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Early phases of Civil War and Antietam

The Civil War began after Lincoln's inauguration and the Fort Sumter incident. The North used their industrial base and population to blockade the South, who relied on their home advantage and leadership. Surprisingly, the South initially outperformed the North, despite the North's resources. The turning point came at the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history.

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] All right, Kim. So where we left off, Lincoln gets elected in November of 1860. He's not inaugurated until we get into 1861. Shortly after his inauguration, you have the whole situation at Fort Sumter, which is really the start of the Civil War. We don't have the first major battle until we get to Bull Run. And the overall theaters of war, we have this corridor here in the Northeast in Virginia and Maryland. And you also have it in the west along the Mississippi. And the North, the strategy is well let's use our industrial base. Let's use our larger population. Let's use our navy to see if we can essentially blockade the South. Well the South says, "Hey we have the home court. "We have better leadership. "We just need to outlast the North." And so what happens as we get started, we talked about Bull Run being the first major battle. Who kind of comes out better in some of these first engagements? - [Voiceover] Well I think it's a surprise to everyone when the South does much better in the first year of the war than the North. Knowing the major advantages that the North has in industrial power, in railroads, and just in the sheer number of people, it's very surprising that the leadership in the South does such an incredible job of really blocking the North's advances. The North is attempting to take Richmond, and Lee repeatedly keeps General McClellan from getting to Richmond. - [Voiceover] Right and then Lee actually goes on the offensive to some degree. The South essentially wins in Bull Run, and they have a series of victories as you mentioned in year one. - [Voiceover] Right, so one problem that the North has is that Lincoln's generals are just not nearly as skilled. George B. McClellan that we've talked about, his idea of the South's power is perhaps considerably greater than the South's actual power. As he is forever telling Lincoln, "I need more troops. "I need more supplies. "Send me more things." He loves parading his army, but I think he was actually a little too close to the troops himself. He was really afraid to lose anyone, which made him very popular with the army, but drove Lincoln crazy because the North comes out with this really strong numeric and industrial advantage. And as McClellan delays, it gives the South time to build things up over and over again. In fact Lincoln, who we often think of as being sort of this great-grandfatherly, sweet character, who has so many words of wisdom, his letters to McClellan are downright snarky. He says to McClellan, "If you're not using the army, "could I borrow it?" (laughter) - [Voiceover] And is that what historians believe too? It looks like Lincoln felt that the reason why year one went in favor of the South. And what we talked about in previous years, everyone thought this was gonna be a fast engagement. The North had all of these advantages. Lincoln believed that maybe McClellan wasn't being aggressive enough. And do historians - [Voiceover] Yes absolutely. - [Voiceover] believe that too? - [Voiceover] Yeah, no I think that's true. It's really borne out by the numbers, that in many cases where McClellan thought he was facing just thousands of troops, he was really only facing a fraction of that. - [Voiceover] And so that made him be a little bit more cautious? - [Voiceover] He was very - [Voiceover] cautious. - [Voiceover] At what point is the turning point, at least in these early stages of the Civil War, as we have here in this timeline? We go from April 1861 to roughly April 1865. The first year, I can draw that. So the first year would be roughly this. We've had several battles after Bull Run, but then we get to Antietam. - [Voiceover] Right so Lee, since he's done so well in Virginia, he decides that he's gonna take the army to the North. This is the first time that he heads up into the border state of Maryland, and he meets at Antietam Creek with McClellan. - [Voiceover] And this goes back to the naming conventions between the North and South. It's called Antietam, that's the body of water, which the North does. This is Antietam right there. - [Voiceover] Right well the South refers to it as the nearby town which is Sharpsburg, Maryland. And once again, - [Voiceover] I see. - [Voiceover] this is a big deal. This is the South invading the North now, taking the offensive. - [Voiceover] Right and this is the bloodiest day in American history when-- - [Voiceover] Let me make sure I digested what you just said. The bloodiest day? I imagine things like Pearl Harbor and D-Day. - [Voiceover] Right, so 