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'Antietam' Dissects Strategies Of North And South

Aug 7, 2012
Originally published on August 7, 2012 11:23 am

In the earliest days of the Civil War, the Union Army focused on cutting off key supply lines on the periphery of the South. The approach was designed to hurt the South's economy and convince its citizens to return to the Union.

Even though President Lincoln said slavery was unjust, in the earliest days of the war he told the Southern states that he wouldn't interfere with slavery as an institution.

"He believed that with ... leaving slavery alone, that he could convince the Southern majority — Southern moderates — to come back," says Wesleyan professor and historian Richard Slotkin. "It took a year of conflict for him to realize that Southerners were really committed to the Confederacy."

Slotkin's latest book about the Civil War, The Long Road to Antietam, traces how both Northern and Southern strategies changed in the summer of 1862, when both sides committed to an all-out total war and Lincoln squared off against Gen. George McClellan, an ardent Democrat who held fantasies of both a dictatorship and a military coup against the Union.

After a battle in Virginia, McClellan, who briefly served as the chief general of the Union Army and organized the Army of the Potomac, demanded that Lincoln reject any move against slavery, stop treating Southerners as rebels and give up his own political power.

"Within a week, Lincoln rejected those demands and told [another general] that he was going to issue an Emancipation Proclamation, which was opposed to everything McClellan had just said to him," Slotkin tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "The decision to issue an Emancipation Proclamation meant [he was] throwing out any hope of compromise with the South."

In making that decision, Slotkin says Lincoln knew he was turning the Civil War into a much bigger conflict. "The South would not quit until beaten, and that means total war."

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're used to thinking of the Civil War as the horrible conflict that ended slavery in the United States, kept the Union whole, and affirmed principles of constitutional democracy. But historian Richard Slotkin writes that in the first year of the war, none of these outcomes were certain.

Northern leaders didn't see abolition as a war aim and hoped they might get Southern states to return to the Union with slavery intact. As the military conflict escalated, it wasn't clear whether the constitutional principle of civilian control over the military would survive, as the Union General George McClellan entertained thoughts of taking control of the government.

Slotkin's book chronicles President Lincoln's struggle with McClellan and his decision after the Union victory at Antietam to emancipate slaves in the rebelling states, embracing social transformation of the South as a goal of the conflict. Slotkin's new book is called "The Long Road To Antietam: How The Civil War Became A Revolution." Richard Slotkin is an emeritus professor at Wesleyan University. He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.


Richard Slotkin, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really liked your book because it asks us to consider these events as the participants experienced them, not knowing what would happen in the early years of the Civil War. So many questions were unanswered, and we of course know what happened, but they didn't.

I mean we know that there would be a long, bloody conflict and that it would end slavery and that the Union would be preserved, but all of these questions were in the air at the time, and I think the book lets us consider them with, as they did, with those questions unanswered. So let's talk about, in these early months of the war, the perspectives that the leaders of the Union and the Confederacy have.

Let's start with Abraham Lincoln. What was his view of slavery?

RICHARD SLOTKIN: Lincoln had always been morally opposed to slavery. He was not an outright abolitionist but rather someone who believed in the gradual abolition of slavery. And he certainly had no recipe for how to create a multiracial democracy, which is what I think we all think about as the ideal outcome for that.

But his commitment was that slavery had to be put where, as he said, the public mind can rest in the expectation of its ultimate extinction, and that position alone was what made him completely anathema to the South.

DAVIES: So initially his approach to the rebellious states is come back to the Union, we won't interfere with slavery immediately, right?

SLOTKIN: That's right. It's what's called the strategy of conciliation. And the military component of the strategy is that you'll win a few important victories on the periphery of the South, you'll blockade the South to hurt their economy, and you'll just demonstrate that the costs of war are not worth paying.

DAVIES: So it's not total war in these early months?

SLOTKIN: No, it's definitely not, and both sides hope to, for different reasons, hope to avoid total war.

DAVIES: Now, what was Lincoln's view of the popular sentiment in the rebelling states of the South and how that would be affected by the way he might conduct the war?

