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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Why Lee Got Spanked at Antietam

A debate over a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the Civil War battlefield of Antietam has turned into a debate in the Washington Post's letters to the editor over Lee's role in the battle. I'll leave aside the question of why we need yet another statue commemorating someone who rebelled against his own country in order to protect white Southerners' right to own slaves.

Antietam was the bloodiest single day in the Civil War with about 6000 killed, split fairly evenly on both sides; more casualties than at D-Day in WWII. At the time, it was seen as a great Union victory. After all, Lee had invaded the North, accomplished little, and been forced to retreat back to Virginia. It was the victory Lincoln had been waiting for in order to announce the Emancipation Proclamation. And in Europe it pretty much ended all talk of Britain intervening on the Confederate side. According to historian James McPherson, Antietam was the crucial turning point in the war.

Perhaps aware of this history, one Lee critic writes to the Post's editors,
The monument commemorates a battle that Lee lost -- a battle that many of his officers (those who survived) thought never should have been fought. The Battle of Antietam forced the Confederate general to retreat to Virginia.
Another Post reader responds:
Lee was outnumbered roughly 2 to 1, yet through his usual generalship he managed to fight to a tactical draw. Yes, he withdrew to Virginia, a retreat that is still taught at West Point today.
The problem with this argument is that it was no accident that Lee's army was outnumbered at Antietam. Lee's troops had melted away on the march north. As Lee reported just before setting out, "The army is not properly [equipped?] for an invasion of an enemy's territory. It lacks much of the material of war, is feeble in transportation, the animals being much reduced, and the men are poorly provided with clothes, and in thousands of instances are destitute of shoes."

Yet Lee invaded anyway, hoping that his army's deficiencies would be made good by an uprising of Marylanders in support of the Confederacy. But that never happened.

Lee lost perhaps 10,000 of his 55,000 man army on the road north, according to McPherson. Lee himself put the figure higher, reporting a few days before the Antietam battle, "One great embarrassment is the reduction of our ranks by straggling, which it seems impossible to prevent with our present regimental officers. Our ranks are very much diminished-I fear from a third to one-half of the original number." Although many of those stragglers may have eventually turned up, the fact is a large proportion of Lee's army didn't make it to Antietam, either because they were too weak and underequipped to make the journey, or because they deserted.

Lee thought desertion was common, reporting after the battle that "Some of the stragglers have been gathered in, but many have wandered to a distance, feigning sickness, wounds, &c., deceiving the guards and evading the scouts. many of them will not stop until they reach their distant homes." One of his generals thought that Confederate troops were throwing away their shoes in order to have an excuse not to march on.

So Lee lost the battle long before any of his men ever saw Antietam Creek. He lost it when he sent his underfed, underclothed, demoralized men off on their march northwards.

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