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Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (Pivotal Moments in American History)
Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (Pivotal Moments in American History)
James M. McPherson
Oxford University Press, 2002
224 pp., 37.99

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Roger Lundin

Changing the Script

A discovery that altered the course of the war

As the dispirited Army of the Potomac moved north from Washington, D.C. in early September 1862, few who marched in its ranks or served in the government on whose behalf it fought were confident it could accomplish the mission before it. After more than a year of stinging defeats, ill-conceived maneuvers, and interminable inaction, that army's harried, defensive posture contrasted sharply with the bold confidence of the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee.

Lee surmised the Union army was "much weakened and demoralized," but he also knew that unless his own army soon won several decisive victories, the North would eventually wear down the Confederacy and win the war. So, Lee struck swiftly through Union-occupied Maryland, wagering that he might thereby tip the balance and hasten French and British recognition of the Confederacy. If his military exploits could effect that diplomatic coup, both the war and the union might quickly come to an end.

Much, then, was riding on the fortunes of the Army of the Potomac as it rolled into Frederick, Maryland, on the morning of September 10. As the 27th Indiana Regiment stopped for rest outside town, Corporal Barton Mitchell noticed a large envelope lying in the grass. Picking it up, he discovered it to be a sheet of paper wrapped around three cigars; on the wrapper was a handwritten heading, "Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, Special Orders, No. 191." The document was dated September 9.

Corporal Mitchell held in his hand a typically cunning and complex set of battle plans drawn up by General Lee. Of the seven copies of this secret document, six found their way to Confederate commanders scattered north and west of Washington, while the seventh inexplicably came to rest in that field outside Frederick.

"The odds against the occurrence of such a chain of events must have been a million to one," writes James McPherson in his elegant study, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam. "Yet they happened." And because they did, the course of the war and the structure of American society were changed unalterably. As a member of Lee's staff at Antietam later remarked, "the loss of this battle order constitutes one of the pivots on which turned the event of the war."

In the short term, the fortuitous discovery proved crucial in the hasty round of Union planning that stole the element of surprise from Lee. In receiving Lee's plans, General George McClellan, the mercurial commander of the Northern Army, "was granted a windfall such as few generals in history have enjoyed." Only seven days after Corporal Mitchell's discovery, the battle was joined at Sharpsburg on the banks of Antietam Creek. Here, in a hellish day of conflict, the opposing armies struck at each other ruthlessly and relentlessly. They fought at close quarters at a bridge over the creek, in a sunken road that took the name of Bloody Lane, and across a field that "was ever after known as the Cornfield." In his report of action in that field, Union General Joseph Hooker wrote, "In the time I am writing, every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few minutes before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield."

Nor has America ever witnessed a more bloody, dismal day. "Despite the ghastly events of September 11, 2001," writes McPherson in his book's opening sentence, "another day 139 years earlier remains the bloodiest single day in American history." The 6,300 to 6,500 soldiers killed or mortally wounded that day were more than twice the number killed on September 11 and more than died in all the other wars fought by America in the 19th century combined; that includes the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and all the Indian Wars.

Nevertheless, in McPherson's account, the beneficial consequences of Antietam were as great as its costs were steep. The most important consequence became evident five days after the battle, when Abraham Lincoln addressed his Cabinet. He told them that shortly before the battle at Antietam he had made "a promise to myself and [hesitating a little] to my Maker" that "if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, [I] would consider it an indication of Divine will" in favor of emancipation. Lincoln read Antietam as God's sign that "he had decided this question in favor of the slaves," and that same day he issued his proclamation declaring that unless the states in rebellion returned to the Union by January 1, 1863, their slaves "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."

The Emancipation Proclamation, in McPherson's words, irrevocably "changed the character of the war." Ruling out all possibilities of an armistice that would leave slavery in place, it turned a war to preserve a political union into a crusade to eliminate an abominable practice. The change galvanized public opinion. As Horace Greeley put the matter in an editorial on September 23, the Emancipation Proclamation "is the beginning of the end of the rebellion; the beginning of the new life of the nation." Indeed, Greeley concluded, it marked "not only an era in the progress of the nation, but an epoch in the history of the world."

Over the next three years, other effects rippled from the center that was Antietam. The possibility of British recognition of the Confederacy disappeared, and Lincoln's Democratic opponents suffered a series of crippling political blows. McPherson believes a Confederate victory at

Antietam would have resulted in a Democratic sweep in the 1862 congressional elections. The "Peace Democrats" would have held the balance of power after November 1862, and their ascendancy might have "meant disaster for the Union cause." Writing two decades after the close of the war, James Longstreet said that at Antietam "was sprung the keystone of the arch upon which the Confederate cause rested." McPherson concurs: "Only with the collapse of that arch could the future of the United States as one nation, indivisible and free, be assured."

