Richard Slotkin is one of the nation’s premier historians of violence. Most known for his trilogy on western frontier violence, in recent years Slotkin has turned his attention to the Civil War, writing several popular books, both fiction and non-fiction, that continue his lifelong interest in connecting violence and race. The Long Road to Antietam, Slotkin’s latest book, continues this theme by examining the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan in the first eighteen months of the Civil War, leading up to Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in the aftermath of the limited victory at Antietam.
The basic story of Antietam is well-known. Lincoln and McClelland didn’t get along, with the Democratic general opposed to Lincoln on both political and military grounds. Yet McClellan’s popularity combined with incompetence in the upper echelons of the Union military to give Lincoln few other options to lead his army. The South chose to invade Maryland in the summer of 1862 as its best shot to end the war early. Lee had little respect for McClellan, but lost the advantage when Union soldiers discovered a dropped copy of his plans. Even with this miracle, McClellan acted with extreme caution. The two armies met at Antietam Creek in Maryland where the Union won a slight victory. McClellan refused to pursue Lee’s army into Virginia, leading to many of his supporters turning on him and giving Lincoln the opening to fire McClellan.
The story may be familiar, but Slotkin adds much to it. He convincingly demonstrates that the Union was in a precarious position in 1862. Not only had the war gone badly in the face of superior military leadership in the Confederacy, but the North was disunited. Slotkin puts the lie to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s idea of a Team of Rivals, noting that disagreemnets in the Cabinet severely hurt the prosecution of the war in its first year. Meanwhile, despite the commonly held belief that Jefferson Davis had a strained relationship with his generals, Slotkin shows that, in 1862 at least, Davis and Lee were quite close and agreed on both short and long-term strategy, providing a much more unified front than the Union.
The biggest problem for Lincoln was McClellan. Slotkin has little positive to say about him. Without question McClellan had great skill in building and training an army, an absolutely necessary skill for the Union Army in 1861 and 1862. But McClellan was vainglorious, egotistical, and opposed to the Administration. McClellan, who openly compared himself to Napoleon, quite literally believed he alone could save the Union. Without his military leadership, the South would succeed in its rebellion. Without his domestic leadership, the radical Republicans would end slavery and undermine white supremacy, a principle that meant as much to McClellan as the Union.
Slotkin sees McClellan’s notorious reticence to fight within this context. If he prosecuted the war to Lincoln’s desires, he would help achieve a result that would satisfy the Radical Republicans and end slavery. If he paid too much attention to the military side of the war, he would lose the all-important second front: the political scene in Washington. He attempted to push his influence through the Cabinet, particularly through his one-time ally, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. McClellan’s influence helped Stanton achieve the position after the worthless Simon Cameron was fired, but Stanton quickly found himself disgusted with McClellan and became his greatest enemy in the Cabinet.
Finally, McClellan could not move quickly because his own presence was too important for the Union. If he died or the Union Army suffered too great a defeat the Union itself would be lost. That was too great a threat, something that more horses or supplies or men could only reassure, never solve. Thus McClellan needed to keep Lee out of the North, undermine Lincoln, and take effective control over the civilian side of the government.
How could McClellan wrest control from Lincoln? This gets to one of Slotkin’s most important points—the civilian control of the military and the idea of the president as Commander in Chief were not well established facts in 1861. If anything, Lincoln was the one himself who set these precedents. Within McClellan’s camp there was much open talk of sedition, word of which got back to Lincoln. Even when McClellan received Lee’s plans, he exclaimed what they were in front of everyone who was with him at the time—including an open Confederate sympathizer who got the word back to Lee what had happened, significantly mitigating the Union advantage.
But McClellan’s caution was as much temperamental as political. After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, McClellan openly thought about a military coup. His inner circle of advisers, which by Antietam consisted of nothing but yes-men, were openly talking treason and encouraging McClellan to act against Lincoln. But although he floated storylines to sympathetic reporters against the president, McClellan ultimately did nothing.
Slotkin pays great attention as well to the military maneuvers at Antietam itself. As someone without much interest in these details, I moved through it fairly quickly. There’s no question that Slotkin tells a great story and for those interested in battle narratives, I have little doubt that you will enjoy his narration of Antietam.
But Slotkin hints that military leadership really didn’t matter that much in the end. Lee was a great military mind and McClellan mediocre. Lee took his shot at invading in the North in the summer of 1862 because it was his best chance to change the course of the war, but in the end, the Union just had too many soldiers and too many supplies. That doesn’t mean that Slotkin believes the war’s outcome was inevitable, but rather that the cards had to fall perfectly for the Confederacy to win, either at Antietam (where he suggests that not only McClellan but Lee significantly overestimated Confederate forces) or in the war at large. And Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation made those odds much longer.
After Antietam, McClellan believed he had succeeded. By turning the Confederates out of the North, he reinforced himself as the Indispensable Man and turned his attention toward the front in Washington. But by this point, he failed to understand that even his allies were pulling their hair out over his inability to follow Lee’s army. Lincoln visited McClellan soon after Antietam and laid down the law, but McClellan continued to tarry and finally, after refusing the position twice, McClellan’s old ally Ambrose Burnside agreed to take over the command of the Army of the Potomac.
In the end, it’s hard to call George McClellan a tragic figure. He was a skilled general who helped build the U.S. Army at a time when President Lincoln had few realistic options to lead the Army of the Potomac. But he was also a rather loathsome individual who undermined the war effort through his political maneuverings and who posed a real risk to American democracy. Slotkin does a great job laying out this conflict and how Lincoln managed to rid himself of the McClellan problem, issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and turn the Civil War into a holy war that ended slavery. Notably, Slotkin notes that the alleged international reasons for the Emancipation Proclamation are vastly overrated and it had little to no effect on British or French policy toward the conflict.
The Long Road to Antietam will change how I teach the first two years of the war. In my world, that’s a pretty high compliment.