History in Review
Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam
The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War.
By James M. McPherson.
(Oxford University Press: 2002. Pg. 224.)
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - June 16, 2003
Death, the cries of the wounded, and the unforgettable smell of blood mingling with the chocking stench of excrement is a constant that transcends all battlefields, from those in modern day Iraq to the ancient battlefield at Leuctra where Spartan and Thebean forces clashed in 371 B.C.E. Time dulls the memory of the horrific aspects of fighting, until the collective historic memory of a people settles upon the victories, the heroes, and patriotic or religious fervor that surrounded a given battle or war.
The Civil War is one such conflict that has taken on a glorious, mythic persona. Many can recount the names of the major engagements, the generals who prosecuted the battles, and the honorable reasons, or supposed reasons, that gave rise to this deadly conflict. What many people are no longer aware of, however, is the monumental cost in human lives that helped to finance the war. In all, somewhere around 620,000 Americans lost their lives during this conflict, and September 17, 1862 was the most costly day of all. (Note: The statistic on total number soldiers killed during the war was obtained from the The Library of Congress's Soldiers in the Civil War webpage.)
On September 17, 1862 Union and Confederate forces clashed near the village of Sharpsburg, Maryland. By the days end, upward to 6,500 men had been slaughtered. Many more would later die of their wounds. For the Union, this battle became know as the Battle of Antietam, for the Confederates, it was the Battle of Sharpsburg. No matter what name you use to refer to this battle, September 17, 1862 was, and still is, the bloodiest day in American history.
In Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam James M. McPherson chronicles the horrific events of that bloody day, while also offering reading a succinct overview of the Civil War. This overview not only includes an outline of the major events, but also takes an intriguing looks at many of the philosophical and political issues that helped to fuel the war. This overview enables the reader to understand the events that led up to the Battle at Antietam, and the effects that its outcome had on rest of the war. Throughout this text is interwoven with short, compelling biographies of the main players. For example, when looking at General George B. McClellan, who commanded the Union's Army of the Potomac, McPherson explores how McClellan's perfectionism served to stymie his ability to effectively prosecute the war.
He was a perfectionist in a profession where nothing could ever be perfect. His army was perpetually almost ready to move, but could not do so until the last horse was shoed and the last soldier fully equipped. McClellan was afraid to risk failure, so he risked nothing. (Pg. 33).
In looking at the causes and reasons for the war, McPherson also helps to dispel the myth that the fight over slavery was the main instigator of the war by examining how the movement for the abolition of slaver slowly grew as weapon of war - not for the expressed purpose of freeing the slaves. He also shows how the Battle of Antietam helped to sway Lincoln into signing the Proclamation of Emancipation. Yet before signing this document, Lincoln gave the Confederate one last chance to rejoin the Union and keep their slaves! (The deadline was January 1, 1863. Pg. 239.) McPherson further examines how by the act of signing this proclamation, the entire focus of the war changed from a battle to simply reunite the country, to one based upon a moral imperative to free an enslaved people.
In writing about the Battle of Antietam, McPherson graphically depicts the horrors that occurred that day. His imagery is upsetting, and nightmarish, and normally I would recommend that children and those with a sensitive nature not read such descriptions. However, in cases of war and genocide, I think that unsentimental, vivid imagery that is true to the historical record is essential reading for everyone. It is only by truly understanding that war often equals death and dismemberment that one can honestly make a decision whether going into war is 'really worth it'.
This study of the Battle of Antietam is not simply a lesson on the horrors of war. It is a study on perhaps the single most important battle to have taken place during the Civil War. Antietam turned the tide of war in favor of the Northern forces. Up until then, the Confederates where nominally 'winning'. they were also working on an allegiance with Britain and France. Had these alliances succeed, The Confederate states may have had the economic and military power to push on and win the war. McPherson takes a detailed look at the diplomatic machinations that were going on at the time, and the implications that these diplomatic efforts had during the war.
Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam is part of the Pivotal Moments in American History series. There is no denying that Antietam was a pivotal moment, and that McPherson was the ideal person to write this account. McPherson is a renowned Civil War historian and his texts are required reading on college campuses all over America. Crossroads of Freedom was written for the general reader. McPherson writes in a flowing narrative style that is amazingly readable. This text is enhanced by the inclusion of maps and illustrations, as well as endnotes and a bibliographical essay.
Despite having been written for the general reader, this text is well suited for students, in both high school and college, wishing an in-depth overview of Battle of Antietam and its consequences. While the text does include an general overview of the entire history of the Civil War so that you can put the battle in context, it does not serve as a general survey text on the war. For that, I'd recommend either Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstrution or Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Both books were written by McPherson, and both are excellent, comprehensive general history surveys on the American Civil War.
Gettysburg, Day Three, by Jeffry D. Wert.
Wert, a respected Civil War historian, chronicles, in exacting detail, the entirety of the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, a battle which was to change the course of a war.
A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and Its War with the United States, by Timothy J. Henderson.
An in-depth and fascinating analysis of the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, the events leading up to it, and its long-term repercussions. The book is written primarily from a Mexican viewpoint.
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