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The Long Road to Antietam, by Richard Slotkin, Liveright, New York, 2012, $32.95

At Antietam, Sept. 17, 1862, lingers. Walking the battlefield, one can sense that day, the deadliest of any American war. In this cornfield, along this sunken road, upon this bridge more than 20,000 men were killed or wounded. In this engrossing book Richard Slotkin looks beyond that blood-drenched battlefield to explore how President Abraham Lincoln linked victory at Antietam to his decision to free slaves and declare that they could join the Union Army.

Slotkin shows just how Antietam prefaced the Emancipation Proclamation, as Lincoln abandoned any hope of a negotiated end to the war. “The proclamation,” Slotkin writes, “made compromise impossible” and transformed a civil war into a social revolution. “Lincoln understood very clearly,” Slotkin says, “that the war could not in future be prosecuted as anything but a war of subjugation and a ‘remorseless revolutionary conflict.’”

The Long Road to Antietam is indeed a long road—the battle begins on P. 225. Slotkin devotes the preceding pages to Lincoln’s efforts to control Maj. Gen. George McClellan, who ran the war on his terms rather than the president’s. McClellan’s defiance of his commander in chief grew as General Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland and chose Antietam as the place where he would confront McClellan. Slotkin transports readers to the onset of the battle, tracking orders from the headquarters of Lee and McClellan to their field commanders. Moving hour by hour from one firefight to the next, Slotkin relates where men fell and where they fled as they groped for victory under “gray clouds of gun smoke…blotting out the lines.”

McClellan chose not to launch an attack that could have destroyed Lee’s army. Instead, he allowed Lee to retreat into Virginia and did not pursue him. “Either McClellan’s motives were disloyal, or he was a military incompetent,” Slotkin writes. On November 7 Lincoln relieved him of command, having learned, in Slotkin’s words, “how to deal with generals who thought control of war policy should be conceded to military professionals.”

—Thomas B. Allen