October 18, 2018


A Fierce Glory: Antietam—The Desperate Battle That Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery. By Justin Martin. Da Capo. $28.

     The dispute as to whether the Civil War was all about slavery continues more than 150 years after the war’s end and shows no sign of ending anytime soon, if ever. Certainly the war was not 100% about slaveholding at first, even though extremists on both sides – defenders of slavery and opponents – stridently said that it was, as they sought to rally like-minded people to the cause of the Union or the Confederacy. Certainly Abraham Lincoln did not see the war as being about slavery: it was always, for him, about preserving the Union, and also about retaining his own political standing – a Republican, Lincoln needed the support of Northern Democrats, who generally opposed the notion of fighting a war to free the slaves. Indeed, as late as 1862, Lincoln famously made it clear in a letter to abolitionist Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune that maintaining the Union was his primary focus: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”

     But then came the Battle of Antietam – or, as it is also known, the Battle of Sharpsburg. It was after this inconclusive, extremely bloody battle, a tactical draw but a strategic Union victory because the Confederate troops left the field first, that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation – which took the third option Lincoln had mentioned to Greeley. Proclamation 95, as it is also known, freed all slaves in Confederate states – where, it could be argued, the Union had no power to free them – while avoiding the issue of slaveholding states that had not joined the Confederacy, including Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. It is for this proclamation and for its standing as the bloodiest day in United States history (more than 22,000 dead, wounded or missing) that Antietam is remembered today.

     There is no shortage of books about the battle, but Justin Martin looks for a new angle in A Fierce Glory by making his book about Lincoln just as much as it is about the battle itself. Martin focuses his book on Lincoln the man as well as Lincoln the president, discussing Lincoln’s personal and family troubles while also delving into his political worries, both domestic and foreign: a decisive Confederate victory in the battle at Sharpsburg, Maryland – that is, in the North – could lead Britain or France to recognize the Confederacy or provide it with assistance. The battle itself is presented carefully and with considerable attention to descriptions of equipment, formations, weapons, uniforms and more. Three maps show the location of Sharpsburg, the layout of the battlefield, and, most interestingly in terms of humanizing the president, “Lincoln’s daily commute” from Northeast Washington to the White House. And there are the usual period photographs, many of them familiar from other books, to go with information such as the fact that six generals – three from each side – were killed or mortally wounded during the battle.

     But A Fierce Glory has nothing new to say about the fighting itself: it will be of interest to readers wanting to know more about President Lincoln as a human being, his political calculations and the way he balanced everyday Washington infighting against what he saw as the grand work of preserving the United States as a single nation, no matter what that might entail. Seizing the outcome of Antietam as an opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation showed Lincoln’s political skill as well as his willingness, by this point in the war, to use whatever means he had at his disposal to rally sufficient support for the Union and against the Confederacy. If that now meant freeing the slaves, even in areas where Lincoln’s word carried moral weight but no legal authority, then that was what he would do – leaving complete abolition to occur later, indeed posthumously (the 13th Amendment was not ratified until December 6, 1865). Martin interweaves the battlefield and presidential topics skillfully, although the intermingling inevitably means that neither area is covered in as much depth as they have been in single-focus books. A Fierce Glory, based on considerable primary research as well as use of secondary sources, is a good overview of Antietam/Sharpsburg for readers not highly familiar with this element of the Civil War or with the tactics, both on the battlefield and in the political sphere, used to fight it.

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