TWO DAYS AFTER LINCOLN ISSUED THE PRELIMINARY EMANCIPAtion Proclamation, the president, the cabinet and some associates gathered to hear a congratulatory serenade. Afterward, Secretaries Chase and Bates and several other “old fogies,” as young John Hay called them, prolonged the festivities in Secretary Chase’s luxuriously furnished parlor. To Hay, “[t]hey all seemed to feel a sort of new and exhilarated life; they breathed freer,” as if the Proclamation had freed them along with the slaves. Good wine loosened their tongues as well. “They gleefully and merrily called each other abolitionists,” tipsily savoring the pleasure of adopting “that horrible name.” It suddenly occurred to Chase that secession had been the “most wonderful” case of the “insanity of a class that the world had ever seen.” If the South had stayed in the Union it might have enjoyed its peculiar institution for “many years to come”—abolition as such had little support in the North, and no serious political party espoused it. But by seceding the South had “madly placed [slavery] in the very path of destruction.”1
Chase had a good point. Southern leaders had chosen to risk the survival of their society and way of life on the chances of war—which is to say, on the outcome of ventures like the Antietam campaign, in which the fate of a nation may hinge on orders lost and found, on coincidences so improbable no novelist would permit them, on an interplay of acumen and miscalculation so intricate that the two can hardly be distinguished. Like the war of which the Antietam campaign was a part, the premises on which the campaign was based, and the decisions that shaped it, were explicable and even justifiable on rational grounds. Nevertheless, once strategic decisions had set the armies in motion, events slipped beyond rational control, and the campaign developed as a tragicomedy of errors.
The Antietam campaign was the product of parallel decision making by the political and military leadership of the Union and the Confederacy, in response to the manifest failure of the strategies each party had been pursuing for the first year and a half of the struggle. Abraham Lincoln undertook a radical transformation of Union strategy, based on a profound understanding of the political and social forces that had caused and shaped the conflict and a critical appreciation of the inadequacies of his own armies’ material strength and tactical deployment. Jefferson Davis and his generals recognized that General Lee’s victory in the Seven Days Battles, coupled with the mismanagement of Union operations in the West, had given the Confederacy a unique opportunity to reverse the momentum of the conflict by staging a strategic grand offensive. Both strategies were based on sound assessments of the strategic situation, and of the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing forces.
However, in the ensuing campaign the quality of decision making seemed to have no relation at all to the outcome of events. Lincoln is renowned for his ability to manage the “Team of Rivals” that constituted his government, but in 1862 his strategic transformation was nearly wrecked by his inability to get his cabinet officers and his generals to cooperate with him or with each other; while Jefferson Davis, notorious for his inability to get along with his generals, for once maintained seamless cooperation with his commanders. Robert E. Lee’s virtues as a commander—the daring that enabled him to seize the initiative, his skill at maneuver—led to the near-fatal division of his army that was exposed by the lost order. It also drove him to seek a battle on September 17 that could only end in stalemate and retreat. The caution that was McClellan’s chief defect as a commander actually proved an advantage, because it tempted Lee to stand and fight a battle McClellan could not lose—though he came close. In the fighting at Antietam, Lee’s tactical skill barely enabled the Army of Northern Virginia to hold its ground, while McClellan’s tactical incompetence wasted his army’s strength in piecemeal and half-strength attacks. Yet, in the end victory went to the side with the weaker tactical commander and the less effective coordination of civil-military leadership. The Union won at Antietam because it had the bigger battalions—it could better afford the costs of McClellan’s ineptitude than the Confederates the costs of Lee’s genius.
Viewed from a strictly military viewpoint, the Battle of Antietam was largely indecisive—full of sound and fury, exorbitant in its human costs, but making very little difference in the tactical positions and military strength of the rival armies. The Confederate invasion of Maryland was defeated and Lee’s army compelled to retreat to Virginia. However, many of the other important objectives of the Confederate summer offensive had been achieved. The combined operation against Richmond by Pope and McClellan was broken up and the seat of war transferred to northern Virginia. The Southern public was not at all discouraged by the setback to Lee’s army but rather gloried in its successes at Second Bull Run and Harpers Ferry and its repulse of a superior Northern army at Sharpsburg. Most significantly, the defeat did not diminish the war-making power of the Confederacy or the Army of Northern Virginia. Seven weeks after the battle, Lee’s army had more than doubled its strength and was more fit for operations, offensive or defensive, than it had been since before the Second Bull Run campaign.2
Nevertheless, the indecisive battle did produce a decisive political result. Antietam was victory enough to allow Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Even his disappointment with the extent of that victory was useful, since it strengthened his determination to fire McClellan. The Proclamation profoundly altered the character of the war by linking restoration of the Union with the destruction of slavery. The prospects for a compromise settlement, always doubtful, were now eliminated, since a Union victory would entail destruction of the social fabric of the South. The Union would now fight a war of subjugation, the South a war of social survival, and the conflict would become something like “total war.”3
Events would show that the South lacked the matériel and manpower resources, the institutional strength and the political culture to win that kind of war—just as the weakness of Lee’s army had prevented his winning the Battle of Antietam. But that outcome was not inevitable, and in the fall of 1862 there was every reason to think a Southern victory was still possible.
