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The Almost End of the War....

Perry Cuskey


Today marks the 149th anniversary of the second day of the two-day battle of Antietam.

And chances are, you just did a double-take. Being that Antietam was only a one-day battle.

But that's exactly my point. Today should be the anniversary of the second day of what should have been the two-day battle of Antietam. The fact that it isn't can be attributed to one man - George B. McClellan. And the fact that it nearly was a two-day battle instead of a one-day battle can also be attributed to one man - Robert E. Lee.

I seriously wonder about both of these decisions. Which I'm just sure would bother the heck out of both men, if they were still around and knew about it. If the three of us were to sit around and compare military knowledge, one of us would be dismissed from the table in short order. Odds are incredibly high this person would not be named George B. McClellan or Robert E. Lee.

Still, I seriously wonder about the decision each man made at Antietam. Lee's decision on the evening of September 17th to stay put and offer battle again the next day; and McClellan's equally surprising decision to decline the offer.

Let's start with Lee. Without recounting the battle or the events leading up to it, I'll just say that I can understand his reasons for entering Maryland when he did. It's a bit oversimplified to put it like this perhaps, but you could sum it up by saying it was mostly about keeping the momentum going.

Things took a very unexpected turn following the loss of Special Order 191, and immediately after South Mountain, Lee decided, understandably, to retreat. But then a funny thing happened. He got word that Harper's Ferry was about to fall, and that Jackson would be available to join him again.

Lee being Lee, and not being me, he changed his mind about retreating. He would stand and fight, along the banks of Antietam Creek.

Good decision? Well, it was Lee. Much like Grant, when Lee had a choice between retreating or fighting....actually, I'm not sure it wasn't even a choice in his mind. If he could fight, he fought. Period. Never mind that he was vastly outnumbered or that Little Mac was acting uncharacteristically aggressive. Or that his back was now to a river with only one good fording sport nearby. Major stuff when you're me. Minor stuff when you're Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia.

So he offered battle to McClellan, and after hemming and hawing for a couple of days, Little Mac said sure, why not. So they spent the day of September 17th, 1862, going about the business of getting more Americans killed in a single day than any other day in our history. It was about as awful a day as you could possibly imagine. When it was over, Lee's men had held their own. But it was an incredibly near thing.

Pretty much everyone in his army seemed to assume they'd be retreating that night. Since it was obviously madness to stay and fight anymore. Madness to everyone, apparently, except the one guy charged with making the decision.

Lee said that if Little Mac wanted round two the following day, well by golly we're going to give it to him. Never mind that his army barely survived round one, had both eyes swollen nearly shut from the pounding, and needed help lifting up either glove to ward off another blow. Or that the men could barely stand up, let alone fight. None of that mattered. If McClellan wanted another fight, they would give it to him.

It's obvious that to Lee, this was the right thing to do. To me, it's something else, equally as obvious.


I have no earthly idea what Lee hoped to gain by offering battle on the 18th. What was he going to do, route McClellan's army and send it flying back to Washington? His army was battered all to heck, vastly outnumbered, and his men could barely raise their guns they were so worn out from the previous day. Antietam was as epic a battle as that war or this continent ever saw. It lasted one day. One day was more than enough to place it in the forever book of records.

The best that Lee could have done on the 18th was what he had managed by his teeth's skin to do on the 17th - a draw. That was the absolute, top of the chart, best possible outcome he could have achieved on September 18th. A draw.

And for that possibility, he risked a complete, total, unmitigated disaster.

Had McClellan attacked, Lee's army would have been destroyed as a fighting unit. Goes without saying they would have put up another hellacious fight. The problem was they only had so much hellacious left in them. And it simply was not enough to ward off another such attack as what they just - just - fended off the day before.

I've seen reasons given for why Lee elected to stay and fight rather than pull back across the Potomac. Bottom line, I do not agree with any of them. Lee had nothing to gain that compensated for the enormous risk he was running. The risk to reward ratio was so skewed against him, it probably doesn't even register. The reward of a potential draw vs the risk of quite literally losing his army, thereby effectively ending the war in the East in 1862.

For my money, this decision by Lee was the worst he made during the war. It beats anything he did at Gettysburg by a country mile.

Which brings us to the other player in this odd little drama - George B. McClellan.

Little Mac had at least one golden chance to insert the dagger on September 17th, when his army pierced Lee's line in the center. Reverse the roles here, and put Lee in McClellan's place at that moment. What do you think Lee would have done? Easy answer, isn't it. The guy risked losing his army and the war just because he didn't want to retreat. You think he's going to hesitate to rip his enemy to shreds the instant the chance is there?

But McClellan was no Lee, and McClellan was no Grant. Grant was someone else who would not only have inserted the dagger right there, but twisted the blade around to boot. McClellan would not even unscabber the sword.

