Posts Tagged ‘Emancipation Proclamation’

Failure In Success

Antietam is one of the great battles of the American Civil War, involving 130,000 soldiers (infantry, cavalry, and artillery). There’s only one way to describe the Battle of Antietam: a bloody, awful mess. It is remembered in history as the single, deadliest one-day battle ever fought on American soil. The Union won the field that day, in spite of bad command decisions by General George McClellan and his field commanders. Lee was driven away, his weaker numbers unable to take victory, despite his own tactical brilliance. By the end of the day, over 3600 men were dead, and another 19,000 injured (and likely dead shortly thereafter, thanks to medical practices in the 19th century). A bloody, awful mess, indeed.

Confederate Dead — public domain photo courtesy of Antietam on the Web

A lot of men died in the Civil War. Over 600,000 men gave their lives on the field of battle through the course of the war, and (as always happens in war) an uncountable number of civilians lost theirs as well. But Antietam holds another special place in American history. The pre-Grant Union Army could do what only the pre-Grant Union Army could do: it snatched defeat from the claws of victory. If Gen. McClellan was any kind of able commander, instead of the pompous ass he was, he would have crushed the Confederate army right then and there, and ended the war within 18 months of its inception at Fort Sumter. But McClellan lacked something that defines winners from losers: energy and drive. He allowed his forces (thousands of whom didn’t even fire a shot) to rest on their laurels while Robert E. Lee’s men retreated southward. If only McClellan had acted then and there, and whupped Lee in the fields of Maryland, the war would have been over.

Lincoln and McClellan — public domain photo courtesy of Antietam on the WebI really want to let that soak in a bit. If McClellan had acted, the Battle of Fredericksburg would not have happened (2,000 dead). Spotsylvania would not have happened (4,000 dead). Chancellorsville would not have happened (est. 5,000 dead). Chickamauga would not have happened (est. 6,000 dead). The Battle of Gettysburg would not have happened (8,000 dead). Richmond would not have been sacked and looted. New York would not have had its draft riots. Atlanta would not have been burned to the ground. Virginia would not have had its entire countryside scoured by war. And maybe an assassin would not have claimed the life of the greatest President we ever had.

But McClellan sat on his lazy ass, Lee got away, and country had three more years of war. Good job, Georgie!

I suppose there is success in failure as well. One good thing came out of Antietam (beyond McClellan’s immediate firing): Lincoln’s most famous, yet most misunderstood, act — the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln had been working on it for some time, but needed the right moment to release it. As lame as McClellan’s actions were, he gave Lincoln that moment: a Union victory over the Confederate army. Lincoln released his document to the public, gave a wonderful speech, and America turned a vital corner away from slavery (read more commentary on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation here).

Walk the Path of History

A Lone Grave — public domain photo courtesy of Antietam on the WebEven though I love the National Park Service and the sites they protect, I have to admit: many of the Civil War sites are nearly undecipherable. You have to really use your imagination to envision the order of battle or the strategic importance of the terrain. It’s hard to imagine a line of Union artillery in a Wendy’s parking lot. What were they firing at, the Avis Car Rental?

Antietam, on the other hand, is a great park to envision an old battle. The Dunker Church still stands, the Cornfield has been replanted. Bloody Lane is still discernable, and the sturdy Burnside Bridge remains. The latter represents the greatest blunder of the Civil War behind Pickett’s Charge. Union Major General Ambrose Burnside ordered thousands of men to storm across the stone bridge, where they were easily slaughtered by well-placed Confederate riflemen. Old Dumb Ass didn’t realize he could send his thousands of troops across the creek itself, where their numbers would simply swarm over the enemy positions. The ruddy thing was only a couple of feet deep! Nothing I could write could explain the idiocy of funneling all your men across a tiny bridge where they could be slaughtered like crawdads at a Cajun restaurant. The Antietam National Battlefield preserves this land so perfectly that a short visit and some clever observations will reveal what should have been so obvious in 1862.

Antietam is a wonderful park to visit. It’s not a long drive from Washington, DC. Next time you’re in the nation’s capital, stop by Antietam. Make sure you stop by for a pint at Brewer’s Alley in Fredericksburg, MD!

Burnside Bridge — public domain photo courtesy of Antietam on the Web

Sadly, I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Antietam. Historical pictures courtesy of a terrific Civil War website: Antietam on the Web.



Antietam National Battlefield and Cemetery

Antietam on the Web

Brewer’s Alley Restaurant & Brewery

Google map to Antietam

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Stupid Questions

“So, this is original, right?” I asked, pointing to the log cabin inside the granite mausoleum.

“No, it’s a replica.”

Cabin (courtesy of National Park Service)After this almost mandatory exchange, I asked the ranger how many people ask her this stupid question every day. “A lot”, she replied. Of course the log cabin at Lincoln’s Birthplace isn’t original. The original one was surely torn down and replaced by the next residents after the Lincolns moved to Indiana (log cabins were not known for their longevity). The ranger did proceed to discuss what was really important: the thoughts and writings of our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln.

