Decisive Battles: The Battle of Antietam (1862)

At long last, the grey-clad rebels have invaded the North. This Union soldier, hailing from Pennsylvania, had no great love for the Abolitionists and had serious doubts about this war he felt they caused. However, secession was treason, and now the North itself was under threat. That fact made itself clear as he watched his comrades getting shot to pieces in that dreaded cornfield, their blood and body parts flying around, blowing through its golden hedges in a crimson whirlwind. Soon, it would be his turn. Would this day bring about his death? Would it at least help to save his young nation?

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The Background

The American Civil War. If there was one event that defined the country more profoundly than anything else but the Revolution, this was it. To the extent that the United States of America has gone on to lead and define the world (for better or worse) in the century and a half since its civil war, this internal conflict is of paramount interest. The stakes were enormous. On one side stood the Union, representing the constitutionally endowed government of the United States. On the other were the breakaway 11 states that formed the Confederate States of America, which fought to preserve the institution of slavery under their logic of a state’s unilateral right to secede from the Union. Unbeknownst to the combatants that day, slavery would become central to Antietam, too. If the Civil War defined the United States and altered the nation’s path forever, then this battle defined and altered “the peculiar institution” in the same fashion.

The origins of the American Civil War are long and complex. Arguably, the conflict took root with the first permanent European settlements in the 17th century. The warmer South was amenable to cash crops, whereas the North was not, and thus required a more varied economy. Prior to 1860, there were numerous incidents which saw the several states openly challenge or defy the supremacy of the federal government. The Northeast had threatened to secede during the War of 1812. South Carolina had threatened to unilaterally “nullify” federal law during the Jackson Presidency, and most curiously, upon ratification of the Constitution of the United States, Rhode Island and New York made explicit mention that if it found being part of the Union unsatisfactory, they could secede.[i]

As the 19th century continued, this question became more and more important as sectional differences magnified. At the same time as the moral outrage over slavery was growing in the North, the economic dependence of the South on the institution also grew, along with the economic well-being of a Europe depending on American cotton exports. In 1800, the amount of cotton exports from U.S. ports was 42,000 bales, amounting to a value of $5,000,000. In 1850, those numbers had multiplied to a total of 1,854,000 bales valued at $71,985,000. In 2011 terms, that is an increase from $65,099,708.72 to $1,917,028,124.93, not adjusting for the deflation between 1800 and 1850. Cotton’s share amongst all U.S. exports had likewise increased from 15.70% in 1800 to 35.66% in 1850.[ii] The agrarian, slave-dependent south had thus in 50 years grown more agrarian and more slave-dependent.

The North, in the meantime, had shifted its economy dramatically, and had fully thrust itself into the Industrial Revolution. In the same period as King Cotton ruled the South, the number of factories in the North exploded. Less dependent on agriculture, it is not surprising that Northerners’ ire against slavery increased as the century continued. During the Revolution, slavery was legal in every state. This began to change even as the shots were being fired. When the Civil War broke out, all but four of the states where slavery was legal fought for the Confederacy, while all of the free states fought for the Union. The abundant factories in the North also attracted immigrants, so that by 1860, the Northern population outnumbered the South by more than two-to-one. Further adding to the South’s numerical inferiority was the fact that one-third of its population were slaves, meaning the numerical edge was actually more than three-to-one. Once the Northern economy and population became dead-set on slavery, this dynamic created a vicious feedback loop. The logic was simple – the North would swamp the South in the House of Representatives over time. To prevent Southern interests from being completely overwhelmed in Washington, the South would need to maintain parity in the Senate, and the only way this was possible was for slavery to expand west.[iii] Thus, the South needed to expand the institution the North was adamant about containing. By the middle of the century, it was an irreconcilable difference that grew hotter and hotter with each passing year.