I've often wondered what must have run through his mind on the morning of the 18th, when he realized that Lee had not retreated during the night. Did he find his fears of being outnumbered realized? Did he really and truly think Lee's army along that little creek actually outnumbered his own? Lee had poured in virtually every reserve body he had available to him. McClellan still had like an entire corps in reserve, with more men on the way. Yet Lee was the one opting to roll loaded dice, with not prayer of hitting seven. McClellan was the one refusing to bet on a sure thing.

Little Mac would later write, "Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly & that it was a masterpiece of art."

Read up on Antietam then read that above sentence again. And keep in mind that he's being serious.

McClellan has his defenders, and they make some good points about the man. But there is no getting around the fact that Little Mac lacked that killer instinct it takes to win battles and wars. Never was that more evident than on September 18th, 1862. The victory, the end of the war, enduring fame, probably the presidency at some point in the near future, all awaited him. All he really had to do was give the order to renew the attack.

It was an order he never gave, because he simply did not have it in him to give it.

Maybe, when you get down to it, this is the reason why Lee offered battle on the 18th. Maybe he knew, deep down, that McClellan did not have the stomach for it. Maybe he had it all figured out, and maybe that explains everything.

There's only one problem with that for me. McClellan did attack, on the 17th. What he had done once, he might very well do again. And had he done so, Lee's army could not have withstood it.

I'm not a military expert, and deserve no seat at the table with Lee or McClellan either one. But what each of these men did outside the little town of Sharpsburg Maryland in September of 1862 has always put a good bunch of confused into my thinking.

One man risked everything to gain nothing. The other refused to risk anything to gain everything.

The beginning of the end of the American Civil War should have arrived on September 18th, 1862, on the second day of the two-day battle of Antietam. That it did not, will forever remain one of the greatest what-ifs of that incredibly bloody war.



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Nice post Perry.

I think there's a very simple answer to your question: it was personal.

Wait, wait, let me explain! It wasn't personal in that Lee held any enmity for McLellan or vice versa; it was personal in that Lee knew his enemy. Commanders have been advised to "know your enemy" from the Bible on down.

McLellan ALWAYS thought he was outnumbered. He was tentative. He was plodding. A great organizer, sure; few would disagree that he built a first-rate army out of the shaken remnants of Manassas. But he was not a mover.

Sure, Lee gambled - but he was pretty sure that McLellan would refuse the bet.

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Hi Ken!

Yes, I think you're probably right about Lee. He seems to have had a good overall read on McClellan, no question about it, and it served him well on the Peninsula and in the run-up to Second Manassas. But it darn near got him fried in Maryland, first at South Mountain and then at Sharpsburg.

The thing that gets me about what he did at Antietam though, is this. If he was gambling that Little Mac wasn't going to attack, he was going against the evidence. Mac had attacked the day before, so it strikes me that he's likely to do so again. Plus, of course, he actually broke Lee's line on the 17th. Had he pressed that advantage the battle ends right there. Lee's army was in worse shape on the 18th, yet he stayed put. Wow.

I do agree that he believed himself and his army to be better than McClellan and his army, but I can't get away from the idea that it was just this side of a suicidal decision. It's like Mac was pointing a locked and loaded gun at his head, and Lee gambled that he wouldn't pull the trigger. He got away with it, but that doesn't make it the right decision to me. Too much at risk compared to any possible reward.

There has to be something to what you say though, because I seriously have to wonder if Lee makes the same choice against, say, Grant. But, maybe he does. Maybe the decision was less about McClellan than it was about Lee, and the confidence he had in himself and his army. It served him well most of the time, but now and then it served him very badly. Antietam for me would be the shining example.

Thanks for the post. :)

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Maybe it was the very fact that McClellan DIDN'T press his advantage on the first day that gave Lee his confidence.

I can just see the meeting in Lee's tent that evening - at least one of his generals had to have said "he had us whipped, general, and we STILL beat him!"

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I can't remember all the details, but I'm pretty sure that Longstreet wanted to retreat. It's generally thought that Jackson favored staying, but one of the historians who wrote a book about the battle outlined a case for Jackson actually favoring retreat as well. It may have been James V. Murfin in Gleam of Bayonets, but I'm not sure. But, I think the general attitude that evening among Lee's officers was that they were pretty amazed he was choosing to stay and offer battle again.

Again though, I can't recall all the details as I haven't read up on in a while now. But I know Lee's decision amazes me. :)

I agree about McClellan, but I keep coming back to the same thing, which is the enormous risk that Lee was running compared to what he had to gain. It's like betting your entire bank account on a pair of two's and hoping the other guy folds. It worked and that's what gets the attention, but mercy sakes what a risk.


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