This week in history: The Battle of Antietam 150th anniversary
In “The American Civil War: A Military History,” author Sir John Keegan writes: “A strange episode then compromised (Lee's) strategy. Lee's plans, set out in a special order, No. 191, detailing the separate movements of of his army, were found by a Union soldier wrapped around three cigars in an abandoned Confederate camp. The paper was taken to McClellan's assistant adjutant general ... Even the ever-timorous McClellan was persuaded that he had been granted the most extraordinary stroke of good fortune.”
McClellan positioned himself in Lee's path, and the two armies clashed in one of the most brutal engagements of the war. The tight conditions of the battlefield meant that both armies occupied a relatively small geographic area, leading to intense, heavy fighting and extraordinarily high casualties on both sides. Fearing incorrectly that Lee had more men in reserve and unwilling to commit his own reserves, McClellan never achieved local troop concentration. Though defeated, Lee's army was able to escape back to Virginia. If McClellan had been less cautious the rebellion could have ended nearly three years earlier than it did.
Keegan writes: “As the dreadful day drew out, the number of dead and wounded mounted. The eventual total was 12,400 casualties on the Union side, 10,300 on the Confederate.”
With Lee's failure in Maryland, Lincoln had his victory and issued the Emancipation Proclamation five days later. The British population wildly approved the measure, and without popular support, the British government never again seriously considered recognizing Confederate independence. The weeks leading up to the Battle of Antietam were the closest the South ever came to European intervention in the Civil War.
As a final note, one of the sources for this story, Keegan, passed away on Aug. 2 at his home in England. A celebrated military historian, Keegan authored numerous works over the course of a marvelous career, and his unique perspectives and narrative abilities will be sorely missed. In addition to his book on the Civil War, I highly recommend his histories, “The First World War,” “The Face of Battle,” “The Mask of Command” and “A History of Warfare.”
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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