Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Antietam. . .A Tactical Draw?

It's a question I get asked a lot at Antietam. "So, no one really won this battle?" It's no surprise that this question is asked frequently. After all, it is the common interpretation of the battle: Somehow, with an army half that as his opponent, General Lee was able to fight McClellan to a bloody stalemate...a Tactical Standstill. Even our 26-minute movie, Lincoln's Antietam Visit, makes it clear that the battle was a tactical stalemate, but a strategic Union victory. This view is backed up the majority of the time with the claim that Lee held his position throughout September 18, 1862, the day following the battle.
Well, let's take a look at the basics of the campaign: Lee launches an invasion onto U.S. soil. His invasion is checked and ultimately turned back at Antietam, where he loses 1/4, or 25% of his troops. After holding his line the following day, Lee reluctantly recrosses the Potomac and heads south, back into Virginia. His campaign, his invasion, lasted just two weeks and his objectives for the campaign were simply not met. President Lincoln is glad to hear of the victory but is frustrated by the fact that his commander, George McClellan, did not pursue Lee, allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to get safely back to Virginia.
This was September 1862. Let's fast forward to June and July 1863: Lee launches an invasion onto U.S. soil. His invasion is checked and ultimately turned back at Gettysburg, where he loses 1/4, or 25% of his troops. After holding his line the day following the battle, Lee reluctantly leads his army south, recrosses the Potomac back into Virginia. His invasion this time lasted six weeks, but again his objectives for the campaign were not met. President Lincoln is glad to hear of the victory, but is frustrated by the fact that his commander, this time George Meade, did not pursue Lee, allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to get safely back to Virginia.
That Gettysburg was a resounding Union victory is seldom denied. But to state that Antietam was a resounding Union victory raises many an eyebrow.
What I am trying to say is that if Antietam is viewed as a tactical draw, but a strategic Union victory, then so too was Gettysburg. Conversely, if Gettysburg was a resounding Union victory, then so too was Antietam.
It's a funny thing. . .how the American Civil War is remembered.
It is my job to remain objective when viewing the events of the past, and, believe me, although I am employed as a Ranger at the Antietam battlefield, I am not biased one way or the other when I say that Antietam was a far, far more significant victory to the U.S. war effort than was Gettysburg. The social, political, and diplomatic consequences of the battle of Antietam, all neatly tied together with President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, profoundly changed the nature of the Civil War and averted foreign intervention. For my money, it was not at Gettysburg where the United States of America received its "new birth of freedom." It was, instead, at Antietam.

1 comment:

Cory Newby said...

John,

I read with interest your position post that Antietam could only be considered a Union tactical victory much as Gettysburg is accepted to be. But your reasons, save the Confederates maintenance of their position on the field, are strictly strategic.

However, consider:

At Gettysburg, the Union army held the dominant position on the field with the benefit of interior lines. Lee threw Longstreet's corps against Union left and then the center on July 2nd and 3rd to have them repulsed. Lee's failure to take the Union position, particularly with Pickett's charge, is the predominant characteristic of his defeat.

At Antietam, let's ignore the invasion of Maryland for a moment as that is a strategic consideration. On the field of Antietam, Lee held the dominant ground with the benefit of interior lines. McClellan threw the Corps of Hooker, Mansfield, Sumner and Burnside against Lee. While there was certainly ground lost and gained (much as there was Gettysburg), at battle's end, McClellan failed to sustain any breakthrough in Lee's lines.

Lee held the field and his line against McClellan as Meade did against Lee ten months later. In both cases one army achieved the better ground and awaited the attack from the enemy. In both cases, the attacking army achieved some successes, but was ultimately repulsed and was forced back to their original lines held at the start of battle.

Why would the same standard of defeat not apply to McClellan?


From a strictly tactical perspective, it is difficult to see how a result prescribed to the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg does not apply to the Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam.

Very Respectfully,

Cory Newby
AntietamPhotography.com