“NOT WITHOUT HAPPY RESULTS”:
THE CONFEDERATE PERSPECTIVE
While the Confederacy’s strategic offensive in the summer of 1862 was ended by the tactical defeats of Van Dorn at Corinth on October 3, Bragg at Perryville on October 8, and Lee at Antietam on September 17, the strategic achievement was actually quite substantial. Federal armies, which had been on the offensive since January, were not only thrown onto the defensive, but they had to fight to hold or recover territory they thought securely occupied. The planned Federal offensives against Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Richmond were thwarted and delayed for six or seven months; and when they began, in November and December 1862, they would be sharply checked in northern Mississippi, at Stones River in Tennessee, and at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Davis’s offensive thus bought the Confederacy a good deal of much-needed time in which to build up its armies; and the longer his forces kept the Union armies stymied, the better his case for recognition by the British and French.
Confederate gains were especially marked in Virginia. The offensive by Lee’s army, which began on August 14, had recovered much of northern Virginia. Despite defeat at Antietam, Lee was able to keep McClellan from crossing the Potomac for two months. Although he eventually had to give ground, he was able to maintain Confederate control of the Shenandoah Valley and to prevent the Army of the Potomac from advancing any farther south than the Rapidan/Rappahannock River line, forty miles south of Washington and sixty miles from Richmond. He had succeeded in his major aim of shifting the seat of conflict from Richmond to northern Virginia, and he would keep it there for the next two years.
Events over the next two years would show that the Confederacy could not afford to repeatedly suffer casualties on the scale Lee’s army suffered at Antietam. Its pool of White military manpower was less than half that of the Northern states, and its commitment to slavery forbade the use of Blacks as combat troops. But in the fall of 1862 the Confederacy had experienced less than a year of intensive combat, and the losses so far suffered were more than made up for in conscription and new enlistments—the latter stimulated by the glory Lee’s army won in its summer of victories. Although Northern resources were ultimately far greater than the South’s, in the months after Antietam the strengthening of Lee’s army proportionately outpaced McClellan’s reinforcement. By November 2 Lee’s force was up to more than eighty thousand, reducing the odds against it to three to two, and the men were in far better physical shape than they had been during the summer.
The Confederacy’s most significant loss at Antietam, and in the associated battles of the western armies, was the chance to exploit a unique conjunction of military opportunity and Northern political vulnerability. The North’s midterm elections were the most crucial feature of the strategic situation. Discontent with Lincoln’s conduct of the war was rife in both political parties, discouraging Republicans and encouraging Democrats. The latter had overcome the ideological and organizational disarray resulting from the loss of its Southern wing and the death of its strongest leader, Stephen Douglas. The Democratic Party was prepared to contest the midterm elections on a platform condemning Lincoln and his party for changing the war for the Union into an abolitionist jihad against slavery, and for mismanaging military operations—as demonstrated by the administration’s persecution and ultimate betrayal of General McClellan. Implicit in Democratic attacks on the president and his policy was the belief that the strategy of conciliation could still succeed in bringing the South back into the Union, with compromises insuring the safety of slavery.
The electoral outcome would determine whether or not Lincoln and his party would continue to control the making of war policy, to insist on an unconditional restoration of the Union, and to further its antislavery policies—confiscation, exclusion from new territories, ultimate extinction. The elections were also a critical consideration for the British government as it considered whether or not to intervene with an offer of mediation. Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and Foreign Secretary Lord Russell were unwilling to act so long as it seemed likely that the North would go to war rather than accept British interference in American affairs. However, the electoral victory of a party committed to peace and conciliation would have indicated that the North was ready to accept a negotiated end to the fighting.4
In evaluating the quality of Lee’s and Davis’s decision making during the Maryland campaign, we have to bear in mind their awareness that the opportunities before them were not likely to recur. The military advantages of force strength, position, and momentum might conceivably be recovered at some later time, although at great cost in blood and treasure. As it happened, in May and June of 1863, Lee would succeed in creating the conditions that enabled him to mount a second invasion of the North, which ended at Gettysburg. But this second invasion had to proceed without the support of offensives in the western theater; and there were no national elections to amplify the impact of a Confederate success. Lincoln’s power to control the Union war effort would not face an electoral challenge again until 1864, when the president had to stand for reelection after a summer of heavy casualties and inconclusive fighting. The political stakes were higher in 1864, and Lincoln’s vulnerability at least as great as in 1862; but Confederate armies could do little to exploit that vulnerability, because they no longer had the strength to mount the kind of offensives they had staged in 1862.
