Don't buy James McPherson's "Antietam" expecting a detailed blow-by-blow account of the battle itself. As he showed in his classic account of the entire Civil War, "Battle Cry of Freedom," McPherson is more interested in the political, social and even diplomatic aspects of America's deadliest conflict. The point of the book is to argue that Antietam, not Gettysburg, was the pivital battle of the war. McPhereson makes his argument by describing the events that led up to the battle and demonstrating how it affected what came after.
Antietam, McPherson argues was the moment when the South came the closest to winning diplomatic recognition from the European powers and a resulting negotiated settlement that would have secured its independence. The aftermath of the Union "victory" at Antitam also persuaded Abraham Lincoln to finally issue the Emancipation Proclamation, turning the war once and for all into a battle against slavery.
McPherson is a first rate writer and historian, and his book is well reasearched and highly readable. What it is short on, however, is accounts of the actual fighting, which resulted in the single bloodiest day in American history (far worse than even Pearl Harbor or September 11th). The narrative clocks in at a brief 155 pages, only about a third of which are devoted to the battle. Yet the book is well worth reading despite this flaw.
Overall, a brief historical overview of an epic moment in American history by one of our most distinguished historians.
On September 17, 1862, the Army of the Potomac commanded by General George B. McClellan met the Army of Northern Virgina 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 Gettysberg, 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 Cofederacy.
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 Procamation 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 detalied 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 opportuniity 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 historial and political context rather than in a detailed analysis of military moves. Nevertheless, I fouund Professor McPersons'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.
Dr. McPherson is unmatched in writing highly readable books which at the same time manifest an unparalleled academic knowledge of Civil War sources. This book reads as well as his Pulitzer prize-winning "Battle Cry of Freedom" (the best one volume history of the Civil War), and simultaneously reflects the highest level of expertise. While other books treat the battle of Antietam itself in far greater detail (e.g., "Landscape Turned Red," by Stephen Sears), no other work goes into such detail on the reaction in Northern, Southern, and European newspapers to the events before and after the battle. The author sets the context for Sharpsburg by reviewing battles leading up to Lee's invasion of the north and the resulting bloodiest day in American history. The politics of the Confederacy's seeking British recognition, the economics of King Cotton, the politics of slavery and auspicious timing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the mid-term election of 1862--this background and aftermath of the battle are analyzed comprehensively with a thoroughness not found elsewhere. I'm not a historian, but a serious buff who has read hundreds of Civil War books. There are only two authors on the recent unpleasantness whose books I haven't been able to put down once opening the cover. One is Bruce Catton, who captured the romanticism of the common soldier; the other is James McPherson, who writes clear, succint prose reflecting the deepest levels of scholarship. After Battle Cry of Freedom, this book is his best work, and is a must for readers who want to understand the social and political context of this most intensely violent of American battles.
on June 13, 2003
James McPherson is a great historian and writer. And that's what makes this book so disappointing -- the propect of what could have been...
Looking forward to the story of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history, as told by the premier Civil War historian of our time? I was, but what I got was warmer over chapters of his epic BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM, repackaged in a new wrapper.
Well over half of the book is a review of the first 15 months of the war. Interesting, well-written, but not really all that relevant -- why so much about Fort Donelson and New Orleans in a book about what is supposed to be a pivotal moment of American history?
The battle of Antietam itself barely makes a ripple in the book -- Septermber 17th dawns on page 117, and the sun sets on page 129. The pivotal moment of American history, done in 12 pages, with no feel for the action at all.
Totally disappointing -- a big name author recycling material, lending his name to a series of works he's promoting. Stick with LANDSCAPE TURNED RED.
on September 8, 2002
What I actually meant to say in the title is that this slim, wonderfully written book is: A cogent, concise military and political history of the Antietam, or Maryland Campaign of September 1862 and its aftermath.
To those other reviewers who were upset that this was not an involved battle narrative of Antietam and chose to take issue with Professor McPherson over this, all I can say is:
1.) You've apparently never read James McPherson before, and
2.) Even Professor McPherson stated in the introduction that this was NOT a full battle history of Antietam.
With the notable exceptions of "Battle Cry of Freedom" and "Lamson of the Gettysburg" Dr. McPherson writes tight, moving, beautifully written book-length essays. "Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam" is no different. He captures the mood of the country, the defeat of Pope at Second Manassas, and Lee's decision to go north, the battle itself, and President Lincoln's decision to go forth with the Emancipation Proclamation as a result of the Union victory.
The passages describing the drama at Harpers Ferry when Stonewall Jackson hemmed in the hapless drunk Dixon Miles, and the vacillation of Union commanders, are among the best written on thst prelude to the Antietam battle, and while Professor McPherson may not write a lengthy battle history, he does capture of the drama and pathos of the battle exceptionally well.
