Civil War History 50.2 (2004) 193-195
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The Civil War has long occupied such a prominent place in America's popular consciousness that its history is generally remembered in the form of comforting clichés. One of the most familiar of these formulas asserts that the battle that raged at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, from July 1 through 3, 1863, constituted the conflict's turning point. Gettysburg came close to being the largest battle of the Civil War, and it was certainly the bloodiest, but it cannot be ranked as decisive. Robert E. Lee's battered Army of Northern Virginia escaped to fight another day, and the heavy casualties Lee inflicted on the Army of the Potomac the following spring and summer unleashed an antiwar backlash that swept the North and threatened Abraham Lincoln's reelection.
In Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, James M. McPherson, the George Henry Davis 1986 Professor of History at Princeton University, offers a persuasive challenge to the Gettysburg-as-turning-point myth. The fact that the Civil War was not settled by a single battle but by a series of sustained and [End Page 193] costly operations, is one of the things that made that conflict a modern war. As McPherson points out, the Civil War had "several crucial turning points." Furthermore, factors other than military ones helped convert the battle of Antietam into "the pivotal moment" for the war's most crucial turning point.
McPherson assesses the significance of the Civil War not in terms of battles lost and won, but by a more profound standard of measurement. To him, the conflict's significance hinges on how it transformed the meaning of freedom to Americans living then and now. By providing Abraham Lincoln with the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, Antietam ensured that his crusade to preserve the Union would result in a republic that was both indivisible and purged of slavery. Without Antietam, McPherson argues, the Civil War could have failed to give the United States what Lincoln would call "a new birth of freedom."
During the first half of 1862, Union forces racked up a series of victories that seemed to assure the speedy collapse of the Confederacy. Forts Henry and Donelson opened the door to the Union occupation of Nashville and much of Tennessee. The fall of New Bern and Beaufort, North Carolina, tightened the naval blockade of the South's Atlantic coast. The fight at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, squelched any hope of Missouri's secession. The fall of New Orleans deprived the Confederacy of its largest and richest port and provided the Federals with a base for further penetrations into Louisiana. The bloody, two-day battle at Shiloh thwarted Confederate efforts to prevent the loss of Corinth, Mississippi, and soon the Federals controlled Memphis and all the Mississippi River except for the stretch between Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Had the Confederacy sued for peace in the summer of 1862, however, the resulting settlement would have probably resurrected the Union as it existed in 1860—a nation where slavery was legal and protected by Federal law.
The dramatic victories that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson won in Virginia in the spring and summer of 1862 revived Confederate morale, caused Northern morale to plummet, and improved the prospects of British and French intervention on behalf of the rebellious South. Lincoln reacted to the crisis by adopting a hard war policy that targeted the property of Confederate civilians, including slaves. The incomplete Union victory at Antietam furnished Lincoln with a credible opening to strike at slavery, and his revolutionary edict forever changed the nature of the war and the American experiment in self-government.
McPherson aired his ideas about Antietam's importance in his 1988 bestseller, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), but the graceful prose [End Page 194] flawless arguments that distinguish Crossroads of Freedom make these ideas well worth revisiting. This is an ideal study for undergraduates and other students...