Given these circumstances, Davis’s decision to launch a strategic offensive, and to urge his commanders to embrace the risks of battle, seems justified. The specific elements of the grand offensive were initially proposed by the field commanders. Davis recognized the larger potential of their initiatives, authorized and to the extent possible coordinated and supported their operations while properly leaving operational details to his field commanders. The plan of campaign he recommended to Bragg was better than the plan Bragg chose to follow; and his unquestioning acceptance of Lee’s decision to invade Maryland was based on both an appreciation of Lee’s expertise and the knowledge that Lee shared his understanding of the Confederacy’s strategic necessities. The contrast with Federal decision making is striking and significant: Lincoln made the crucial decisions alone, taking limited advice from his cabinet, receiving little help or guidance from General in Chief Halleck, and treating his field commanders with well-deserved mistrust. In the summer of 1862 the Davis administration acted with far greater harmony and efficiency than Lincoln and his celebrated “Team of Rivals.”5
Still, Lee’s operational decisions have been criticized for unnecessarily exposing his army to destruction by a much superior Federal force. Lee can certainly be faulted for overestimating the numbers and physical condition of his infantry, and for a plan of campaign that required such extensive and rapid marches that his force was depleted by massive straggling. He also erred in basing his maneuvers on assumptions about what McClellan would do, and neglecting to make adequate allowance for what a Union army on its own ground was capable of doing. Lee was also wrong about the quality of the opposing infantry, which was not at all deficient in morale, and nearly broke Lee’s line despite the tactical ineptitude of their commander.
However, Lee’s most questionable operational decisions must be judged in light of the unique opportunity it was his mission to exploit. From a purely tactical perspective, it was a mistake for Lee to march the whole army to Frederick before having cleared his supply line by capturing Harpers Ferry. The Federal decision to hold out there deranged Lee’s plan and forced the division of his army that gave McClellan his great opportunity. Lee learned the tactical lesson, and when he invaded the North in June 1863, he made sure to clear Harpers Ferry early on. But the invasion of Maryland was not a purely tactical exercise. It was part of a military and political strategy whose first objective was to pry Maryland away from the Union, or at least draw its youth into Confederate ranks. Frederick was the only post from which such a political operation could be mounted: central to the mainland part of the state, and as close as Lee could get to the pro-Confederate communities in and around Baltimore. This project turned out to be futile, but there was no way to be certain of that until it had been tried.
Lee’s decision to stand and fight on September 17 instead of retreating on the sixteenth can also be questioned on tactical grounds, since he exposed his army to heavy damage, if not destruction by a superior force, under circumstances that made anything better than tactical stalemate and retreat highly unlikely. In Lee’s defense, it should be remembered that Braxton Bragg’s refusal to risk a general engagement with Buell’s larger army was criticized at the time by Bragg’s colleagues, and since then by historians, as the waste of a hard-won opportunity. Though it spared the Confederacy a high casualty list, Bragg’s retreat seriously damaged his army’s morale, while the critical reaction of his subordinates permanently damaged the command structure of the Army of Tennessee. In contrast, the public standing of Lee and his army soared after Antietam, and the morale of the Army of Northern Virginia swiftly revived.6
In war, risk is proportional to necessity. The Confederacy could not win a long war, and in September 1862 it had a unique chance to win the war outright. Lee was therefore bound to try by every possible means to achieve his objective. Given McClellan’s past performance, and Lee’s confidence in the combat proficiency of his own army—and given as well the fact that to “win” Lee had only to induce McClellan to retreat—his willingness to risk his army at Antietam was justified in principle, and not simply by the fact that his army escaped destruction.
As a strategic exercise, the invasion of Maryland and Kentucky also had a political component. President Davis combined armed force with a strong propaganda campaign and the use of high-prestige political figures in an attempt to stir a popular uprising against the states’ Unionist governments. This political program failed completely. No rebellion and few recruits were forthcoming. Kentuckians and Marylanders even begrudged the supplies of food and forage their “liberators” required. However, Davis would build on the experience to develop more effective methods of political warfare. Kentucky and Maryland would not rally to the cry of states’ rights, but it was conceivable that all of Northern society could be split by an appeal to White supremacy. Over the next two years the Confederate government would support and encourage various subversive, or “Copperhead,” movements in the Midwestern states, whose activities ranged from running opposition candidates, to draft obstruction, to abortive conspiracies of sabotage and rebellion. These efforts would culminate in the 1864 presidential campaign, in which the Democrats mounted a serious threat to Lincoln and his war policies, on a platform written by its “Peace” faction and influenced by the work of Confederate agents.
In this, the Confederacy was aided by the Emancipation Proclamation, which produced a racial backlash among important constituencies in the North. However, that reaction was not strong enough to unseat Lincoln, while the positive effects of emancipation ultimately made a decisive contribution to the Union war effort.
