Home / General / Book Review: Richard Slotkin, The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution

Book Review: Richard Slotkin, The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution


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.

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  • WhatDragon

    I don’t know enough about the Eastern Theatre, and obviously, I haven’t read the book you are commenting on, but was the North’s military position really that precarious in 1862?

    The war in the West was proceeding pretty well. Pea Ridge, Fort Henry and Donelson, the capture of New Orleans, and very obviously Shiloh were all important Union victories.

    • The North wasn’t going to be permanently defeated on the battlefield. But the political situation was quite precarious and that combined with poor leadership from the military made the Northern war effort and the Union’s future quite shaky. Remember that the British really wanted to split up the U.S. and were looking for any opportunity to arbitrate the Civil War in a way that would succeed in those ends.

      • John

        I don’t think that’s exactly right. The British cabinet was actually quite divided over intervention in the American war, and I think it’s difficult to say that anyone’s position was based around a genuine desire for the break-up of the US. The supporters of intervention, like Gladstone and Russell, supported it because they believed that the South was inevitably going to win. They didn’t believe the north could win, and wanted to intervene in order to end a war that the north would inevitable lose if it continued.

        Those who opposed intervention, on the other hand, either did so because they detested the idea of a slave-holding republic and were strongly anti-slavery, or because they rightly concluded that the north might very well win, and had no interest in antagonizing it (this latter was Palmerston’s own position).

        If you look particularly at the two key figures in the British government, it starts to become hard to see how intervention could have happened. Russell, who supported intervention, was basically pretty incompetent, and was unable to pursue any kind of coherent policy designed towards recognizing the Confederacy or offering mediation. When he did take steps in that direction, he encountered opposition from Palmerston, who was determined to avoid antagonizing the north. And Russell basically always backed down when confronted with opposition.

        I think if you really look at the situation, you can see that British intervention would only have occurred if the doubters, like Palmerston, could have been convinced that the south was, in fact, definitely going to win. And that this would only have happened if the south basically won the war on its own, anyway.

        • Charlie Sweatpants

          “I think if you really look at the situation, you can see that British intervention would only have occurred if the doubters, like Palmerston, could have been convinced that the south was, in fact, definitely going to win. And that this would only have happened if the south basically won the war on its own, anyway.”

          That’s always been my understanding. For as much attention as a potential British “intervention” gets, London really had no dog in the fight. Sure breaking up the U.S. would’ve been nice, but it was pretty far down the list of things Palmerston or anyone else could really care about. They were just a few year removed from the Crimean War at the time, and the government was busy extending its control over India after the mutiny, not to mention the way colonialism in general was accelerating at the time. Compared to that, supporting the Confederacy in any substantive way had a low probability of success and would’ve been very expensive.

          If the South had won, they’d have been happy, but short of diverting an awful lot of the Royal Navy to break the blockade and then spending a ton of money to supply the South, there wasn’t much they could actually do.

          • John

            It’s worth noting, I think, and not just because it intersects with my dissertation, that in the two years before the outbreak of the Civil War, the British had just played a very largely passive role in the processes that brought about the unification of Italy. The British people and cabinet were far more united in their support for a unified Italy than they were for the Confederacy, and still they gave very little direct aid to Cavour and Garibaldi in that process. They refused to take any steps against Garibaldi, as Napoleon III half-heartedly suggested, and their agents kind of blandly encouraged resistance to Austrian and French attempts to get the old rulers reinstalled after the 1859 War, but the British basically took a hands off position.

            Similarly, a couple of years later, in 1864, the British looked on passively while the two German powers made war against Denmark, a British client and the home country of the Princess of Wales, and did nothing to stop the despoiling of Schleswig-Holstein.

            In the early 1860s, the British in general, and the second Palmerston cabinet in particular, were not even willing to intervene in two major European crises in which their sympathies and interests were engaged. The idea that they would have intervened more forcefully in a conflict on the other side of the world, in which Britain’s own colonial possessions in North America would be deeply vulnerable, is hard to support.

