The Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest single day in American history, with more than 6,000 soldiers killed--four times the number lost on D-Day, and twice the number killed in the September 11th terrorist attacks. In Crossroads of Freedom, America's most eminent Civil War historian, James M. McPherson, paints a masterful account of this pivotal battle, the events that led up to it, and its aftermath.
As McPherson shows, by September 1862 the survival of the United States was in doubt. The Union had suffered a string of defeats, and Robert E. Lee's army was in Maryland, poised to threaten Washington. The British government was openly talking of recognizing the Confederacy and brokering a peace between North and South. Northern armies and voters were demoralized. And Lincoln had shelved his proposed edict of emancipation months before, waiting for a victory that had not come--that some thought would never come.
Both Confederate and Union troops knew the war was at a crossroads, that they were marching toward a decisive battle. It came along the ridges and in the woods and cornfields between Antietam Creek and the Potomac River. Valor, misjudgment, and astonishing coincidence all played a role in the outcome. McPherson vividly describes a day of savage fighting in locales that became forever famous--The Cornfield, the Dunkard Church, the West Woods, and Bloody Lane. Lee's battered army escaped to fight another day, but Antietam was a critical victory for the Union. It restored morale in the North and kept Lincoln's party in control of Congress. It crushed Confederate hopes of British intervention. And it freed Lincoln to deliver the Emancipation Proclamation, which instantly changed the character of the war.
McPherson brilliantly weaves these strands of diplomatic, political, and military history into a compact, swift-moving narrative that shows why America's bloodiest day is, indeed, a turning point in our history.
Contributing significantly to Oxford's new academic series Pivotal Moments in American History and to the literature on the Civil War, McPhersonconvincingly establishes the Battle of Antietam as the conflict's pivotal moment militarily, politically and morally. His depiction of the spring 1862 Confederacy shows it reeling under blockade while the North was learning how to practice "hard war." Yet McPherson tracks Robert E. Lee in the Seven Days' Battles and the Second Manassas campaign, placing him, by September, in Maryland and threatening Washington. Foreign nations were poised to recognize the Confederacy, and Lincoln had postponed his plans to liberate its slaves. With an election coming in November, demoralized Northern voters were in position to give control of Congress to a Democratic party with a vocal peace wing. The Union general George B. McClellan never took a risk he could avoid; on September 17, at Antietam, he failed to commit his full force, yet managed to get a defeated, demoralized army to the field at the end of the single bloodiest day in American history: over 6,000 men from both sides dead. Before the battle, McPherson carefully demonstrates (with the aid of 30 duotones and seven maps), the Civil War's outcome had been disputable. In Antietam's aftermath, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. France and Britain discreetly backed away from recognition. The Republicans kept control of Congress and of most state governments. The war was now the Union's to lose.