McPherson, James M. Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, The Battle That Changed the
Course of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
James M. McPherson brilliantly covers the single, bloodiest day in American history with Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War. This book is a part of the series, Pivotal Moments in American History, which deals with problems of historical contingency. McPherson walks the reader through the period prior to Antietam, when Union naval and military victories early in 1862 almost permanently crippled the Confederacy but “Southern counteroffensives in the summer turned the war around.” (p. 8) This was the turning point of the American Civil War.
McPherson shows the chain of events that happened before and after Antietam. Before this battle, the North was divided on the emancipation issue politically, in the public, and among the troops. Crossroads of Freedom follows the unmistakable path that led Abraham Lincoln to write the Emancipation Proclamation. Freeing slaves was not the objective when Lincoln took office, restoring the union was his focus. McPherson makes a valid case of why the Maryland Campaign of 1862 was so important and pivotal to the war.
No novice to American history and the American Civil War, author James M. McPherson has been writing and teaching since the 1960s. Born in North Dakota, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts at Gustavus Adolphus College Minnesota and received his Ph.D. at John Hopkins University. Currently, McPherson is Professor Emeritus of United States History at Princeton University. In 2001, McPherson was named Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in 2007 he was the first to be awarded the $100,000 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for lifetime achievement in military history.
He is also known for his forthright activism on behalf of the preservation of Civil War battlefields and has served on the board of the Civil War Trust. In 2009, he boldly petitioned President Obama to not place a wreath on the Confederate Monument Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, stating that it made heroes of the Confederates while implying that the humanity of Africans and African Americans held no significance. Obama chose to place the presidential wreath despite the protest much to Sons of Confederate Veteran’s pleasure.
McPherson has won numerous awards including the Anisfield-Wolf Award for The Struggle for Equality, Battle Cry of Freedom, his most famous work, won the Pulitzer, For Cause and Comrades, he received the Lincoln Prize, and he was the co-winner of the Lincoln prize for Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief.
In the first chapter McPherson begins the process of understanding the events in the months prior to the battle. Succinctly put, to win the Civil War the Confederates, who by May 1861 had a functioning government at Richmond, had only to control their national territory. The Union, however, would have to invade the South, fight their armies, and take down the new government. A seemingly impossible feat, and after that first year, it still appeared unattainable.
The Union was forced to return the Confederate envoys captured from the British steamer Trent to escape starting a second war with Britain. This public set back panicked the Northern banking system and created much hardship in financing the war. Lincoln called upon General George B. McClellan to bring order and take command of the Army of the Potomac, after the devastating loss at Bull Run. Soon McClellan’s charismatic personality wore thin, and between his inaction and contempt of Lincoln, the general’s loyalty was called into question.
From doom and gloom to a much-needed ray of hope, Union successes started being reported, and the unheard of Illinois brigadier general, Ulysses S. Grant steps in. While things are looking brighter in the North, the Confederates failed to use a cotton embargo to blackmail the British in the hopes they would break the Union’s blockade. They hoped the strategy would work by continuing their King Cotton relationship but also start a conflict with the North, thereby gaining certain success for the Confederates.
Chapter two, entitled “Taking Off the Kid Gloves June-July 1862,” begins with “the first cloud on the horizon” for Union Military. Political General Nathaniel P. Banks, unfortunately, finds himself coming against Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson. Jackson drove Banks’ routed force across the Potomac into Maryland. Stonewall Jackson’s victories had the South elated. Johnston’s disappointing showing at Seven Pines saw him wounded and replaced by Robert E. Lee, and while this wasn’t met with enthusiasm, the Confederacy soon realized the genius of his offensive-defensive strategy. With their achievements, the Confederacy began to see support from European leaders. After the victories in the Shenandoah Valley and the Seven Days Battles, McPherson says that “Many in Britain and France regarded these battles in confirmation of their belief that the North could never subdue the South.” (p. 56)
McPherson writes that Americans had the world’s largest amount of newspaper-reading people, and the author uses these papers like Harper’s Weekly, the New York Times, and Tribune to effectively show how media coverage of the war so totally affected the spirit of its citizens. During this period, Lincoln was proactive in reversing the dampened Union war effort. He made General John Pope the new commander of the Army of Virginia to work with McClellan in moving against the Confederate government. Pope’s pomposity irritated many, and he won little favor. Regrettably, Lincoln’s appointment of general in chief to Henry W. Halleck, who the author describes is “pedantic, fussy, unimaginative and wary of responsibility,” (p. 55) did not go well either. The militia act on July 17 was more successful, as it brought in state militia for a federal service of nine months versus three, and the earlier June 30 call for 300,000 new three-year recruits panned out as well. These men created new regiments and eventually became first-class units, who McPherson believes helped win the war.