All this, one muses after having read McPherson's clear and convincing account, came as a result of a wrapper wound around cigars in a Maryland field. How could so much of great consequence result from a single, contingent event?

Like McPherson, David Hackett Fischer considers contingency central to historical understanding. Fischer is co-editor (with McPherson) of Pivotal Moments in American History, the new series in which Crossroads of Freedom appears. In a prefatory note, Fischer says that "ideas of contingency are drawing more attention in historical scholarship" than they have for many years. Defining contingency as "people making choices, and choices making a difference," he sees the category creating a way forward, beyond the impasses of the "old political history" and the "new social and cultural history." In Fischer's words, contingency reunites "process and event" in the telling of history.

The category of contingency and the focus on human choices "also restore a lost element of narrative tension to historical writing." A story with no free agents and no pivotal incidents is one in which rigid structure and inexorable law grind their way blindly forward. Few wish to read such stories, and even fewer are inspired by the good they represent or repelled by the evil they embody. On the other hand, the concept of contingency "makes history more teachable and learnable, more readable and more writable," and "most of all more true to itself."

Over the past three decades, Fischer and McPherson have established themselves as masterful narrative historians covering colonial history (Fischer) and the Civil War (McPherson). Yet for all the importance they ascribe to contingency, they have little interest in its theological dimensions. Theirs are stories of human agents pursuing varied goals in a world ruled by impersonal forces and contingent events. Though one cannot necessarily fault McPherson for not having engaged the theological questions at issue here, the Christian tradition's sustained exploration of freedom and contingency richly supplements the argument that undergirds his work.

In the Christian tradition, that exploration begins with the first verse of Genesis, "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth," and extends to the final promise of Revelation 22:20: "The one who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming soon.' " The Bible records the activities of a freely creating, freely judging, freely loving, and freely redeeming Lord, who is not an agent of necessity but a subject of contingency, an author and actor of free deeds.

The greatest of these free deeds, Karl Barth asserts, was the self-emptying sacrifice of Christ. Writing of Christ's contingent humbling of himself (Philippians 2), Barth explains, Christ "did not consider or treat his equality with God as his one exclusive possibility." His choice to empty himself into a human form was a way of proving "it was not an inalienable necessity for Him to be only like God and only distinct" from creation. Instead, the humbling and concealing of the godhead in the man Jesus "means that so far from being contrary to the nature of God, it is of His essence to possess the freedom to be capable of this self-offering and self-concealment, and beyond this to make use of this freedom [ … ] to give Himself up."

As Charles Norris Cochrane has argued convincingly in Christianity and Classical Culture, early in the Christian era, an understanding of the Trinitarian freedom and communion of God freed Augustine from the fatalism of late antiquity. Classical doctrines of necessity understood law and worshiped order but could not conceive of a free human personality or imagine the eternal worth of the human soul. In Trinitarian thought, Augustine found what Cochrane terms "a fresh foundation" for the "values of personality." In turn, that discovery led Augustine to find a way "to dissipate the nightmare involved in the concept of nature as a closed system, determined by its own exclusive laws and, therewith, of the antithesis between human liberty and natural necessity which rendered mankind a stranger in his own household."1

The condition from which Augustine liberated pagan culture in the fifth century resembles ours at the start of the twenty-first. In the words of a recent New York Times headline, we view ourselves as creatures "Cut Loose in the Cosmos, Mites of Dust Without a Home." Our science has given us vast predictive powers over nature, but it has left us with a picture of ourselves as insignificant organisms swirling in a lost corner of the universe. Almost a century ago, Henry Adams observed that in the universe rendered by modern science and technology, "God might be, as the Church said, a Substance, but he could not be a Person."2

Throughout much of the century we have just survived, system, substance, and structure, rather than personality, seemed to rule the world—from the ruthless efficiency of Auschwitz and the Gulag to the bloodless theories of the human person that have recently dominated our writing of history, our theorizing about texts, and our characterizing of the human person. In the past three decades we have celebrated "the death of the author," sanctioned the destruction of "unviable tissue masses," and hailed the coming of "our posthuman future." We know ourselves as systems of signification, as organisms of growth and decay, and as networks of communicative energy. We do not as readily recognize ourselves as free but flawed and responsible historical agents.

With this taut volume, James McPherson reminds us of the pivotal role played in history by simple accidents and basic deeds. The history of a nation and the fate of a race dependent upon a piece of paper wrapped around a few cigars in a field? That sounds as uncannily coincidental and disturbingly unpredictable as the claim that a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger could be the Son of God. It is, apparently, a law of life that so much depends upon contingent events and the free actions of agents, both human and divine.

Roger Lundin is Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College.

1. Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine (Oxford Univ. Press, 1944).

2. Henry Adams: Democracy, Esther, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, The Education of Henry Adams, edited by Ernest Samuels and Jayne N. Samuels (Library of America, 1983), p. 983.

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