Tag Archives: Battle Analysis

Photo of the Antietam battlefield taken on the day of the battle by Alexander Gardner

The Battle of Antietam – 17 September, 1862

The Battle of Antietam is interesting for several reasons the most important of which for me is that it is the single bloodiest day in American military history. There have been bloodier battles in American wars but no single day matches the blood spilled on those Maryland fields that early day in 1862. The Union victory at Antietam, if you can call it a victory, also provided Abe Lincoln with the opportunity to promulgate the Emancipation Proclamation. An executive act that was totally unconstitutional but that he did anyway for domestic and foreign political reasons.

Antietam was the final battle of Lee’s first invasion of the North and while it was not a decisive battle it changed things because of what came after.  If anything, from a purely tactical and operational standpoint the battle was a draw.  Both sides essentially beat themselves bloody over a few square miles of Maryland territory that neither considered vital.  The battle is only considered a Union victory because Lee took his army and left instead of renewing the fighting for a second day leaving the Army of the Potomac in possession of the battlefield.

The commander of the 75,000 man, six Corps strong Union Army of the Potomac was General George B. McClellan.  He was opposed the 39,000 man two Corps Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commanded by General Robert E. Lee.

In the fall of 1862 following the Confederate victory at Second Manassas Lee decided to invade Maryland. There were several competing reasons for this decision. One was that it was thought that that best way to force the Union to a negotiated settlement was to inflict a defeat on Northern forces on northern soil. Another was the hope that by successfully taking the war to the North the Southern states could win foreign recognition and potentially aid. It was also believed that Maryland was the state still in the Union whose population was the most sympathetic to the southern cause. Lastly, Lee believed that by invading Maryland and threatening the capture of Washington D.C. he could force the Army of the Potomac under McClellan to accept battle on his terms.

The invasion began on 3 Sep. 1862 and almost immediately (McClellan was a notorious slowpoke) provoked a reaction from the Union forces garrisoned in and around Washington D.C.

Movements at the Battle of Antietam Sep. 3-17, 1962 Map Courtesy CivilWar.org
Movements at the Battle of Antietam Sep. 3-17, 1962
Map Courtesy CivilWar.org

There were several skirmishes and minor battles prior to the culminating battle of the campaign at Antietam. The most significant of these was Stonewall Jackson’s capture of the federal garrison and Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry on Sep. 15th. This was the largest surrender of Federal troops during the war and the loss of weapons was considerable. The Confederates captured roughly 13,000 small arms, 200 wagons, and 73 artillery pieces when they took the Arsenal.

In the days leading up to the battle McClellan was slowly gathering all the disparate forces of the Army of the Potomac together and began to converge them west of Frederick in the vicinity of Sharpsburg.  By contrast Lee’s army straggled in from their scattered positions in Maryland on 15 & 16 Sep. but McClellan’s habitual caution allowed Lee the time to consolidate his position prior to the Union assault on the morning of the 17th.

The first engagements between the two armies was on the night of 16 Sep when the Federal I Corps (Hooker) encountered rebel pickets.
During the night the Federal  XII Corps (Mansfield) moved up in support of I Corps.

At around 0600 on 17 Sep Hooker’s Corps advanced and attacked the Confederate Left in the area of the North and East Woods and the Cornfield that was held by Stonewall Jackson’s Corps.  The attack was almost successful until Hooker’s Corps was hit in the flank by Hood’s division who drove off the Union attack.  As the I Corps retreated Mansfield was told that he was needed to cover the broken I Corps or the battle was lost before it really began.

As the XII Corps moved up to the attack Mansfield, it’s commander was mortally wounded and confusion briefly reigned as the 1st Division commander established his command of the Corps
At 0800 the XII Corps finally got into the fight and after heavy combat took and held the Dunker Church area unsupported by other Federal troops.

Morning attacks of the battle. Map Courtesy USACMH
Morning attacks of the battle.
Map Courtesy USACMH

At about 0830 the II Corps (Sumner) entered the battle passing through the area where I and XII Corps had been so severely handled by Jackson’s Corps earlier.  As the II Corps advanced into the battered formation of Jackson’s Corps they were  hit in the flank by Fresh troops Lee had sent from his right and last Confederate reserves who managed to halt the attack in and around the Dunker Church and Cornfield.  The failed attack by II Corps ended the first phase of the battle.

In the afternoon Sumner wanted to attack the Confederate left again because he believed the Rebels were more badly damaged than him and with the reinforcements from VI Corps he had the chance to

Afternoon movement's during the battle. Map Courtesy USACMH
Afternoon movement’s during the battle.
Map Courtesy USACMH

crush the Confederate left.  The matter was referred to McClellan who denied permission for the attack and probably squandered the Union’s best chance to decisively defeat Lee’s Army, which was exhausted of reserves.  The IX Corps (Burnside) begins to enter the battle around the Burnside Bridge at approximately 1300.  At 1600 the IX Corps attacks towards Sharpsburg but the attack falters as the Corps is attacked in the flank by the Division of A.P. Hill and falls back to the bridge by 1700.  This was the last major Federal assault of the day and ended the battle although skirmishing continued.