            The Palmerston government’s basic modus operandi in foreign policy was to not really do anything, and their failure to really do anything in the American Civil War fits in very well with this. The idea that the British were just itching to help out the Confederacy if the Confederates had only won a few more battles seems more like Lost Cause mythology than a view which can be supported by reference to actually existing British foreign policy in the 1860s.

            • CBrinton

              “The idea that the British were just itching to help out the Confederacy if the Confederates had only won a few more battles seems more like Lost Cause mythology than a view which can be supported by reference to actually existing British foreign policy in the 1860s”

              It _is_ an oddly popular view (even as normally reliable a historian as James McPherson flirts with it in _Battle Cry of Freedom_ and in his later book on Antietam).

              Personally, I think the desire for an exciting story, with a hair’s-breadth escape for the Union thanks to the Lost Order, plays a bigger role than Lost Cause mythology.

              • Eric

                The teacher who supervised detention at my high school in Texas wrote a lot of fiction that revolved around British entry into the American Civil War. Sadly, the only way this reached any sort of public was on the walls of the room where detention was held. He taped individual pages of his stories to the walls at about eye-level when sitting at our desks.

                I wasn’t in detention often enough to know whether he rotated them, but I wondered if he thought so poorly of his stories that he meant to frighten us away from coming to detention by posting them. Or did he believe that bad Civil War alternate history would actually inspire us enough to make a change in our lives?

      • Bloix

        The Union had a serious weakness in the location of its capital in virtually Southern territory. Lee repeatedly capitalized on this vulnerability by coming up the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland to threaten Washington from the northwest. This was the point of the Maryland Campaign of September 1862. Lee was not strong enough to take Washington, but he could try to put pressure on it, forcing the North to devote more resources to its defense and disheartening members of Congress and the national press. As the South’s war aim was to bring the North to the negotiating table, damaging Northern morale was an important goal.

        The campaign’s first target was Harper’s Ferry, where the B&O Railroad crossed the Potomac to avoid the high bluff on the Maryland side. The railroad was Washington’s link with the western states, and Stonewall Jackson had repeatedly come up from the valley to disrupt it and the adjacent telegraph line until the Union stationed a garrison of 12,500 men in the town. Jackson took the garrison in the largest surrender of US troops until Bataan. He then raced 15 miles north to join Lee at Sharpsburg, where they had every hope of defeating McClellan, driving the Union army back toward the city, and roaming freely through what they expected would be a welcoming Maryland countryside.

        Most people in the North did not learn of the debacle at Harper’s Ferry until it had been retaken. If Lee had won at Antietam, the news of the Maryland Campaign would have been of a humiliating mass surrender followed by a disastrous defeat at the hands of a smaller force. The military effect would have been that the Union would have had to devote substantially increased resources to the defense of Washington and communications with the West would have become much more difficult.

        One way to think about the war in the East is that Washington was like the king in a chess game. If you checkmate the king, you win, regardless of the disposition of the other forces on the board.

        • Richard Welty

          i think it’s overstating the case to say that Harper’s Ferry was the campaign’s first target. Lee crossed the Potomac and marched north to Frederick, Maryland. he didn’t settle on Harper’s Ferry until he realized that the Federal troops were not going to abandon their exposed position (which is indeed what they should have done.) If Harper’s Ferry had been abandoned by the Federal forces Lee likely would have headed through Hagarstown towards Pennsylvania. See Joe Harsh’s several outstanding works on Lee in 1862 for discussion of these points.

      • CBrinton

        “Remember that the British really wanted to split up the U.S. and were looking for any opportunity to arbitrate the Civil War in a way that would succeed in those ends.”

        This strikes me as wildly overstated. There was a _desire_, among a significant part of the UK’s ruling class, for the CSA to gain independence. But there was essentially no willingness to have the UK do anything concrete to achieve this.

        If the people who ran the UK really wanted to get involved, they’d have used the Trent incident as all the excuse they needed.

        I personally think the Crimean War played a significant part in this state of affairs. People trying to sell a quick, easy foreign adventure faced a much more hostile reception in London in 1861 than they would have in (say) 1855.

