In a small Maryland field flanked by the Potomac River and Antietam Creek, more than 6,000 soldiers died on the bloodiest day in American history: September 17, 1862, a pivotal historical moment that McPherson revisits in his latest book.
At Antietam, the possibilities for the future of the Union diverged like paths at a crossroads. Much more than lives were at stake—both sides were fighting for their definition of freedom.
Antietam marked the crossing of Confederate troops into Union territory. If the Southern army carried the day in Maryland, Washington would be the next to fall. President Lincoln needed a victory to maintain Republican control of Congress and as an occasion to deliver the Emancipation Proclamation, which would transform the Civil War into a moral crusade against slavery. For the Union, Antietam was that much-needed victory.
McPherson, a Princeton history professor who won a Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom, has written an elegant, thorough, and highly readable account that brings to life Antietam’s players and places—the West Woods, Bloody Lane, Dunkard Church. Union General George McClellan was the “perfectionist in a profession where nothing could ever be perfect.” Confederate General Robert E. Lee was “the greatest risk-taker of all,” a man who at Antietam tried to whip an army more than twice the size of his own—and nearly succeeded.
The book also functions as a reality check in a country again on the brink of conflict. It reminds us of the costs of war while putting our own bloody September day in perspective.
James M. McPherson
xford University Press