Lincoln was not pressed toward emancipation in 1862 solely because of pressure by foreign-policy considerations for the South, but because the Confederates utilized slave labor, impressing thousands into their army. Go after slavery, and the Confederates would be dealt an incredible blow. In command of the Army of Virginia, General John Pope was in total agreement that seizing the Confederate property without compensation was the best move the Union army could take. After a majority of the border state men turned Lincoln’s plans down he knew that the Emancipation Proclamation was essential. Lincoln knew it was a military necessity, the only way to preserve the Union, and because the slaves unwillingly strengthened the Confederates exponentially. Taking the slaves away, Lincoln knew, would irrevocably cripple the South. The Proclamation met with varying degrees of pessimism, and after Seward suggested postponing until after a military win, which would lift Northerner’s spirits making them more amendable, Lincoln conceded to wait. McPherson writes that “It would prove to be a long, dismal wait.” (p. 71)
In the summer of 1862 things were looking up for the South after events unfolded in the Mississippi River region. McPherson details this summer with the intent to prove that this is when the war was dramatically changed, especially during September 1862. General Pope was defeated by Lee and Jackson, with further successes by Generals Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith. The Western theater was losing the momentum of the past spring. By meticulously using Lee’s wartime papers, McPherson is able to prove that the General had a very real plan for his campaign for Maryland’s liberation, in that he hoped it would hugely impact the fall elections in the North. The possibility was very real that the Confederates might achieve these goals.
Chapter four is dedicated to the showdown near Sharpsburg Maryland. The Southerners call it the Battle of Sharpsburg, and the Federals would call it Antietam. Type bloodiest day in American history, using any search engine, and the September 17th battle of Antietam is still the answer all these years later. McPherson goes into quite a bit of the tactical study of this campaign with emphasis to Antietam. For this section, McPherson’s notes are extensive, including dispatches, journals, diaries, newspapers, letters, and quotes from several well-known authors. McPherson argues that eighteen hours passed before McClellan made use of the (interrupted) orders written by Lee. McPherson believes that had Lee known that McClellan’s forces were split into four parts he would have sent forces within the hour of learning. Here the author is speculating about what Lee would or would not do without supporting information, but as the reviewer of this book, the knowledge that McPherson is so well studied in this area makes his suppositions beneficial extras for the reader. Someone’s character can be so well known, through research and analysis, that educated guesses are relevant.
McPherson has stated that Antietam was the turning point for the war, and in the final chapter, “The Beginning of the End,” he reviews the rippling effects. Though McClellan considers Lee’s retreat a complete victory for the North, it most clearly was not. However, when papers started running the big headlines of the “Great Victory,” like the New York Times did, it was a much-needed morale booster. Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation not only realigned the war but support for the Confederacy abroad dropped considerably. The fall elections were clearly swayed. McPherson believes that had McClellan been more decisive at Antietam, the outcomes could have been drastically different, and perhaps the war would not have lasted another two and a half years. The author is also correct when he says that the Confederacy was never again so close to changing the tide in their favor as they were that summer.
Though McPherson does not shatter the historical world with brand new evidence, he articulately uses the material to convincingly prove that Antietam was, without a doubt, the turning point in the American Civil War. Few authors succeed as well as McPherson does in keeping his audience enthralled with such a well-worn subject, but he does it here.
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