By Richard Slotkin
September 17, 1862 was the bloodiest day in American history. Well into the second year of the American Civil War the blue-clad Union Army of the Potomac clashed with the gray and butternut clothed Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and by the day’s end nearly 23,000 Americans lay dead, wounded, were prisoners of war, or missing. Tactically the battle ended as a stalemate, but General Robert E. Lee’s decision to withdraw his troops from the field of battle, gave the strategic victory to the Union’s commander, Major-General George B. McClellan. It was with this slim margin of victory that Abraham Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and changed the direction of the war from a restrained war against an opposing army to a war not only on the armies of the South, but also on its society and economy.
Richard Slotkin, an emeritus professor at Wesleyan University, cover’s this shift in Lincoln’s war policy in his book, “The Long Road To Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution.” In it he details the war from its beginning stages until McClellan’s removal as Commander of the Army of the Potomac. Contrasting the difficult and often antagonistic relationship between Lincoln and McClellan against that of the cooperative one of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, while weaving the political, social and economic motives of both sides Professor Slotkin has set them against the backdrop of the Battle of Antietam, and by doing so gives his readers a nearly panoramic narrative of but a small segment of the war.
When historians write about George B. McClellan, they generally fall into two camps, those who think McClellan was a paranoid and scheming buffoon, and those who think that he did the best with what he had. Slotkin, clearly falls into the former, and more populous, group rather than the latter. Be that as it may, McClellan certainly gives his critics more than enough ammunition to fire at him, and thus his the wounding of his historical persona is somewhat self-inflicted.
In searching through Slotkin’s end notes, his book is largely based on secondary sources. Though doing some internet searches of quotes within the text of his book leads one easily to their original primary source materials. One must wonder why Mr. Slotkin chose not to rely more on primary sources. His heavy use of secondary sources, may have negatively impacted his view of the Lincoln-McClellan relationship, and McClellan, the man himself.
I would heartily recommend “The Long Road to Antietam” to anyone interested in the American Civil War. Over all the book is well written and informative, though the narrative is considerably slowed by the blow by blow account of the Battle of Antietam. Professor Slotkin’s research stands on somewhat shaky ground where primary sources are concerned. Nonetheless Richard Slotkin, makes his case as to why Antietam and the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation should be considered a turning point in the Civil War, but calling it a “revolution” falls a little flat
ISBN 978-0871404114, Liveright, © 2012, Hardcover, 512 pages, Photographs, 8 Maps, 10 Illustrations, Chronology, Antietam Order of Battle, Endnotes, Selected Bibliography & Index. $32.95. To purchase this book click HERE.