Landscape Turned Red:  The Battle of Antietam.  By Stephen W. Sears.  (New Haven, CT and New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.   Pp. xiv, 431)


Stephen Sears’s enduring classic, Landscape Turned Red, offers an engaging account of the political and military maneuvers surrounding General Robert E. Lee’s Maryland Campaign of 1862 and the intense battle at Antietam Creek.  The author frames his work around the diplomatic undercurrent of pending support for the Confederate cause from cotton-dependent nations such as Great Britain and France.  Leaders of both sides understood that intervention by either country on behalf of the South could dramatically alter the outcome of the war and create complex foreign relations for all parties.  Sears proposes that North and South sought a distinctive military victory to influence overseas governments weighed their options.

Interweaving personality traits, political pursuits, and tactical preferences, Sears explains the complicated history shared by President Lincoln, Generals Halleck and McClellan, and his subordinates by September 1862.  He illustrates that McClellan’s failed Peninsula campaign in Virginia earlier that year demonstrated all too well to his superiors and to his future adversary at Antietam that he was “the most cautious of commanders (p. 54).”  While he was softhearted toward his men, McClellan allowed his ego and his political aspirations to color his military judgment.  Sears suggests that in a calculated gamble, Lee relied heavily on his perception of “Young Napoleon” as a preparation-obsessed general driven only to not lose rather than to win decisively as he planned his march into Maryland.  The general determined that Union leadership and troop conditions after the demoralizing Seven Days Battles left an opening for Confederates to make a foray into Maryland to replenish supplies, open a route to Harper’s Ferry or even farther north, threaten Washington and Baltimore, and perhaps draw McClellan into a major fight that might improve the South’s negotiating position with the North and foreign countries.

For Sears, the circumstances surrounding the Lost Order, Lee’s invasion plans discovered by Union soldiers and delivered to McClellan before the troops engaged, show the difference between the two generals—and the problem with Young Napoleon.  No Federal troops mobilized immediately after the Lost Order was found, but he opines that “no doubt had the situation been reversed and a Lost Order presented to Robert E. Lee, that general would have had Jackson’s foot cavalry on the march within the hour and every other man…after two (p. 120).”   Instead, McClellan moved without urgency even after battles at Turner’s, Fox’s, and Crampton’s Gaps in the mountains east of Antietam Creek.  Believing Lee’s army to be far larger than it was, a habit of McClellan’s, his careful approach allowed Lee to position himself strategically on a field of his choosing, rest, resupply, and plan for reinforcements once Stonewall Jackson seized Harper’s Ferry. 

Sears contends that what could have been a sound victory resulted in a draw under McClellan’s direction.  In spite of his extended delays, he neglected to accumulate an accurate assessment of the terrain and transportation routes, to scout the opposing force, or to establish reliable communication with his officers.  With the battle raging, he refused to send reserve troops to assist units under devastating enemy fire.  In spite of missed opportunities, at the end of the day McClellan’s force was in control of much of the field and in position to drive Lee’s men from Maryland or perhaps crush them where they camped.  Sears proposes that for Young Napoleon “tomorrow—it was always tomorrow—would be soon enough,” and he postponed an attack the following morning to attend to administrative duties (p. 160).  If he considered an offensive on September 19, two days after the fight, it mattered not since Lee marched his troops away the previous night leaving both men with unmet goals.  Though there seemed little point to the 23,000 casualties suffered that day, Lincoln did feel that he could claim enough of a victory to introduce his Emancipation Proclamation on a politically positive note.  The president observed correctly that “if it became clear that the Confederacy stands for slavery and the Union for freedom,” then foreign powers would not commit themselves to support the South (p. 334).

Relentless in his criticism of McClellan, Sears successfully argues that his excellent organizational skills did not compensate for his ineptitude.  Quoting politicians, officers, and enlisted men, the author paints a vivid picture of the day that produced the most American casualties in history.  Summoning personal thoughts and first-hand descriptions of the combat creates a rich narrative far beyond the troop movements and strategy so clearly explained by Sears.  Maps and photographs of the primary characters add to the book’s comprehensive style.  The author includes a prologue, epilogue, nine chapters and three appendices that detail the mystery of the Lost Order, the story of Burnside’s bridge, and the troops engaged in the campaign.  Thorough research and fine writing makes this an informative lesson for students and casual readers alike.