4,000 Americans died on a single day, September 17th, 1862 when these two armies meet at Antietam. And on no other day in American history have so many Americans died, not even on September 11th did that many Americans die. - [Voiceover] And was this a surprise to folks? - [Voiceover] Yeah, well I think one of the truisms, perhaps about military strategy in general, is that people are always planning for the last war. They're not planning for the next war, and so they learn from their mistakes, but what they don't know how to do always is anticipate what's going to be new about this war. And there were so many new inventions during this time period that really made the Civil War an incredibly deadly war. - [Voiceover] Yeah and you can see. These are pictures. These are Antietam right here? - [Voiceover] This is Antietam, yes. - [Voiceover] And this looks - [Voiceover] like Lincoln and McClellan. - [Voiceover] Right, meeting at Antietam. - [Voiceover] Which is incredibly bloody. And you talk about new technologies or new weapons, this rifle here looks like one of 'em. - [Voiceover] (chuckles) Yes. So this is a war where there's a transition from the musket to the rifle, and what's different about a rifle is that inside the barrel of a rifle, there is a sort of spiral-shaped groove. And the spiral-shaped groove makes the rifle much more accurate at a much farther distance. It's sort of the difference between just hurling a football end over end and throwing a spiral, so you can hit a target at 600 yards, which is much greater. - [Voiceover] Was unheard of - [Voiceover] for a musket or hard, very hard with a musket. So it gets the bullet spinning, which keeps it on its trajectory better. - [Voiceover] Exactly. So we have much more accurate technology and old military strategy. If you see paintings of, for example the Napoleonic Wars, just involved a whole bunch of soldiers lining up and going toward each other. Well when you've got soldiers in a line and very accurate weapons-- - [Voiceover] I never got why that ever made sense though. (Kim laughs) - [Voiceover] I'm not sure I do either to be perfectly - [Voiceover] Yeah I don't - [Voiceover] honest. - [Voiceover] consider myself - [Voiceover] a great military strategist, but wearing these (Kim laughs) bright uniforms and marching in step in these kind of-- - [Voiceover] Yeah it does - [Voiceover] seem to make you a very good target. - [Voiceover] Yes, yes, but anyway, you have the rifle now, much more accurate and you end up with scenes like this, but what was the outcome of Antietam? - [Voiceover] There are two very major outcomes of Antietam, I would say. One, on the negative side for the North, is this is a battle that is widely photographed as you can see. Mathew Brady, who was the leading photography studio owner of his time, and it's one t. - [Voiceover] Mathew, okay. - [Voiceover] Yeah, very important, only one t. - [Voiceover] Yes, a (Kim laughs) nontraditional spelling of Matthew. - [Voiceover] He sends out his photographer that works for him, named Alexander Gardner, and they have roving photographers for the first time. They have wagons. And they take-- - [Voiceover] 'Cause - [Voiceover] photography's just becoming a used technology at this time. - [Voiceover] Right and so - [Voiceover] they have Alexander Gardner photograph the battlefields at Antietam. And as you can see. - [Voiceover] Like a E-R? - [Voiceover] That's right, yes. - [Voiceover] Gardner. - [Voiceover] As you can see, this is just about as far away from the kind of heroic paintings of what battles looked like that people had been used to seeing up until this point. These don't look like the sort of heroes of the Revolutionary War, like George Washington. This is, this is gruesome. - [Voiceover] Gruesome. - [Voiceover] And this is really fascinating 'cause we take it for granted in today's day and age is that the effect of media on people's perception of things like war. Before the camera, before photographs, if I'm a civilian, I just hear about these great stories, and I see these paintings that look very valiant and very heroic. But now with photographs, you see the grim reality of war, people just shot in their tracks. And young men just kind of just piled up. It's just very dark. - [Voiceover] Yeah and it's a real PR problem for the North because this is before we can really put photography in newspapers. They don't have that technology yet, but these photographs were put on display in Brady's studios. He had one in Washington, D.C. and one in New York City, and people would go and look at these photographs, and it was very shocking to them. It was a level of detail that they had never seen. In some cases, they could make out the faces of the individual men who were dead on the battlefield. And that just seemed beyond what was imaginable to these people. To think of some poor person going into one of these studios and seeing their son dead there on the battlefield made it very difficult for the North to keep up morale. - [Voiceover] Fascinating.