Reviewed by Zachery A. Fry
Counterfactual studies are usually a pariah in the historical community. Poorly-executed “what-if” scenarios risk cloaking fantasy—and a given historian’s inherent biases—under the guise of objective analysis. The irony here is that counterfactual assumptions are deeply embedded in any historical interpretation. Praising a president, a general, or a company commander for some particular decision assumes certain consequences of the alternatives, whether those are actually examined or not. And since combat is the iron core of military history around which other social, cultural, and political questions orbit, the chaotic nature of battle forces us to appreciate contingency and decision-making.
The University of Tennessee Press “Decisions” series reflects a unique appreciation for contingency on the battlefield. Michael Lang’s Decisions at Antietam is a strong addition to the series, one that persuasively isolates key choices by certain commanders and even-handedly investigates the alternatives.
Lang, a first-time author but long-time student of the battle, shows how the most important decisions at each echelon had wide-ranging implications; Lee’s decision to offer battle at Sharpsburg set the stage for September 17, for example, while smaller tactical decisions such as Jubal Early’s stand near the West Woods contributed to making Antietam the bloodiest day in American history. Lang thus organizes his choice of decisions into certain categories, with some structuring the battle in the broadest strokes while others shaped the more close-in killing. His writing style is clear and accessible, making Decisions at Antietam especially useful for battlefield stompers trying to make sense of the confusing ebb and flow of Civil War combat.
Decisions at Antietam is a “state-of-the-field” take on the battle, taking full advantage of the most recent literature from Tom Clemens, Scott Hartwig, Daniel Vermilya, Marion Armstrong, and Steven Stotelmyer. Much of that literature has been focused relentlessly on resuscitating George McClellan’s reputation, although Lang wisely circumvents some of the larger flashpoints in the debate Joseph Harsh once termed “the McClellan-Go-Round.” Rather than taking a direct stand on how much Little Mac’s Army of the Potomac outnumbered Robert E. Lee’s force, for instance, Lang offers a detailed appendix breaking down the various estimates side-by-side so that the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.
Most refreshing about Lang’s approach to counterfactuals is its humility. In assessing the likely implications of alternative options open to commanders, he acknowledges the unpredictability of combat. The decision to turn left versus right in the heat of the moment could lead to certain different conditions on the battlefield—but “friction,” as Clausewitz called it, often rears its ugly head to derail the best-intended decisions. A corps commander (or two) dropped by enemy bullets, a misunderstood order in the roar of musketry at a sunken road, or the delay in finding a pivotal ford across a creek—all examples that should give us pause when asserting with certainty how a certain alternative would have played out.
Lang’s book should benefit from wide readership for its solid research, accessible style, and fair interpretations. The current volume is limited to the battle itself, with a future book anticipated on the wider campaign.