Battle of Antietam, Army of the Potomac by B. McClellan, 1888 (Library of Congress)
Military historians try to identify “decisive” battles or campaigns that either lead directly to the end of a war or shift the momentum to the ultimate victor. But even with the benefit of decades or even centuries of hindsight, this task is not always easy.
In the American Civil War, the consensus is that the two most decisive battles or campaigns were Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and good cases can be made for both. Kevin Weddle, a professor of military theory and strategy at the U.S. Army War College, examines another viewpoint: that the 1862 Antietam campaign should be considered equally significant as those encounters
The Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862, is noteworthy because it marks the bloodiest single day in American history. But it was much more than just a horrific slaughter. Although the encounter near Sharpsburg, Maryland, was essentially a tactical draw, Union forces under Major General George B. McClellan forced General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army to retreat across the Potomac River, ending his first invasion of the North. Even more importantly, the Antietam campaign’s long-term political and diplomatic impact was immense and changed the very nature of the war.
Weddle’s analysis emphasizes the lead-up and aftermath of Antietam rather than the tactical details of the battle, and why it should be considered among the most decisive campaigns of the war—if not the leading one.
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