SLOTKIN: He thought that the - the South had been carried into secession by a radical minority that had made a grand conspiracy out of the fact of his election. And he believed that with this dual appeal of a little bit of stick and the substantial carrot of leaving slavery alone, that he could convince a majority of the South, the Southern moderates, so-called, to come back.

And it took a year of conflict for him to really begin to recognize that Southerners were committed to the Confederacy, that it was not any longer simply a kind of minority put-up job.

DAVIES: All right. Now, let's talk about Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. What was his perspective on the early months of the war? How would he fight it, and what were his goals?

SLOTKIN: There's a lot of parallelism between Davis and Lincoln on this. His goal is the independence of the Confederacy and necessarily also the preservation of slavery. His approach by necessity is defensive. He just doesn't have the resources to do anything else. But his thinking is really defensive as well.

He's really saying the South is fighting to protect itself from Northern aggression, and it doesn't menace the North in any way at all. And Davis too, at the end of this year, is beginning to recognize that Northerners are much more passionately committed to the Union cause than he gave them credit for being.

DAVIES: But his goal is to say to the North: We want to live as your neighbors; we're going to let your farmers use the Mississippi to get to the Gulf of Mexico; we can work this out; let's not tear each other apart.

SLOTKIN: That's right. It's also a piece of conciliation. And he, like Lincoln, hopes a few victories over the North early in the war, coupled with a conciliatory attitude - yes, you can use the Port of New Orleans - will win the Northerners over to his position, make them willing to compromise.

DAVIES: One of the other fascinating questions that you deal with in the book here is whether or not the Union would continue to be a constitutional democracy. And this is something that we all take for granted now, but it wasn't so clear in the early months of the war. Why might some have thought that war might have moved the nation towards dictatorship?

SLOTKIN: Well, the thing that you have to bear in mind about the Civil War, and which we tend to forget because, as you said, we know how it ends, is that it is essentially a revolutionary crisis. You know, once the South secedes, the whole fundamental basis of constitutional government has been called into question.

So within the first few months of the war, you get other proposals for other secessions. In the North you get a movement to have some of the Northwestern states secede. New York City, the city fathers think about seceding from the Union. West Virginia, in the Confederacy, will secede from the state of Virginia. So it's a revolutionary situation in which what was normally unimaginable for Americans becomes imaginable.

And one of the classic things when a republic faces a civil war is to protect the interests that sustain the state. You go the military. You look to the military. All of the great democratic revolutions of the past had ended in military dictatorship as a result of civil war - French Revolution of 18 - the two revolutions, of 1789 and 1848, had both ended in military dictatorship. The English revolution ended in the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell. And you can take it back to Julius Caesar.

So it's a serious question for anyone who understands history and politics in the 1860s.

DAVIES: Right. Now, of course the one person who might have pulled this off is General George McClellan, who was the commander of the Union troops for I guess the first couple years. He is a fascinating character, and he was a career soldier, of course, but had been out of the Army for several years before war broke out. What had he been doing in his civilian pursuits, and what kind of political connections did they lead him to?

SLOTKIN: Well, most West Point - the best West Pointers, and McClellan is one of those, were trained as engineers. So when he leaves the Army, McClellan becomes an official of the Illinois Central Railroad, an operating officer of the railroad.

DAVIES: This is in the 1850s, right?

SLOTKIN: This is in 1857, when he resigns from the Army. And in Illinois, the Illinois Central Railroad is the pet project of Stephen A. Douglas, the senator from Illinois and Lincoln's opponent in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, and later in the presidential election.

And McClellan describes himself as a strong Democrat of the Stephen A. Douglas school. He supports Douglas against Lincoln both for senator and president, lets Douglas use the railroad for free, and he really is a serious partisan of the conservative or Democratic Party.

DAVIES: Right, and so when the war breaks out, and he naturally comes back into the Army because he has experience and skills that will be useful, he comes in with political ties and a political perspective, right?


DAVIES: What were his views about slavery, white supremacy and the Union?

SLOTKIN: He was in favor of preserving slavery. He thought that the institution needed some reforms, but these were best left to the slave owners to work out. He was a white supremacist without apology. This is not, by the way, a very great distinction for him among Americans, white Americans in the 1860s. His tie is to the New York leadership of the Democratic Party, and Stephen Douglas dies shortly after the war starts.

