The Antietam Effect: Preface

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        In 1830 one of the oldest nominees to the United States Military Academy entered West Point as one of its most promising cadets. He was exceptionally bright and clever, and had already served in the military, rising to the highest rank an enlisted man could achieve: sergeant major of his artillery regiment. There was the growing belief that the best officers were not sons of privilege, but those who “came up from the ranks.” Thus the sergeant was considered first-rate officer material; and if he had a rather high opinion of himself, that only made him typical of many of the young men and boys (some as young as 14) being appointed to the academy overlooking the Hudson River, a few miles north of New York City.

        Seven months later, and by his own account, the former master sergeant demonstrated just how clever he was, manipulating the rules of the academy in order to be relieved of his appointment.

        Not wanting to quit, he delved into the minds of academy elders and did what they abhorred. He purposefully broke regulations – the written ones and those that were simply understood – and got what he wanted: dismissal. He was typical in that sense, also; many failed at some point during the strenuous four-year program, and the not-so-young cadet merely got it over with early. No one seemed to notice that he used one of the academy’s own reasoning models, deduction – the ability to think like his opponent – to accomplish his goal.

        Actually, his dismissal was the former sergeant’s second failure in higher education. He had earlier attended the University of Virginia, and, as with the academy, had stayed with it for less than a year. But, despite his brief tenure at Virginia, most authors associate the university with the extraordinary talents of ex-West Point Cadet Edgar A. Poe.

        Had Edgar Allen Poe stayed in the service, he probably would have had high command in one of the contending armies of the Civil War. From West Point he might have gone to the West Woods, leading a brigade, or a division perhaps, at one of the pivotal battles in American history, fought along a narrow creek called Antietam, in western Maryland. Instead, he left the army to pursue a writing career, becoming one of the founders of a distinctly American literary genre, the mystery-thriller, the forerunner of detective novels and the inspiration for such giants as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Biographers see his fertile mind as the product of a liberal education, rather than his brief stint in a military school, with the academy’s emphasis on engineering and the drill manual. But from those Charlottesville college days came only one published work, a collection of poems that was virtually ignored by the critics, and described later (after Poe had become famous) as “prentice work.” It was only after his army experience that Poe found his voice, and the influence of West Point on his more important pieces is unmistakable. Poe’s main characters are wary, prudent, deductive thinkers – the kind of thinker Poe was – the sort of thinkers that came from the United States Military Academy on the Hudson.


                                                                         Edgar A. Poe

        Poe missed the Battle of Antietam for a much better reason than his expulsion from West Point; he died in 1849, a dozen years before the Civil War. But like all Americans before and after that crucial battle, E. A. Poe is connected to the Antietam Campaign, even if that tie is, as one of Poe’s amateur detectives put it, beyond “the old modes of practice.”

        For our purpose, in looking at how the Antietam Campaign affects our country and our lives, Poe is connected this way: he provides the inquisitive framework for our investigation. Poe’s detectives were always thinking of places where the police had not thought of searching, because sometimes the clues would not be found within “one set of notions.” It was better, and more productive, Poe argued, to see things “as my opponent sees them,” which often led to hiding places that were not so deep and secretive, but right in plain sight.

        Likewise, history, when interpreting organized combat, tends to confine itself to ”one set of notions.” Authors are drawn to tactics, operational goals and (less often) national strategy, to find their clues to interpreting the actions of men at war. Like Poe’s policemen, many historians look for clues within the usual “range of their search,” in the esoterica of military theory and the spectacle of martial maneuvers. Often this narrowing view leads to what one historian referred to as “a sea of conjecture,” with analysis and opinions that are incomplete and unsatisfying because they are based on a limited frame of reference: tactics.

        Moreover, the usual historical analyses are troubling because they contradict fundamental principles of Constitutional law and military precedent. They also run counter to what we know about human biology, psychology, and a host of equally relevant disciplines. Consider the following questions, all pertinent to the Antietam Campaign:

        • Can a general make the decision to invade a foreign country?

        • Were military officers, schooled and trained at considerable public expense, little better than fools, and incompetent at their chosen profession?

        • Were soldiers in the Civil War above the every-day biorhythms of the body, and immune to the effects of injury, physical tension, chronic stress, hormonal imbalance, disease, abject exhaustion, poor diet, bad water, acute hunger, and sleep deprivation?

        • Do experience and professionalism count for nothing; are new people, in an organization, just as good as the veterans – and maybe better?

        • Do all of us think and reason in the same way, such that a general’s own reasoning model is irrelevant to understanding his decisions?