The election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency was the spark that lit the powder keg. For too long, the South stood by as protective tariffs favored Northern industry at the expense of the South. Now it seemed to them that with this election, the Yankee North was determined to completely destroy the South’s economy and very culture itself. The fact that Lincoln had run on a platform of not abolition, but of merely preventing the spread of slavery, was immaterial. We have just seen how this was no grounds for Southern ease or compromise. Many in the South had seen secession coming anyway and felt that now was the time. Remaining within the Union no longer served the interests of its constituent states and it was thus time to leave. After all, had the states not entered into the federal compact voluntarily to serve their own interests? Surely, those states which had formed the compact could leave if it was no longer desirable. As Jefferson Davis remarks:

We have seen that a number of “sovereign, free, and independent” States, during the war of the Revolution, entered into a partnership with one another, which was not only unlimited in duration, but expressly declared to be a “perpetual union.” Yet, when that Union failed to accomplish the purposes for which it was formed, the parties withdrew, separately and independently, one after another, without any question made of their right to do so, and formed a new association. One of the declared objects of this new partnership was to form “a more perfect union.” This certainly did not mean more perfect in respect of duration; for the former union had been declared perpetual, and perpetuity admits of no addition. It did not mean that it was to be more indissoluble; for the delegates of the States, in ratifying the former compact of union, had expressed themselves in terms that could scarcely be made more stringent.

The formation of a “more perfect union” was accomplished by the organization of a government more complete in its various branches, legislative, executive, and judicial, and by the delegation to this Government of certain additional powers or functions which had previously been exercised by the Governments of the respective States—especially in providing the means of operating directly upon individuals for the enforcement of its legitimately delegated authority. There was no abandonment nor modification of the essential principle of a compact between sovereigns, which applied to the one case as fully as to the other. There was not the slightest intimation of so radical a revolution as the surrender of the sovereignty of the contracting parties would have been. The additional powers conferred upon the Federal Government by the Constitution were merely transfers of some of those possessed by the State governments—not subtractions from the reserved and inalienable sovereignty of the political communities which conferred them. It was merely the institution of a new agent who, however enlarged his powers might be, would still remain subordinate and responsible to the source from which they were derived—that of the sovereign people of each State. It was an amended Union, not a consolidation.[iv]

The people in the North did not feel the same way. If a state could unilaterally secede from the Union, the Constitution of the United States would not be, as it declares itself, “the supreme law of the land.” This sentiment later expressed into law in Texas v. White:

When, therefore, Texas became one of the United States, she entered into an indissoluble relation. All the obligations of perpetual union, and all the guaranties of republican government in the Union, attached at once to the State. The act which consummated her admission into the Union was something more than a compact; it was the incorporation of a new member into the political body. And it was final. The union between Texas and the other States was as complete, as perpetual, and as indissoluble as the union between the original States. There was no place for reconsideration, or revocation, except through revolution, or through consent of the States.[v]

It is striking how radically different these two documents are. Perhaps war was truly the only way that this question could have been settled. Spurred as it was by sectional differences, the logic of secession made war inevitable.

The South, for its part, was realistic in its war aims as well. It knew that it was vastly outnumbered and could not compete with Northern industry. Conquest of the North was neither achievable nor desirable. Its hopes for securing its independence rested on two main factors: first, it would outfight the Union armies when they met on the field of battle. With mounting losses, the North would eventually grow tired of the fight and come to realize that keeping the South in the Union wasn’t worth the cost in blood and treasure. As the war’s first two years progressed, this aim at least looked feasible, when considering Confederate performance in the eastern theater of the conflict, where most of the world’s attention was focused. The Confederates defeated the Union at First Bull Run, the Battle of McDowell, Front Royal, First Winchester (whereby Stonewall Jackson proved his worth on the battlefield), and a series called the Seven Days Battles, where Robert E. Lee defeated McClellan and relieved Richmond. It was during this time that the better Southern soldiers and officers were showing the Yankees what they were made of.