All of the Southern Democrats have gone with the Confederacy. Almost by default, McClellan becomes the symbolic head, so to speak, of the Democratic Party in this period. He's the most powerful Democrat in the country.

DAVIES: Right, and the Democratic Party at this time was the party that was most sympathetic to slavery, white supremacy.


DAVIES: So you have this bizarre situation of this very, very prominent political guy now being the most significant military commander in the Union.

SLOTKIN: Yes. Now, let's - just to make the situation even more difficult for President Lincoln, as Doris Kearns Goodwin said, his coalition is a team of rivals, and some of the Republicans are perfectly willing to scheme with McClellan to see if they can make McClellan a kind of cat's paw so that they can over-awe and rule Lincoln, whom everybody at this point considers to be very weak-minded.

So it's a poisonous situation, and there is actually a serious proposal to make McClellan a dictator, and what they mean by that is that they would - not that there would be a military coup but that they would pass a law vesting the power to run the war effort in McClellan and formally take - in a sense taking it away from Lincoln.

And they can imagine this because in fact nobody had ever really figured out what it meant to say that the president was commander-in-chief. It had never been a question of how he would exercise those powers.

DAVIES: So how far did this idea get in the early months?

SLOTKIN: It never gets to the point of actually making McClellan a dictator, and it's partly that there are too many rivals for the role of controlling Lincoln. And it's also that there's an easier way for McClellan to exercise power, and that is by becoming Lincoln's primary military advisor.

And he does this first by forcing the general-in-chief of the Army, Winfield Scott, into retirement, and the other path is by gaining a controlling voice over Lincoln's cabinet, and he spends really most of the next year trying to take that route to controlling Lincoln.

DAVIES: And he wrote a lot of letters to his wife, many of which have endured for historians like yourself. What do they tell us about his musings about taking control of the republic?

SLOTKIN: Well, they show a few things. He was really unrestrained, and it really is a window into the mind of a man who is a narcissist of world-class status. He really does see himself as the indispensible man, and he - his resentments of Lincoln are phenomenal. He refers to him as the original gorilla, a traitor or the tool of traitors.

He believed that he should be in charge of the government, that Lincoln should defer to him, and he was outraged by Lincoln's refusal.

DAVIES: One of the things that McClellan is credited with doing very well is training and preparing an army. I mean, he had the skill to do that, and he assembled the troops, and they were very loyal to him. And when he was a commander in the field, how much time did he spend doing politics, meeting with his political associates from the Democratic Party?

SLOTKIN: At intervals he spends a lot of time doing that. When the Army is deeply engaged in active movements, and his headquarters is mobile, he's really dealing just with his own military circle. But whenever the Army comes to rest, Democratic politicians, journalists, editors, come swarming to McClellan's headquarters.

And some of his - the generals who are not McClellan loyalists are put off by this. They feel that it's not a legitimate thing for the Army commander to be doing.

DAVIES: So you have a situation in which the top military commander has a lot of political connections. He and others in the government are leaking things to the press, which is very active and partisan in many cases. What does all this do for Lincoln's sense of his own ability to lead and maneuver?

SLOTKIN: Well, he recognizes that McClellan has a strong political position and that in dealing with McClellan, he has to be, at least in this early stage that we're talking about, up till the summer of '62, he's got to be really careful with McClellan. Unlike the South, the North really has a serious partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats.

To win the war, Lincoln has to keep the Democrats essentially supporting the war. So he can't really move too strenuously against McClellan. He's got to respect his power, and in the - the more at odds McClellan gets with the Lincoln administration, the harder it gets because McClellan is using the press to try to get Lincoln to fire Secretary of War Stanton.

McClellan believes if he can get Lincoln to do that, then that's the end of Lincoln's having any military advisor other than McClellan.

DAVIES: He was ultimately unsuccessful in doing that.

SLOTKIN: Totally unsuccessful. Yeah, Lincoln was onto the game from the start, and he deals with it by saying, gee, I don't know what the problem is, Stanton and McClellan are the best of friends.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Richard Slotkin. His new book is "The Long Road To Antietam." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with historian Richard Slotkin. His new book is called "The Long Road To Antietam: How The Civil War Became A Revolution."

