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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A study of the Battle of Antietam as historical contingency, 28 May 2003
By 
Lawrance Bernabo (The Zenith City, Duluth, Minnesota) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (VINE VOICE)   
The Battle of Antietam was the most important non-defeat for the Union during the Civil War. From a military standpoint this was because McClellan and the Army of the Potomac managed to stop Lee's Army of Northern Virginia from invading the North, but the greater importance has always been the political opportunity the "victory" afforded Lincoln to release the Emancipation Proclamation. This, of course, placed the Northern efforts on a higher plain and changed the war from an effort to preserve the Union to a war to free the slaves. The story of the battle itself has always been the final nail in the military reputation of George B. McClellan, who proved that even in you added the tactical advantage of having Robert E. Lee's battle orders to his numerical superiority in troops, this was a general who could still find a way to almost be defeated. I have played on the Battle of Antietam in a computer simulation several times and always annihilate the Confederate army (the main flaw in the game is that an army being defeated can only leave the field if its troops are actually routed, so a strategic withdrawal is not possible).
James M. McPherson's "Crossroad of Freedom: Antietam, the Battle that Changed the Course of the Civil War" focuses on both the military and political consequences of what happened in the fall of 1862. His look at the actual battle is essentially divided into two parts. First, McPherson puts Lee's invasion in the context of the Civil War up to that point, ostensibly to explain exactly why those two armies (under those two particular leaders) meet at Sharpsburg that September. Second, McPherson details McClellan's ineptitude as a leader and the bad luck that haunted the Army of the Potomac during the battle, explaining and assessing the strategic decisions and movements that led to the deaths of over 6,000 soldiers. Consequently, there is more of an argumentative structure to the retelling of the battle than what we usually find. The book is published as part of the new Pivotal Moments in American History series, which encourages interest in problems of historical contingency, and certainly McPherson shows his mastery of this "what if" and "how close" approach to historiography.
The volume's last chapter, "The Beginning of the End," offers a concise explication of the importance of the Battle of Antietam as military, political, and moral pivot of the Civil War. The argument that most impressed me in this chapter was how Antietam impacted the mid-term elections of 1862. Suffice it to say that McPherson's implicit conclusion is that the Battle of Antietam in general and perhaps the fight for Burnside's bridge depicted on the cover, was the true "high watermark" of the Confederacy. This is because a Confederate victory at Sharpsburg, which resulted in a 1% change in votes, could have seen the Democrats take control of Congress. At that point the fabled road to Washington that Lee supposedly would have been able to see after Pickett's Charge had broken the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg (and ably dismissed by several historians as unrealistic given the condition of Lee's troops, the weather that weekend, and the fortifications around the Federal capital), would have been a more realistic political avenue towards a peaceful end to the war, the recognition of the Confederacy, the end of the Republican Party, and whatever else you can reasonably imagine.
This is exactly the sort of historical scholarship I most enjoy. McPherson tells not only what happened but why, while covering the possible contingencies with equal strength. If future volumes in this series are similarly compelling, then I would be interested in reading them even if they were not about the Civil War. Actually, I would not mind writing one about the Scopes "Monkey" Trial for this series, but that is a far fetched contingency to be sure.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A New Birth Of Freedom And Its Cost, 7 Mar. 2015
By 
Robin Friedman (Washington, D.C. United States) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
On September 17, 1862, the Army of the Potomac commanded by General George B. McClellan met the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Robert E. Lee in the fields near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The result was the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American History and a pivotal moment of the Civil War. The battle ended the Confederacy's first invasion of the North and gave President Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

In his short study, "Crossroads of Freedom" Professor McPherson weaves together many strands in discussing the significance of the battle. First, he places the battle against the backdrop of the prior military course of the war, both in the Eastern and the Western Theatres. He points out how Union successes in the early part of 1862 were followed by serious defeats in the Seven Days Battle and Second Manassas with the tide of the war turning to the Confederacy. Although the South would again invade the North culminating in the Battle of Gettysburg, Antietam was a clear check to Southern momentum. It gave the Union the courage, will and political force to fight on.

Second, Professor McPherson emphasizes the role of the European powers -- England and France -- in the Civil War. These nations followed events in America closely and were economically at risk from the loss of Southern cotton for their textile mills. They likely would have recognized the Confederacy if the results of the first invasion of the North had favored the Confederacy.

Third, and probably most importantly to his theme, Professor McPherson discusses the role of Antietam in the changing character of the Civil War. President Lincoln was opposed to slavery, but his initial war aims did not include freeing the slaves. Rather he wished to hold the Union together. As the War continued, Lincoln became convinced of the necessity of issuing an Emancipation Proclamation but believed that he needed a military success to give the Proclamation force and credibility. The victory at Antietam, narrow as it was, and tremendous as was its human cost, gave him that opportunity.

Emancipation was indeed a new birth of freedom. It also, as Professor McPherson points out, changed the character of the War from one with the aim of trying to persuade the South to come back to a state of total War -- which changed the character of a culture and redefined the nature of freedom in the United States.

Professor McPherson's book is part of a series called "Pivotal Moments in American History" whose aim is "to encourage interest in problems of historical contingency." There was a great deal of chance involved in the Battle of Antietam, more so than in most military campaigns. (There were also military blunders on both sides.) During the course of the southern invasion the Union discovered by chance a copy of General Lee's "Special Order No. 179" which had been dropped in a field. Special Order No. 179 detailed Lee's disposition of his troops and gave General McClellan the opportunity to attack in series each detachment of Lee's divided army. This was crucial to the result at Antietam. But McClellan missed the opportunity to win a decisive victory and bring an end to the War. Human error and chance play a great role in human events. But Professor McPherson might have done well to refer to Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and compared Lincoln's reflections on the role of providence with the blind chance that led to the Union finding of Special Order No. 179.

There is only a short description of the battle of Antietam itself. The focus of the study is putting the Battle in its historical and political context rather than in a detailed analysis of military moves. Nevertheless, I found Professor McPhersons's description of the battle (as well as his descriptions of the Seven Days Battle and Second Manassas) easier to follow than more detailed studies I have read. Professor McPherson gives a good annotated bibliography which refers the reader interested in a military study of the battle to more detailed accounts.

This is an excellent study of the Battle of Antietam which places it well in the context of the Civil War and which encourages the reader to reflect on the meaning of the War and of the nature of American freedom.

Robin Friedman
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4.0 out of 5 stars Fit for purpose, 6 May 2011
This book gives a readable overview of the political situation in the period leading up to the battle of Antietam and the political consequences of the Unionist strategic (hardly tactical) victory there, particularly with respect to relationships of Britain and France with the Confederate States. It is not a military history, and could not be recommended as such. The military aspects of the Maryland Campaign including the battle 2nd Manassas are briefly covered, but not in sufficient detail to satisfy anybody but the most casual reader. In in this respect the title could be deceptive. Nevertheless the book is well worth reading (perhaps not buying) for those interested in the military detail because it suggests why the battle can be seen to be so significant in politcal terms.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 1 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam: the Battle That Changed the Course of the American Civil War (Paperback)
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