Role of General Robert E Lee at the Battle of Antietam Thesis

Excerpt from Thesis :

Despite over 23,000 casualties of the nearly 100,000 engaged, both armies stubbornly held their ground as the sun set on the devastated landscape."

This point is made time in again among the accounts of the battle, where historians laud General Lee's relentless fighting spirit even in the face of growing losses of precious men and materiel. For example, despite his enormous losses, General Lee continued to prosecute the battle in an opportunistic fashion throughout the daylong battle in hopes of ultimately turning the tide. In this regard, Jamieson advises that, "Even [after sustaining devastating losses], Lee conceded the initiative grudgingly and during the day-long battle he made division-sized counterattacks, exhausted all of his reserves, and looked for opportunities to seize the offensive."

After 12 hours, it would seem reasonable to suggest that both sides would have had enough and would have been exhausted to the point where they could fight no longer, but General Lee never really gave up the offensive. For instance, Jamieson adds that, "While the Federals were driving in his center along the Sunken Road, the Southern commander considered an attack against McClellan's right. The battle in fact ended with a Confederate offensive, a.P. Hill's timely thrust into the left flank of the Ninth Corps."

In response to McClellan's refusal to pursue the Confederates into their own territory and perhaps end the war three years sooner was regarded as treasonous by some U.S. congressmen. For example, Michigan's Senator Zachariah Chandler, considered McClellan "an imbecile if not a traitor," and if a "traitor he ought to be shot."

Although it is important to qualify that this statement about treasonous behavior and suggesting his execution was made in a letter to the senator's wife, there were some clear indications among lawmakers that if McClelland was not colluding outright with the South, he otherwise lacked the skills or wherewithal need to win the war in general and the Battle of Antietam in particular. For instance, McPherson reports that, "These statements, like McClellan's about Stanton, were made in letters to their wives. But publicly Chandler -- and others -- challenged the claim that the Army of the Potomac was outnumbered. In this they were right. McClellan's problem was not lack of reinforcements, they charged, but lack of the will to fight. 'We feel much obliged to you for your exposure of that windbag and humbug McClellan,' wrote one of Chandler's correspondents."

Likewise, Armstrong (2008) points out that, "McClellan, as the principal Federal commander from the summer of 1861 until November 1862, is easily one of the most controversial figures of the war. His performance as commander of the Army of the Potomac during the Maryland Campaign is usually characterized as excessively slow, overly cautious, and blind to the opportunity presented him for defeating the Army of Northern Virginia and ending the war at the Battle of Antietam."

One of the consistent themes that emerges from the relevant literature is just how well General Lee did at Antietam despite the overwhelming Northern forces that were arrayed against him. For instance, in an evaluation of the criticism directed at McClellan's half-hearted advances and demonstrated failure to deploy the superior manpower that was available to him at the Battle of Antietam, Duncan (1999) notes that in reality, many were not a match for the Confederate troops. For instance, Duncan emphasizes that, "Nearly one-quarter of McClellan's infantry consisted of green troops as opposed to Lee's veterans, whereas they constituted one-half of the Harpers Ferry garrison."

Likewise, Duncan cites the vital roles played by J.E.B. Stuart and John Pelham in the manner in which artillery pieces were handled on Nicodemus Heights and Hauser's Ridge and concludes that notwithstanding better performances in a number of other battles, the "success [of southern batteries] was especially tangible at Antietam."

Other historians have also emphasized that superior generalship of Robert E. Lee during the Battle of Antietam as contributing to the hard-fought outcome. For example, Cannan (1994) reports that, "In supervising the battle, Lee and his lieutenants once again demonstrated their outstanding brilliance, shifting troops where needed to blunt the thrusts of his adversary."

The relentlessness of the Confederate leadership provided by General Lee even in the face of overwhelming odds is also made evident by Cannan's observation that, "In the cases where they did not have organized reinforcements available, lines were improvised and thrown into the fray. Though hard pressed throughout the battle, the generals and men had refused to quit and retreat. However, they had reached the limits of their endurance and without reinforcements they could do no more but retreat."

Despite the valiant sustained performances by the Confederate troops during the Battle of Antietam, the scope of the toll it exacted on the Southern troops can be discerned from some first-hand accounts in the historical record. For example, an account of the battle provided by a member of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia's Winchester camp by 21-year-old Sergeant Benjamin F.J. Hyatt, Third Arkansas Infantry, relates the inordinately high casualty rates among his comrades: "Every letter I receive from home bears a sad tale. [a]lmost every homestead is in mourning for some gallant member of the homecircle."

The sergeant specifically cites the Battle of Antietam as a factor in these losses. According to Bledsoe (2008), Sergeant Hyatt was "a student at the University of Mississippi and the eldest son of a minister from Monticello, Arkansas [who] had good reason to grieve, and not just over bad news from home."

Although Sergeant Hyatt did not participate in the Battle of Antietam because he was assigned elsewhere, the impact of the battle on the collective Southern spirit can be discerned from Bledsoe analysis of his journal entries about the event:

Two weeks earlier, on September 17, 1862, Benjamin Hyatt's 'homecircle' had been shattered when his brothers Elijah and Robert fell at the battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Third Arkansas Infantry Regiment had suffered heavily on that bloodiest single day in American military history. The regiment went into combat with 350 men. By the end of the day, 202 of them had been killed, wounded, or captured. Twenty-six of the casualties were men from Hyatt's Company C, the 'Confederate Stars.'

Because many of the regiments that comprised the Confederate Army were men from the same towns and communities, this scope of loss must have been a devastating blow to towns a majority of the men who marched off to battle died or were mortally wounded. Indeed, the battle was fought hard by the South and the efforts of many regiments were sufficiently noteworthy to be recognized by the Confederate government for their distinguished service. For instance, the famed "Iron Brigade" of the Army of Northern Virginia was comprised of "four battle-hardened Virginia infantry regiments (the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th and 33rd)" who earned this distinction following the Battle of Antietam.

As a West Pointer, General Lee also knew how to use terrain to his advantage and was relentless in his prosecution of the battle even as the grisly consequences of these efforts were unfolding. Indeed, Jamieson cites a personal record from Lee to illustrate this propensity for victory at all costs:

Even after his army took its ghastly losses and had its brush with disaster at Sharpsburg, Lee's aggressive spirit remained undaunted. Just four days after the bloodbath at Antietam, he told President Davis: ' is still my desire to threaten a passage into Maryland, to occupy the enemy on this frontier, and, if my purpose cannot be accomplished, to draw them into the Shenandoah Valley, where I can attack them to advantage.'

Given that General Lee was renowned for personally knowing many of the soldiers he led, and recognizing the implications these losses would have for the people of the South, he remained committed to exploiting the potential opportunity this initial incursion onto enemy soil represented. He had what was left of the Army of Northern Virginia, and he was going to use it to his best advantage given the circumstances that the South faced in sustaining a long-term conflict with the resource-superior North. In this regard, Jamieson concludes that, "Few generals in American history, faced with Lee's circumstances on September 21, 1862, would have written such a dispatch."

Few generals have sustained such losses and kept their jobs, though, and the fact that Jefferson Davis remained faithful to his favorite general is proof positive that the total war being experienced by the South was worth it. This commitment is understandable, at least to some degree from a modern perspective, because the war was still relatively young and it was difficult to envision the enormity of the losses that would be experienced in the years to come. Nevertheless, the scope of the battle was profound by any historical measure. For example, Browne (2003) emphasizes that, "The bloody battle left more dead and dying casualties on the ground than any…

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