END OF THE BEGINNING: THE UNION PERSPECTIVE
The transformation of Union strategy in the summer of 1862 began with Lincoln’s decision to emancipate all slaves held in Confederate territory by presidential proclamation. Although Lincoln’s opposition to slavery was essentially moral, his decision was based on the recognition that the strategy of limited war and political conciliation had failed; that the Union could not be restored until the South’s will and ability to resist had been thoroughly broken. Such a war would be long and extremely costly, and could only be won by combining intensified military operations with an attack on slavery, which was the basis of the Southern economy and social structure. Lincoln was also convinced that no permanent restoration of the Union was possible so long as slavery existed as a permanent element of social organization in the Southern states. Even if the strategy of conciliation succeeded in bringing the Southern states back into the Union, that victory would be meaningless if it left the institution of slavery intact. The old and inescapable conflict of values and institutions would remain, and the threat of secession and social violence passed on to later generations. The costs of a continued war could not be justified, unless the root cause of the war was removed for all time. To achieve that aim Lincoln was willing to accept the costs of a war of subjugation, and risk the social and political disruptions that would result from emancipation.
That political decision required a transformation of the scope, intensity, and duration of military operations. Lincoln would have to vastly increase the military manpower already enlisted. He would also have to find generals willing to both accept the change in Federal war aims and commit to the longer, harder war they entailed. That would require, at the very least, a restructuring of the army’s command, beginning with the appointment of Major General Henry W. Halleck as general in chief, with orders to energize the offensive operations of the main field armies, commanded by Generals Grant, Buell, and McClellan.
Though Lincoln’s understanding of strategic necessity was impeccable, he botched the military part of the program. The tactical situation in July 1862 required McClellan to renew his offensive against Richmond, to prevent the Confederates from concentrating against Pope’s army, which was moving toward Richmond through northern Virginia. When McClellan balked at the order to advance, Lincoln should have removed him from command at once. Instead he “strategized,” passing the decision to Halleck—who lacked the moral courage and decisiveness to act. Halleck and Lincoln chose to evade a confrontation with McClellan and his partisans by shifting the Army of the Potomac piecemeal to reinforce Pope. They thus immobilized more than half the federal troops in the Virginia theater, and freed Lee and Davis to use all their combat-ready units in a counteroffensive that nearly wrecked the Union war effort.
As a result of this blunder, Lincoln had to begin his radical transformation of the Union war effort amid a military crisis. Instead of preparing the public for the proclamation he had shown the cabinet on July 22, he had to spend weeks defending his Secretary of War against scurrilous charges emanating from the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac. After Pope’s defeat at Second Bull Run, his plans were further disrupted by the need to reorganize an army wracked by the mutual hostility of its commanding generals, so it could confront an enemy that was threatening invasion. Instead of eliminating the McClellan problem that had dogged his policy for a year, he was compelled to restore McClellan to command, over the violent objections of Chase and Stanton, two of the strongest men in his cabinet.
The decisions Lincoln made during this period were the political equivalent of Lee’s decision to fight at Antietam. The two were well matched. To paraphrase Lincoln, neither man was willing to leave the game while any card remained unplayed. Lincoln, like Lee, risked what he could not afford to lose, to gain objectives that were, as he saw them, essential to winning the war. His reappointment of McClellan, after Pope’s disaster, outraged nearly all of his cabinet and the most powerful leaders of his party in Congress. His issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the subsequent firing of McClellan, threatened to split the coalition of War Democrats, moderate and Radical Republicans that sustained his administration and the war effort, at a time when his own prestige and public standing were at a low point. Lincoln also ran the risk of an open breach with General McClellan, at a moment when the general’s prestige was enhanced by victory, while his civilian partisans were calling for a “dictatorship” and his staff muttering threats of a military coup. Even if those threats were just talk, a public declaration by McClellan that he opposed the president’s policy would have created a constitutional crisis and undermined the president’s authority as commander in chief while the nation was in the midst of revolution and civil war.
Like Lee, Lincoln judged his opponents accurately enough to escape actual defeat. Though Republicans suffered dismaying losses in the fall elections, they retained their majorities in the House and Senate, and Lincoln’s astute handling of War Democrats like John McClernand succeeded in holding his coalition together. In dealing with McClellan, he balanced John Hay’s fears of a “McClellan conspiracy” against his own sense of the general’s risk-averse character, and called the turn correctly. Despite the urgings of his staff, McClellan backed away from his plan to publicly oppose the Proclamation, and when faced with removal from command chose to obey orders rather than march on Washington. There would be no military coup, and the crisis of presidential authority was resolved.
From this experience Lincoln was both strengthened and schooled on how to deal with generals who thought control of war policy should be conceded to military professionals. During the winter of 1862–63, General Hooker, who was successfully politicking to replace Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac, blustered that the administration was adrift and the country needed a dictator to pull things together. Instead of ignoring such talk, as he had done with McClellan, Lincoln openly challenged Hooker: “I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”7 Hooker was abashed, and never spoke in such terms again.