        • Should armed conflict be analyzed in only one dimension: its military aspect?

        • Do veterans only write about what they saw and heard, and are they always to be taken literally?

        • Are military events separate from our collective experience, and our soldiers’ exploits merely military actions, rather than triumphs and failings of the human spirit?

        • Are American soldiers – fighting Americans – unaffected by adrenalin, never committing acts of brutality?

        • Is mutiny in America a top-down affair, originating in a professional officer class – men who are to be feared because they might, at any moment, simply take over and throw out our elected leaders?

        • And have American generals, contrary to their oath of fidelity, always toyed with that sinister idea: the overthrow of an American president?

        Considered as stark challenges, it is difficult to answer “yes” to any of these questions; yet much of the literature of the Civil War actually favors an affirmative response to all of them. This is the result of seeing the campaign and the fighting through the military prism of tactics and battle action, while ignoring the vast evidence of human and natural phenomena that influenced decisions and actions of civilian leaders, commanders, and the common soldiers.

        In a 1988 article, research professor Maris Vinovskis posed the defiant question, “Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War?” The question itself is emblematic of the problem. It suggests that there is competition for the souls of readers and students, and that one faction – the sociologists – must stake their claim to the story. But why should there be these two scholastic camps, isolated from – and at war with – one another? Why do the military historian and the social scientist never seem to meet, and look at the war as an episode in the evolutionary progress of man as well as a military conflict over the future of the nation? This work is an effort to reframe Vinovskis’ lament in that way, and approach one important event – the Antietam Campaign in September 1862 – from a human as well as a military perspective.

        Critical moments in history act as a connecting thread in our shared national experience. For Antietam, that connection has not always been clear. Even as the war was raging, one author called Antietam “… a disgrace,” claiming the guns and cannons had fired that day “… to little purpose.” Shortly after the war, a writer termed Antietam “… the most useless battle in history.” Even today, a recent study of Marine Corps tactics describes Antietam as “not decisive,” simply because Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army was not destroyed. These narrow assessments are unfortunate because they look at the campaign and the battle in their tactical and operational context, and not in a larger, strategic perspective. Nor do they examine – meaningfully – Antietam’s human aspects, thereby missing the battle’s deep significance, and the way September 17, 1862, affects our lives to this day.

        The Antietam Campaign is, without question, one of the most important events in the history of the world. It was the supreme effort by the Confederacy to end the war on its terms, with the inclusion of Maryland in a grand scheme to sustain its war effort, and secure a lasting peace with the North. It was the culmination of a six-month campaign that began with the Union army only a few miles from the Confederate capital, and built toward a crescendo, with the Confederate army just as close to Washington City. It involved Confederate soldiers stretched to their physical limits, and Union soldiers utterly demoralized by defeat, while being burdened with a host of recruits who knew nothing about soldiering. It was influenced by weather patterns that no one had seen before, and included gruesome firefights where the participants could hardly recognize themselves. Antietam was nothing less than a white-hot distillation of hope, emotions, and the all-pervasive desire to stay alive, while trying to achieve something meaningful. It was a day like no other, and affects our lives down to our own time. This work explores some of the more important ways.

        No attempt has been made, in these pages, to tie this battle to its traditional importance: the Emancipation Proclamation, and the provisional freedom of slaves in the seceded states. The proclamation’s impact on American society is of the highest order. It has always been closely linked to the campaign, and that association is not in doubt. Nor is their any elaboration, in these pages, of the time-honored appellation: “the bloodiest day in American history.” The fact is that the proclamation and the unique bloodletting of September 17 tend to overshadow the other socially significant ways Antietam affects our lives today. Setting these two well-known associations aside gives other issues a chance for their “moment in the sun,” and the attention they deserve. If so many other important and lasting connections can be made here, then the same must be true for other Civil War battles. We need only look, objectively and diligently, to find them.

        A few admonitions will arm the reader for this personal adventure into our martial past. A great deal is said in these pages about something known as “combat power.” This is a concept that all battlefield commanders, throughout history, have understood, but which only recently has been defined as the true measure of an army’s relevant strength: its ability to inflict damage on the enemy. George Washington alluded to it during the Revolution, arguing that the problem with the Continental Army was not its size, but its quality. He did not necessarily want more soldiers in order to match numbers with the British. He wanted better officers, and better trained, equipped, supplied and conditioned soldiers. He wanted what we would call more “combat power,” the only measure of an army that is meaningful on the battlefield. “Quality, not quantity,” was the refrain in the post-Civil War army, as well.