And as he pointed out, this book was not just a battle narrative, and he recommended that the reader interested in such do read other works including John Priest's "Antietam: The Soldier's Battle".
"Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam" is just as solid and just as good as some of his earlier works including "For Cause and Comrades", "What They Fought For", "Images of the Civil War" (with Mort Kunstler), as well as "Battle Cry of Freedom".
If I am effusive in my praise for this book, it is only because it is Right, and I am also indebted to Dr. McPherson's encouragement and kindness to me when our book "Civil War: Garments, History, Legends and Lore" was published. Dr. McPherson, thank you, and once again you have come through with a winner!
on July 31, 2002
James McPherson has again managed to combine military and political Civil War history into one great volume and,in this case, in a sort of "reader's digest" version that lacks neither quality nor insight. This short volume is a part of the new "Pivotal Moments in American History" series and succeeds overwhelmingly in portraying the battle, what led to it and the political/social climate of mid-1862. McPherson packs an amazing amount of information into this short (about 153 pages of text)book while still maintaining readability...the military situation leading up the initial Confederate invasion of Maryland is summarized well, as is with the on-going International maneuvering for Confederate government recognition. In fact, the strength of this work (in my opinion) is the International climate and how the Confederate ambassadors probed for the all-important foreign assistance that never came. McPherson shows actually how close they came to achieving this milestone and discusses how this would have changed the outcome of the conflict...this was something that wasn't covered as well in his Pulitzer Prize winning "Battle Cry of Freedom" and is a welcome addition here. The political and social issues that led to the Emancipation Proclamation are overlayed with numerous newspaper and diary entries from the "everyday" people that place this important development in context with the ever changing face of the military actions...Lincoln struggled to find the right timing to issue the Proclamation and McPherson gives an excellent account of that struggle. The only critique I'd mention is that the build up to the actual battle at Sharpsburg led me to believe that we'd get a detailed analysis of the battle...actually the battle is only in summary form and was a minor letdown (I'll need to read the Stephen Sears account "Landscape Turned Red" to get the details I'm after I suppose). In summary, this is an excellent short summary of the early battles of the Civil War and a surprisingly comprehensive political discussion of that era and I would recommend it highly.
on August 20, 2002
This is one of the best books I've ever read about the Civil War--it's amazing how much detail and drama McPherson fits into a small number of pages. He really shows why the battle of Antietam was a turning point of the war, not just in military terms but also because of its effect on politics and diplomacy. (Many people don't know it but before Antietam the South came close to being recognized by Britain, which probably would have forced the North to agree to a peace treaty.)
The story follows well-known figures like Lincoln, Lee, and
McClellan, but also shows us men in the ranks. And the chapters on the fighting itself are as gripping as you'd expect from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. This is a must-read for anyone interested in Civil War history.
on September 23, 2002
Having just fininshed reading "Crossroads of Freedom" this morning, I harken back to the day that I finished the book that I was first introduced to McPherson's writing : "Battle Cry of Freedom". I was very moved by not only the overview of the actual battle, which in the book only takes up a fraction of the narrative, but of also the events leading up to and the events after the fight. McPherson has a beautiful eloquence to his writing, and his style is very accesible, easy to follow, and very well thought out. Over the course of the last two days in reading this book, I found myself reading passages to my wife, who has a passing interest in the Civil War. She was actually very intrigued at what I was reading to her, and we sat down and had a few discussions, mainly "What if...?" scenarios that were sparked from the account of the events in the book.
Antietam is of certain fascination to me, being from the Baltimore area. now that I live in Virginia, I am actually closer to Manassas than Sharpsburg, but i still cannot resist the irresistible pull that Antietam has for me. I have walked the fields many times, read the books, seen the films. What I enjoyed most about this book was that it seems to be accessible to just about anyone. It doesn't assume that you know all of the issues that led up to the fight, or all of the potentially devastating consequences that lay ahead had the Union lost the fight. McPherson spells it all out, and tells the story in such a way that you are drawn in to the story. You start to feel the tension in the air from the uncertainty of whether the English would recognize the Confederacy, to Lincoln's frustration at dealing with McClellan. I am looking forward to more volumes in the "Pivotal Moments in American History" series, and i hope that McPherson pens a few more of them.
on December 28, 2004
James McPherson's book on the battle of Antietam has its pluses and minuses. Its strength lies in its treatment of the political situation at the time the battle of Antietam was fought. I think he did an excellent job laying out the South's desire for recognition by European powers and how closely it came to acheiving it. He also reflected well the ups and downs of morale in the North and South leading up to the battle. His writing style is easy to follow and I found it difficult to put the book down.
This having been said it is the battle itself which is the weak point of the book. While this book does an excellent job laying out the political landscape, it does a poor job of actually describing the battle. Not because of poor writing or anything like that, it's simply a very short description of the battle. It basically stayed at the corps level and didn't delve much into the division or brigade level and certainly not much into the regimental level.
