Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Visit To Antietam: Why the Civil War Matters

Of all the topics that have been explored on this blog since its creation, the one that has received the most attention, both explicitly and implicitly, has been the role of race in our politics.  No doubt the 2008 campaign made much of this discussion necessary and inevitable.  However, this country’s tangled and troubled, yet sometimes hopeful history with race has fascinated me since I first became interested in politics.  I’ve always felt that it has been our most important societal cleavage and, while not always the most appropriate lens through which to view our politics—there are surely others like class, region, gender, etc.—it is the one that I always seem to come back to regardless of my starting point.

When we look at our country’s historical narrative, no event has shaped our society, politics, economy, and understanding of ourselves more than the Civil War.  I’d go so far as to argue that the Civil War, if it was indeed the “Second American Revolution,” serves as the point around which America’s story revolves.  Those issues that couldn’t be reconciled at the founding, most notably that of slavery, but also the fundamental question of the relationship between the states and the federal government, ultimately led to the conflict.  In its aftermath, we can also see how the Civil War has left a long wake.  As we know, the end of slavery did not heal its wounds and solve the “race problem” in this country.  In fact, it has in many ways gotten more complicated.  Furthermore, we still debate the role of government in our society even as the Civil War, as the greatest period of governmental expansion in our history, seemingly propelled us toward the reality of perpetual big government.  If indeed, as Faulkner tells us, “there is no past,” we are destined to reckon with the Civil War as long as we are Americans.  If nations have what I would term “existential moments” in which their very identity is debated and ultimately defined, the Civil War was ours.  So, if we want to understand American politics, including elections, we need to spend a lot of time thinking about that most vexing time.

As any student of the Civil War knows, there were numerous points at which the conflict could have turned.  In retrospect, the outcome may seem assured given the vast resource and manpower advantage of the Union and the seeming ill-preparedness of the Confederacy for the reality of secession.  Both sides enjoyed military victories and had momentum working in their favor at different points in time.  Yet, both sides failed to capitalize on their successes and both struggled mightily to keep their people committed to the fight.  The tragedy of the Civil War was not only that it seemed destined to occur in the first place, but that once engaged, both sides seemed destined for a war of bloody attrition that would stretch the country to its very limits.  With no common ground, however small, to compromise an end around, the conclusion would have to come through exhaustion and surrender rather than negotiation.

Throughout the war there were a number of battles and events that were crucial—Bull Run, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, the Wilderness, etc.  But for me, Antietam has always seemed the most pivotal and important.  Prior to the battle on September 17, 1862, the Confederacy had enjoyed a string of victories.  Beginning with Stonewall Jackson’s success in the Shenandoah Valley and McClellan’s decision to abandon his efforts against Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign, then followed quickly by the rout at Second Bull Run, Lee’s forces were emboldened enough to undertake their first serious incursion onto northern soil.  With aims on Washington, it was hoped that this thrust would bring about European recognition of the Confederacy and an end to the conflict in the South’s favor.   In pursuit, the hastily reorganized northern army, again under the command of the shortly deposed McClellan, tracked westward from Frederick Maryland, across the Catoctin Mountains.  The two armies, roughly 150,000 men total, converged on the tiny hamlet of Sharpsburg Maryland.  Situated between the meandering Antietam Creek to its east and the Potomac River to its rear, Sharpsburg would become the next spot of American soil upon which so much blood would be shed.

Given the run of recent events, the north needed a military victory badly.  What those positioning themselves on the Maryland countryside did not know was that a much larger and profound outcome hinged on the result.  For months, President Lincoln had struggled with how to address the issue of emancipation.  While Lincoln had not campaigned for the presidency as an abolitionist, the rapid secession of southern states was premised on the notion that he would nonetheless proceed down that path.  Without going off onto a tangent regarding Lincolns’ view of slavery and its relation to the war, by 1862 Lincoln had come to the conclusion that the issue could no longer continue to simmer on the back burner.  From the beginning of the conflict Lincoln had to balance his growing desire to attack the institution with his need to keep the non-seceded slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri in the Union.  Coupled with this was the dubiousness of whether an emancipation could even be enforced and for what ends.  Despite this, by the summer Lincoln had decided to move forward with an Emancipation Proclamation--but to couch it in a way that put the burden on the seceded southern states.  Should they not return to the Union after a designated period, slaves residing in such states would from that point forward be free.

Given the military doldrums of the spring and summer, however, Lincoln was in no position to issue the Proclamation.  It would smack of desperation and no doubt signal the weakness of the Union.  For it to have any effect, no doubt psychological more than practical, it had to be issued from a position of strength.  Thus, Lincoln needed a win.  

The Battle of Antietam would provide Lincoln the opportunity he so badly wanted, but at a tremendous cost.  September 17, 1862 was the single bloodiest day in American history.  Over 25,000 northern and southern troops were killed or wounded.  The battle raged over three quite distinct locales on the field.  For a comprehensive rundown of the battle, see hereDawn saw the advance of General Joseph Hooker’s First Corps from its position on the extreme north of the field.  With General Stonewall Jackson’s Confederates emerging from the West Woods, some of the war’s most brutal fighting took place in what has become known simply as “the Cornfield.”  The second theater that day, further south, occurred along a Confederate entrenchment along a sunken farm road.  The “Bloody Lane” saw wave upon wave of Union forces mowed down until an exhausted, disorganized, and spent Confederate line was finally breached and overtaken.  Finally, on the extreme southern end of the field, the Battle of Burnside Bridge raged throughout the day.  Aided by the natural fortifications provided by the rolling hills opposite Antietam Creek, a small force of Georgia troops was able to continuously repel Union General Burnside’s attempts at crossing the creek in order to unify with the other northern forces and crush Lee’s army.  Although ultimately able to break across, it was too late.  Lee was able to muster his army together, retreat across the Potomac, and continue to fight for 2 ½ more years.

With Lee’s thrust northward repelled, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  As a result, the war became more explicitly about ending slavery.  As I wrote a few posts back, opinion within the Union ranks, and among northern voters, was decidedly mixed about waging a war on emancipationist aims.  Northern Democrats campaigned throughout the war to try and end the conflict and many were keen to do so without abolishing slavery.  That Lincoln was able to withstand such criticism and be overwhelmingly re-elected in 1864 signaled the desire of the country to see the war through.  In fact, there is much evidence to suggest that many of those on the front lines became much more opposed to the horrors of slavery once they confronted it directly during their campaigns southward (for an excellent overview of this, see Chandra Manning's "What This Cruel War Was Over").

Next year will mark the 150th Anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War.  No doubt there will be much discussion about the currency of the Civil War for modern day Americans.  For me, its relevance is obvious, especially if we are being honest with ourselves about the war's cause--slavery.  When we think about the long arc of America’s history with race, the Battle of Antietam is one of those few events which changed the trajectory of our nation.

**Photos taken September 24, 2010.

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