IN A STRICTLY MILITARY SENSE, McClellan’s relief did serious, albeit temporary, harm to the Union cause. Even those in the army aware of his excessive caution and failure to seize opportunities appreciated his skill as an organizer and strategist. His army’s movement by sea to the approaches of Richmond in April 1862 was a brilliant stroke, comparable to MacArthur’s at Inchon—except that where MacArthur followed through by striking the enemy, McClellan hesitated and temporized until all his advantages were lost. Still, his operations in Maryland showed that he had some capacity to learn from experience. McClellan’s performance in Maryland was an improvement over his campaign on the Peninsula. He acted with greater decision and combativeness than he had hitherto shown, although his handling of military intelligence was still incompetent, as were his battlefield tactics. The thoughtful Charles Francis Adams Jr., who had no sympathy for McClellan’s politics, regretted McClellan’s removal because “[w]e believed in him, not as a brilliant commander, but as a prudent one and one who was gradually learning how to handle our immense army, and now a new man must learn . . . by his own mistakes and in the blood of the army.”8
McClellan’s replacement, General Ambrose Burnside, would prove the validity of Adams’s judgment by leading the army into a futile and unnecessary bloodbath at Fredericksburg, nearly destroying its morale and physical health by abysmal mismanagement. His errors, however, were purely military and entirely obvious, and his removal relatively prompt and politically unproblematic. In the last analysis, Burnside’s blunders were less damaging to the Union war effort, and less dangerous to the political health of the republic, than McClellan’s continual machinations.
McClellan’s removal was unquestionably a political act, but also in the largest sense a strategic necessity. McClellan’s incessant, incorrigible pursuit of power was the basis of a crippling internal division at the highest levels of strategy and policymaking, and also an implicit threat to the constitutional order. The case of Major Key was so damaging to McClellan because the “game” Key described was such a plausible explanation for McClellan’s failure to even attempt the destruction of Lee’s army when he had the chance. Historian Ethan Rafuse, whose study of McClellan’s politics is both thorough and sympathetic, concludes that “the decisions that prevented McClellan from taking full advantage of the opportunity to destroy Lee’s army, which his conduct of operations had created, were also the consequence of the fact that such an outcome, although desirable, was not critical to McClellan’s strategic vision in September 1862. [He believed] it was enough that he had saved the North from the consequences of political folly and placed himself in position to carry out the next step in restoring the ascendancy of reason in the Union war effort.” The ascendancy of reason of course required his own ascent to a dominant position within the administration.9
In the end, no amount of field experience could overcome the fundamental defect in McClellan’s approach to war: his conviction that every operation had to contend not only with the enemy in front but with enemies in the rear. Every critical calculation he made in the field was calibrated not only for its effect on the Rebel army but for its possible impact on McClellan’s quest for power in Washington. He considered Radicalism to be as dangerous to the preservation of the republic as a successful Southern secession. No military victory was worth winning if it redounded to the benefit of a Radical regime. That was why he both considered his defeat on the Peninsula “providential” and refused to renew the Battle of Antietam on September 18. He had already won victory enough to demonstrate his indispensability and advance his campaign against Lincoln’s Radical advisers. Why risk that standing by attacking Lee’s army, when a more decisive triumph would merely benefit a Radical administration? Better to see whether the work of his supporters in Washington succeeded in getting Stanton turned out, or the midterm elections produced a “conservative” triumph. No general who thought that way would ever defeat Robert E. Lee, whose concentration on military necessity was ruthless and uncompromised.
Whatever the balance between his virtues and defects as a field general, McClellan was an untrustworthy instrument of civil and military policy, especially for a democratic government in the midst of civil war, faced with revolutions both actual and potential. He persistently resisted or disobeyed his government’s demands for consultation on strategy and operations, for truthful action reports, and for the execution of important orders and legal edicts. Through agents like Fitz-John Porter and others, he waged a political campaign aimed at undermining the authority of the president and secretary of war, his superiors in the constitutional chain of command. This was, as one historian has written, “at the least a violation of his soldier’s duty under the articles of war and at worst an attempt at military usurpation.”10 He certainly tolerated, and probably encouraged, the loose talk about a countermarch on Washington that Burnside and Cox deemed treasonous. It was at his instigation that Fitz-John Porter wrote to the press, accusing Stanton of incompetence, official malfeasance, and actions akin to treason. Thus McClellan and Porter were guilty of violating Section One, Articles Five and Six of the Articles of War—the congressional act that defined military law from 1776 to 1920. Article Five states:
Any officer or soldier who shall use contemptuous or disrespectful words against the President of the United States, against the Vice-President thereof, against Congress of the United States, or against the Chief Magistrate or Legislature of any of the United States, in which he may be quartered, if a commissioned officer, shall be cashiered, or otherwise be punished, as a courts-martial shall direct; if a non-commissioned officer or soldier, he shall suffer such punishment as shall be inflicted on him by the sentence of a court-martial.
