The Timorous May Stay at Home

The above is a Judge Cardozo quotation, but it applies with equal force to what happened at a creek called Antietam on 17 September 1862.

Geo. McClellan, through one of history’s truly great turns of fortune, is supplied with Robt Lee’s plan of campaign, and runs him to ground outside Sharpsburg.  As was almost always the case on all fields in the war, the federals outnumbered the confederates by a significant margin, and as was also always the case when the chief federal was McClellan, he thought exactly the opposite.  So McClellan holds roughly a full quarter of his force in reserve that day.  Lee is cut off from his base of supply, with his only avenues of retreat over a deep-water river (the Potomac), and McClellan can’t bring himself to throw the Big Punch.  Even if Lee had badly whipped him, Lee’s army would have been as disrupted by the victory as McClellan’s by the defeat (a dynamic that Ludendorff found was still true in March-April, 1918), and an army in hostile territory with no reliable re-supply does one thing in those circumstances:  it falls back on its bases and reorganizes.  All of which is to say that whatever the tactical outcome of the battle (barring a battle of annihilation, which seldom occurs on land other than a complete encirclement as in Cannae, Tannenberg, or Stalingrad), the strategic outcome would have been the same.  Lee’s invasion would have been at an end.  One can’t help feeling that Grant or Sherman would have recognized the strategic implications and fought the battle accordingly.

Even within the setting of the battle, there shines one blundering commander, from whom more was — unfortunately — to be heard later.  Ambrose Burnside on the federal left, with over 12,000 men and several dozen guns, was given the task of crossing Antietam Creek on the confederate right, punching through the confederates atop the bluff overlooking the creek, and swinging in behind the main body.  This was later in the day, after Lee had denuded his right to reinforce his center and left during the day’s earlier action, and so there were scarcely 3,000 confederates and a handful of guns to oppose the crossing.  Burnside sees a bridge, and everyone knows you cross creeks over bridges, right?  So he spends three hours sending units to cross that bridge and get cut to pieces in the attempt by the confederates, notwithstanding the creek was waist-to-chest high for significant lengths along his front.  Granted, getting the artillery across would have required the bridge, but (to quote Adm. Halsey) Jesus Christ and General Jackson! you throw your infantry across the creek, clear the confederates from the bluff and its crest, and then you can drag whatever you jolly well want across the bridge without having your men and horses shot to ribbons.

Burnsides’s delay allowed to play out one of those Hollywood-wouldn’t-have-dared-to-script-this-because-no-one-would-believe-it moments.  A. P. Hill’s division, fresh from securing Harper’s Ferry — well, “fresh” isn’t really the right word, because they had more or less jogged 17 miles to the battlefield, losing almost as many men to fatigue as they did to the federals when they got there — arrives on the field literally at a run and opens up a big ol’ can of Southern whup-ass on Burnside’s men, rolling them back off the ridge and down to the creek.  After which point McClellan, with a quarter of his army still in reserve, calls it a day.

So what, other than some priceless quotations (e.g., Thos. Jackson looking out over the remnants of his troops and observing, “God was very merciful to us this day,” which, if you take it to mean arranging affairs so that the opposing commander was McClellan with Burnside on his wing, instead of Grant with Sherman ditto, was strictly the truth), does Antietam have to say to us civvies today?  I’ll suggest a few thoughts as applying across all human endeavor: (i) opponents outside prepared positions, and especially if they’re on your turf, generally do not have prepared positions, ambuscades, etc. in their hip-pockets; (ii) fully-engaged opponents can be forced to neutralize or at least severely weaken such trickery as they have set up; (iii) even a tactical defeat can produce a strategic victory; (iv) no one ever won a fight who didn’t throw a punch; (vi) you may lose as much piecemeal fighting on a small front as you would have with a Big Swing on a wider front, but the former will seldom force a decision, and certainly not in your favor; (vii) know your own strategic resources, and exploit them. 

McClellan husbanded his troops as if they were all that the federals had between themselves and ruin.  They weren’t, not by a long shot.  Had Lee’s army been destroyed on the Antietam, however, Richmond and the south’s remaining war effort would have been doomed.  The stakes, in other words, were entirely different for the two sides.  McClellan commanded as if he were (as Churchill later said of Jellicoe of the Grand Fleet) the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon.  He wasn’t.  Whether McClellan’s self-perception was an outgrowth of his well-documented megalomania and self-importance is hard to know at this remove, but it’s perhaps no accident that Grant, famously at the opposite end of that particular spectrum, fought like the war was his to win, not his to lose.

All of which is to say that once again we see played out something that I’ve seen time and again, in both personal observation and from reading, from school-kids’ games to business to politics to military history, that what separates the winners and losers has every bit as much to do with character as it does with talent, money, advantage, or smarts.  In America at least, it is in fact hard to keep a good man down.

And maybe that reminder is what Antietam has to say to us, 150 years to the day later.

Leave a Reply