The Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg) took place in the summer of 1862. It was the bloodiest day of the Civil War, with some 28,000 casualties.
The documentary is well done, mostly using reenactors, some experts, a few graphics (not enough, IMO), excerpts from diaries and letters, and narration by James Earl Jones and his magnificent voice.
It's a little confusing, partly because the battle itself was so confusing. The engagements might have been more clearly delineated as three assaults by the Union Army in chronological order: (1) the cornfield in the north, (2) the sunken road in the middle, and (3) Burnside bridge in the south.
I won't bother to describe the battle itself because it's complicated but the narration and the events shown seem accurate enough. What isn't made clear is the staggering incompetence of much of the Union leadership.
Young George McLellan was in charge of the Army of the Potomac. His Union troops loved him. He infused them with pride and discipline. But he was simply not aggressive, and he was a terrible narcissist. McClellan, Lincoln remarked, "has a case of the slows." McLellan held back a large portion of his army in reserve and never used them, even when they were needed.
After the Battle of Antietam, which was more or less a draw, Lee crossed back over into Virginia, in retreat. Instead of giving immediate pursuit, it was nine days before the last of McLellan's army crossed the Antietam heading south. McLellan, in letters to his wife, referred to Lincoln as "a gorilla" and mused about becoming a dictator. He ran as a Democrat against Lincoln in 1864 and lost.
Aside from the battle's being a bloodbath, it's most important feature was that, with a little stretch of the imagination, it could be twisted into a Union victory. Lincoln twisted it. He called the battle a victory and issued the Emancipation Proclamation which freed the slave held in Confederate territory, something he could never have done after a defeat because it would be interpreted as a sign of desperation.
The more general goal of the proclamation was not simply to free slaves but to convince the European powers that the federal forces were winning and there should be no interference. In any case, the proclamation now made the war about slavery, not just states' rights, and Europe wouldn't intervene for moral reasons.
So the larger political context is missing, but that's carping because the program is less than an hour long and can't cover every aspect of the battle. Overall, a nicely done piece of work.
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