Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Battle of Antietam: America's Bloodiest day

"After pursuing Confederate General Robert E. Lee into MarylandUnion Army Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan launched attacks against Lee's army, in defensive positions behind Antietam Creek. At dawn on September 17, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker's corps mounted a powerful assault on Lee's left flank. Attacks and counterattacks swept across Miller's cornfield and fighting swirled around the Dunker Church. Union assaults against the Sunken Road eventually pierced the Confederate center, but the Federal advantage was not followed up. In the afternoon, Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside's corps entered the action, capturing a stone bridge over Antietam Creek and advancing against the Confederate right. At a crucial moment, Confederate Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill's division arrived from Harpers Ferry and launched a surprise counterattack, driving back Burnside and ending the battle. Although outnumbered two-to-one, Lee committed his entire force, while McClellan sent in less than three-quarters of his army, enabling Lee to fight the Federals to a standstill. During the night, both armies consolidated their lines. In spite of crippling casualties, Lee continued to skirmish with McClellan throughout September 18, while removing his battered army south of the Potomac River.[5]"-- 
Wikipedia Entry--taken from James MacPherson's book "Crossroads of Freedom". 

On September 17, 1862, roughly a hundred and fifty years ago this week, the Army of Northern Virginia under the Confederate banner and commanded by Robert E. Lee were halted in their invasion of the border state of Maryland by forces under the direction of General George McClelland of the Army of the Potomac. Before the day was over, and the sun set over an expanse of farmland, cornfields, creeks and churches near the town of Sharpsville, Maryland, over 75,000 thousand troops from both sides were present for duty; about half were sent into action: over 22,000 of them became casualties in the worst battle in American history.

It was not one battle but many battles and skirmishes compressed into one hellish nightmare of shot and shell and bayonets. One of several battles in the four year struggle that ranged across the same ground over and over across the valleys and forests and towns and churchyards of Virginia and Maryland, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, Mississippi and Texas. It was one of a dozen "Waterloo" sized battles that made widows and orphans of thousands, sent 620,000 men to an early grave and wounded hundreds of thousands more. It is a war that even today Americans cannot always agree upon.

But this is certain. September 17, 1862 was its bloodiest day.

The narrow Union victory--a very costly one--emboldened President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclaimation, effective January 1, 1863. It held that all slaves in rebel-held territories were now free. Critics noted that this proclimation freed no slaves in the immedite. But it made clear to all, especially any powers within Great Britian and the France Empire hungry for southern cotton, that the war would not end until the issue of slavery was resolved once and for all. But to the battle itself...

(above: this photo, entitled  "Dead Horse of a Confederate Colonel" was taken two days after the battle of Antietam by Union photographer Alexander Gardner.  This and seventy other photographs were displayed in  New York City at the studio of another more famous Civil War cameraman , Matthew Brady.  What makes this photo to me seem all the more haunting is that it appears to be simply at rest.  In reality, it died during the battle.)  


  1. This interesting account of the bloodbath that was the Battle of Antietam Doug. The violence that gave birth to America as a nation state reaches a climax here in the first truly modern war.
    The development of military and particularly naval technology at this time mechanises war in new ways.
    Here we have the bloodletting of an industrial revolution that pitched factory workers against farmers in the interests of big business (King Cotton -v- the Union Pacific railroad) and nation building that accompanied the cultural genocide of the native population increasingly contained on reservations, until their final military defeat in the early 1880s ended all other options for them.

    One of my first thoughts when reading your excellent account Doug was 150 years is no time at all.
    Only a few weeks ago I was inside a structure that is around 5,000 years old, but even when that was built the city of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey was something like 6.5 thousand years old - "Rome of the Ice Age" - as it has been called.
    This for me at least puts the birth of the United States in proper historical perspective.

    Interesting what you say about Britian's position which as you say was hungry for cotton from the south, but there was also a lot of British investment in the north too, these competing interests and other factors (like the security of Canada) detered British involvement in the war.