        • John

          The Trent incident is indeed instructive. Because what you see is basically Palmerston losing his temper over the affront to British honor, and wanting to take steps that might have led to war, and basically being talked down by Prince Albert. Once Palmerston cooled down, he allowed the incident to be resolved peacefully. If Palmerston had wanted a war with the United States for reasons independent of the affront to British honor, the state of his temper, and the expostulations of the dying Prince Consort, would not have made a difference. The obvious conclusion is that, when he was thinking clearly, Palmerston did not want a war with the United States.

      • Bill Murray

        OTOH, going into the 1862 election, the Republicans and Unionists had 75% (138 of 183) of the House and 37 of the 50 Senate seats. After they had about 60% (111 of 185) and 38 of 48 Senate seats. The Dems would have needed to turn at least another 8 Republican seats to have a plurality and 21 total to have a majority.

        As I don’t think the rebel armies would have stayed North even with a win at Antietam, I don’t know if the election results would have been much different. Heck, no Emancipation Proclamation might have made the election better for the Rs.

        • Petronius

          I haven’t read a lot on this; I really wish I had time to dig through the NY Times’s Opinionator series on the Civil War — they include a lot of fascinating political information. As I understand it, primarily from Bruce Catton’s trilogy from back around the Centennial, there was not by any means universal support in the North for ending slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was a terrific gamble. It worked, and did succeed in creating much more pro-abolition sentiment in the North, but McClellan’s feelings were not at all uncommon up until the 1862 elections.

    • ploeg

      The war in the West was proceeding pretty well. Pea Ridge, Fort Henry and Donelson, the capture of New Orleans, and very obviously Shiloh were all important Union victories.

      Progress, however, was very slow after Shiloh, and the Confederates were able to conduct a counteroffensive in Kentucky at roughly the same time as Antietam.

      And even so, foreign eyes were on the Eastern Theater. Great gains in the hinterlands don’t matter so much when your capital city is being threatened.

      • WhatDragon

        Grant claims that progress after Shiloh was slow because Halleck moved to the field and assumed command. In fact, Grant points out that the lack of unified command in the West was a severe handicap to whatever he did.

        Obviously though, Grant has a great deal of incentive to claim something like that.

        The nature of Bragg’s October offensive is interesting as it was launched from Atlanta, which represents the success at Shiloh. The western Confederacy was effectively split between the armies fighting for control of the mississippi valley, and those further east, like say Atlanta.

        Also, I would question how “threatened” Washington was by Lee’s movement North. The fortification construction in the city between 1861 and September 1862 was immense. As Lee also had a smaller army, I don’t think Washington was ever seriously threatened.

  • rea

    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

    Davis had a strained relationship with some of his generals. He couldn’t get along with JE Johnston and Beauregard, but was BFF with AS Johnston, Lee, and Bragg (who no one else in the world other than Davis liked).

  • Murc

    after refusing the position twice, McClellan’s old ally Ambrose Burnside agreed to take over the command of the Army of the Potomac.

    Am I the only one who slowly thinks better of Burnside the more I learn about him?

    Once upon a time I dismissed him contemptuously as one of a long line of incompetent butchers commanding the Army of the Potomac, and worse than many because of the manifest idiocy he engaged in at Fredericksburg that got a ton of people killed.

    And then I learned that he refused command of the Army of the Potomac multiple times because he knew he was unfit, only relenting because he was told that if he didn’t do it, they’d give the office to Joe Hooker, who was thoroughly appalling in every way imaginable. And that he tried to commit suicide during Fredericksburg, so horrified was he at what he’d wrought. Later, he willingly agreed to serve under a man he outranked (Meade) for the good of the Army, he preformed damn well in Tennessee and at Chickamauga, and there’s substantial evidence that the Crater fiasco wasn’t really his fault.

    I mean, he was clearly unsuited to be anything more than a Brigadier, despite his modest successes as a corps commander. But I’ve really come around on him as I learn more about the man.

    • In a related note, I am consistently amazed at how utterly incompetent the entire upper echelons of Union military leadership were before 1863. It’s almost remarkable the nation survived until Grant and Sherman and Sheridan and others rose to the top.

      At least someone like Burnside (and others) knew they were incompetent. Unlike Pope for instance, who was incompetent but believed he was the man to replace McClellan.

