TIME MACHINE: The Battle of Antietam

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TIME MACHINE: THE BATTLE OF ANTIETAM

Two days ago, September 17, marked the 150th anniversary of the Civil War conflict, The Battle of Antietam. Also known as The Battle of Sharpsburg in the Southern states, the battle was the first major conflict of the war that took place on Union soil, near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

The road to the Battle of Antietam began in the aftermath of a Confederate victory at Second Battle of Bull Run two months earlier. Embolden by success, General Robert E. Lee and the Jefferson Davis Administration in Richmond decided to take the war to Union soil by invading Maryland. Lee’s invasion of Maryland was intended to run simultaneously with an invasion of Kentucky by the armies of Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith. It was also necessary for logistical reasons, as northern Virginia’s farms had been stripped bare of food. Lee, Davis and the Confederate politicians also believed that a successful invasion into the North would destroy Northern morale and lead the Abraham Lincoln Administration to sue for peace. In the wake of the Baltimore Riot of April 19, 1861″ and the fact that President Lincoln had to pass through the city in disguise en route to his inauguration, Confederate leaders assumed that Maryland would welcome the Confederate forces warmly. However, Lee and Davis failed to discover that by the fall of 1862, pro-Union sentiment was winning out, especially in the western parts of the state.

Not long after Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia marched into Maryland, General George McClellan and the Army of the Potomoc followed in pursuit. Two Union soldiers of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry – Corporal Barton W. Mitchell and First Sergeant John M. Bloss – discovered a mislaid copy of Lee’s detailed battle plans wrapped around three cigars. Special Order 191 made it clear that Lee had divided his army and dispersed portions to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and Hagerstown, Maryland. This would have made each portion of the Army of Northern Virginia subject to isolation and defeat. But General McClellan did not move fast enough. He waited about 18 hours before deciding to take advantage of this new intelligence and squandered his chance for a complete defeat of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

The Battle of Antietam actually consisted of three battles. The first stage began at dawn on September 17. Union General Joseph Hooker’s I Corps stormed Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Second Corps around the Dunker Church, the West Woods, and David Miller’s cornfield. Union troops made repeated attacks, but furious Confederate counterattacks kept the Union in check.

The fighting moved south to the middle of the battlefield by mid-to-late morning. Union troops under General Edwin Sumner inflicted devastating casualties on the Confederates along a sunken road that became known as “Bloody Lane” between 9:30 am and 1:00 pm, before the Confederates retreated. Meanwhile, McClellan refused to apply reserves to exploit the opening in the Confederate center, because he believed Lee’s forces to be much larger than it actually was. In the late afternoon, Union General Ambrose Burnside and his IX Corps attacked General James Longstreet’s First Corps across a stone bridge that came to bear Burnside’s name. Union troops crossed the creek, but a Confederate counterattack brought any further advance to a halt.

The battle finally ended by early evening. The two armies remained in place throughout the following day, on September 18, in order to care for their wounded during a truce. Later that night, Lee and his army began their retreat to Virginia. Casualties for the Union Army numbered at 12,401, with 2,108 dead; and Confederate casualties numbered at 10,318, with 1,546 dead. These numbers represented 25% loss for the Union Army and 31% for the Confederates. More Americans died in battle on September 17, 1862; than on any other day in this nation’s military history.

Although the Union Army drove General Lee’s forces back to Virginia, the battle proved to be a lost opportunity for them. McClellan had an overwhelming numerical advantage, but he did not know it. Another attack on September 18 could have scattered the Confederates and cut off Lee’s line of retreat. But McClellan and the Union forces did not follow, much to President Lincoln’s disappointment. Nearly a week later, on September 22, President Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary draft of his Emancipation Proclamation. This document took effect on January 1, 1863 and expanded the Union goal from a war for reunification into a crusade to end slavery.

Below are some recommended books about the Battle of Antietam:

*“The Long Road To Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution” by Richard Slotkin

*“Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam” by James McPherson

*“The Antietam Campaign” by Gary W. Gallagher

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“THE CONSPIRATOR” (2010/11) Review

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“THE CONSPIRATOR” (2010/11) Review

Throughout Hollywood history, the topic of the American Civil War has proven to be a volatile mix in terms of box office and television ratings. Robert Redford’s new drama about President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination called “THE CONSPIRATOR” proved to be the case. 

