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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., 35.00

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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 ...

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