Texas Christian University                                                                               LeAnna Schooley



Landscape Turned Red:  The Battle of Antietam.  By Stephen W. Sears.  (New York: Essential Classics of the Civil War Book-of-the-Month Club, 1983).


            Stephen W. Sears’s book, Landscape Turned Red, remains the definitive account of the battle of Antietam.  He masterfully narrates events beginning with brief overviews of the Peninsula Campaign and John Pope’s defeat at Second Manassas.  Subsequently, he articulates why Lee decided to gamble on a northern invasion. According to Sears, Lee proposed to Jefferson Davis, “a limited offensive for limited goals” (Sears, 65).  These objectives included:  relieving war-torn Virginia, courting pro-Confederate Marylanders, striking the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, and threatening Washington in order to secure a political settlement that might end the war.  In addition, Lee understood that British interventionists toyed with the idea of possibly recognizing the Confederacy and believed that winning a large battle on Union soil might secure much needed European support.  

The author goes on to narrate campaign events prior to the culmination at Antietam focusing on the engagements at Turner’s Gap, Crampton’s Gap, and Harper’s Ferry.  Sears also attaches importance to Confederate Special Order Number 191.  This order, which detailed the entire Confederate plan, fell into Union hands during the Campaign.  Unfortunately, the Union commander, George B. McClellan, did not capitalize on this opportunity and could not destroy the dispersed Confederate army in detail.  The author proceeds with a detailed narrative of the battle of Antietam describing events as they unfolded from north to south on the battlefield.  The book ends with a frustrated President Lincoln removing McClellan from command in November 1862.

Sears criticizes McClellan’s conduct stating that Little Mac bungled six potential opportunities for total victory (Sears, 298).  Aside from failing to capitalize on the discovery of Special Order Number 191, McClellan neglected to defeat Lee when various other opportunities presented themselves.  When the armies first arrived at Sharpsburg on 16 September, the Union commander outnumbered the Confederate forces four to one.  Still, McClellan refused to attack and allowed Lee to consolidate his forces.  Then, after only utilizing approximately two thirds of his army on 17 September, the Young Napoleon failed to crush Lee’s meager forces.  According to Sears, “A third of his army did not fire a shot.  Even at that, his men repeatedly drove the Army of Northern Virginia to the brink of disaster, feats of valor entirely lost on a commander thinking of little beyond staving off his own defeat” (Sears, 296).  Lee, who was aware of McClellan’s timidity and contemptuous of the Union general, still occupied the field with his battle weary soldiers the entire day after the conflict.  Little Mac did not attack and allowed the Confederate general to withdraw from the field at his leisure.  With regards to McClellan’s generalship Sears concludes that, “On no other Civil War field did a commanding general violate so many of . . . the established principles of the military art . . . [Little Mac] shrank from his paramount responsibility – to command” (Sears, 310).

Conversely, Sears holds Lee in high esteem.  Lee’s, though taking unnecessary risks at times, skillfully avoided annihilation at the hands of a numerically superior foe.  According Sears, Antietam proved a tactical victory for the Army of Northern Virginia, “It had beaten back a foe much superior in manpower and ordinance and inflicted substantially greater casualties than it suffered” (Sears, 309).  Thus, while Lee lost the campaign, he demonstrated greater skill than his Union counterpart. 

According to Sears, Antietam proved significant for many reasons.  First and foremost, the battle claimed approximately 23,000 casualties earning it the morbid distinction as the bloodiest single day in American history.  Furthermore, the battle paved the way for Lincoln’s Emancipation proclamation.  Lincoln understood the changing nature of the war and believed that the Union must deprive the Confederacy of slavery’s military benefits.  Ergo, he presented the Proclamation to his cabinet before the two armies clashed at Sharpsburg.  Secretary Seward, however, pointed out that issuing the declaration on the heels of subsequent Union defeats would appear as a last act of desperation.  Thus, he advised Lincoln to wait for a Union victory in order to issue the Proclamation.  Antietam, though indecisive, proved enough of a victory to allow Lincoln to order to issue his proclamation thereby turning the Civil War into a war about slavery.  This change, combined with Lee’s strategic defeat, deterred British intervention.  Parliament would not support both a losing army and a slave power.  Finally, the battle and its immediate aftermath highlighted McClellan’s weaknesses as a general spurring Lincoln to relieve the Young Napoleon from command.