    It was the conflict that united the country of course, but it also emasculated the individual states now enveloped in type of federal totalitarianism.

    In terms of cotton imports Britain turned to the empire and to India in particular where cotton production in the 1860s increased by 700 percent.
    Besides which cotton had been stockpiled in Britain and across Europe ahead of the event, but still the war caused a hike in prices because of a 'manufactured' shortage on the pretext of war.
    It made British textile magnates very rich indeed.

    We also famously saw the manumission of black slavery as a result, but the retention of indentured labour from China (coolie) and Europe meant that a less visible 'white slavery' remained a bedrock of the American industrial revolution and urbanisation of the late 19th century. Although anti- Chinese legislation also emerged out of the Civil War which gave advantages to whites and began the American Apartheid period that in the old Confederacy particularly replaced black slavery.

    However, the Confederacy was really never going to win with its small population a third of whom were slaves, the naval blockade and the resources available to the United States in technology and manpower, success was never really a viable option for the south in my view, no matter how skilled were its generals or how determined were their cannon fodder.

    What we were seeing in 1862 I think is the formation - not of just a nation - but also of an empire.
    The Civil War was the United States fist invasion and marks its formation as a global military power - the rest, as they say is history Doug.
    This topic is a gateway to so many other issues as it stands at the dawn of our modern epoch, the bloody gateway to the role of the rebel continent and the power of New Money over the old landed aristocracy.

    As ever the rest of us were busy killing each other in order to help the powerful to gorge themselves on the bounty of war and its fabulous profits.

    Some things haven't changed very much at all it seems to me Doug.

  2. Thanks for bringing me up to speed on the British cotton trade surplus and the resulting market manipulations, AA.

    I think you are correct to site this conflict as the first American War of Empire, one which in retrospect was the natural development of thee rise of the northern railroad/industrial power and of a kind of "revolutionary capitalism". The fleeing hungry and persecuted of Ireland, Central Europe and China (the latter via California with her gold fields and railroads) completely changed the country.

    One could say it was the second war of empire, too, I guess, after the Mexican War of 1846-48, the blatant land-grab of California, New Mexico and Texas by President Polk. The successful partition of the Oregon Territory and the satisfaction of the British government made it possible as it destroyed any hope Mexico could have for a check on US westward expansion. It also brought more new territory into the American Union and put the writing on the wall for a conflict once it was clear these new territories could not exist and serve both economic interests (slave and capitalist) back East at the same time.

    One of the things that come to mind for me when I think of the Civil War comes from the old movie "Gone With the Wind" (1939) a very popular film as you know and a real relic of pre-Civil Rights America. In the film Clark Gable as Rhett Butler says to his fellow white gentry on the eve of the war early in the film is:
    "Why, all we have is cotton and slaves and arrogance."

    This is the key question I've always had about the Civil War. How the hell did they ever think they could win the war? Only by European intervention I'd say, especially a blockade of northern ports by the Royal Navy. (Napoleon III already a bit distracted pillaging poor Mexico.) I realize the Union forces were often poorly led in the first two years of the war but how could the
    Southerners expect that to make up for the forces they lacked?
    But, as you astutely point out, the British had an empire of their own, free of the entanglements of US politics. The vast Indian Raj could make the natives turn tricks in squalor for them as well as cotton slaves in America. For a time, though, Britain held the fate of the United States in its hands early in the war and decided that it was not worth sacrificing the investments of one sector of it's powerful barons for another. So Manchester and her mills carried on until Gandhi put a spanner in the works.

    And was there ever a war not fought with the profit just underneath?

    Yes, and I agree too that in the scheme of things 150 years only seems a long time ago---Europeans and Asians are blessed or cursed with a longer span of time to draw political lessons from, thanks in part to the near-by relics of so many centuries right at hand!

