Appellate Judge Dave Ryan is always game for a good Civil War documentary.
The story of America's Bloodiest Day.
The late summer of 1862 was unquestionably the low point of the Civil War for the Union forces. The Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia, headed by the brilliant Robert E. Lee, had definitively thwarted the North's Peninsular Campaign in Virginia during the Seven Days Battles, forcing General George McClelland's Army of the Potomac (122,000 men strong at the beginning of the campaign) to abandon its attempts to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital, and pull back—first to the James River, then all the way back to greater Washington. Meanwhile, the Second Battle of Bull Run (a.k.a. the Second Battle of Manassas) saw General John Pope's Army of Virginia outflanked by Lee's forces and forced into a tactical retreat. Pope was relieved of his command, and the demoralized Union forces pulled back north of the Potomac.
In Washington, the news could not have been worse for Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, facing political pressure from all sides, wanted to make a grand gesture abolishing slavery, with what would eventually become the Emancipation Proclamation. However, he knew that he couldn't make such a sweeping philosophical declaration, which was meant to change the entire justification of the war into a moral crusade against slavery, when the Confederacy was winning every battle in sight. Lincoln needed a Union victory; preferably a major Union victory. But first, Lincoln had to rally the troops. The Army of the Potomac was staggered; the Army of Virginia was shattered. To reform these broken pieces into a coherent fighting army, Lincoln turned to the one man around whom the troops would rally: George McClelland.
Lincoln was not McClelland's biggest fan. In fact, McClelland had no fans at all—save for his troops, who adored him. The young (35 years old) McClelland had been named top general of the Union Army in November, 1861, after General Winfield Scott retired from the post. As head of Union forces, McClelland gained a reputation for arrogance, insubordination, and—worst of all—an unwillingness to engage the enemy with his forces. McClelland preferred to sit, plan, sit some more, plan some more, conduct reconnaissance, sit, plan some more, and then continue sitting. (It didn't help that his spies, headed by Alan Pinkerton of "Pinkerton men" fame, consistently overestimated the number of Confederate troops McClelland faced in the field.) It's no wonder his troops loved him—he rarely made them march and fight. Lincoln removed McClelland's General-in-Chief title in March, 1862, moving strategic planning back to Washington and his cabinet. The debacles at Bull Run and on the Virginia Peninsula didn't help him, either.
But as noted, he was loved by the troops. So on September 2, 1862, Lincoln, against the advice of his cabinet and the Republican party, put McClelland in charge of the defense of Washington, which essentially meant he was charged with reforming the Army of the Potomac into a fighting force. He did so cautiously and slowly, natch.
On September 13th, the need for a competent army suddenly became immediate and pressing. Through sheer happenstance, Union soldiers found an envelope at a former Confederate campsite in Frederick County, Maryland. Inside the envelope were three cigars wrapped in a sheet of paper. History has not recorded whether the cigars were of fine quality or not. However, the sheet of paper they were wrapped in was a copy of Special Order No. 191, issued by Robert E. Lee on September 9th. The Order detailed Lee's plan to invade the North—specifically, western Maryland near Harper's Ferry, WV. Crucially, Lee was splitting his army into three pieces: Gen. Stonewall Jackson would take his group to Harper's Ferry to capture the town and keep the Union forces there occupied; Gen. James Longstreet would take his group to Boonsborough, where they would resupply and stand ready as a reserve, while Lee would take the main body of the army up the Hagerstown road to capture Hagerstown and the B&O Railroad route through Maryland.
McClelland had just been handed the intelligence coup of the war. He had nearly twice as many men (87,000 vs. 45,000) as Lee, and knew that Lee's forces were going to be divided. Did he immediately send his men on the march, seeking to surround, surprise, and decimate the divided Confederates? Of course not—this was George McClelland. He waited. And waited. And waited some more. Then, he decided to act—after Jackson had captured Harper's Ferry, and Lee had crossed the Potomac at Sharpsburg with 18,000 men. He took the bulk of the Union forces and set up lines to the west of Antietam Creek, slightly to the east of Sharpsburg. And he waited. (Thanks to his overenthusiastic spies, he thought Lee had 100,000 men in Sharpsburg, not the barely 20,000 he actually faced.) Finally, after probing the Confederate lines, McClelland launched a flanking attack from the north, along the Hagerstown road. It was the early morning of September 17th, 1862.
Twelve hours later, the Battle of Antietam—and the single bloodiest day in U.S. military history—was over. Total casualties numbered 22,719, with 3,654 dead. More Americans died on September 17, 1862 than on any other single day in history (including D-Day and 9/11). Tactically, the battle was a draw. Strategically, though, it changed the entire war. Lee's army, undermanned to begin with, could not sustain any sort of invasion of the North after Antietam. He was forced to retreat back to Virginia, and craft another plan to bring the war to the Union. (That plan would be thwarted as well, with equal bloodiness, at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in 1863.) Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. The governments of England and France, who were apparently on the verge of recognizing the Confederacy and offering to broker a peace deal, had to change their plans after Lincoln turned the war into a war against slavery. (Spoiler alert: the North wins.)
All Civil War documentaries live in the deep, dark shadow cast by Ken Burns' The Civil War. Burns' sweeping piece, originally aired on PBS, took the documentary form in a dramatic—literally—original direction. Burns didn't just regurgitate the well-known facts and historical data relating to the war; by using letters, diary entries, images, and first-hand testimony, he personalized and humanized the Civil War. This no longer was a long-finished conflict between raggedy soldiers on tintypes. It was a real conflict fought by real people; people who were not really all that different from you or I. Lincoln and Lee at Antietam borrows from the Burns style, but is more detailed than The Civil War (which, after all, encompassed the whole conflict, not just one day of it).
This documentary also uses a somewhat risky technique to personalize the battle: the dramatic recreation. Contemporary actors, portraying the major players in the Antietam battle (e.g. Lincoln, McClelland, Lee, and so forth), "recreate" selected key situations. Done poorly, this can turn an otherwise decent documentary into something akin to a bad grade school play. Thankfully, Lincoln and Lee at Antietam uses the technique wisely. Extensive use is made of footage shot at the large-scale battle reenactments done by Civil War enthusiasts; thanks to the attention to detail of the amateur actors, these actually fit quite well into the piece. Smaller, individual bits—Lincoln slaving away over the Emancipation Proclamation, for example—are used more sparingly, and are done without any sort of dialogue. All in all, the recreations don't harm or interrupt the flow of the narrative, nor do they detract from the documentary as a whole.
The extras included with the disc focus mainly on the film's narrator, director Ron Maxwell (Gods and Generals, Gettysburg). In the 25-minute filmed interview, Maxwell discusses the challenges he faced bringing not one, but two large-scale cinematic Civil War period pieces to the big screen (it's not a particularly popular genre right now), and his personal thoughts about Antietam, including the issue of battlefield preservation. He discusses many of the same topics on the feature commentary, which also features the film's director, Robert Child. The rest of the commentary consists mainly of additional tidbits of information about the battle; things that are interesting but weren't really fit for inclusion in the feature.
This is a fine documentary on one of the sadder days in U.S. history. The carnage at Antietam was unprecedented at the time. Certainly no one thought that less than a year later the overall casualty tally of Antietam would be dwarfed by the slaughterhouse that was Gettysburg; where the three-day clash between the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac in a sleepy Pennsylvania farming town would generate an astonishing 45,000+ casualties, including nearly 8,000 dead. But nothing has ever topped the single-day orgy of American blood that was Antietam. Let's hope nothing ever will.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Filmmaker Robert Child and Narrator Ronald F. Maxwell
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