Richard Slotkin. The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution.
Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2012.
478 pages, maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, chronology.
ISBN 978-0-87140-411-4. $32.95
Richard Slotkin’s new history on the Antietam Campaign, The Long Road to Antietam, describes the Civil war as “a genuinely revolutionary crisis in American history” (xv). Slotkin, historian and Olin Professor of English and American Studies at Wesleyan University, says his book fits a niche that was missing in the history of this particular campaign because it “differs from previous studies of the campaign in that it offers a narrative that integrates military and political developments” while also showing “how each played with and against the other as events unfolded” (xv).
The short answer to whether Slotkin succeeds in this goal is: yes.
First, let’s examine some of the weaknesses of the work. Slotkin’s battle prose is confusing even though he attempts to break into sections the different attacks and counterattacks. Yet, as he moves from one battle sequence to
another, he leaves gaps. For example, John B. Gordon’s name or brigade is completely missing from the portion on the Sunken “Bloody” Lane. Slotkin mentions that “the roadblock was held by G.B. Anderson’s Brigade of [D.H.] Hill’s Division” and “a half mile behind it, two units totaling about a thousand men covered the front of Sharpsburg” (239). Slotkin proceeds writing about what brigades these “thousand men” belonged to, yet there is no mention of Gordon, whose brigade played a major role in the defensive lines of this sector.
Slotkin also allows himself to go deeper in explaining the biographical details of some officers, including brigade officers, and then skims over others, i.e., D.R. Jones or J.R. Jones or even the later Jones’s replacement, who simply is mentioned as “General Starke” (267). Slotkin also includes descriptions of certain junior officers while remaining light on others. This sometimes bogs down the narrative. For instance: “Colonel Phelps was a thirty-year-old citizen soldier about whom little is known” (259). That would have sufficed on Phelps; however, the next line says, “Politics was probably responsible for his original appointment” (259). “Probably responsible” for Phelps’s rank? This suggests two concerns: first that Slotkin did not do the level of research he needed to and, if he did not or the information was not there, why he did mention anything about Phelps at all? More in-depth research would have helped. That is just one example.
However, this reviewer does not think the battlefield prose was the main focus for Slotkin, which in itself is a good thing. Where Slotkin focuses most of his energy and uncovers new angles and insights is in his discussions about both the Union and Confederate political and military strategies. Included in this are the command players such as Abraham Lincoln, Edwin Stanton, and George McClellan on the Union side and Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee on the Confederate.
While Davis and Lee seemed to be working on the same page for the Antietam Campaign, McClellan and Lincoln seemed the exact opposite. Slotkin looks closely into the relationship between the two men, including examining McClellan’s view of the war through a “soft war” policy bent on conciliation and not “radicalizing” the conflict. Lincoln, at first of the same mind, changed as the war dragged and turned it into a revolution, according to Slotkin, and in the process “was both strengthened and schooled on how to deal with generals who thought control of war policy should be conceded to military professionals” (403). Through the context of Lincoln’s relationship with McClellan, Slotkin shows the metamorphosis of Lincoln into the president he is remembered as in history. How Slotkin opens his first section on McClellan with the title “Indispensable Man” sums up perfectly the mindset of McClellan throughout his tenure as military leader for the North.
Slotkin, who boasts a novel about the Battle of the Crater, brings the same story-telling skills into this non-fiction account of the Antietam Campaign. By examining both the political spectrum and military strategies, Slotkin creates a very readable study on the main players in the war effort during the first two years of the conflict. If you are looking for another straight battlefield account, this is not your book. But, if you are looking for an account that dips into the political realm, that explores the view of war by military commanders, and that examines the war of rebellion as a revolution, then this is your book.