One of my regrets during my NPS travels is I never get the names of the rangers and volunteers who staff these sites. Some of them, including this woman at Lincoln’s Birthplace, are truly stellar. She was very smart, and a very good communicator. She also knew a lot about Lincoln. Not just the contents of some script for park employees to parrot out on command, but she really studied and respected the man. She read a great many books on the subject, and spoke with a fluidity that only true knowledge can sustain. I was absolutely captivated when she spoke. It didn’t hurt that she was attractive as well, brilliant and beautiful is a great combination.

It’s a shame to hear that the Park Service doesn’t pay particularly well, nor do they adequately fund or staff these parks (the fault of an uninterested Congress). Even with those obstacles, some of their employees are terrific.

The Man, The Legend

It’s amazing how well liked, or even loved, our 16th President is in the U.S. There are no less than five National Park Service sites dedicated to Lincoln, and many educational and cultural institutions (and more elementary and secondary schools than you can shake a stick at) are named after him. Of course I’m looking at this through Yankee eyes (having been born and raised in Massachusetts), but I think he’s even loved in the south, although probably not as thoroughly.

Lincoln (public domain photo courtesy of Wikipedia)We should ask ourselves “why?” Why would a man who presided over the one and only War Between the States (the worst human bloodletting ever witnessed on the North American continent), a man who initiated the first widespread draft in America (leading to riots in New York City and other places), a man who suspended many legal rights (an act used years later as justification for Japanese interment and the Patriot Act), still be so loved by the American people? Not only loved, but perhaps even deified.

“Honest Abe”. “The Great Emancipator”. “The Man Who Saved the Union”. Lincoln was not always honest, he had to lie often during his Presidency (a wartime President is rarely blessed with opportunities to be honest). Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was done to turn the heat up on the Confederacy, and had a great many flaws. And was it simple Northern arrogance driving him to maintain the Union (under Northern control, of course) at such a heavy price?

I offer up three reasons why Lincoln, of all the Presidents, is held in the highest regard, and has so many marble structures bearing his name:

He Won.

Americans love a winner. We always have. Washington. Jackson. Grant. Eisenhower. Colin Powell. The 2007 New England Patriots. We love those who win, and will imbue them with talents far beyond reality. Winners can do no wrong. In the end, Lincoln won. Yes, he wasn’t a direct military commander, but it was his war, his battle. It was his dogged determination, and eventually his appointment of Grant as commander of the army, that led to victory over the Confederacy. And it was a true, military victory, not some negotiated settlement or stalemate. We salute Lincoln because he was the victor.

He Died.

It’s a horribly cynical thing to say we only admire people who are struck down early. In the case of our Presidents, it’s not always true (who knows anything about William McKinley or James Garfield these days?). But it is true enough that we put people on pedestals after they die, especially when they die before their time. Was James Dean really that good of an actor? Was Kurt Cobain more talented than Eddie Vedder? Was Abraham Lincoln really the best President ever? Or do we put a better spin on those who leave us before they really should? The story of Lincoln’s death is tragic, but it came at such a special moment – days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox – that it will forever be held as the stuff of legend.

He Was Right.

Above all else, I feel Abraham Lincoln is worthy of mention as America’s greatest President for one simple fact: he was right. He was right to free the slaves, even though his Proclamation was half-baked. He was right that the Union should stay together, for divided the nation would have been weaker. And he was right that the Confederacy should be defeated and not bargained with. There would have been conflict on our soil between two nations (or perhaps more) for generations afterward (witness the strife that plagued Europe for hundreds of years).

Emancipation Proclamation (public domain photo courtesy of Wikipedia)But there is another meaning to the word “right”. Lincoln was also the right President at the right time. People tend to forget the mess this country was in before Lincoln. The “slave problem” was a menace, a canker, a tumor on the very heart of America. It ate at the very core of our beloved Constitution. America, a nation supposedly founded on freedom, held hundreds of thousands in thrall, was a nation of hypocrites.

This canker led to a cancerous government, for we not only had a collection of weak-willed, spineless Presidents (from Harrison to Buchanan, find me one worth a damn), we also had a divided, rudderless Congress, and a court whose decisions were at times abhorrent (the infamous Dred Scott decision). We even had riots in the states and territories (Bleeding Kansas, John Brown’s Raid). I will even suggest that slavery was harming Southern culture; it enabled a decidedly undemocratic aristocracy, more interested in pomp, grandeur, and socializing than education, social betterment, industrialization, or agricultural advancement.

The American Civil War was such a tremendous turning point for the United States. We became a much better nation after Appomattox than we ever were before Fort Sumter. The transfiguration is glaring, in fact it’s shocking. The elimination of slavery, and the resolution of the simmering North-South conflict, revitalized this nation and sent us on the path to becoming a true powerhouse, and Abraham Lincoln was there, right when he needed to be, a nexus between barbarity and enlightenment.

In the end, we are right to deify the man named Lincoln, faults and all.

Memorial (courtesy of the National Park Service)

[The photos on this entry are public domain, and come courtesy of the National Park Service and Wikipedia] 


Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site

An Analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation

An Essay on Pre-Civil War Southern Stagnation

Google map to Lincoln’s Birthplace

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