McClellan’s efforts to defame and discredit Generals Scott and Halleck, when they were general in chief, seems an obvious violation of Article Six, which states that “Any officer or soldier, who shall behave himself with contempt or disrespect toward his commanding officer, shall be punished, according to the nature of his offense, by the judgement of a court-martial.” Porter was tried by court-martial, but not for the violations of which he was guilty; rather, for false charges of disobedience to General Pope, trumped up by Stanton as political revenge against the “McClellan clique.”11
The conflict between Lincoln and McClellan was not simply about the forms and protocols of civil-military relations. They differed fundamentally on the purposes for which the war was to be fought, and on the strategy for fighting it. McClellan adhered to the principles and methods of the “conciliation” strategy that had prevailed at the start of the war. In the fall of 1862 he still hoped that a combination of rapid and symbolically significant victories by the North, coupled with the proffer of compromises designed to assure the protection of slavery where it existed, would induce Southerners to seek a negotiated settlement of the conflict. By the summer of 1862, Lincoln had become convinced that the South could not be conciliated and would not return to the Union until it had been thoroughly and unambiguously defeated, and its means of resistance destroyed. He also believed that a general emancipation of Confederate slaves was necessary, both as a means to defeating Southern armies and as a step toward the “ultimate extinction” of an institution that was incompatible with democracy and national unity. He therefore embraced a strategy that made a compromise peace virtually impossible.
Before considering the virtues and weaknesses of Lincoln’s strategy, we need to ask whether McClellan’s offered a viable alternative. The answer is almost certainly that it did not. It is barely possible that if McClellan had won a decisive victory and captured Richmond in June 1862, some Confederate leaders—though never Jefferson Davis—might have been open to negotiating for peace with a conciliatory Union government. However, it is far more likely that the struggle would have continued. The Confederacy would still have had large armies in the field and an as yet untapped reserve of military manpower. The loss of Richmond would have been a blow to Confederate morale, to armaments production, and to international prestige; but the South would suffer greater losses over the next three years and remain committed to the struggle for independence. There is no evidence whatever that in the fall and winter of 1862 any considerable body of Southern opinion was open to the kind of settlement McClellan and the “conservatives” contemplated. President Davis, the Confederate Congress, Southern governors and generals might disagree about the military policies of their government, but they remained unanimous in their support of the struggle for independence. That support would not even begin to crack until 1864, in the face of massive military defeats and the Federal invasion of the deep South; and even then, the Southern “Peace” movement remained marginal. It is hard to imagine the South, in 1862, accepting a return to the Union on terms that did not grant the South some special form of autonomy or leave open the question whether they might secede in the future; it is impossible to imagine Northerners accepting such a compromise, unless they had suffered a decisive and irretrievable military defeat. Though McClellan sincerely maintained that his purpose was to restore the Union as it was, his program could not have succeeded. If there had ever been a chance that the Civil War could be ended by compromise, which is doubtful, by the summer of 1862 that chance was long gone.
Lincoln believed the Emancipation Proclamation was the act by which history would judge him and his administration, and as a matter of moral principle he was content that that be so. However, in its original context, the Emancipation Proclamation was justified as a “war measure,” and its effectiveness must first be judged by considering its strategic consequences: its effect on military operations, and on the political will of Unionists to fight a much longer war; and its effect on the Confederacy’s morale and material strength, and its prospects for foreign intervention.
