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The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution

Richard Slotkin, Liveright Publishing

It should come as no surprise that the 150th anniversary of the great September 1862 campaign that culminated in the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American military history, has inspired a number of new books, including one by the thoughtful and provocative writer Richard Slotkin. In addition to being one of the great pivots on which the war’s military course hinged, it provided the victory for which Abraham Lincoln had been longing and gave him the impetus to issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. That major milestone transformed the Northern war effort into one that profoundly changed the republic.

It would be inaccurate, though, to characterize new books like Slotkin’s as rediscoveries of the Maryland Campaign, for they come on the heels of a generation of important work on the subject. Joseph L. Harsh’s landmark multi-volume study of the campaign, the product of decades of engagement with source material on the historic events and profound reflection on the sources, issues, personalities and terrain that shaped its course and outcome, towers above all others. Despite the study’s focus on Lee, one of the important features of Harsh’s work was his reassessment of George B. McClellan’s generalship, which has been carried forward in recent scholarship by Thomas Clemens and John Hoptak.

To many students of the war, casting McClellan as anything other than a malevolent figure is sure to be unpopular. For such readers, The Long Road to Antietam will be a welcome addition to the literature, as Slotkin provides a relentlessly critical assessment of the general’s conduct and motives in the war’s first 18 months. If for no other reason, Slotkin’s work merits reading by McClellan’s defenders as a reminder there are limits on how far revisionism can go. Unlike Harsh’s and Clemens’ books, or Scott Hartwig’s forthcoming study of the campaign, Slotkin’s is principally a work of synthesis that does not break much new ground in terms of research. His take on military matters is most effective when it closely follows the analysis of historians like Harsh on matters such as Lee’s intentions and operational vision upon entering Maryland and McClellan’s battle plan at Antietam.

Still, the book is sure to find a wide audience. Slotkin is a skillful writer. As was the case in his study of the Crater, No Quarter, he has an incredibly compelling and important story to tell here, and he tells it in a way that will have appeal.


Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.