Directed by Redford and written by James D. Solomon, “THE CONSPIRATOR” told the story about Civil War veteran Frederick Aiken’s efforts to prevent Mary Surratt, the only woman charged in the Lincoln assassination during the spring and summer of 1865. Following the 16th President’s death and near fatal attack upon Secretary of State William H. Seward, a Maryland-born boarding house owner and Confederate sympathizer named Mary Surratt becomes among those arrested in connection to the crime. The Federal government, under the authority of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, is convinced of Mrs. Surratt’s guilt because of her son John’s connections to assassin John Wilkes Booth and the other conspirators. Mrs. Surratt’s case was not helped by the fact that they had used her Washington D.C. boardinghouse as a meeting place; or that John managed to evade capture by the Federal authorities following the assassination.

Mrs. Surratt summoned a fellow native of Maryland, U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson, to defend her before a military tribunal. But political pressure from Stanton and others forced Johnson to recruit Aiken to represent Mrs. Surratt at the tribunal. Unfortunately, the 27 year-old Aiken lacked any previous experience inside a courtroom. The young attorney’s initial belief in Mrs. Surratt’s guilt and reluctance to defend her disappeared, as he became aware of possible evidence that might exonerate his client and that she was being used as a hostage and bait to lure her son John to the authorities through foul means.

“THE CONSPIRATOR” proved to be one of those Civil War movies that failed to generate any interest at the box office. Most moviegoers ignored it. Many critics bashed it, claiming it was another of Robert Redford’s thinly veiled metaphors on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I must be honest. I found this particular criticism worthy of some head scratching. Perhaps those critics had been right. But I must admit that I failed to see the metaphor. The manner in which the Army tribunal railroaded Mary Surratt to a date with a hangman’s noose sadly struck me as a very common occurrence throughout history. The wealthy and the powerful have never been reluctant to destroy someone they deemed as a threat or a convenient scapegoat.

Superficially, Mary Surratt seemed like the type of person toward whom I would barely harbor any sympathy. The Maryland-born woman had been a Confederate sympathizer. I personally found her political and social beliefs abhorrent. Yet, by revealing the lies and manipulations that she had endured at the hands of the Army tribunal and Federal government, both Redford and screenwriter Solomon did an excellent job in igniting my sympathy. Mary Surratt’s experiences also reminded me that they could happen to anyone – even today. The idea of so much power against one individual or a particular group is frightening to behold, regardless if that individual is a slave, a Confederate sympathizer under arrest or an early 21st century citizen.

Aside from displaying the dangers of absolute powers, “THE CONSPIRATOR” succeeded on two other points – at least for me. I found the movie’s basic narrative well written and paced to a certain degree. Both Redford and Solomon had been wise to focus the movie’s plot on Mrs. Surratt’s case. They could have included the testimonies regarding the other conspirators, but that could have resulted in a great deal of chaos. However, the other defendants’ participation in the conspiracy against the Lincoln Administration was utilized in an excellent sequence that conveyed the events surrounding President Lincoln’s assassination, the attempt on William Seward’s life, John Wilkes Booth’s death and the subsequent arrests. With this excellent introduction, the movie smoothly segued into Frederick Aiken’s efforts to defend Mrs. Surratt.

However, no movie is perfect. And “THE CONSPIRATOR” had its own imperfections. My main problem centered on three characters – a close friend of Aiken’s named Nicholas Baker, who was portrayed by Justin Long; actress Alexis Bledel’s portrayal of Aiken’s fiancee, Sarah Weston; and the presence of Oscar winner Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. My only problem with Bledel was that her performance struck me as mediocre. No amount of romantic scenes or beautiful 19th century costumes could alleviate her performance. Justin Long’s presence proved to be a waste of time – at least for me. One, Redford and Solomon included a meaningless scene featuring the aftermath of a nameless Civil War battle with both James McAvoy’s Aiken and Long lying on the ground, wounded. What was the point of this scene? To establish Aiken’s devotion to the Union cause in the form of his friend, Baker? If so, I feel it failed to achieve this. Long was further wasted as one of the two friends who tried to convince Aiken not to defend Mrs. Surratt. Actually, James Badge Dale, who portrayed the young attorney’s other friend, William Hamilton, was used more effectively for this task. Long merely hung around slightly drunk or sober, as he grunted his disapproval toward Aiken. And I cannot understand why Redford even bothered to include his character in the plot. Also wasted was Kevin Kline’s portrayal of Edwin H. Stanton. Aside from convincing Reverdy Johnson not to personally defend Mrs. Surratt, barking instructions to government lackeys following the incidents at Ford’s Theater and Seward’s home, and ignoring Aiken’s attempts to contact him; Kline’s Stanton did nothing. I had expected some kind of confrontation between Aiken and Stanton . . . again, nothing happened.