      • KLG

        Reminds me of the superb MacNelly (RIP) cartoon I have on my home office wall, “Defeated at Manassas: McDowell, Pope, Mouse.”

        Sounds like a book I have to read. Thanks for the review!

      • Mpowell

        Isn’t the problem that a peace time military selects for an entirely different set of officers?

        • Hogan

          Or that it can’t identify an officer like McClellan, who is good at everything a general is supposed to do except fight battles.

          • Petronius

            Wasn’t one of the problems that the War Department, at the outbreak, was controlled by General Winfield Scott, “the hero of the War of 1812”? I gather that many of the top executives were from his generation, too, and in their ditage. Was there a problem with not providing pensions for retired military officers? I don’t quite know where to go to research that. I gather that everybody knew Scott was senile, but it took Lincoln a couple of years to get him out of there.

            • Petronius

              whoops! “ditage” s/b “dotage”

        • Though of course the Confederate officers were also peacetime officers in the U.S. military.

          • Anderson

            Lots of incompetents there too.

            • Bill Murray

              e.g. Lee’s buddy Braxton Bragg

        • rea

          McClellan, though, was only a retired captain before the war, with his claim to prominence derived from being chief engineer and vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad

      • James E. Powell

        I don’t like generals to begin with. They are, each of them in their own way, assholes.

        But the charge of military incompetence has to be tempered with the understanding that before the civil war, there had been no war like this. That no one knew exactly how to do it means that it’s unfair to expect that anyone would do well.

        The Confederate generals are consistently overrated, and most of all Lee. Every time he invaded the north, he was incompetent.

    • rea


      Burnside wasn’t there.

      • Bill Murray

        that’s why he performed so well there — and he was involved in the Knoxville campaign, where he out maneuvered Longstreet after Chickamauga.

        Burnside did well in North Carolina before Antietam, too

    • WhatDragon

      I am not sure there was every really a long line of incompetent commanders of the AoP. The important part being “long”.

      • Bill Murray

        McDowell, McClellan, Burnside, Hooker and Meade — Grant was never technically head of the AoP. he was commander of all armies and located his command with the AoP and was of course de facto head


        • WhatDragon

          I know the commanders of the AoP and I appreciate your earnestness. However, 5 commanders of the AoP does not make a “long line”.

          • Anderson

            Srsly? How many is a long line to you? Twenty?

            • WhatDragon

              We are talking about 5 commanders in a 2 year time period. That really isn’t a long line.

              McDowell commanded the AoP for 2 months.

              McClellan a little more than 15 months

              Burnside for 3 months

              Hooker for 5 months.

              • rea

                I’m not sure that any of those guys was exactly “incompetent.”

                The Grant/Meade team didn’t do any better at the Wilderness than Hooker had done at Chancellorsville, fought on the same ground.

                The diffference was that Grant had something–call it “moral courage” or maybe “will to win” or maybe just stubborness–that led him to continue the cmpaign rather than retreat after the battle. Hooker overruled the recommendation of his generals, and retreated.

                • Holden Pattern

                  I would say rather that Grant understood that he could win because he had the long-term advantage in men and materiel, and so was willing to take casualties rather than retreat.

                  I would probably class that under “mental toughness” because AFAIK, he was quite aware of the cost to his men of that position.

                • John

                  Why does Grant get credit for “moral toughness” while Field Marshal Haig is just a butcher?

                • Murc

                  I would say it wasn’t any of those things. Grant’s drive to Richmond looks a lot better once you realize that except for Cold Harbor (which he freely admitted was a fuck up on his part) he never fought a battle he could lose.

                  Every single time he engaged the Army of Northern Virginia, he knew that one of two things would happen; either he’d win on the field, pushing them from their positions and forcing them further south while inflicting heavy casualties… or he’d win strategically, being repulsed but hurting Lee in ways he couldn’t possibly recover from, and then being re-inforced in ways that would allow him to flank Lee out of his positions and drive him away.

                  There was never a downside. Ever. It was bloody business, but it was reliable. People talk about Lee’s dash and strategic acumen, but doing fancy shit with your army was contraindicated in those days (and still is, really) because it was immensely difficult and deeply prone to failure. Lee was taking huge risks because he had no choice, usually.