Both Civil War historians and enthusiasts will appreciate Sears’s narrative style, attention to detail, and thorough analysis.


   Texas Christian University                                                                   Justin S. Solonick



Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam.  By Stephen W. Sears.  New York: Ticknor and Field.  P.431


            The Army of Northern Virginia, under the command of Robert E. Lee, defeated the Union Army at the Second Battle of Bull Run and was now poised to move north into federal territory.  The Union Army now commanded by General McClellan, was questioning the next move of General Lee, would he move on Washington D.C. or would he head his troops back into the safety of Virginia.  This is the scenario established at the opening of Landscape Turned Red, by Stephen W. Sears.  Sears attempts to examine the tactical moves of both Lee and McClellan and the various follies of war that plagued both the Federal and Confederate forces.

            After Bull Run, McClellan was placed in charge of the Army of Virginia and set out to face Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  The issue was where would Lee take his army and when he would strike.  Lee made the bold move of leading his troops across the Potomac River and into the boarder state of Maryland.  Many Unionist feared that Lee was in route to capture Washington D.C.  Several divisions of troops were transferred into the capital for protection.  Lee had no intention of moving on Washington, but moved into Maryland with anticipation of gaining new recruits and provisions for his army.  Lee was disappointed to find that the people of Maryland were not as eager to assist the Confederacy as had been hoped. 

                        The twist of fate that affected the Antietam campaign was the Union discovery of Lee’s battle plans.  A Federal Corporal discovered the battle plans wrapped up with three cigars.  The orders, Special Order 191, told McClellan that Lee planned to divide his force, sending some to Harpers Ferry, others to West Virginia and the rest to Hagerstown Maryland.  McClellan had the first opportunity to defeat Lee decisively, but he did not take the chance.  This demonstrates Sear’s thesis that McClellan missed countless opportunities to defeat Lee.  The young Napoleon, as McClellan was known, often waited an inordinate amount of time before making a movement with his troops.

Two engagements between, the Union and Confederacy, took place in route to the battle of Antietam.  One of which was Stonewall Jackson’s capture of Harper Ferry and the other was General McClellan’s assault through the Blue Ridge Mountains at the Battle of South Mountain.  Both of these battles had an effect on the latter battle at Sharpsburg.  A large portion of Lee’s army was tied up with the surrender of the garrison at Harpers Ferry and due to McClellan’s troops being tied down at South Mountain, Lee had time to organize his troops at Sharpsburg.

After Lee deployed his troops at Sharpsburg in a defensive position, along Antietam Creek, McClellan finally made his move.  He launched attacks against Lee’s embedded positions.  Despite McClellan’s superiority in numbers, he was unable to break the Rebel lines.  Due to McClellan’s inability to push through the Confederates, a three-phase battle developed.  Lee managed to shift his forces to meet each attempt by McClellan to seize the initiative.  At the end of the battle, Lee’s army had not been defeated, but there were over 23,000 combined casualties.  Lee was forced to withdrawal and to head back to the safety of Virginia, but once again, McClellan failed to pursue, or to use his advantage.  Although the battle did not have a decisive winner, it did enable Lincoln to rally the Union and to release his Emancipation Proclamation.

                        Sears divides his work into nine chapters, along with comprehensive maps and appendixes.  He does an outstanding job of backing up his thesis, that McClellan was an incompetent commander who missed several instances to take the initiative and win the battle decisively.  Throughout the work Sears gives us, examples of opportunities for attack that McClellan let slip away.  It often appeared as though McClellan was looking for a perfect opportunity to attack, but according to Sears, he had several.  Lee on the other hand was a man full of initiative.  Lee would often take a chance when other General such as McClellan would definitely not have.  By dividing his troops he could have found himself in a vulnerable situation, but instead, was able to capture Harpers Ferry and to set up his defensive position in Sharpsburg.  Overall, the work is interesting, if not tedious.  Sears uses an enormous amount of detail to explain battle tactics, which sometimes loses the readers interest.  On the other hand, Sears does an excellent example of explaining the events of the Battle of Antietam and anyone with any interest in this conflict should examine this work.


Christopher Draper