Costly to South in Many ways.(SATURDAY)(THE CIVIL WAR)

Article excerpt


"Despite the ghastly events of September 11, 2001, another September day 139 years earlier remains the bloodiest single day in America. The 6,300 to 6,500 Union and Confederate soldiers killed and mortally wounded near the Maryland village of Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862, were more than twice the number of fatalities suffered in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001."

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson's opening paragraph of his latest book, "Crossroads of Freedom, Antietam 1862: The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War," sets the stage for an examination of why this bloodletting was so important and why Antietam may have been the most decisive battle of the Civil War.

This book could well be subtitled "A Primer on the First Two Years of the Civil War." As Mr. McPherson aptly points out, morale on both sides took a roller-coaster ride during this period.

Southern spirits both at the front and at home were high in 1861. Bolstered by Confederate victories at the Battle of First Manassas, Wilson's Creek and Ball's Bluff, Southerners no doubt began to believe the boast that "one rebel could take on 10 Yankees."

In the North, after the Union debacle at Second Bull Run, Washington Roebling, an officer with a New Jersey regiment and the future builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, wrote, "Our men are sick of the war" and "they have no confidence in their leaders."

Later that year, this began to change. In the so-called Western theater (the region west of the Allegheny Mountains and east of the Mississippi River), a new Union commander by the name of Ulysses S. Grant captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. The fall of these two important bastions had dire consequences for the Confederacy. More than 14,000 soldiers were captured, a serious blow to Southern manpower. Worse, Southern waterways leading into the heartland were now open to Union gunboats.

What followed was a domino effect upon Confederate control of the region. Soon, Nashville, Tenn., fell to Union forces, the first Southern state capital to be captured, and the major agricultural and industrial center of Florence, Ala., came under Union occupation.

While this was going on, combined army and navy operations under Gen. Ambrose Burnside managed to capture all major forts and ports along the North Carolina coast except Wilmington.

Things were no better in the trans-Mississippi theater (the region west of the river). AtPea Ridge in northwestern Arkansas March 7 and 8, a small Union army struck a decisive blow. For all practical purposes, this victory secured Federal control over Missouri for the rest of the war.

The Confederate slide toward defeat continued for the next several months. In April, the Rebels were stopped at the Battle of Shiloh, causing the loss of their highest-ranking general, Albert Sidney Johnston, and eventually the important Southern rail center at Corinth, Miss. April also saw more Confederate losses, culminating in the Union capture of New Orleans, the South's largest city.

Not since the late historian Bell Wiley's seminal work on Southern morale, "The Road to Appomattox," written more than 40 years ago, has a historian used firsthand accounts as effectively as Mr. McPherson - relying on newspaper editorials, diaries and letters to track the morale of both sides in the first five months of 1862.

While civilians in the North such as Elizabeth Blair Lee would write, "Our people are in a frenzy of exultation over New Orleans," even such staunch Confederate fire-eaters as Edmund Ruffin believed this event raised "the possibility of the subjugation of the Southern states." Diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote simply, "New Orleans gone - and with it the Confederacy. …