                  It wasn’t that Grant was incapable of that sort of thing; the Vicksburg campaign was a jaw-droppingly brilliant battle of maneuver and strategy. But Grant would only fight like that if he had to. In Virginia, he didn’t have to.

                • Holden Pattern

                  Every single time he engaged the Army of Northern Virginia, he knew that one of two things would happen; either he’d win on the field, pushing them from their positions and forcing them further south while inflicting heavy casualties… or he’d win strategically, being repulsed but hurting Lee in ways he couldn’t possibly recover from, and then being re-inforced in ways that would allow him to flank Lee out of his positions and drive him away.

                  How is this radically different from what both rea and I have said? Tactical losses that inflict strategic punishment on the enemy are almost precisely the kind of thing to which I was referring.

                • Murc

                  rea seemed to be intimating that Grant was winning battles through sheer force of will, rather than just being the smartest motherfucker on the battlefield.

                  (I hate it when people start talking about the “will to win.” If wars were won on that basis we’d all be speaking southern-inflected German today.)

                • ploeg

                  Hooker’s issue was that he thought that he had the battle won as soon as he crossed the river. Lee would either withdraw or attack with appalling losses. When Lee did something that Hooker did not expect, that was the end for Hooker. By contrast, when something bad happened to Grant, Grant always coolly looked at the situation and gamed out what the next step should be. You might call it “moral courage,” but “moral courage” is the mark of a good leader, and “moral courage” made Grant a better general than Hooker was (just as Hooker was a better general than McClellan, for example).

              • Bill Murray

                changing commanders every 6 months on average does seem quite frequent

        • firefall

          Its a bit harsh to castigate Meade as one of the incompetents – he did, after all, manage to Not Lose at Gettysburg, which puts him several cuts above the others, if not squarely in the competent camp

          • KLG

            Yeah, but what happened to Lee’s army after Gettysburg? It would not have been easy, but Meade could have ended the whole thing by Bastille Day. And I ask this as one who had several relatives retreating back across the Potomac…

            • rea

              McClellan’s opportunity the day after Antietam was much clearer than Meade’s after Gettysburg.

              • Anderson

                Yeah, without the memory of McClellan post-Antietam, maybe Meade doesn’t get sacked after Gettysburg.

                • Hogan

                  He wasn’t sacked, exactly. They just redrew the org chart around him.

                • John

                  Meade got to remain in command for 8 months after Gettysburg before Grant attached himself to the Army of the Potomac. That’s as long as Burnside and Hooker’s tenures put together. His supersession had to do with his failure to do much of anything in the months after Gettysburg, not really with any alleged failures in the immediate aftermath of the battle.

                • Bill Murray

                  Meade was commander of the AoP until June 1865. He had Grant placed over him as General in chief of all Armies in early 1864 and Grant directed all orders for the AoP through Meade.

              • Richard Welty

                and Meade did pursue, and came within about one day of trapping Lee on the wrong side of the Potomac.
                One Continuous Fight, Wittenberg, Petruzzi & Nugent is an excellent recent treatment of Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg.

  • rea

    Slotkin hints that military leadership really didn’t matter that much in the end.

    Antietam is sure the wrong battle for that argument. McClellan made no attempt to manage the battle at all, and left more troops sitting on the sidelines doing nothing than Lee had in his whole army.

    Like much else in 19th Century America, it was all Pinkerton’s fault. McClellan, as usual, was convinced that he was heavily outnumbered, or pretended to be, when in fact he outnumbered Lee 2-1. Pinkerton acted as McClellan’s head of intelligence, and always got Confederate troops totals grossly wrong–although he told McClellan what he wanted to hear.

    • Slotkin certainly notes this about Pinkerton (he also notes that Pinkerton wasn’t so smart and that Lincoln played him like a violin when McClellan sent Pinkerton for info). But the larger issue stands (and I probably believe in this more strongly than Slotkin)–given the overwhelming advantage the Union had in material and men, could the South have truly defeated the Union on the battlefield? Given the huge difference in quality between Lee and McClellan, I have to think the answer is no.