  3. And I should also give due credit for Britain's neutrality to the work done earlier in that century by the Anti-Slave movement and the dept diplomacy of Ambassador Charles Francis Adams

  4. I think you raise an interesting question about the British government not wishing to officially take sides in the Civil War there Doug.

    The British people however did get very much involved.

    The first major battle of the war, the Battle of Bull Run, in July 1861, had regiments on both sides that were made up almost entirely of British volunteers.

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1330735/Thousands-British-volunteers-gave-lives-Americas-civil-war.html#ixzz28YdXVuQW
    Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

    The British were keen to hang on to Canada of course so the Canadian Pacific Railway was formed to physically unite Canada and Canadians from coast to coast.

    The reparations Britain paid the US for selling naval vessels to the Confederacy were in reality a bribe to prevent the annexation of British Columbia and also Nova Scotia in the east.

    Canada's confederation on July 1, 1867 brought four eastern provinces together to form a new country to head off US expansionism in the northeast and also in the northwest where attempts were being made to link with Alaska to create a complete Pacific US seaboard from the Mexican border to the bering Strait.

    Britain didn't want to risk further destabilisation in Canada as it was solidifying as a country by getting any more emboiled in the upheavals going on in the south, at least I don't think so Doug.

    All very interesting stuff I think because it is about reshaping the world on the back of mechanical warfare.

    I take your point about the Mexican War too of course Doug, we see these major military adventures taken in alliance with private capital. The American exceptionalist hegemonic oligarchy had arrived and with it the birth of its offspring the military industrial complex.

    At hardly any point was Britain not complicit with the general flow of history rapidly unfolding in the industrialising New World.

    1. Thanks for that interesting article from "The Daily Mail". I've read a couple other reviews previously for the book, "A World Afire" but that was by far the most comprehensive. I hope to read the actual book when I whittle down my current reading list.
      You likely will not be surprised when I tell you that most of the books I've read dealing with the US Civil War do include account of all-Irish brigades making up some of the most effective and often decimated of the Union forces. Other groups like the Scots-American , Welsh-American and Anglo-American soldiers aren't given as much ink. I knew of course that people from all over the world had come to fight, or, had been drafted into the Union and Confederate Army right off the emigrant boats.

      It was the terrible news of the massive casualty lists from Gettysburg's battlefields and the beginning of the official draft in New York City that sparked those terrible race riots in July of 1863. The part about a French ship turning her guns on the mob in New York harbor to protect black British sailors is also something I never knew. Nothing about those bleak days in New York City would surprise me, though. It was total mob chaos followed by martial law.

      I have to admit I had never factored in the purchase of Alaska by Washington in 1867 from Russia as a way to pressure British Columbia into the American Union. It makes perfect sense, of course. The purchase of what was then called "Russian America" is usually treated historians I've read as "Seward's Folly" named after the Secretary of State who pursued the vast purchase. The emphasis is on how far-sighted Seward was, not how it might have peeled off more land north of the recognized border for Uncle Sam.

      With the largest land army in the world after 1865, it was not surprising that action on Canadian confederation took place. It turned out to be the best for both countries I'd say as Canada built its great railway and the United States secured a friendly and peaceful border. The one thing that was emphasized after the Civil War when I was in school was that it spelled the end for France and Austria in their attempts to keep a Hapsburg monarch on the throne of Mexico.

      Palmerston did indeed agree to pay a staggering sum to Washington for the manufacture of Confederate ships. Some of the "ironclad" ships that were to be delivered to the Confederate Navy from Liverpool shipyards were cancelled during the war.

      Interesting to compare British official neutrality to the American variety in the first years of both the world wars of the last century. The main difference in World War II was that the USA was unprepared for a war of any magnitude in 1939-1940 and the UK could have separated the North and South from each other by coming in on the side of the Confederates.

      In any case, the British held the position until World War II of being "complicit" in shaping history. It has since been overtaken by American heavy-handedness.