Saturday, November 24, 2012

A thought about objectives in war.

Next Saturday is the first Saturday of December, the day on which 23,000 candles are lit at the Antietam Battlefield -- one for each casualty in the Civil War battle. I got to thinking about objectives in the context of that battle.

The Confederate army is generally seen as having the objective of marching through Maryland (where there were many Confederate sympathizers) and bringing the war to Pennsylvania and the north, with the further purpose of encouraging a conclusion of the war that would leave the Confederacy in place.

The Union army must have had an objective of thwarting the Confederate army in its advance. It was also under orders to prevent the Confederate army from switching its march and attacking and occupying Washington. The overall plan of the Union military apparently had been changed to one of attacking the Confederate armies, depleting there resources and ending their ability to prosecute the war.

In some sense, you have to assume that an objective of each army in a major battle is to defeat the other army.

Antietam followed the battle of South Mountain and the Confederates taking of Harpers Ferry and was followed by the battle of Shepherstown, all of which took place in the same campaign and within a few days. The Union army outnumbered the Confederates by about two to one.

The one day at Antietam saw the most casualties in any single day of American history. While there were fewer casualties among Confederate than Union troops, one-quarter of the Confederate army was lost. The Confederate advance was stopped and the Confederate army retreated back into Virginia.

In the aftermath of the battle, the Union claimed victory and the claims were effective in discouraging European powers from declaring support for the Confederacy. The claim of victory also allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, thereby making it possible to claim that the Union cause was both the preservation of the Union and democracy, and the abolition of slavery and the promotion of freedom.

I wonder, however, whether these reasons of state were the reasons that the participants fought. While the Confederate states clearly seceded from the Union to protect a way of life based on slavery, I suspect that Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers both fought as citizens of their countries -- sometimes as volunteers and sometimes as conscripts. In battle, don't soldiers really fight for their friends and fellow soldiers? Certainly, with the perspective of 150 years we can honor soldiers on both sides for their exceptional bravery and their service to what they perceived as their nations.

My point is that motivations are complex. From one point of view, the battle was a stand off, with neither army clearly defeating the other. From another point of view, the battle was a Union victory in that the Union army did stop the Confederate advance while protecting Washington, did force the Confederates into retreat the next day, and did advance major political purposes of the Union. But for 23,000 thousand dead, and for the families of the dead, those objectives may have mattered less than their personal tragedies.

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