Crossroads Of Freedom: Antietam: The Battle That Changed The Course Of The Civil War, by James M. McPherson
Readers familiar with James McPherson as a military historian  are aware of the fact that there are at least two different sorts of works that he delivers as a historian–either short and incisive essays based largely on his prolific reading or longer narrative works. This book is of the length of his short books, with about 150 pages or so of material and a lot of endnotes and a lengthy bibliography, and it demonstrates how McPherson is a compelling narrative historian even where he is writing what amounts to an extended essay. I have yet to read a book by this historian that I have failed to enjoy and appreciate, and this book is no exception to the rule. To be sure, viewing the battle of Antietam as a turning point in the Civil War is no great and daring claim to make, but the historian not only makes a familiar claim but manages to do a good job of supporting it with context that makes sense of his claims and that puts the events on the battlefield in a broader picture that includes political and diplomatic concerns.
The roughly 150 pages of this short book are taken up in just five chapters. After introducing in media res, or even towards the end with a discussion of the immense death toll as a result of the battle of Antietam, and then looks at the course of the war during 1861 and the early part of 1862. After this there is a chapter on the efforts by Union leaders (including Lincoln) to take the kid gloves off while other generals like McClellan and his coterie continued to be “soft” on the rebels. The third chapter examines the turn of the tide towards the rebels with the twin invasions of Kentucky and Maryland and the stalling of Union efforts against Vicksburg. The fourth chapter examines the battle itself, taking roughly 35 pages to do so, and then the final chapter looks at Antietam as the beginning of the end largely because of two reasons: the continued Republican majority in the House of Representatives and the dampening of European interest in recognizing the Confederacy. And it was those two factors that ultimately led to Yankee victory, since the rebels could not win so long as the political will of the North, expressed through Republican leadership, and the lack of interest among European powers in provoking war with the Union to support treacherous losers in the South, combined to force the South to fight from its own limited logistical base.
To be sure, this book is not earth-shattering, but not every book needs to be. This book puts a sound discussion of military history into a perspective that looks at the political and diplomatic ramifications of actions, and that alone makes it a worthwhile military history as it answers larger questions about the interaction between military tactics and strategy and the larger aims for which wars are fought. Given that the consequences of Antietam included the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the death sentence of slavery in the United States, Antietam deserves to be viewed as an immensely important battle, perhaps the most important single battle of the Civil War and certainly one of a few vital pivot points on which Northern victory ultimately depended. This book is, moreover, not merely a standalone book but part of a series published by Oxford University Press on pivotal moments in American History as a whole, a worthy subject for a series of books. This book is short enough, pointed enough, and deep enough that it certainly makes the rest of the series worth checking out should the occasion arise. Any book that makes me want to read more books is good enough for my approval.
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