      • rea

        given the overwhelming advantage the Union had in material and men, could the South have truly defeated the Union on the battlefield? Given the huge difference in quality between Lee and McClellan, I have to think the answer is no.

        My argument would be more that the difference in quality between Lee and McClellan is what kept Antietam from ending with the destruction of Lee’s army.

        As to whether the South could have won the war militarily, given the South’s inferiority in men and material–well, any southern victory would have had to be political, in the sense that the Union would have had to reach the point where an adminsration with the will to continue the war could not remain in office. I’m not sure that any war is ever won purely militarily in the sense you mean.

        And of course, the relative skills of McClellan and Lee are no reason to conclude that the South could NOT defeat the Union.

      • scott

        I’m not really sure that your conclusions add up on whether the North could have been defeated. As you rightly point out, the situation in 1862 was precarious, with a divided Washington and foreign intervention a distinct possibility, along with the gulf in quality between Lee and McClellan. We know that Lee actually fought McClellan to a bloody standstill that appalled the Northern public at the cost, with the benefit of the lost plans. What if he hadn’t had those plans and had that additional weight of uncertainty added to his usual burden of self-paralysis? I don’t think it’s so easy to say that Antitetam would have wound up the same way if McClellan had no way of knowing where Lee was and what to do about it. And remember all this is happening in a very dicey political context. What if Lee defeats McCellan, perhaps not decisively, and McClellan limps back to the DC defenses? How do we think Washington and the North would have reacted to that? France and Britain? Would the Proclamation have been issued? Events are fluid and create their own dynamics and momentum. The odds were on the North’s side in the long run, but that was the point – Lee and Dvais wanted to get a victory and stun the Northern political class into a negotiated peace. Do we really think that absent the loss of the plans that it couldn’t have happened that way? A year later, the AOP came within an eyelash of having their flank fatally turned at Little Round Top, saved by a bunch of guys from the 20th Maine throwing the dice on a final counter-attack with bayonets because they didn’t have any bullets. I think Lincoln and Meade and Grant (wondering for a year how the hell he was going to get at Vicksburg) were way less sanguine about the oods of defeat than we apparently are.

        • WhatDragon

          I don’t think the fact that McClellan had Lee’s plans mattered on a strategic-political level.

          McClellan only had to shadow Lee and preserve his command.

          Lee wasn’t going to be able to destroy McClellan’s command in a manner that would allow Lee to march on Washington. Consequently, any movement by Lee back towards the South and upon his communications after any battle would look like a Northern “victory”.

          Which is almost what happened.

          • rea

            By the time of Antietam, Lee had reunited his army, the “lost plans” were obsolete, and whatever chance there had been to take advantage of them was long gone.

            • Bill Murray

              yes. South Mountain was the battle caused by the lost plans. Fast action immediately after South Mountain might have allowed attacks on the divided Confederate forces.

              My favorite comment on South Mountain — at Crampton’s gap where 12,000 union troops took on about 500 confederates, the union forces were equated to a “lion making exceedingly careful preparations to spring on a plucky little mouse.” Although the Union likely thought they were facing much larger numbers because of the Pinkertons

            • ploeg

              If McClellan didn’t have the “lost plans”, Lee would likely have been wandering around Maryland and southern Pennsylvania for the better part of a month, gathering up the harvest and sending it south. In the meantime, McClellan would have been pestering Lincoln for 250,000 men to fight the 200,000 men that Lee had. The “lost plans” were the reason why McClellan was at South Mountain and Sharpsburg in the first place.

              Also, Lee did not completely reunite his army until A.P. Hill (about 6% of Lee’s army) arrived from Harpers Ferry in the mid-afternoon.

              • Richard Welty

                i disagree; the lost order is overrated. McClellan was already doing more or less the right thing when the order was found – he was pursuing Lee, and much closer to Lee than Lee realized. if McClellan had never received a copy of the lost order, and just kept on doing what he was already doing, things might not have been very different.

        • John

          Was the 20th Maine thing actually important, or is it just something that was basically elevated into a crucial moment by a novelist (and then Ken Burns)?

