Monday, April 19, 2021

Book Snapshot: "Decisions at Antietam: The Fourteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle"

With the release of Decisions at Antietam: The Fourteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle, the prolific Command Decisions in America’s Civil War series created by retired army officer Matt Spruill and published by University of Tennessee Press has now reached ten volumes*. It also marks the introduction of a promising new contributor in Michael S. Lang.

Regular Decisions followers can skip this introductory paragraph, but some definition of terms and explanation of series format and structure are in order for new readers. As the title implies, analysis centers on the concept of the "critical decision." The series defines this as a decision "of such magnitude that it shapes not only the events immediately following, but also the campaign or battle thereafter." The number of critical decisions varies by volume, but each is evaluated using the same sequential five-stage process—"Situation", "Options", "Decision", "Results/Impact", and "Alternate Decision/Scenario". The first and typically the lengthiest section, Situation describes the state of affairs at a crossroads moment before, during, or after the campaign/battle. It provides readers with the background information necessary to recognize and evaluate the command decision Options (usually two or three in number) that immediately follow. The historical Decision is then outlined briefly before the Results/Impact section recounts what happened and how those events shaped the rest of the battle and perhaps beyond. The Situation and Results/Impact sections quite often reference other decisions in a meaningful way, further reminding readers of their interconnectivity and the cascading consequences of critical decisions made earlier. The Alternate Decision/Scenario section delves into alternative history conjecture based, obviously, on Options not selected (often the most tantalizing one readers favor with the benefit of hindsight). In using this framework rather than traditional narrative forms, it is felt that readers, even those well steeped in the topic at hand, will gain an enriched sense of "why events happened as they did." Rather than repeat an evaluation of how that's achieved (in the main part of the book as well as in the appendix's integrated battlefield guide), I would refer readers to the site reviews (here and here) of two volumes I feel were exceptionally effective in doing so.

Critical decisions can be "strategic, operational, tactical, organizational, personnel related, or logistical." Unlike other authors, Lang does not explicitly categorized his list of decisions. Beginning his analysis on the very eve of the Antietam fight, he also doesn't examine important pre-campaign (ex. Lincoln's decision to appoint McClellan to lead the newly organized army tasked with intercepting Lee's invasion) or any pre-battle decisions related to the fighting at the mountain passes or at Harpers Ferry. Apparently all of that will be addressed in a companion volume. As they are, the fourteen critical Antietam decisions are grouped into three chapters. The first consists of two September 15-16 operational decisions, the second ten tactical-level decisions made on September 17, and the final two are operational choices made on September 18. The set will be sampled here by looking at one from each chapter.

After defeat at the passes, a suddenly vulnerable Lee had a critical decision to make with three options: retreat across the Potomac, offer battle at Antietam (the historical choice), or move north toward Hagerstown to continue the campaign. Employing references to up to date scholarship, Lang does well in reciting the relevant considerations involved in each decision. General readers usually see the situation along Antietam creek as only a dual stay or fight proposition, but the author's inclusion of the third choice is supported by strong evidence that Lee was still seriously considering possible movements to regain the initiative after his previous plans were badly deranged by his opponent. Less convincing is Lang's suggestion in the Alternative Decision/Scenario section that a decision to retreat did not necessarily signal an end to the campaign. It seems to difficult to imagine the possibility that Lee's army, worn down and needing time to recoup from the Maryland Campaign's heavy straggling, would have attempted to force another Potomac crossing mere days later and now directly opposed on the north bank by McClellan's rested and fully concentrated army.

With the very recent publication of William Marvel's sympathetic Fitz John Porter biography it might be interesting to revisit next that general's role in the battle late on the 17th and see how Lang's decision analysis sees the matter. Citing a conservative estimate of 4,000 uncommitted Fifth Corps troops available to attack the Confederate center in the afternoon, Lang judiciously weighs factors for and against McClellan's two options regarding the deployment of Porter's troops. These were: (1) use the remaining army reserve (Porter's uncommitted Fifth Corps elements) to attack, or (2) continue to hold the reserve back to secure the Union center, its artillery (the 20-lb Parrotts on the east side of the creek had apparently exhausted all or most of their ammunition), and army trains. Lang makes a good point that an attack by Porter's troops, depending on how it was timed, didn't need to pierce Lee's center to have the possibility of achieving major results. In his view, just securing the Cemetery Hill high ground east of Sharpsburg as an enfilading artillery platform might have helped secure victory on the 17th.

Our last example, taken from the pair of post-battle decisions, involves McClellan's critical decision to not renew the attack on the 18th despite having received more than enough reinforcements to make up for the previous day's losses (Lang does not suggest the possibility of a third option involving maneuver). In keeping with the series tradition of not labeling decision options as necessarily good or bad but rather what factors went into their consideration, Lang offers a lucid, dispassionate assessment of what conditions and perceptions influenced McClellan's almost universally damned decision-making on that day. In his Alternate Decision/Scenario assessment, Lang is much more guarded than most in judging the results of a September 18 renewal of the battle. That scenario is typically presented by others as guaranteed destruction of Lee's army's. The author rejects going that far but is nevertheless confident that Lee would have been forced to retreat sometime during the day (which would have been highly dangerous by any measure) or following night. Emphasizing the connectivity aspect of critical decisions, Lang also remarks that McClellan's cautious decision did not signal an end to the campaign but only a shifting of the final (the book's fourteenth) critical decision onto the shoulders of Lee, who then had to decide whether to stand his ground for yet another day, attack, or retreat.

In terms of visual aids, fifteen maps support the main decision analysis, and modern battlefield photographs are interspersed throughout the volume. As is the case with the other series installments, a detailed battlefield touring guide closely tied to the critical decision analysis is present in the appendix section along with a set of army orders of battle. Distinct from other series volumes is Lang's inclusion of comparative strength and casualty tables based on a selection of contemporary and modern sources that differ in their research conclusions.

This assessment of Decisions at Antietam is admittedly limited, yet the quality of its sampled parts leads me to believe in the likelihood that Lang's contribution will be ranked among the stronger installments in the series.

* - The publisher's description is in slight error in stating that this is the ninth volume in the series. With prior releases of Stones River, Second Manassas, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Atlanta, the 1862 Kentucky Campaign, Gettysburg, Wilderness & Spotsylvania, and Tullahoma volumes, this is indeed the tenth installment in the series with another one covering the Seven Days scheduled for release later this year.


  1. I really enjoyed your review. Thanks for taking the time to review the book. I am glad you found it interesting. One often wonders if the assertions you are making sense to anyone besides myself.
    You mentioned the critical decisions made during the campaign. My hope is that this book, “Decisions of the Maryland Campaign, should be out next year.

  2. Drew: I just received my copy. One thing that is immediately apparent, and for which I commend the author, is the inclusion of numerous modern photos of the battlefield (which he took). I wish that was a uniform feature of the series - at least for the battlefields where it is even possible.

    1. One thing I like about Butkovich's Carman/Antietam series is his inclusion of wideish-angle, modern battlefield photos taken at the approx. time of day of the historical action. That would also be a nice feature for guidebooks to emulate.

    2. Drew: I agree. He's also done a series of simulation books for Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Antietam which feature great color photos of the battlefields that correlate to his scenarios.


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