Letter From the September 2006 Civil War Times Magazine

8/31/2006 • Battle Of Antietam, Civil War 1862, CWT Issues

The Underdog Days of Summer

America loves an underdog, for obvious reasons. After all, we were an underdog from the second when feet hit the shore at Jamestown. If you were taking bets around the rest of the world on the prospect of America’s survival before, during and after the Revolution, you would have found most wagers piling up on the side of a snowball’s chance in hell. Far-flung colonies of farmers and merchants fighting a war against the most powerful nation on the planet while struggling to establish — and maintain — a government of the people, by the people, for the people? Preposterous.

Our fascination with the underdog helps explain why the Army of Northern Virginia might be the most famous combat force in American history — and why respect for this outfit runs deep on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Here was an army that was constantly outmanned, outgunned and undersupplied, but still managed to post a list of incredible victories.

One of the army’s most impressive performances won’t be found on that list — in fact, it was considered a defeat from some perspectives. Yet Robert E. Lee’s men reminded the Yankees on the ridges around Sharpsburg, Md., that size, supply and fortuitous discoveries of informative cigar wrappers don’t always translate into victory on the battlefield. If you weren’t already impressed that the Confederates were able to stand toe-to-toe with the Federals on September 17, 1862, despite the daunting odds they faced, you probably will be after reading Ted Alexander’s illuminating “tale of the tape,” which begins on the following page.

We should be careful, though — as Alexander is — not to fall into the same old clichés about the hapless Army of the Potomac with its bumbling generals and the invincible Army of Northern Virginia commanded by men who could walk on water, then turn that water into wine. The fact is, the Army of the Potomac gained honor for itself on that field too. The bloody struggle at places like the Cornfield and the Sunken Road made it abundantly clear to the rest of the world that Americans could stand up and fight in epic battles just as well as any of the superpowers at that time. The tragic irony, of course, is that these two great American armies were proving their mettle against one another.

Alexander pulls the curtain open a little more on George McClellan’s new Army of the Potomac, and makes it clear that the numbers don’t tell the entire story. For example, statistics don’t tell you about the relative disarray of the army’s high command at the time. They will show that a significant number of McClellan’s men were new recruits and replacements, but they don’t convey the effect of having multiple corps commanders who were new to that level of command, or the impact of losing strong division commanders like Jesse Reno, Isaac Stevens and Philip Kearny just prior to the battle. Once the shooting started on the morning of the 17th, corps, division and brigade commanders quickly started getting killed or wounded — exacerbating the leadership upheaval. Granted, armies have faced those problems throughout history, but McClellan and the Army of the Potomac have not gotten much benefit of the doubt from armchair generals, then or now, where Antietam is concerned.

Nonetheless, it’s a safe bet — make that a sure thing — that there isn’t a commander on the planet who wouldn’t want to go into a campaign with twice as many men, significant advantages in weaponry and other materiel and a copy of his enemies’ plans detailing the dispersion of their forces across a wide area. On paper, Antietam should have been an overwhelming Union victory — but then battles aren’t fought on paper. Statistics can fail to portray strengths as well as weaknesses, and they won’t tell you how determined and gutsy that small, poorly supplied Confederate army was at Sharpsburg. They won’t tell you the extent to which Lee had already gotten inside McClellan’s head and stripped him of his self-confidence. Sure, the Army of Northern Virginia was an underdog at Antietam — but with underdogs like that, I wouldn’t want to be a favorite.