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America’s Bloodiest Day

May 2024
1min read


James M. Mcpherson is known as the author of Battle Cry of Freedom , the best-selling one-volume history of the Civil J War. Now he has writ- J ten an absorbing short book. Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, the Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 224 pages, $26.00), which focuses on the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history. More than twice as many people were killed on September 17, 1862, as on September 11, 2001, but that is not his point. Rather, he shows that when the battle began, the Confederacy was probably closer to victory than it ever would be again. The first part of the book follows the war through the string of Union victories along the Mississippi and elsewhere in early 1862 and then the reverses that followed that summer, leaving the South looking more powerful than ever by fall. The account of the battle itself takes only 13 pages to move swiftly from the morning slaughter in the Cornfield to the midday horror of the Bloody Lane, the unnecessary Union bottleneck at Burnside Bridge, the dramatic late arrival of A. P. Hill’s Confederate division, and finally Gen. George B. McClellan’s characteristic ultimate reluctance to fully seize his opportunity. After the Union turned back the Army of Northern Virginia that day, Lincoln, in a new position of strength, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, ending all chance of reconciliation and changing the struggle, in McPherson’s words, “from one to restore the Union into one to destroy the old Union and build a new one purged of human bondage.” He concludes that though the paired Union triumphs at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 were undoubtedly momentous, as was Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in 1864, “they would never have-happened if the triple Confederate offensives in Mississippi, Kentucky, and most of all Maryland had not been defeated in the fall of 1862.”

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