On 18 September both armies remained in position and Lee considered renewing the battle but taking his own casualties and federal strength into account he instead stars withdrawing his army south.  McLellan chose not to pursue the retreating Confederates out of a belief that Lee was falling back on significant reinforcements.

Battle casualties near the Dunker Church. Image: Library of Congress
Battle casualties near the Dunker Church.
Image: Library of Congress

With 3,782 dead and a total of 22,000 casualties out of 114,000 troops engaged the Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day in the history of American Arms.   The next costliest battle I can think of that took place on one day and is continually mentioned is the D-Day invasion of Normandy. At D-Day the US had roughly 1,400 dead and a further 3,500 wounded out of approximately 80,000 invasion troops.  Casualties at Antietam were roughly 19% while at D-Day they were 4.5 % of troops engaged.

An afterword is that an image was captured at Antietam that was a rarity prior to WWI.  Namely, Alexander Gardener captured an image of the battle as it was happening.  If you look at the below image on the right side you can see Union cavalry lined up awaiting orders and on the left side you can see the infantry of both armies on the fighting wreathed in the smoke from artillery and their rifles.  If you blow the image up you can even see a couple of places where guys are dragging casualties away from the line.  Why this has not become an iconic image of the Civil War I have no idea.

Photo of the Antietam battlefield taken on the day of the battle by Alexander Gardner
Photo of the Antietam battlefield taken on the day of the battle by Alexander Gardner

 

Book Review: The Color of War: How One Battle Broke Japan and the Other Changed America by James Campbell

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher for purposes of reviewing it. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

The Color of War is one of those strange history books that seems both bipolar and unified at the same time.  It is the story of the invasion of Saipan and the Port Chicago naval disaster told mostly convergently.  At first the somewhat bi-polar nature of the way the story was told was off-putting but the more I read the book the more the method made sense.  The two different but temporally convergent narratives reinforce the separation of black and white service members during World War II.  This is not immediately apparent, but true nonetheless.  The book is 362 pages with almost 100 pages of notes and a 18 page bibliography.

The story of the invasion of Saipan is told from the view of several marines the author interviewed personally and whose memoirs were made available to him.  It easily transmits the variables and uncertainty of the war in the pacific to the reader.  Where the author makes an impact is his description of race relations and the conditions under which black sailors worked at Port Chicago.  Those of us who grew up after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have only a vague idea at best of what life was like for black Americans prior to then and even that view is skewed.  The author does an excellent job of describing that life.  He does an even better job of describing how select individuals reacted to that situation.  The wonder is not that blacks put up with such treatment but with what dignity they endured it.  The author does an outstanding job of describing the situation faced by both white and black marines in Saipan but also that faced by black sailors forced to endure the intolerable at Port Chicago.

My only complaint about the book is that by trying to tell two stories at once it seems they both are somewhat neglected.  I cannot point to anything concrete, but I was left with the impression that there was more to both stories than the author had room to say.  Both narratives are worthy of book-length treatment individually and I would love to see that.  that being said, The way the stories are told is enlightening and it’s somewhat original organization will probably lead to the story of Port Chicago reaching a wider audience than if it had been published as a stand alone work.  One thing that is clear from this book is that the stories of Black soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in WWII is both interesting and compelling and needs to be told now before the people that experienced pass away and we lose their stories forever.

This is an excellent book that deserves to be on many historians bookshelves.  It tells an important story of WWII in a sensitive and compelling manner.  I highly recommend this book.

Book Review: Road to Valor by Aili & Andres McConnon

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher for purposes of reviewing it. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Road to Valor is the story of one of the many unsung and unremembered heroes of World War II. Gino Bartali was a prewar Italian racing champion and winner of the Tour de France.  Just about everyone has heard of Oskar Schindler and his List due to the 1993 Spielberg movie or Anne Frank.  What is less known are the thousands of others across occupied Europe that worked trying to help Jews and others that the Nazi’s persecuted.  This book is the story of one of those people.

The book is not overly lengthy at 257 pages but covers the story well.  One of the things that impressed me the most about the book was that while it is not a strictly scholarly work it is extensively endnoted and their are over 40 pages of source notes at the end of the book.  The one thing this book lacks is an index to make it easier to find key passages and figures from the book.  Price is not prohibitive either, the hardcover has an MSRP of $25, which is well within normal for such a work.  The paper quality and printing are above typical to my eyes as well, this is book that will remain in good condition for years, if not decades.

This book is essentially the story of his life with the main events between his twin wins of the Tour de France in 1938 and ten years later in 1948. The valor part of the the title of this book comes from it’s recounting of Gino’s efforts to aid Italian Jews during the Nazi occupation of Italy after the Italian capitulation in 1943.  The long and short of it is that Gino used his fame from cycling to help resistance groups and the Catholic church in their efforts to shelter Italian Jews.  Because of his position and fame he was uniquely able to serve as a courier and even managed to get out of detention by the Italian Fascists secret police.