So there's this campaign. McClellan, who was the commander of the Union troops, McClellan has this massive army moving north toward Richmond. And Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, outmaneuvers him and forces McClellan into, you know, defeat and retreat. It goes badly. It's a terrible defeat for the North. Lincoln is upset, and McClellan complains that Lincoln didn't support him with enough troops, et cetera, et cetera.

But there's this moment at which Lincoln, after this defeat and this unsuccessful campaign, goes to meet with McClellan at his tent. And this is quite - quite an encounter. Lincoln asks for McClellan's plans. What are you going to do now? How do we regain the offensive? Tell us how McClellan responds.

SLOTKIN: Yeah, McClellan answers by handing Lincoln a letter, which he says will define his ideas, and the letter, it's called the Harrison's Landing Letter, that was the encampment where they met. The letter says nothing whatsoever about future operations for the Army of the Potomac. It's - instead, it's a political manifesto.

And he really - McClellan in effect makes three important demands of Lincoln. First, that the administration reject any move against slavery, and the letter says in a kind of threatening way that if anything radical is done about slavery, the army itself will dissolve - that is, the soldiers will refuse to fight.

And the second thing he says, and this is kind of a legalistic point, but it's an important one, he says that a war of subjugation would be against the Constitution - that is, it's not - Lincoln can't treat the Southerners as rebels, that as the Southern territory is liberated from the Confederates, Southerners have to be restored to their political rights, so that no sooner are they liberated than ex-Confederates can start voting for Democrats.

And the third thing he says is that Lincoln should appoint a commander-in-chief - that is, a soldier commander-in-chief - and give him power to act essentially without interference from the political - from the civilian government. And it's stunning. Basically a defeated general is asking the president to give up his political power and surrender his own party's interest and platform to the platform and interests of the opposition.

DAVIES: Right, so after this meeting, after the defeat in the Virginia campaign and McClellan saying essentially - presenting a list of political demands, Lincoln really changes his perspective on how to pursue the war, right? What happened - how does his thinking change?

SLOTKIN: Well, you remember, you know, McClellan's three demands. Within a week of coming back to Washington, Lincoln has acted decisively to reject everything McClellan has said. First, instead of appointing McClellan commander-in-chief, he brings in Henry Halleck, a general who'd been successful out west.

The day before he invites Halleck to come east, he tells Secretary of State Seward in a private conversation that he is going to issue an emancipation proclamation, which of course is adamantly opposed to everything that McClellan had just said to him.

The decision to issue an emancipation proclamation means you're throwing out any hope of compromise with the South. There's no way that the South is - there was no way, actually, that the South would have negotiated on Lincoln's basis of ultimate extinction. They're certainly not going to negotiate under threat of emancipation.

So in deciding this, Lincoln knows he's making a decision that will make this a war to the finish, a war of subjugation, to use the language that they used in the 1860s. The South will not quit until it's beaten. That means total war.

DAVIES: Right, it's no longer just a war about preserving the Union, it's about radically changing the Southern way of life.

SLOTKIN: That's right, that's right, and radically changing the nature of the Union as well.

GROSS: Historian Richard Slotkin and FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies will continue their conversation in the second half of the show. Slotkin is the author of the new book "The Road To Antietam: How The Civil War Became A Revolution." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with historian Richard Slotkin about his new book "The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution."

When they left off, they were discussing President Lincoln's decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln knew would end the possibility of a negotiated compromise with the South.

DAVIES: In what ways would a proclamation which declared slaves in the rebelling states to be free, in what ways would that have assisted or changed the Union's war effort as it pursued its military goals?

SLOTKIN: Well, I have to say here there are two different versions. This first draft of the Proclamation, which was really very limited and it really only proposed doing away with slavery in the South, but the final plan that Lincoln puts together does have substantial military effects. In the original draft he - he was not going to take blacks into the military. The final draft he says two things: first, blacks will be taken into the military. And the second, most radical, thing in the proclamation, again, the final proclamation, not the first draft, is that he says to slaves that they shouldn't use violence unnecessarily, only in self-defense. And it looks like he's telling them not to rebel. But slaves have no right of self-defense. Southern law, the fundamental law of slavery is that the slave cannot appeal against the master even to a court, let alone physically defend himself against the master. And Lincoln is saying that the slaves now have a right of self-defense. And that - to me that's the giveaway, that this is a revolutionary act, that he's telling the slaves they don't have to take punishment anymore. They don't have to take whipping anymore. They can defend themselves.