          • rea

            Well, the 20th Maine and Chamberlain weren’t just elevated from obscurity by the Shaara novel and the resulting movie–the story was well-known during and after the war.

            And yes, they probably did really save the day.

            • ploeg

              The guides at Gettysburg said that the 140th New York did similar work with their charge. And then there’s the 1st Minnesota elsewhere on the battlefield. Lots of day saving that day.

      • Bloix

        The South’s war aims didn’t require the defeat of the Union on the battlefield. They didn’t have to win – they just had to not lose until a majority of Northern voters lost interest. The North’s war aims did require defeat of the South. McClellan never accepted this. He believed that the Confederacy could in time be induced to rejoin the Union, which is perhaps why he fought the war as a series of delaying actions.

    • Hogan

      Which would seem to mean it wasn’t all Pinkerton’s fault. If he hadn’t told McClellan what McClellan wanted to hear, Pinkerton wouldn’t have had the job in the first place.

      Pinkerton certainly wasn’t the last intelligence officer whose business model put the customer’s desires ahead of reality.

      • LMAO. You could say he was a precursor to the cold war CIA shop all by himself. Or just born too soon to be Dick Cheney’s intel guy on everything. There’s no documented evidence he identified a gatling gun gap, but I have my suspicions.

        • Hogan

          Heh. One of my favorite bits in C.J. Chivers’s The Gun is the two times Gatling guns were used during the Civil War: once by Ben Butler near Petersburg, and once by the New York Times during the draft riots, to persuade some of the rioters to go away and bother the New York Tribune some more.

  • howard

    there were a number of great things about being a student at wesleyan in the early ’70s, but among the greatest was being a student of slotkin’s as he was developoing the material that became “regeneration through violence.” not only did we get to work through the readings in class, but slotkin had university readings of several of the chapters in progress.

    i of course stayed with him through the 3 volumes, but i haven’t kept up since, but it’s no surprise to me that his current work would have such a powerful influence on erik’s thinking.

    • Wow, those must have been some interesting classes.

      • howard

        i’m not going to get carried away with autobiography here, but i was accepted to do joint master’s work in history and cultural anthropology at the u of chicago before i decided against an academic career, and slotkin’s inspiration was what got me that close….

      • howard

        erik, i have a few more minutes, so since i suspect you’re interested, let me expand a touch….

        obviously, the stuff that’s in regeneration through violence is fairly commonplace today, but the thrill of seeing someone completely in command of the source material bringing alive the consistencies of popular american entertainment genres from mary rowlandson to raymond chandler without any established texts to guide the way remains vivid in memory today, four decades later.

  • JMG

    I too was a student of Slotkin’s during the late ’60s and early ’70s. One of his classes featured weekly exhibitions alternating gangster and cowboy movies. He was an excellent teacher as well as a distinguished scholar. His Civil War fiction isn’t bad, either.

    • howard

      jmg, tovarich, who knew? (i was class of ’74, to be precise.)

      and yes, i should have said that slotkin was an excellent teacher and the idea that someone could be as well read as he was in american popular and genre fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries seemed inconceivable to me.

      • howard

        i should note that i did a paper for slotkin on the relief pitcher as mythic hero, foreshadowing the future existence of mariano rivera, and just to bring it all back home, i first knew how good rivera was on july 4, 1995, when he threw 8 2-hit shutout innings (11 ks) against the white sox:


  • DocAmazing

    The Douglas MacArthur of his day?

    • Hogan

      In style terms, definitely. The bombast, the concern for appearance, and also the unwillingness to accept civilian supremacy. Very post-Napoleonic, or possibly sub-Napoleonic. Grant and Eisenhower are a much better model of a modern major general for a democracy.

      • rea

        Napoleonic, but Napoleon III

        • jefft452


        • ploeg

          But McClellan would NOT be a dictator!

    • JohnR

      Yeah, except that MacArthur knew how to handle an army, not just make it look all pretty. Armies exist to fight. McClellan never got the hang of that. He might have made a decent CoS under somebody really strong-willed, like Grant or Sherman (although more likely he would have intrigued himself into retirement or a backwater promotion).