Gino’s story is not only a story of courage, it is also the story of a life interrupted by war.  Gino Bartali lost what should have been the best years of his racing career due to WWII.  He won the Tour de France in 1938 and came back post-war to win it again in 1948.  The most interesting part of his life story is the way in which he used his fame and notoriety to help save some of the Jews of Northern Italy from persecution.

Although biographies are not the type of books, historical or otherwise, that I normally read.  I found Road to Valor to be easy to read and the narrative was well constructed.  The writing is very well done with none of the stiffness I normally associate with biographies.  This is an excellent biography at a wartime figure who achieved great things outside of World War II and I recommend it to anybody with an interest in World War II or the Holocaust and the way in which average Europeans cooperated to keep their neighbors out of the hands of the Nazi death machine.

Update on SFC Walter Taylor

Saw this update on SFC Taylor’s case yesterday and decided to add it to my page as well.  From the LA Times: Court-martial decision postponed for soldier in Afghan shooting.  His Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a Grand Jury, was held last week and now the case in in the hands of the reviewing officer.  She will review the evidence and testimony presented at the hearing and then make a recommendation to Taylor’s Brigade commander who will endorse that recommendation or not and then send it to the JMTC commander in Graf who is the General Court Martial Convening Authority.  The JMTC commander makes the final decision on whether this case should go to trial or if Taylor should face, a lesser Court Martial, administrative punishment, or even no further action.

All that being said, I would guess that at a minimum Taylor faces a Special Court Martial, probably a Special BCD.  The nature of what has been reported so far makes it clear that Taylor is being prosecute as an example to others.  Whether that is good military policy is besides the point, the army does stuff like this sometimes.  I will say that in my experience, if it does go to a Court Martial Taylor will get a fairer hearing than he would in a civilian court.  His CM Panel, the military version of a jury, will consist of people his grade or higher both officer and enlisted if he opts that, and he would be stupid not to.  The panel are people that understand the military and the pressures in combat.

I have no worries that if it goes to trial he will win.  The problem I have is that even if he wins, his career is now damaged because of the massive publicity surrounding the case.  That is something he cannot get away from.  It will also haunt him as he goes in front of a selection board for promotion.  The perception could be that he hurt the army and he could therefor later be denied promotion or even selected for elimination and the case could have nothing overt to do with it but it will always be there.  The army is a small place and institutional memory is long, especially about people who are perceived as tarnishing the Army Reputation.

Book Review: The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle by Michael Stephenson

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher for purposes of reviewing it. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Michael Stephenson’s work The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle follows somewhat in the tradition of classics such a Keegan’s The Face of Battle and Victor David Hanson’s The Western Way of War. Where it differs from these two works as that while Keegan and Hanson focus on specific battles or time periods this book aims to be a more general description of the experience of combat throughout recorded history.  In that, the book is amazingly successful.  The author has produced a volume that does the job of bringing home te reality of warfare to those who have never experienced it.  What I finds even more refreshing is that he does without weighing the book down with moral judgements on the rightness or wrongness of war itself, instead he accepts the objective reality that war happens and goes about the business of explaining what it is like.

It is written in an easy free-flowing style that is almost a pleasure to read and the text is organized in such a way that it is also compelling to read.  I found myself making excuses to my wife to keep reading to the end of the chapter before I did something else.  The descriptions of combat and death, ultimately this book is about violent death, ring true.  I was struck in particular by the realism of the combat descriptions in the section on the Iraq war.  On page 361 he talks about the US Marines “Pine Box Rule” in which if someone has to go home in a pine box, it is not going to be Marines. In my own experience in Iraq in 2004 my unit had a similar rule except we called it doing the “Death Blossom” when we came under enemy fire.  If his descriptions of combat and death hold as true to reality throughout the rest of the book as they do for modern war, and I have no reason, to think they don’t, then Mr. Stephenson has produced what should be an instant classic.  It should also make its way to the official reading lists of all the services, especially the US Army and Marines.

At 406 pages of text the book is not too long for the interested layman and includes an index, extensive notes, and a truly impressive bibliography that together amount to 54 pages alone.  The book is organized into eight thematic, chronological chapters that cover warfare from the Ancient World to the modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with an appendix discussing the state of military medicine through time.  The only very minor criticism I could have for this book is that it is Western Centric in focus, that is true of much western scholarship though  and this book makes no claim to universal history.

As a combat veteran myself, I have said for years in private conversation and on some public forums that no one who has not been in combat can possibly grasp what it is like, this work goes a long way to roving me wrong.  Michael Stephenson comes as close to describing the reality of combat as I have ever read from a non-combat vet.  This objective and fair description of death in battle should be on the shelf of every military historian, whether they are a veteran or not.  Anyone who wants to know what combat is like without putting their own skin on the line should read this book.  If nothing else, they will gain a better understanding of the sacrifices made by those who don the uniform of their country and go forth to do battle.  This is a good description of what George Orwell’s “rough men” go through to allow their countrymen to sleep safe at home.An outstanding book that is sure to remain the standard in its niche for years to come.