DAVIES: Now, what's interesting about this moment in the struggle is that although Lincoln had decided he would take this turn towards total war and emancipation of the slaves and recasting the society of the South, Jefferson Davis didn't know this and he and Lee planned an invasion actually into Maryland, and of course this leads to the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862. People can read the book if they want to hear the military side of that story. It's a long, studied and fascinating tale. But tell us what's significant about that day and how it ended.

SLOTKIN: Well, Antietam insignificant for a couple of reasons. It's - first of all, it's the bloodiest single day of combat in American history - 13,000 Union soldiers, 12,000 Confederates killed, wounded or missing; 25 percent of the troops that were engaged became casualties. Compare that with D-Day, in which 5,600 Americans killed, wounded or missing, and that's only 10 percent of the force that was engaged. And it's - so it's really quite a stunning battle in its own right. But Lincoln had said, he originally, he had wanted to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in July but he needed a victory. He didn't want to issue it when the Union Army seemed to be on the decline. And Antietam, although it was a close-run battle, it was enough of a victory for Lincoln to bring out the Emancipation Proclamation, which he did four days after the battle.

DAVIES: Do you think this is an important moment for the Constitution?

SLOTKIN: I think it is because Lincoln, with a victory in hand, and with the - by November 7, with the congressional elections over, Lincoln finally is free to fire McClellan. And two days after the election he fires him. He fires a victorious general. It's often been compared to Truman firing MacArthur during the Korean War for his disobedience of presidential orders. Much more dangerous for Lincoln. Lincoln fires a victorious general whose army is in a sense at the gates of Washington, a general who had been talking about military - whose people at least had been talking about military coup - he fires him. And that is the ultimate resolution of this revolutionary crisis because no general will ever have the potential as the maker of a coup than McClellan had.

DAVIES: You know, it seems as you look at this early period of the Civil War, you take us through a period in which both sides hope for an early conclusion, and on terms favorable to them, and neither of them get there and we're plunged into this long, as you say, revolutionary struggle. What does it tell us? Was this inevitable?

SLOTKIN: I think it was inevitable once - once you resort war, your options become radically limited, and they are limited by the fact that, you know, you're dealing with force and opposing force. And once each side commits to the war, I think they are in a trap that they can't get out of. There's this wonderful moment after the proclamation comes out, Lincoln's cabinet officers and advisors are sitting around drinking wine, and one of them says that the secession was the most remarkable instance of insanity in a ruling class that he'd ever heard of, and if the South had left, had not seceded and gone to war, they could have enjoyed slavery for generations, no one would've cared. But they basically went out on their way to put it in the way of destruction. And I think that's right. When you choose war, you choose the path of destruction, and the destruction - you can never tell which way the destruction is going to fall out.

DAVIES: This is also a fascinating look at Abraham Lincoln. I mean he was in the early years someone that many - not General George McClellan - but others regarded as a lightweight, in over his head. What does this tell us about Lincoln?

SLOTKIN: Well, a few things. He's - first of all, he's a brilliant political leader who understands human nature, who understands the play of forces, who becomes - who educates himself on military strategy in a way that is fundamentally sound. But he's also a profoundly moral guy. And when we talk about his calculations about the Proclamation and the war, basically he has to do the Proclamation because he believes that you could not justify the kind of war that he was already in, and especially the kind of war they were going to have to fight to win the Union, unless you had removed the root cause of conflict that had caused the war in the first place, that if you won the war and left slavery there, you were simply going to have another war over slavery sometime in the future. And so as a moral principle, if you're going to fight that kind of war, you have to justify it by taking an action to do away with the roots of conflict.

DAVIES: Well, Richard Slotkin, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

SLOTKIN: Thank you.

GROSS: Historian Richard Slotkin spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Slotkin is the author of the new book "The Long Road to Antietam." You can read an excerpt on our website, Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.