The Proclamation was initially greeted with a wave of approval in Northern newspapers across much of the political spectrum. However, as Lincoln told Vice President Hamlin, “while commendation in newspapers and by distinguished individuals is all that a vain man could wish, the stocks have declined, and troops come forward more slowly than ever. . . . The North responds to the proclamation sufficiently in breath; but breath alone kills no rebels.” Lincoln expected a backlash at the polls and in the press from Democrats, and from Border State politicians in both parties—and was not disappointed. It is worth noting that Lincoln could have evaded the political costs of this backlash by withholding the Proclamation till after the election. That he did not do so gives the lie to McClellan’s accusation of “despotism.” By issuing the Proclamation in September, Lincoln enabled voters to express their opposition at the polls. That opposition was serious, but Lincoln’s party was able to hold its majorities in the House and Senate and retain critical governorships. It is not clear to what extent the midterm revival of the Democratic Party represented a reaction against the Emancipation Proclamation, a general disapproval of the administration’s conduct of the war, or merely the usual reversion of voters to normal party affiliations in a nonpresidential canvass. In any case, the outcome did not seriously weaken Lincoln’s ability to control the course of policy.12
In the longer term, by promising to eliminate slavery the Proclamation exposed the underlying problem of race in America—the contradiction between a political state based on the presumption of civic equality and a culture deeply imbued with the values of White supremacy. The Democratic opposition would exploit this contradiction, decrying with increasing vehemence the transformation of a war for the Union into an abolitionist crusade. The influence of the Copperhead faction within the Democratic Party would increase, until by the summer of 1864 it would be in position to write the platform on which General McClellan would oppose Lincoln for the presidency. McClellan would reject the platform plank that called for an armistice as prelude to peace negotiations, on the grounds that this would amount to unilateral abandonment of the struggle. He nevertheless accepted those planks that called for rescinding the Proclamation, and a peace settlement that would preserve slavery. The 1864 canvass would be nicknamed the “Miscegenation Election” because of the virulence of the Democratic attack on Lincoln’s supposed espousal of “nigger equality.” The strength of the racialist reaction provoked by the Proclamation may be indicated by the 40 percent of the popular vote that went to McClellan, despite the military victories that promised an early and successful end to the conflict. Yet in the last analysis, fear of “nigger equality” did not substantially weaken the Union war effort or deprive Lincoln of the public support he needed to maintain the conflict; while the Emancipation Proclamation, with crippling effect, split the South along its main fault lines, the color line between slave and free and the class line between planter and farmer.13
The Proclamation’s effect on the diplomatic front has been exaggerated. It did not deter the British and French governments from continuing to actively consider diplomatic interventions favorable to the Confederacy. The prevalence of antislavery sentiment among various elements of the British and French public played a minor role in government decision making. Liberal opinion in both countries already favored the Union, and the proclamation merely added an element of moral authority to their polemics. But within both countries there was also a strong base of political and even popular support for the Confederacy, and considerable opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation on racial grounds. Russell and Palmerston, and the pro-Southern press, condemned it as a call for “servile insurrection,” and stirred the public against the measure by invoking memories of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, with its attendant horrors of racial rape and massacre.
What ultimately prevented the British and French from intervening was their fear of becoming embroiled in an American war at a moment when European war seemed quite possible, and while French resources were being committed to the project of turning Mexico into an imperial client state. It was Lee’s defeat at Antietam and the failure of anti-administration forces to win a substantial victory at the polls, not the Emancipation Proclamation, that led the British ministry to abandon its plan to intervene in September 1862. The British continued to support the Confederacy by encouraging bankers to lend it money, hiring blockade-runners to carry its trade, and building warships for the Confederate navy, which attacked and destroyed American merchant and whaling ships on every ocean. The Palmerston government’s self-serving decision to stay out of the conflict did not become definitive until September 1863—following major Union triumphs at Vicksburg and Gettysburg—when Lord Russell intervened to prevent the sale of two armored warships to the Confederacy. If the North had lost those battles or if McClellan had won the 1864 election, the Proclamation would not have deterred recognition of the Confederacy by the British and French.14
The Proclamation did contribute substantially to the Union’s military victory. It undermined the Southern economy and social order by drawing large numbers of slaves away from their plantations. It also contributed directly to Union military strength by allowing the recruitment of Black men into the army and navy. African Americans finally had a concrete political and economic interest in the preservation of the Union. Black leaders and communities in the North, who had been politically marginalized during the first two years of war, became increasingly important elements in the making of war policy. In the South, slaves were assured that a victory for the Union would at least put an end to their enslavement, where a conciliatory peace would have perpetuated slavery under Unionist auspices. They therefore gave trust, loyalty, and service to Federal invaders. While the Proclamation abjured “servile insurrection,” and Federal agents made no overt attempts to foment one, its effect was to produce a slow-motion slave insurrection on the largest scale—masses of slaves leaving their home plantations to seek freedom within Union army lines. By detaching slaves from masters, the Proclamation undermined and eventually destroyed the South’s system of production.15
As McClellan and other conservatives predicted, the Proclamation did intensify Southerners’ commitment to the cause of independence, because it threatened both the property interest in slaves and the social interest in preserving White supremacy. However, it also exacerbated the conflict of interests between large planters and small farmers. The planting interest was preponderant in Confederate politics, and planters sought to protect plantation discipline by sponsoring laws that exempted owners and their overseers from the draft—the so-called Twenty Negro Law. The exemption was resented by nonslaveholding farmers, who were drafted to fight a war for “other men’s Negroes,” leaving their own farms to be weakly tended by wives, minor children, and aged parents. As Northern armies advanced and slaves availed themselves of the Proclamation’s promise of freedom, poorer Whites found themselves torn between their obligation of military service and their wish to go home and protect their families—a contributing cause of the rising rates of desertion that debilitated Southern armies in 1864–65. Nevertheless, until the end of the war President Davis and other Confederate leaders were able to thwart movements for peace or reunion by playing the race card, identifying the Union with “nigger equality” and the Confederacy with the defense of White supremacy.16