Fortunately for “THE CONSPIRATOR”, the good outweighed the bad. This was certainly apparent in the rest of the cast. I would never consider Frederick Aiken to be one of James McAvoy’s best roles. But I cannot deny that he did an admirable job in transforming Aiken’s character from a reluctant legal defender to his client’s most ardent supporter. He also infused the right mixture of passion, anger and growing cynicism into his character. I have seen Robin Wright only in a small number of roles. But I do believe that Mary Surratt might prove to be one of her best in a career that has already spanned over twenty years. What truly impressed me about Wright’s performance was her ability to avoid portraying Surratt as some ladylike martyr that barely did or said anything to avoid conviction. Although Wright’s Surratt did suffer, she also conveyed grit and determination to alleviate her situation.

The majority of the cast for “THE CONSPIRATOR” gave solid performances. There were a few I considered standouts among the supporting cast. One of them turned out to be Danny Huston’s intense portrayal of the prosecuting attorney, Joseph Holt. Evan Rachel Wood superbly guided Anna Surratt’s character from a defiantly supportive daughter to a young woman on the edge of despair. Despite a slightly unconvincing Maryland accent, Tom Wilkinson gave an intelligent performance as U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson. I could also say the same about James Badge Dale’s portrayal of William Hamilton, one of Aiken’s friends, who proved to be a wise adviser. As for actor Toby Kebbell, I have to admit that he made a convincing John Wilkes Booth.

I cannot deny that Robert Redford and screenwriter James Solomon made a few missteps with the plot and at least two characters for “THE CONSPIRATOR”. But as I had stated earlier, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Both director and screenwriter provided moviegoers with a fascinating and frightening look into the abuse of power during a famous historic event. And they were backed by excellent performances from the likes of James McAvoy and Robin Wright. I only hope that one day, audiences might overlook Redford’s current negative reputation as a filmmaker and give “THE CONSPIRATOR” a second chance.

TIME MACHINE: Abraham Lincoln’s First Inauguration

TIME MACHINE: Abraham Lincoln’s First Inauguration

March 4 marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration as the 16th President of the United States. The event marked the first time that a candidate from the Republican Party occupied the White House as this country’s head of state.

The past two to three decades marked a great deal of turmoil for the United States, due to the growing sectional conflict that had developed between the Northern and Southern states over slavery and other issues. The Democratic Party (previously the Democratic-Republican Party) had dominated the country since Thomas Jefferson’s first election in 1800. It became the supreme party, following the disintegration of its former rival, the Whig Party, by the end of the Mexican-American War. The Whig Party had fallen apart over the slavery issue. Do to stress over the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, anti-slavery Democrats left the party.

The split within both of the Democratic Party and the Whig Party led to the emergence of the Republican Party in 1854. Dominated by anti-slavery advocates, the Republicans’ first candidate for President turned out to be Army officer/explorer John C. Frémont in the 1856 Presidential Election. However, Frémont lost to Democratic candidate James Buchanan, due to his strong advocacy for the abolition of slavery. During Buchanan’s presidency, the rift between North and South widened, along with the rift within the Democratic Party. In May 1860, Illinois lawyer and former congressman Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination for President. Six months later, Lincoln won the 1860 Presidential Election. Although an opponent of the institution of slavery, Lincoln was more concerned with preventing the spread of slavery into the Western territories than with the immediate end of slavery altogether.

During the four month period between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, seven states — South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas — seceded from the Union. Also, the political representatives from those states formed the Confederate States of America in February 1861 and elected the Mississippian Jefferson Davis as President. U.S. President James Buchanan, had deplored secession as illegal, but insisted that the Federal government could do nothing to stop it. During his ten day rail journey from Springfield, Illinois to Washington D.C. in February 1861, a conspiracy theory over a possible assassination threat forced Lincoln to travel through Baltimore, Maryland on a special train in the middle of the night, before finally completing his journey to the capital. The alleged threats also led to a heavy military presence on the day of inauguration, to insure that the newly inaugurated head of state would survive the festivities.

But what made the March 4 ceremony memorable for historians was President Lincoln’s inaugural address. Primarily addressed to the people of the South, Lincoln’s speech was intended to state his policies and desires regarding certain topics – slavery, legal status of the South, secession, use of force against the departed states, the U.S. Postal Service, slavery in the Western territories, and Federal offices in the South. The closing part of his speech clearly reflected Lincoln’s conciliatory efforts to woo back the South:

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Unfortunately, neither the South nor the North was prepared to consider the conciliation of the country. The rancor between the two regions had lasted too long. And one of the major issues behind the rancor – namely slavery – had yet to be resolved. Nearly a month-and-a-half later, Confederate forces fired upon the Union-occupied Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861. One day later, the Union troops’ commander, Major Robert Anderson, surrendered the fort. And the United States marched on toward a bloody civil war.