Historic America Reviews

Landscape Turned Red by Stephen W. Sears


In Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, Stephen W. Sears draws on a remarkable cache of diaries, dispatches, and letters to recreate the fateful day of September 17, 1862 as experienced not only by its leaders but also by its soldiers, both Union and Confederate, to produce a comprehensive account of the Battle of Antietam. First published in 1983, Sears’ book is unrivaled in its elegance and complexity, examining not just the military history, but also the politics of the Army of the Potomac, which turned to 36-year-old General George B. McClellan to save the day.

In late summer 1862, the Union’s prospects for victory seemed dismally low. Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia was shattered at the Battle of Second Manassas, and President Abraham Lincoln called on George McClellan to once again take command of the Army of the Potomac and save Washington, D.C. Sears reveals Lincoln made this decision alone, against the wishes of his cabinet. By his own admission, there was no one else to turn to, but many in his administration, particularly Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, regarded McClellan (a staunch Democrat) as a traitor.

Sears excels at explaining the political conflict between McClellan and the Lincoln Administration, making it almost more interesting than the Battle of Antietam itself. It is a side of the campaign you rarely see. In the battle’s aftermath, when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, it incensed many officers and enlisted men. Some openly speculated about a Caesar-like march on Washington. McClellan, to his credit, discouraged those feelings and gracefully accepted his dismissal. In the end, all the talk of disloyalty came to nothing.

As for the battle, General McClellan had at least six opportunities during the course of the campaign to crush Lee’s army. Each time, he failed to take the initiative. At the Battle of Antietam, a third of his army sat on the sidelines. Finally, he failed to pursue Lee’s exhausted and depleted ranks, again believing Lee outnumbered him. Sears makes a compelling case that McClellan was plagued by the same failings that cost him victory on the Peninsula in the spring. He seemed paralyzed during a fight, preferring to stay far behind the lines, feebly trying to manage events.

Sears’ narrative of the battle is fast-paced and rich in detail, but he tends to overemphasize casualty statistics, as if to justify the book’s title. A battle’s intensity–or importance–can’t always be quantified by numbers of dead and wounded.

Stephen Ward Sears (born July 27, 1932), of Norwalk, Connecticut, is a graduate of Lakewood High School and Oberlin College. He began his writing career in the 1960s as a World War 2 historian but later found a niche writing about the Army of the Potomac in the American Civil War, and particularly its most famous commander, General George B. McClellan. His other books include Gettysburg (2003) and George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon (1988).

Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears was published by Mariner Books (Boston, Massachusetts) in 2003. The 464-page softcover edition retails for $17.00. The Kindle edition sells for $14.49 and audiobook for $29.95.

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