The most substantial military effect of the Proclamation was its enabling of Black military enlistments. During the last two years of the conflict, nearly 180,000 African Americans served in the Union army—most of them drawn from the Confederate states. In the last year of fighting more than 10 percent of the troops in Federal uniform were Black; and they entered service at a time when White enlistments were falling off. Their contribution to the Union’s military manpower was decisive: it is difficult to see how the war could have been won without their addition to the armed forces. Although excluded from the army with which Sherman marched through Georgia, they provided several combat divisions for the Armies of the Potomac, the James, and the Cumberland. They also provided the garrisons required to defend the extended supply lines of advancing armies, and made it possible to control large swathes of territory in Mississippi and Alabama and along the coasts of South Carolina and Florida. The enlistment of Blacks may also have contributed to the notable lack of that “servile insurrection” feared by conservatives by channeling the militancy and anger of former slaves into military service.17
The military enlistment clause of the Proclamation also gave a limited but highly significant impetus to the movement for extending full civil rights across the color line. By authorizing enlistment in the national army, the Proclamation conferred a fundamental civil right, an attribute of citizenship from which Blacks had long been excluded even in the free states; and it did so by fiat of the national government. The difference it made was significant and potentially transformative. It created, armed, and empowered a new consciousness among African Americans. Frederick Douglass said it best: “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”18
The change also affected racial politics at the highest level. Before, the Civil War had been essentially a White man’s war, and Lincoln, as Frederick Douglass said, exclusively a White man’s president. Now Black Americans owned a share of the war, and because of that the president would have to concern himself with their interests and even their opinions. African American political leaders like Frederick Doug-lass, who had been ignored or treated dismissively by the administration, now became vital and influential members of the Unionist coalition. The change can be measured by the difference between Lincoln’s speech to African American leaders on September 14, 1862, and a letter he wrote on August 26, 1863. In 1862 he had urged Black leaders to accept colonization outside the United States, on the grounds that the “physical difference” between the races made it impossible for Blacks to live in the same country without detriment to both races. Less than a year later he would contrast the patriotism of Black soldiers with the carping criticism and implied disloyalty of his White opposition. “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you,” and when victory finally comes, “there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it. . . . But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. . . . If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive—even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.”19
In the long perspective of national history, the Proclamation marks a revolutionary turn in the pervasive struggle between America’s democratic ideology and the culture of White supremacy, although, as the historian Eric Foner has shown, the revolution it inaugurated would be left “unfinished” when Reconstruction ended in 1880. While the Proclamation did make the destruction of slavery a war aim equivalent to restoration of the Union, and pointed the way toward its abolition by constitutional amendment, neither the Proclamation nor the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were able to turn America into a multiracial democracy or prevent the failure of Reconstruction and the eventual imposition of Jim Crow laws throughout the former Confederacy. Even in the former free states, to which Blacks were now free to migrate, the acquisition of civil rights was a slow and painful process. The blood price of the Civil War, the 620,000 dead soldiers and uncounted “collateral damage,” ought to have purchased more justice than that.
Nevertheless, the Emancipation Proclamation did make Union victory more likely, and it linked that victory to a program that would inevitably abolish an institution that had been an integral part of American society for 240 years. The restoration of the Union would be attended with a transformation of Southern society that was profound and revolutionary, even though it did not make the South into a biracial democracy. Even the limited rights and political power achieved by Southern Blacks altered in fundamental ways the social forms and the psychology of race relations in the region.
Some of those transforming effects were felt beyond the South. The “slavery question” had been one of the central problems of American politics from the founding of the republic, and since 1820 it had been the dominant theme of political controversy. But the moral, social, and economic complexities of the South’s “peculiar institution” had partly obscured the deeper underlying question of race: large masses of people hated slavery on moral grounds, or resented the economic and social privilege of planters, while still despising Black people and wishing to exclude them from civil life. By abolishing slavery, Lincoln’s Proclamation, and the constitutional amendments that followed from it, stripped away the questions peculiar to chattel slavery and exposed the more fundamental issue of race. For the next century and more, Americans would have to grapple with the contradiction between the values and principles of democracy, on the one hand, and their belief in White supremacy, on the other.
ULTIMATELY, THEN, THE Emancipation Proclamation and the strategic program that went with it would lead to Union victory. But only with the benefit of hindsight does Antietam mark the turning point of the Civil War. The Proclamation’s military benefits would not be felt for many months, its political effect was problematic, and its influence on diplomacy helpful but not decisive.
After the crises of the summer—after the Confederate offensives were checked at Antietam, Corinth, and Perryville; after emancipation was proclaimed and habeas corpus suspended; after the fall elections ended without a complete reversal of Lincoln’s political fortunes—after all that. nothing was really settled. All that had been accomplished by the Battle of Antietam and the Emancipation Proclamation was to explode the illusions and the hope of compromise that had hitherto limited the violence and social disruption of the conflict, and push the Civil War past the point of no return. The crucial battles were still to be fought, and the ultimate result was still very much in doubt.