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The Long Road To Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution Hardcover – Deckle Edge, July 16, 2012
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“Starred review. Historian Slotkin moves from his path-breaking studies of America’s cultural mythology of violence to a set piece of real-life carnage in this gripping, multifaceted history of the Civil War’s bloodiest day… Grounding military operations in political calculation and personal character, Slotkin gives us perhaps the richest interpretation yet of this epic of regenerative violence.”
- Publishers Weekly
“Throughout the book, the author exhibits his vast knowledge of the numerous generals involved in both sides of the conflict. Slotkin’s comprehensive descriptions of the battles of 1862 show his deep understanding of the terrain, the difficulties of communication, the impossible logistics and the characters that influenced the outcome. The author deftly exposes his egocentric, messianic tendencies as he purposely prolonged the beginning of the conflict.”
- Kirkus Reviews
“Slotkin has produced an absorbing revisionist history of what could be called the second American Revolution.”
“Slotkin does an excellent job of tracing the strategies used by both sides.”
- Military Heritage
“Slotkin tells a great story and for those interested in battle narratives, I have little doubt that you will enjoy his narration of Antietam.... Slotkin does a great job laying out this conflict and how Lincoln managed to rid himself of the McClellan problem, issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and turn the Civil War into a holy war that ended slavery. Notably, Slotkin notes that the alleged international reasons for the Emancipation Proclamation are vastly overrated and it had little to no effect on British or French policy toward the conflict.... The Long Road to Antietam will change how I teach the first two years of the war. In my world, that’s a pretty high compliment.”
- Erik Loomis, Lawyers, Guns and Money
“A remarkable piece of work, an eye-opening double history of a battle and a war.”
- Randy Dotinga, Christian Science Monitor
“A riveting, perceptive analysis of the Civil War campaigns of 1862, of the reasoning behind the Emancipation Proclamation and of the complex power struggle between President Abraham Lincoln and the 35-year-old Union Commander of the Army of the Potomac, Gen. George B. McClellan… This is one of the most moving and incisive books on the Civil War that I have ever read.”
- Chris Patsilelis, Tampa Bay Times
“Richard Slotkin has added significantly to the literature… Slotkin evokes drama and, where appropriate, dark humor in recalling what became an extraordinary test of civilian authority over the military… Slotkin is an accomplished social historian (and novelist) with a focus on war and race, and he brings all his considerable skills to bear in this book. What makes even his unsurprising conclusions unfold at such a gripping pace is his great gift for narrative. It is as if Carl Sandburg were writing again―but with footnotes―for the author is a master at telling a story, capturing a mood, bringing characters to life, and making substantive and well-documented historical points in the bargain.”
- Harold Holzer, Military History Quarterly
“An absorbing account… Slotkin paints a detailed portrait of the talented but flawed general who helped Lincoln bring about his revolution, if ever so unwillingly… Slotkin’s description of the battle is essential to completing his meticulous, maddening portrait of McClellan.”
- John Swansburg, Slate.com
“This is much more than another treatise on the battle itself. Yes, the movements and countermovements on the battlefield are there, but this sprawling book has multi-faceted tentacles which Slotkin, an award winning author and former university professor, skillfully weaves into a cohesive narrative… This is a thought-provoking book which goes well beyond the standard battle narratives and places Antietam in its full context as a significant point of change in U.S. domestic policy, a shift with far-reaching ramifications for the next century.”
- Scott Mingus, Cannonball
About the Author
The author of the award-winning American history trilogy Regeneration Through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation, Richard Slotkin, an emeritus professor at Wesleyan University, won the Shaara Award for Civil War fiction for Abe. He lives in Middletown, Connecticut.
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In "The Long Road to Antietam," Richard Slotkin, an emeritus professor at Wesleyan University, provides a well-written and thorough look at the political and military dimensions of the Civil War’s Maryland Campaign and Battle of Antietam. Where Slotkin’s interpretation differs from that of other students of Antietam is largely in his focus on McClellan’s political maneuverings in the weeks and months leading up to Antietam. Anyone who has read about this part of the Civil War knows of McClellan’s predilection for grandiosity, his musings about what he would do if his army called upon him to take over the U.S. government and lead the Union war effort like a Caesar-esque dictator. In Slotkin’s reading, those musings are more serious than other historians have thought. Slotkin focuses on how “Even McClellan’s friends were concerned that he was breaching the wall between military and civil authority,” with a friend and fellow officer, General William “Baldy” Smith, warning McClellan that one of McClellan’s letters “looks like treason and will ruin you & all of us” (p. 100).
