on by his teeth. Time after time, Lee, badly outnumbered and with his back to the Potomac, was able to avert disaster by shifting his forces from one part of the field to another. For some reason, McClellan did not commit his reserve, which may well have crushed the Confederates. That the battle ended as a tactical draw is seen as a tribute to Lee’s generalship.
But it marked the failure of Lee’s preferred strategy. For the Confederacy, Antietam marked flood tide. As events were to prove, having failed, the South would only recede.
On the other hand, the battle, although a draw, provided an opportunity for President Abraham Lincoln to reverse Union fortunes just as surely as Lee had reversed those of the Confederacy. Thus, after Lee’s invasion of Maryland was turned back, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, which gave the Confederates 100 days to submit to the Union or face the prospect of immediate emancipation of its slaves. The time had come, Lincoln wrote to Cuthbert Bullitt, to stop waging war “with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water.”
Southern Unionists, loyal slave-holders, and Democrats charged that Lincoln was “revolutionizing” the war by issuing his proclamation. Lincoln did not disagree, admitting that once the proclamation took effect, “the character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation and extermination.”
Had McClellan not been so (repeatedly) timid in following up, the war might have ended years sooner. But it took a Grant to understanding the key to victory.