  • wengler

    I would like to know more about the reasons behind the Northern campaigns by the Confederates. Strategically they were an absolute disaster, but I wonder why they wanted to go North so badly.

    In my opinion, culturally and institutionally the South was ill-fitted to fight a war against a first-rate power. They were a provincial country based on slave labor. They had a problem with their economy simply walking away when they went to the front, and most importantly they were run politically and militarily by people who thought the offensive was the only way to win a war.

    The Union had the leadership, it just took them awhile to get the generals from the west on top of the totem pole.

    • rea

      The most obvious, and most compelling, reason was to feed the army on Maryland and Pennsylvanian food rather than Virginian food.

      There wass also the hope that a victory in the north, or the capture of a major northern city, would have significant political benefits.

      • squirrel

        That’s straight out of Lee’s autobiography, btw.

        • JohnR

          You lost me.[/Tech Sgt Chen]

          I’m not sure what your point is here – are you implying that Lee had some other (unstated, but presumably nefarious and immoral) motivation? Seems to me those two reasons are (a) reasonable, (b) consistent both with the conduct of operations of the AoNV under Lee and Lee’s history as a military commander, and (c) indicated at the time.

    • Bloix

      Wengler, on your first point, see my comment up-threat at 3:01 pm.

      On your second point, Southerners genuinely didn’t understand why Northerners would fight to maintain the Union. And many Northerners didn’t understand it either. The election of 1862 was a disaster for the Republican party, and most Northern voters had given up on the war by the summer of 1864. Lincoln would certainly have lost to McClellan in November 1864 if the victories at Mobile Bay in August and Atlanta in September had not shown that the end of the war was in sight.

      August to November – three months. That’s what made the difference between Southern victory and Southern defeat. If the South had managed to avoid any major defeats until the election, it would have won the war.

    • ploeg

      In 1862, Lee also hoped to “liberate” Maryland and recruit for his army. In the event, Lee picked the wrong area of Maryland to invade, and the locals were not supportive.

      There was also friction with those in the army who signed up for a war to defend Virginia and who were not willing to invade a state that did not properly secede and join the Confederacy. These sorts of challenges to central authority would also hamstring the Confederacy (Governor Joe Brown of Georgia tried to stop Georgia troops from leaving the state to fight at Bull Run, for example).

  • Edward Furey

    Isn’t there some evidence that his own army was losing faith in McClellan? The Seven Days battles that saw the emergence of Lee were actually a series of Union victories, unackowleged by McClellan, who treated them as defeats. The junior officers who won at Malvern Hill actually couldn’t believe the orders to fall back after the punishment they’d meted out to the rebels.

    Disaffected junior officers are unlikely to follow a Man On Horseback who has led them badly. They may have felt, with Lincoln, that only successful generals can become dictators; they wanted victories and would only risk a dictatorship when battles had been won.

    • John F

      McClellan’s correspondence to Lincoln during the Penninsular Campaign were so hysterical (and not in the funny sense) that the only reason he was not removed on mental health grounds was that much of the stuff was intercepted by military censors before it reached Lincoln…

      The campaign was perhaps far and away McClellan’s best idea- but once he’d actually transported his army down behind Lee’s rear in “enemy territory” he became absurdly/irrationally terrified that his army was on the verge of being encircled and destroyed… so Lee attacked- and kept attacking – he kept attacking despite taking heavier casualties than McClellan- because each time he attacked McClellan retreated further away from Richmond…

      Lee had to have been wondering if he was being pulled into a trap…

    • ploeg

      Lee had a strategic victory against McClellan before any fighting began because 1) McClellan allowed Lee to send for Jackson and 2) McClellan allowed Lee to concentrate most of his army against V Corps north of the Chickahominy River, which threatened McClellan’s supply line. McClellan might have “won” the subsequent battles tactically, but the fact that Lee forced McClellan to change his supply base to the James River meant that McClellan had no credible threat to counter any of Lee’s subsequent moves. It doesn’t mean much to win a victory over Lee at Malvern Hill (for example) if that means that your back is still against the James River and that you still are poorly positioned to go on the counteroffensive against Lee.

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