After about 130 pages of political preliminaries, Slotkin proceeds to a strategic and tactical review of the Confederate invasion of Maryland; the Union Army’s move northwest from Washington to block the rebel attack; the initial Union victory at the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, 1862, near Boonsboro, Maryland; and finally the much larger battle at Antietam three days later. Students of Antietam already know how the invasion of Maryland, combined with the need to reduce the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), “confronted [Lee] with an extremely complex tactical problem. In trying to solve it he would expose his army to destruction” (p. 161). Lee’s decision to split his army into five separate parts was characteristically bold, and reflected his belief that the usually cautious McClellan would move slowly enough to give Lee plenty of time to reunite the Army of Northern Virginia before giving battle; but a lost copy of Lee’s Special Orders No. 191 (forever after known as the “Lost Order”) found its way to McClellan, in “a piece of luck so outrageous and unearned that [McClellan] might be pardoned for thinking himself favored be providence” (p. 138).
Outnumbering his enemy almost two-to-one – and holding, as it were, a complimentary copy of the other team’s playbook – McClellan still dithered and hesitated enough to give Lee just enough time to reassemble the Army of Northern Virginia and line it up west of Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. In Slotkin’s telling, Antietam, from the Union perspective, is a story of brave soldiers fighting well in spite of often poor decisions by their commanders, as when Union General Edwin Sumner, commanding the Union II Corps, was overwhelmed by the battle action in which he saw the Union right wing engaged, and erroneously reported to headquarters that “I have no command…my command, [Nathaniel] Banks’ command and [Joseph] Hooker’s command are all cut up and demoralized” (p. 318). The Confederate soldiers, meanwhile, also fought well and were generally better led. Lee “embraced the chaos and fluidity of battle, confident in his own ability to read the play of forces, and in the ability of his corps and division commanders to execute his orders with initiative, energy, and good judgment”; but his erroneous belief “that his soldiers were markedly superior to those of the enemy in both combat skills and morale” (p. 319) caused him to take great risks that, as Antietam as elsewhere, would result in the loss of rebel soldiers whom the Confederacy ultimately could not replace.
Antietam was a tactical draw – a bloody watershed that resulted in 22,000 casualties (12,000 Union, 10,000 Confederate), including 2100 Yankees and 1600 rebels killed. In strategic terms, however, it may be the most important victory the Union ever won; in forcing Lee’s Confederate army back into Virginia, it enabled President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, with its declaration that enslaved people in areas that refused to end the rebellion would be “forever free.”
It is in his consideration of the Emancipation Proclamation and its impact that Slotkin’s emphasis on "How the Civil War Became a Revolution" (the book’s subtitle) becomes most clear. Slotkin argues persuasively that “by promising to eliminate slavery the Proclamation exposed the underlying problem of race in America – the contradiction between a political state based upon the presumption of civic equality and a culture deeply imbued with the values of white supremacy” (p. 408). McClellan’s vision of a restored Union with slavery intact was defunct – as was McClellan’s career, when he was relieved of command for failing to pursue the rebels after Antietam. By contrast, President Lincoln’s belief, expressed one year later in the Gettysburg Address, that the United States of America could have “a new birth of freedom” was vindicated.
As a Marylander who grew up in a Montgomery County neighborhood that was built adjacent to part of the Civil War defenses of Washington, D.C., I have always found Antietam fascinating. I have visited the Antietam National Battlefield many times, and I am glad when I find a book that has something new to say about the Maryland Campaign. Slotkin’s emphasis on the historically transformative quality of the Maryland Campaign, and on an intriguing political question -- just how serious *was* McClellan about deposing President Lincoln and taking over the United States Government? -- may be the most significant contribution made by "The Long Road to Antietam."