        Regarding Lee’s sick, exhausted, and famished soldiers as ruddy, stalwart veterans does not take into account their physical weakness during the two days of combat, September 14 and 17. Counting McClellan’s 23 new regiments (some put the number even higher) as giving him overwhelming strength to defeat Lee, fails to recognize what Lee himself knew – that the Union army’s new recruits were not ready for the field. It is clear from Lee’s dispatches that he had less to fear from McClellan now, in September, precisely because so many of McClellan’s soldiers were new, untrained and unfit for battle – soldiers that he could not outnumber, but could outfight. Numerical comparison is one of the great traps of military analysis, and, as we’ll see, it was a trap that America set for itself in the early days of the Revolution, despite Washington’s frequent warnings. We will explore the historical snare of “the born fighter” that the nation sprung upon itself at Antietam, and be less concerned with numbers than we will with the combat power of the two armies at various points in the campaign.

        Military terminology inevitably finds its way onto the pages of Civil War literature. Among the most frequent are the often-abused terms “strategy” and “tactics.” In the days of warrior-kings like Charlemagne and Frederick the Great, strategy referred to those movements designed to bring on a battle with the enemy under favorable conditions. Tactics were the maneuvers and actions used to defeat the enemy, once they had been found. With the growth of democracy, this simple delineation proved inadequate. Prime ministers and presidents were now engaged in the grand schemes to defeat the enemy, employing blockades, foreign alliances, and the coordination of armies and navies operating at great distance from one another. “Strategy” gravitated toward these larger actions, while the term “tactics” was still confined to the battlefield.

        This left a gap in military vernacular that was filled by the advent of a new term that was closely associated with the phrase “military campaign.” “Operations” is a twentieth century concept. But it is useful to apply it here, before its time, because it helps define the roles and responsibilities of the key players, military and civilian, in their efforts to win the war. Therefore we will apply these terms in their more modern context: “tactics” as battlefield maneuvers and techniques pursued in the presence of the enemy; “operations” as nearly synonymous with campaign, and embracing those moves designed to bring on a battle (or siege or any action in proximity to the enemy); and “strategy” as the purview of the nation’s elected leaders, involving grand plans to win the war. These essential concepts are further refined in Chapter One.

        To some degree the problem with traditional views of Antietam is over-simplification. Decisions and actions are often compressed into one man, such as Lee’s determination to invade Maryland in early September. This yields a neat, compact decision-making model that is easy to comprehend. Life tends to be more complicated, however, with other players and additional considerations, especially in a republic, where civilian authority is involved. Including them creates less elegant, more complex models of events, and the author acknowledges they are more difficult to follow. Yet making the story of Antietam clearer remains a primary goal of this work. To simplify and illustrate complicated problems, science uses algorithms: logical, step-by-step procedures that allow experts and students to concentrate on difficult cases and manage the information flow. Where appropriate, these flow-charts are employed to illustrate both the “traditional view” of events, and the more “holistic view” explored in these essays.

        The introduction, which follows, presents an overview of events from August to November 1862. This provides context for the subjects of this anthology and offers relief from the burdensome recounting of the campaign in each chapter, allowing us to focus on the evidence and analysis of the controversial issues explored here. The introduction also briefly introduces each topic to be explored, in the chronological framework of the entire campaign.

        Authors who research a subject in depth are often frustrated with the desire to be concise, while aspiring to share all that is relevant to the story. The “Notes” section is the asylum for this frustration, and the reader is encouraged to follow the numbers and review the notes for the extra information and perspectives they yield. The notes will be found at the end of their respective chapters.

        Finally, none of the issues raised, from the works that have come before, should be taken as criticisms of authors, historians, or analysts. Inclusion of what has been previously written about the war, and the campaign, is unavoidable; many of our traditional beliefs about the war are based on those works. Some of the most popular are not works of historical scholarship, and their authors never claimed to be historians. Others are the result of very intense research and thoughtful analysis. Any insight, or new perspective, that this work can claim has been achieved because others have advanced the Civil War genre onto the higher plane we enjoy today.

        The Antietam Effect seeks to raise our awareness, give us deeper understanding, and foster a more meaningful connection to our Civil War. It should not be read as an alternate view of the events of that war, but as a way to bring other perspectives, or disciplines, into the discussion – to illuminate what Antietam means to us today. Just as we are tied to the ten subjects that are examined here, this work is connected to all that has been published about Antietam and the American Civil War. It cannot help but give us a wider view of the conflict, and lead to something valuable, for it has been written on the shoulders of giants.