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Lincoln and Lee at Antietam - The Cost of Freedom

Inecom // Unrated // January 31, 2006
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Louis Howard | posted February 16, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Antietam. September 17th, 1862. The single bloodiest day of battle in American history- for the obvious reason that only Americans were participants. While numbers differ, something in the way of 23,000 lives were taken on both sides in this one battle; by way of comparison, American casualties at D-Day, the Normandy Invasion, amounted to only one quarter of the number of American lives lost at Antietam. Nearly twice as many lives were lost on this day as were lost in The American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War combined. To bring oneself to grasp those facts is to get a better understanding of how horrible the American Civil War was.

The Battle Of Antietam was of utmost importance at this stage of the Civil War as the Union needed a victory for a number of reasons- up to this point things had gone so overwhelmingly the South's way that many saw the war as fruitless and the cost too high to continue. Southern troops had invaded the North. Officers within the Union were disillusioned and felt that their own troops were not up to the Confederate challenge, and that the South had earned their right to be independent. For Lincoln this battle was one of almost religious commitment, for he needed a victory badly to link with the Emancipation Proclamation.

As this is the early years of the Civil War we see many historic, indelible names alive and fighting in the ranks of luminaries on both sides. From the South were General Robert E. Lee, and among others Stonewall Jackson, John Bell Hood, James Longstreet and A.P. Hill. The North had officers the likes of always cautious Union Army General James McClellan, Ambrose Burnside and Joe Hooker.

The Civil War is widely regarded as the first war in which the technology badly outstripped battle tactics, making for bloody, costly victories and losses on both sides of the fighting- and the Battle of Antietam was a shocking demonstration of that. Lee' forces have invaded Maryland and the Union army is compelled to drive them back. Taking to battle on the morning of the 17th, General Hooker's army began a relentless shelling of General Jackson's men in what has simply been called 'the cornfield' north of town. Confederates lay slain in what was described as the same precise rows they had stood in only moments before. Hooker's troops advanced, drove the Confederates back and were counterattacked by a reenforced Jackson and so the morning war was waged, incurring appalling casualties- after 3 hours of fighting some 8000 soldiers had already fallen. At midmorning the Union troops centered on the Confederate forces in what has been called the Bloody Lane, at least breaking the Southern attack. Burnside's troops had been trying to cross a bridge over Antietam Creek since early morning but had been driven back time and again by 400 troops led by General Robert Toombs. Finally crossing in early afternoon, they drove the Georgians nearly back to Sharpsburg, threatening to cut off the line for Lee's troops. At 4pm General A.P. Hill's division arrived on the scene and promptly entered into the fight, driving Burnside's men back into the heights near the bridge they had finally taken. Thus the Battle of Antietam ended with both sides holding their ground until Lee withdrew back across the Potomac River the following day.

Psychologically the North badly needed a victory at this stage of the war, and the premise of the Union states being invaded by Lee and his army could well have completely changed the outcome of the war had they not been repulsed on this day. While this 'victory' for the North was one bearing a horrible cost in lives on both sides, it did allow Lincoln a political base with which to make his Emancipation Proclamation- freeing the slaves of all states, abolishing the act of slavery, and changing the face of the war in the eyes of both the warring states as well as world opinion, something probably critical in the eventual winning of the war for the Union. Because slavery had been abolished in other nations, the South was in the end unsuccessful in persuading England and France to join on their side because they were unwilling to do away with the practice as a nation itself. The result was refusal by other nations to recognize their independence, leaving the North time to finally muddle through it's problem with poor military leadership at the top and bring Ulysses S. Grant to the fore.

The DVD-

Directed by Robert Child and narrated by Ronald Maxwell (director of Civil War films Gettysburg and Gods and Generals), this is a project of great scope as well as one close to heart for all parties involved, and it shows. Civil War buffs and historians should find this 90 minute documentary to be well worth checking out. All involved give a fine effort here in an attempt to make the telling of this story fresh and alive for the neophyte as well. Even so, casual watchers may have trouble keeping track of all the parties involved- this is to be expected, as so many major players in the Civil War were involved in this single day of fighting.

This documentary is structured using several different tools in order to convey realism and effect, bringing into play period photographs, portraits, documents, reenactments of many scenes both of Lincoln and the day of battle itself, and interviews with several different scholars- among them James M. McPherson, author of the renowned work "Battle Cry Of Freedom" as well as "Crossroads Of Freedom: Antietam"; Allen C. Guezlo of Gettysburg College and Lincoln Prize winner; Dennis E. Frye, National Park Service Historian at Harper's Ferry, author of "Antietam Revealed" and associate producer of the film "Gods And Generals"; and Paul V. Chiles, National Park Service Historian at Antietam National Park. All of thse men give compelling, fascinating insights into what the political mood of the country was, what reasoning was used in decision making by Lincoln and the premier Generals on either side in taking this battle to such an extreme. Also the commentators give the viewer looks at how each side sized up against the other, emotionally, physically and by way of experience. Northern troops were green, demoralized, depressed, and filled with awe at the seemingly inevitable victories the Confederates had been amassing since the war's beginning. The Southern men were battle-hardened and the creme of Lee's army, but were also starving, exhausted, and worn away as the result of battle after battle behind them.

For the most part I found this documentary to be of great interest and well formulated by using so many different storytelling techniques. some segments seemed less convincing, most notably those dramatizing the personal actions of Lincoln and Lee that day. The battle reenactment footage does a rousing job of putting the viewer on the battlefield, alternating between live action by reenactors and storytelling by the scholars used for the documentary. The tale of the entire day is mapped out with great care, giving us insights into the most prominent officers on both sides and how they each figure into the battle.

Video-

The box lists this disc as being "enhanced for 16 x 9 TV" and is apparently 1:78.1 aspect ratio. Much of the presentation here looks sharp and clean with natural colors; only in filmed reenactment scenes did I feel the quality suffered by seeming on the soft side, with the colors appearing a bit washed out; I suspect this is a result of the manner the reentactment film was shot rather than the transfer.

Audio-

The audio track here is English Dolby Digital 2.0 and is clear and easy to understand, free of problems for what the presentation is.

Extras-

The extras here are of particular interest-

25 Minute On-Screen Interview with Ronald E. Maxwell-

An engaging interview with Maxwell talking about his overlook on the Civil War, the difficulty in making a good movie that will sell to audiences today, and the making of a film on an epic scale the likes of Gettysburg and Gods And Generals. Also discussed is the work involved in the replication and scale of amassing the period pieces with detail and his dogged determination to get Gettysburg put to film- ultimately financing and then selling his own home while keeping himself afloat in order to keep working at getting backing for the project.

Feature Length Commentary Track with Robert Child and Ronald E. Maxwell-

I found the commentary track to be involving, informative and insightful- which is of no suprise given the dedication to the subject that Child and Maxwell have- and well worth listening to at least once.

Also here are promotional trailers for several Civil War related documentaries.

Final Thoughts-

Overall any quibbles I have with this documentary are slight; for the most part it is a piece of work that serves the viewer well on many levels pertaining to both the subject at hand and participants of the day. I do feel this is a piece that will be of significantly more interest for those with an eye towards specific historic events examined in detail rather than the casual history buff. Bringing together narrator Maxwell and historian MacPherson gives the project a credibility it is richly deserving of and this DVD should be one that will not disappoint. Recommended.
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