command style lessened the direct possibilities of disaster, it was still a considerable gamble for Lee to risk one of the Confederacy's principal armies on his reading of McClellan's character. Lee had done well enough with taking the war into Maryland after the Second Manassas Campaign and capturing Harper's Ferry. There may have been political reasons for risking a major engagement, but with its back to the Potomac River the Army of Northern Virginia faced the very real prospect of annihilation at Antietam. A more audacious Federal commander, with more attention to timing and command control than McClellan demonstrated, would have accomplished just that.
The counter argument may be that Lee knew his opponent, and that is certainly one of the marks of a great commander. Nevertheless, Robert E. Lee's fundamentally aggressive nature would cause the South further difficulties in Pennsylvania the following year during the Gettysburg Campaign and during subsequent operations in the autumn of 1863. The basic fact remains that Robert E. Lee fought a masterly defensive battle at Antietam with limited resources. He shifted his available reserves at the proper moment and gave everyone present throughout the day of 17 September the very clear impression that Robert E. Lee was in complete control of his army and of the battlefield. However, it was still very much, as Wellington remarked regard ing Waterloo, a very near run thing, and final disaster was only averted by the fortuitous arrival of A. P. Hill's division from Harper's Ferry.
George McClellan has been severely criticized by his contemporaries and by historians for the slowness of his strategic movements and for his customary battlefield caution. McClellan's mission before 13 September was to keep the Army of the Potomac between Lee's army and Washington - his primary task was the defence of the Federal capital. The capture of Special Order 191 altered the situation considerably, and McClellan was presented with the chance to destroy Lee's formations one at a time if he moved swiftly. He ought to have ordered a night movement on the evening of 13 September, and as commander-in-chief he should have personally made certain that aggressive pursuit took place on the following day, after the engagements of South Mountain and Crampton's Gap had been fought. Not only was the pursuit dilatory, but Franklin's VI Corps was left slightly beyond Crampton's Gap virtually without orders until early on 17 September. McClellan wasted a further day, 16 September, in and around the Antietam position. He should have attacked directly with whatever forces were immediately at hand. If not all the Army of the Potomac was yet on the field, and even if his unit commanders were unfamiliar with the terrain, the same could be said of conditions prevalent at
A After the battle, a Confederate surgeon, centre, shakes hands with a Federal counterpart near the Drunke Church, as both sides take care of the wounded.
that moment in Lee's command. 'The mud', Napoleon remarked, 'is the same for everyone.' The opportunity was still available on 16 September to destroy elements of the Army of Northern Virginia, but McClellan failed to take advantage of it.
McClellan created a textbook tactical plan for the Antietam engagement. It was an operational conception that relied upon careful timing and close supervision. The uncoordinated nature of the assaults of I, XII and II Corps and the unconscionable delay in the advance of IX Corps have already been discussed — still, it very nearly worked. The Army of the Potomac fought extremely well between regimental and brigade level, but higher command control was lacking. The deficiency originated at the very top. McClellan remained on the eastern side of Antietam Creek through the majority of the battle, allowing his corps leaders to fight virtually their own separate engagements. He failed to supervise adequately the entirety of the Army of the Potomac. In the final analysis, however, it was the Confederate army that only escaped complete defeat by a narrow margin, and it was Lee's army that was retreating into Virginia by 19 September. McClellan had saved Washington and driven the invading rebels back south. That is one issue. The failure of the Army of the Potomac to destroy the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia totally is quite another. 'I feel that I have done all that can be asked', wrote McClellan to his wife on 20 September, 'in twice saving the country.'
The Battle of Antietam and Federal progress in halting the Confederate invasion of Kentucky that culminated at Perryville contributed in a dramatic fashion to altering the fundamental nature of the American Civil War. It became not only a conflict to preserve the Union but also a struggle to end the institution of Negro slavery in America. The destruction of the 'peculiar institution' had assumed the status of a moral crusade for many in the years before the War, although it is important to remember that in the nineteenth century it would not have been considered inconsistent to condemn the institution of slavery on moral grounds yet still have no interest in basic civil and social rights for the Black population as individuals. The Republican Party had argued for the elimination of slavery in Federal territories since 1856.
The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 instigated the American Civil War. The course of the conflict would not only retain the Republic, but it would also ultimately destroy slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation issued soon after the battle of Antietam was not without precedent. The Lincoln administration declared slavery illegal in the territories on 19 June 1862. In the spring of 1862, Lincoln informed Congressmen of the loyal slave-owning border states that he was considering emancipation,
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