I think McPherson did well at trying to prove a thesis. His thesis is that the battle of Antietam layed at the crossroads of the Civil War, in which the momentum that had built for European recognition of the South was stopped and the Emancipation Proclamation finally had the proper political moment to be released. September of 1862 was the closest the South would ever come to that recognition and the Emancipation Proclamation would change the tenor of the war and swing the political momentum back to the side of the Union. In this sense then the battle was one, if not THE pivotal moment of the Civil War. I think he argued his thesis quite convincingly.
The only reason I gave this book three stars instead of four or even five was simply because I felt it fell short of adequately describing the battle of Antietam itself. This having been said, I would recommend it as a fine political and military overview leading up to the battle and after reading it would then turn to Stephen W. Sear's book "Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam" for an excellent military treatment of the battle itself.
on November 2, 2004
Professor McPherson has written an excellent and concise book about the battle of Antietam, and more accurately a book about the context of this battle in the overall Civil War. Those history buffs wanting a detailed account of every troop movement, and an hour-by-hour account of each skirmish, should look elsewhere. If they want a fairly quick read, and a strong argument that Antietam formed a true turning point in the war as early as September 1862, then this is book is right on target.
McPherson has long been known as a historian interested in putting events in context. His excellent Battle Cry of Freedom, perhaps the best-known one volume account of the Civil War, doesn't get into the actual fighting until about page 300, and so McPherson's propensity to "set the stage" is characteristic of his writing. After pointing out in his preface to Crossroads of Freedom the bloody toll of Antietam (more soldiers died in one day at Antietam than on Sept. 11 2001 or on June 6 1944, by a wide margin), McPherson spends a good deal of time detailing the events and the mood of the country leading up to the Autumn of 1862.
After several military victories in the first part of 1862, many in the North (including several reputable newspapers) assumed the Confederacy was on its last legs, and that by July 4, 1862, the rebellion would fail. In particular, the loss of General Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh was demoralizing. Plus Union naval victories and the capture of various river cities and ports (like Nashville and New Orleans) isolated much of the Confederacy.
However, McClellan's inertia and then his humbling defeat in the Seven Days Battle, followed by Pope's disastrous defeat at Second Manassas, changed all that. Coupled with some other victories in the South and West, by the summer of 1862 things were looking up for the South. Lincoln and Halleck could not coax McClellan to attack Lee with the Army of the Potomac, the public lost confidence in the army's leaders, and leaders of Parliament in England, as well as Napolean III in France, began to openly discuss recognition of Jefferson Davis' regime as a legitimate government. They waited on one more decisive Confederate victory, and Robert E. Lee marched into Maryland in Sept. 1862 (flush with victory from whipping Pope) to deliver a fight in the Union's backyard.
Antietam was a truly fascinating battle, with Lee gambling and defying conventional wisdom once again by splitting his army in 4 parts in the face of a superior foe (he was confident the tentative McClellan would not attack him piece-meal). The famous discovery of Lee's battle orders wrapped around a few cigars is explored here, and McPherson expresses amazement at the puzzling delay by McClellan in siezing the initiative and attacking Lee's disjointed army upon learning of the deployments. As another reviewer notes here, this book often-times excoriates McClellan, and it is sometimes hard to believe in retrospect Little Mac escaped court-martial for his interminal delays, his refusal to obey direct orders to attack, and his petty refusal to come to the aid of Pope at Second Manassas. In fact this book points out that in the summer of 1862, many (including some in Lincoln's Cabinet) thought McClellan should be court-martialed and even shot, but ultimately Lincoln knew the only hope to bring his great army to battle after Pope's defeat was to once again reluctantly elevate McClellan.
Ultimately McClellan drove Lee from Maryland, and inflicted tremendous casualties, leading Mac to later consider this battle his greatest achievement. His superiors were not as enthralled, upset at him for not bringing in his reserves (he never had 20,000 troops in action at any one time, despite having about 70,000 troops at his disposal) and for not pursuing Lee's beaten army and possibly bringing a quick end to the war. By letting Lee escape back over the Potomac, the Army of Northern Virginia would live to fight another day, and to make life generally miserable for Lincoln in early 1863 at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
However the Union victory at Antietam did enable Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and it pretty much put an end to serious discussions of recognition of the CSA government by European powers. When one considers the stakes of the battle, and the immediate ramifications once the one-day bloodfest was over, it is tough to argue with McPherson's thesis that the battle was the true turning point of the war, and a "crossroads of freedom."
I enjoyed listening to the audio version of this book, and believe it covered the subject matter in McPherson's typical excellent fashion. He uses extensive sources including newspaper editorials, private letters from McClellan to his wife as well as his telegraphs to and from Lincoln, and diary entries of people like Gideon Wells, etc. Highly recommended.