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Participants’ Accounts of the Battle of Antietam PowerPoint Presentation
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Participants’ Accounts of the Battle of Antietam

Participants’ Accounts of the Battle of Antietam

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Participants’ Accounts of the Battle of Antietam

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  1. Jubal A. Early Jubal A. Early’s account of the battle closely resembles a historical narrative. He writes very little on personal interactions, but instead analyzes battlefield strategy, troop movements, and statistics such as casualties. Early analyzes everything from a top-down perspective, observing not only the movements of his own brigade but of the others as well. Major Sorrel wrote in a journal format. Unlike Early, Sorrel was not aiming for a historical narrative, describing very little that he did not see with his own eyes. Sorrel described in detail his interactions with various people, from hospitable civilians to General Longstreet himself. Though the Battle of Antietam was one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Civil War, Sorrel’s recollections contain a touch of humor. Gilbert Moxley Sorrel Sorrel, who was on Longstreet’s staff, notes several details about interactions between Longstreet and Lee. Both generals were injured during the battle. Lee gamaged his hands in a fall and had to spend much of the battle in an ambulance, while Longstreet chafed his heel and had to wear decidedly un-martial carpet slippers during the battle! Sorrel also recounts the amiable interaction between the two generals, described to him by his comrades: “Longstreet, big, heavy , and red, grimly stern after this long day’s work…rolled in on his clumsy carpet slippers. Lee…welcomed him with unconcealed joy. ‘Here comes my war horse just from the field he has done so much to save!’ his arm affectionately around ‘Peter’s’ shoulder. The latter should surely have been proud and well satisfied.” (Sorrel 116) Early was primarily concerned with military strategy and betrays very little emotion throughout his description of the battle. However, he demonstrates perseverance as well as a keen mind, remaining steadfast while calculating his decisions carefully: “The situation was most critical…as it was apparent that if the enemy got possession of this woods, possession of the hills…would immediately follow…In fact, the possession of these hills would have enabled them to take over our whole line…and a disastrous defeat must have followed. I determined to hold on to the last moment…” (Early 146) James Longstreet (right) and Robert E. Lee (left) Before the Battle of Antietam, a Union soldier discovered a copy of Lee’s general orders discarded by the road. This proved to be an enormous advantage for McClellan in the following battle. Though it is a mystery as to how these “Lost Orders” ended up by the roadside, but Sorrel, suggests a solution. Perhaps Hill received two copies, one from Lee, and one from Jackson, and out of annoyance discarded the copy from Jackson? “…perhaps two copies were sent Hill…Jackson considered Hill under his command and sent him a copy of the order. One copy certainly reached him from General Lee. Jackson and Hill…had…no great personal liking for each other, and I can imagine the cross and dyspeptic Hill, with the order from Lee in his pocket, receiving another copy from Jackson with careless irritation.” Early approaches the battle like a military historian, estimating the amount of casualties. He reports 119 killed, 1,115 wounded, and 38 missing in Ewell’s division, and 18 and 156 in his own. Though this counting of casualties seems grim, Early is far from pessimistic, saying that “the loss in [the Confedrate Army] was heavy, but not so great as the estimate put upon it by the enemy (Early 153.)” Though not a historian, Sorrel was concerned with truth in his account. Sorrel attempts to debunk several myths involving gunnery during Antietam. Once, General Hill’s horse was shot out from under him as he was making some observations. This event was falsely connected with another incident, when Sorrel, Longstreet, and some others men noticed that two of the guns in Miller’s Washington Artillery had gone silent. They left their horses and manned the guns themselves with a will. While this story is true, the incentive for Sorrel and Longstreet to man the guns did not stem from Hill’s unfortunate accident. Another legend surrounding Hill’s accident is that McClellan himself fired the fatal shot. This, Sorrel emphatically assures us, is false. (Sorrel 11-12.) After the war, Early gained access to many other records of the battle. One of these was McClellan’s estimate of Lee’s forces. McClellan’s account places Lee’s forces at an astounding 97,445 men in contrast to Early’s estimate of 23,000 men. Such an account reflected McClellan’s near paranoia, and provokes an unusual display of amazement and amusement from Early: “…this estimate is a very remarkable one and contains some very amusing features…that the Major General commanding the “Grand Army of the Potomac,” should have so estimated the strength of General Lee’s army…is perfectly amazing. Who commanded the ‘forty-six [extra regiments predicted by McClellan]’or where were the 400 guns to come from?” (Early 156-157) Early seems to show some disdain for McClellan, pointing out that McClellan’s claim of driving the enemy out of Maryland is “singular” for one who earlier boasted that he had come within five miles of the Confederate capital. (Early 159.) Though much of Sorrel’s account is characterized by good humor, camaraderie, and bravado, he recognizes the horrors, hardships, and tragedies of battle. His “heart was heavy because of the number of casualties. He had a personal connection with some of them, having lost “[his] dear personal friends of school days, McIntosh and Parkman(Sorrel 115.)” Participants’ Accounts of the Battle of Antietam Though Sorrel is not unreasonably optimistic, considering the reputation Antietam has in history, why was his account so lighthearted? Possibly, because he was in a lower position than Early, he did not see the horrors on the same broad scale that Early saw. In addition, Sorrel was an officer, and therefore less likely to be in the line of fire than the common soldier. Those two things may have contributed to a more “mild” experience (if war can be said to be mild.) It is also possible that Sorrel’s faith may have influenced his outlook. Scholar John M. Priest on three different occasions refers to Sorrel as a devout Christian (Priest 27, 299.) Sorrel’s hope of a better life to come and belief in God’s hand guiding the battle may have given him a positive attitude despite the horrors of Antietam. While Early’s account of the battle of Antietam is grim and serious, he was optimistic about the outcome and considered Antietam a victory: “ The truth is that the substantial victory was with us, and if our army had been in reach of reinforcements, it would have been a decisive one…It was a great deal gained to force the enemy into a ‘defensive-offensive’ campaign…and place the Army of the Potomac in that accidental position, though we did fail in arousing Maryland, or getting any reinforcements from that state.” (Early 159-161) Note that Early considers the battle a victory even though its purpose, to arouse Maryland, had not been achieved. He seems, ironically, to be putting just as positive a spin on the battle as McClellan did! General Early and Major G. M. Sorrel each wrote an account of the battle at Antietam. Though involved in the same grisly conflict, these two men’s accounts differ remarkably in tone and subject. Both Sorrel and Early wrote about Longstreet’s brigade: Sorrel as a member of Longstreet’s staff, and Early as a fellow general and military historian. How do Early’s grim lists of casualties fit together with Sorrel’s amusing anecdotes and optimistic tone?