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September 14, 1999


The Decisive Battle of the War for Southern Independence
September 17-18, 1862: A Counterfactual View

houston.jpg - 28953 Bytesby W. Robert Houston

It was the summer of 1862. The War for Southern Independence was well into its second year. The Confederate States of America had suffered some very disturbing defeats -- none of the four border states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) had joined the cause. Union forces had won control over far-western Virginia, much of Tennessee, New Orleans, and much of the Mississippi Valley.

The Confederate Army had lost a bloody fight at Shiloh, and the nation was, at least theoretically, blockaded by the Union fleet. General Albert Sydney Johnston, of whom much had been expected, was dead.

The bright spot in this mid-September was the mighty Army of Northern Virginia, led by its increasingly legendary commanding general, Robert E. Lee, and his equally famous right- hand, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Since taking command of the forces defending Richmond on 1 June 1862 (following the serious wounding of General Joseph E. Johnston), Lee and his newly christened Army of Northern Virginia, had driven Major General George B. McClellan and his Union Army of the Potomac back down the peninsula to Harrison’s Landing, then turned on Major General John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia and smashed it at the Second Battle of Manassas.

Now, as September 1862 dawned, Lee faced a dilemma -- could he get the War off the depleted soil of his beloved Virginia, where armies had clashed for over a year, thereby allowing Virginians to harvest their crops and be freed from the constant to-ing and fro-ing of the armies? Could he drive into Maryland and gain food for his men, and recruits as well? Could he push on into Pennsylvania? Could he cut the B&O Railroad (the main Union east-west railroad)? Could he perhaps secure a “Saratoga Victory,” such as the one that had helped win the First War for Independence? Could he so batter the Union as to allow Great Britain and France to recognize the Confederacy and break the Blockade?

Meanwhile, in the Western Theater, Lee’s counterpart, General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Army of Tennessee, began a push to regain the line of the Ohio River (the natural border of the Confederacy). Bragg and Major General E. Kirby Smith’s autonomous reinforced corps (the so-called Army of East Tennessee) aimed to drive into Kentucky, arm Confederate loyalists in that state, and undo the past year’s disasters in the West.

So Lee marched north toward destiny, while Bragg and Smith also pushed north. The key was Lee and the far more visible Eastern Theater.

Marching north “Marse Robert” defiantly divided his army of 45,000 into five parts, assuming McClellan, even with 80,000 men, was too cautious to bother him. Jackson and three segments of the Army of Northern Virginia, marched on Harper’s Ferry to seize its stores and cut the B&O. Lee and Longstreet pushed into Maryland, while D.H. Hill’s men guarded the flank to the east. Lee was being audacious in the extreme, and had McClellan discovered his plans, he could have been in deep trouble.

Finally, when McClellan did belatedly discover Lee’s main move, he advanced to meet the Southerners. Lee, uncharacteristically, stood on the defensive, with earthworks, behind Antietam Creek, just inside Maryland.

On September 17, 1862, McClellan unleashed a series of uncoordinated attacks on Lee’s position. The Union I, XII, and part of the II Corps drove almost due south. They were cut to ribbons in vicious fighting in the area near the Dunkard Church, the Wheat Field and the sunken ford. They were massacred. Nightfall found McClellan confused and depressed. on the 18th, Lee attacked his center and the Union army fled toward Washington. Lee, though terribly bloodied, held the field.

The news of the Southern victory spread rapidly by telegraph. President Abraham Lincoln, needing a victory to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, was distraught. The North was stunned. The British and French were impressed.

For the North, things got worse as Lee rampaged through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, while Bragg and Kirby Smith reached into the Ohio River line, though they could not hold Kentucky for long.

The British Government of Lord Palmerston saw Antietam as the new Saratoga, recognized the Confederate Government, ordered its Navy to break the blockade, and informed the North ambassador, Charles Francis Adams, that it would pursue an alliance with the South. France, with its interest in Mexico, quickly followed suit. Soon, all major European powers, except Russia, had recognized the Confederacy.

In the Union elections of 1862, the Republicans and “War Democrats” lost control of both Houses of Congress. Maryland seceded from the Union, forcing the United States’ Government to flee to New York City. Missouri and Kentucky also seceded and Bragg regained the line of the Ohio and this time stayed there.

President Lincoln, desperate and distraught, became on January 1, 1863, the first President to resign from office -- a broken man, he returned to Illinois, where he died in early 1865. President Hannibal Hamlin opened peace talks with the Confederacy, brokered by Britain. On July 4, 1863, the Treaty of Westminster ended the war.

The Treaty recognized the Confederate states of America as independent and as comprising all lands in the states of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia (less the far-western portion), Maryland, and the District of Columbia. The Confederate Government moved to Washington. Slavery was absolutely guaranteed in the Confederacy. The Union capital remained in New York City. Its territory included all other states and territories, save the Indian Territory north of Texas. The Confederacy also received all territory south of 30 degrees north latitude to the Pacific.

President Hamlin lost the 1864 United States president election to Horatio Seymore of New York, while Jefferson Davis was succeed in office by General Robert E. Lee, whose untimely death in 1870 brought Wade Hampton to the Presidency of the Confederacy. Russia sold Alaska to Britain, while the Confederacy seized Cuba from Spain.

In 1875, California seceded from the Union and formed the Kingdom of the Pacific, running from the Ocean to the Rockies. New England left the Union the following year to found the Republic of New England, leaving the United States nearly land-locked.

Thus, a historian looking back to the Battle of Antietam in 1862 must say it was the decisive battle in the War for Southern Independence. We Southerners must realize the great victory our ancestors bought for us on that bloody field. It was the beginning of the modern world.

1It should be noted that this essay is a work of fiction. It was originally presented at the Symposium on “Southern Accents in Science Fiction,” June 2, 1999, sponsored by The Harbinger and co-sponsored by the Science Fiction Research Association, and funded by a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

W. Robert Houston is professor of history at the University of South Alabama. The author would like to thank Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red (the definitive historical account of the Battle of Antietam), MacKinlay Kantor, If the South Had won the Civil War (a slight, but interesting work), and the United States Military Academy at West Point (which conducted two “staff rides,” in 1981 and 1992, which gave the author much insight into the battle), for inspiration. I remain responsible for all conclusions.

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