Civil War Map 1862

The second goal of the Confederacy was to obtain foreign recognition, and perhaps even intervention on its behalf. This also seemed doable because of how dependent the European textile industry was on cotton imports from the American South, Britain in particular. Britain declared its neutrality in the conflict in response to the Union blockade of southern ports during May of 1861, thus implicitly recognizing the South as a belligerent party rather than a group of internal rebels. The government in Washington was deeply angered.[i]

The upper class in Britain tended to favor the South. The poor and middle class on the other hand, were almost to a man against slavery.[ii] Throughout 1862, Queen Victoria’s Government, led by Prime Minister Lord John Palmerston, sat on the fence. The Trent Affair of 1861, where a Union ship seized a British ship with two Confederate ministers on board, had ended peacefully. 1862 though, consisted of Palmerston’s wishes to act as a mediator between the warring parties. This may have led to an outcome favorable to the South and may even have brought Britain into the war:

This serious and definite determination by the North to resent any intervention by Europe makes evident that Seward and Lincoln were fully committed to forcible resistance of foreign meddling. Briefly, if the need arose, the North would go to war with Europe.[iii]

Palmerston and his Foreign Minister Lord Russell were eager to get involved if the opportunity presented itself. The successes of Stonewall Jackson were weighing on them. Palmerston wrote:

The Federals … got a very complete smashing … even Washington or Baltimore may fall into the hands of the Confederates.

If this should happen, would it not be time for us to consider whether in such a state of things England and France might not address the contending parties and recommend an arrangement upon the basis of separation?

Russell replied:

I agree with you that the time is come for offering mediation to the United States Government, with a view to the recognition of the independence of the Confederates. I agree further that, in case of failure, we ought ourselves to recognize the Southern States as an independent State. For the purpose of taking so important a step, I think we must have a meeting, of the Cabinet. The 23rd or 30th would suit me for the meeting.[iv]

Thus it was all-important to keep Britain and other foreign powers out of the conflict. Even without direct intervention, mediation would have only played into the South’s hands. The campaign of 1862 in the eastern theater had not gone well for the Union. McClellan, who had so expertly organized the Army of the Potomac and revealed some ambitious plans for the capture of Richmond to Lincoln earlier in the year ,was proving a disastrously ineffective field commander. Lincoln would later describe him as having “a case of the slows.”

The failure of the Peninsular Campaign, which ended with McClellan’s defeat at the Seven Days Battles, emboldened the South. Throughout the entirety of the campaign, McClellan showed a generalship that was absurdly cautious. Despite all evidence to the contrary, including what should have been by that time simple common sense, McClellan believed that his army was outnumbered by the Confederates. The result was a slow and indecisive series of maneuvers and battles that became for the most part, defeats at the hands of superior generals such as Jackson. The campaign had also brought another talented general to the fore.

Before the Peninsular Campaign, Robert E. Lee was serving in an administrative role. He was defeated at The Battle of Cheat Mountain in September 1861 and had been deprived of a field command since then. However, after General Joseph E. Johnston was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines, Lee was appointed to command the Army of Northern Virginia at the beginning of June, 1862. He was an aggressive soldier and his bold moves were just the antidote to McClellan’s cautious advances. Within weeks, Lee had caused McClellan to end his Peninsular Campaign. Where Union forces had once been only a few miles outside Richmond, they were now in retreat.

With the Union offensive in the eastern theater summarily repulsed, Lee would now move on to a Confederate offensive. After defeating General John Pope at the Second Battle of Bull Run on August 28th-30th, and with Palmerston and Russell watching closely from across the Pond, Lee now endeavored to undertake his invasion of the North.

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Battle of Antietam cornfield
The infamous cornfield at the Battle of Antietam. See how the carnage and its consequences unfolded by clicking the image!

Chapter Bibliography:

[i] United States Department of State, “Preventing Diplomatic Recognition of the Confederacy.” Accessed February 27th, 2021.

[ii] Mitchell, 249.

[iii] Ephraim Douglass Adams. Great Britian and the American Civil War. Chapter XI. Russell and Russell. 1958. New York, NY.

[iv] Ibid.

[i] Davis, Jefferson. The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. D. Appleton & Co. Page 173. New York, NY. 1881.

[ii] See the Federal Reserve Bulletin of May 1923.

[iii] Mitchell, Joseph, B. Twenty Decisive Battles of the World. Konecky and Konecky. Page 245. Old Saybrook, CT. 1964.

[iv] Davis, 169.

[v] Texas v. White, 74 U.S. 700 (1869).,14 (accessed February 27th, 2021)

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