Tag Archives: Military History

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: World War II: Cause and Effect by Bill Brady

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

World War Two: Cause and Effect by Bill Brady is not so much a narrative history as a topical anthology of the war.  It is a collection of papers Mr Brady has presented over the years collected and published in one volume.  According to the jacket Mr. Brady is a lifelong history buff and is a member and President of the South African Military History Society of Kwa Zulu Natal in Durban, South Africa.

The book itself is 341 pages in length.  The text is divided into twenty-nine topical chapters with each chapter being one of the papers presented.  Unfortunately, the book as neither a bibliography nor an index.  While disappointing, that lack does not seriously harm the book.

There is really nothing new or innovative about the topics covered in the book.  No new theoretical ground is broken and no new facts or data about the war are presented that would tend to change the way the war is viewed.  That being said, the text is clear and the writing style is quite good making this a very enjoyable read.  All the topics are well covered and there are descriptions of some of the less covered events of the war.  The three chapters I found most interesting covered the Battle of the River Plate, the Fall of SIngapore, and the Slapton Sands accident before D-Day.

While this book does not present any ground-shaking new information about World War II, it is a good introduction to some of the wars most famous and also some not so famous events.  The analysis of strategy and tactics within follows the widespread conventional wisdom and judgement of historians.  The lack of a bibliography and index is distressing but then, this is not an academic work nor does it aspire to be one. This is a book about World War II that the average person who knows little about the war can both read and understand.

I recommend this book for people who only know the allies won World War II.  It provides a good, topical, chronology of the war and provides just enough information to cover it’s topics while sparking an interest to learn more.  A good introduction to the war that shows both the complexity and extent of the world’s most devastating war to date.

Book Review: Battle Tactics of the Western Front by Paddy Griffith

Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army`s Art of Attack, 1916-18 by Paddy Griffith is a very interesting book. The premise is that despite what many historians have said about the inertia of the British Army in WWI and it’s resistance to tactical change, that is not true and the British were committed to innovation throughout the war in an effort to break the deadlock of the trenches.

The book itself is not long, 219 pages of text including appendices. There are extensive endnotes and the bibliography is fairly extensive as well. The book is organized topically and though it purports to only deal with the developments of the last two years of the war that is not strictly true. It is divided into 4 parts and with 11 chapters and 3 appendices.

The 4 parts cover an extended introduction, infantry, heavy weapons, and the conclusion. Of particular note to me was his appendix decrying the lack of battle history in recent scholarship in preference for social military histories. That is a topic that speaks volumes to me.

His analysis of the evolution of infantry tactics during the war is incisive and he is wholly correct in saying that the infantry and their commanders were not the static cannon fodder often portrayed in the history books. I particularly found his discussion of the actual impact that machine guns, artillery, and tanks had on battlefield success interesting. He correctly stresses that despite the claimed effects of these wonder weapons, particularly the tank, they were not the war winning weapons that most histories paint them to be. While the tank is dramatic, it played a decidedly secondary role in WWI. Any good history of the methods that won the war should instead focus on the role of artillery and infantry because it is that combination that developed and executed the ground warfare tactics that led to victory and the breaking of the trench stalemate.

This is an interesting study and while it is by no means the final word on WWI tactics, it is a breath of fresh air into a topic that many historians have considered closed for many years. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is dissatisfied with current WWI tactical historical interpretations.

What is Military History?

The title of this piece is a very good question in my opinion. The question really came home to me recently when I was reading the Calls for Papers in the bi-annual newsletter of the Society of Military History of which I am a member.

It strikes me more and more often that Military History, like other branches of history is increasingly splintered and Balkanized. Much as traditional history is now more concerned with what the average person did than with the trajectory of nations or kingdoms, modern military history seems to focus more and more on the experience of the average soldier instead of how and why wars were fought and won. Many conservatives like to complain of the left’s takeover of academia and I have generally dismissed the idea that it could happen to military history. I am starting to think that I am wrong and the left is usurping the traditional role of military historians to suit some strange social engineering agenda that they unconsciously share among themselves.  Perhaps this trend is happening because fewer military historias have actual experience of war than was previously the case.

When I think of military history I think of the tales of wars, campaigns, and battles. How they were fought and why one side was victorious over the other. Let’s face it, war is about battle and battle or combat is the currency of war. Whichever side builds up the better balance sheet in combat wins. The question to me then becomes, as the title of this post states; What is military history? The Germans break military history down into two different schools what they call Kriegsgeschichte and Militärgeschichte.

1. Kriegsgeschichte is traditional military history having to do with battles and how and why they were won. It was pioneered by the old Prussian General Staff in the time of reform after the Prussian defeat in 1806 and refined to precision by Moltke the Elder in the 1860’s-1880’s. If you want to know what it is like just pick up a copy of the Prussian Official History of the Austro-Prussian or Franco-Prussian Wars to see the epitome of Kriegsgeschichte.

2. Militärgeschichte is a new, post-World War II development in German historiography that has slowly gained ground among the rest of the Western world. It focuses on the individual and their experience, or on the social dynamics of military organizations and not so much on battle itself. One of the things I dislike the most about it is the almost constant moralizing in this type of history. Not all histories of this type are moralizing, but enough are that when I find one that is not it stands out even more. I call it the effeminate military history as it seeks to understand the soldiers motivation to kill or tries to describe the ways in which armies get men to act against their own instincts. Some examples of this type of history are Keegan’s Face of Battle and Mask of Command or Doughty’s American Military History and the Evolution of Western Warfare.

Needless to say, I am generally a Kriegsgeschichte type of historian. I think the purpose of military history should be instructive. It should try to find the lessons of successful armies and make them comprehensible so they can be passed on to succeeding generations. I guess you could say I am Clausewitzean in my outlook although I don’t buy his premises completely nor do I think there is or can be an overarching theory of war. War Theory is properly the subject of a whole series of other posts and I will not go into it here. In short, I believe that good military history examines and analyzes battles and campaigns to determine both what the victor did right and what the loser did wrong. It describes the battles themselves and also the tactics, doctrine, and strategy employed by both combatants in an effort to determine the relative effectiveness of the methods employed. I am talking here of discussing the use open vs. closed order battle formations, differing levels of technology, battlefield and strategic maneuver, surprise, and the motivation and morale of the opposing armies just as a start. There is a place for Militärgeschichte type history in military history but focusing on the individual private soldier detracts from explaining the cause of victory. As cold as it sounds, the individual is but a cog in the machine in military engagements, especially battles involving thousands of soldiers. The only individuals who can make a decisive difference in those kinds of battles are the colonels and generals who make decisions upon which the fate of all the others rests. Individually the soldiers of an army can be the best in the world but if they are used fecklessly or unwisely their competence will not make a difference in winning the battle, only in determining the length of the casualty lists.

Military history is not about right or wrong, good versus bad, or the defeat of evil. It is about what one side did better that made his army more effective and thus let him defeat his enemy. In those factors lie the lessons to be learned from studying the wars of the past. At least, that is my view. I would love to hear from anyone that disagrees or even agrees with me.
COMMENTS ARE OPEN!

Historical Resources on the Web – Updated 24 Jun 2014

Updated 24 June 2014 — Below the fold is a list of historical sources on the internet, this includes both primary and secondary source collections.   I am constantly updating this list when I run across useful sites.   Please point me at sites I miss in the comments section. Continue reading Historical Resources on the Web – Updated 24 Jun 2014