Williamsburg Civil War Roundtable

The purpose of this organization shall be to promote discussion and study of the Civil War and to further stimulate interest in all aspects and phases of the Civil War period.

Meeting Dates

The organization meets on the fourth Tuesday of each month September through May. Meetings are held in the Williamsburg Regional Library Theatre located at 515 Scotland St in Williamsburg, VA, unless otherwise posted. The meetings begin at 7 PM. Membership is open to the  general public.

Special Notice: Emails have been sent on Tuesday, September 15th to all our email subscribers. A follow-up email with a link to our zoom meeting of September 22 should be received no later than Monday, September 21st. If you did not receive the first or second email please email info@wcwrt.org.

This Month's Speaker

MONTHLY MEETING NOTICE
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 2020 at 7 PM
 
DUE TO THE CLOSURE OF THE THEATER AT THE WILLIAMSBURG PUBLIC LIBRARY, 
THE SEPTEMBER 22 MEETING WILL BE CONDUCTED VIA ZOOM

A message from our Roundtable President to our members and friends:

Welcome back to our new season of the Williamsburg Civil War Roundtable. If our memories and recollections are correct, our organization was formed in the bicentennial year of 1976, so it would appear that we are embarking upon our 44th year of promoting the discussion and study of the Civil War along with stimulating the interest of all aspects of the events that occurred during that period of our history.
 
We recently learned that the Williamsburg Public Library has cancelled all activities in the Theater until the end of this year. As a consequence, our Executive Board has elected to offer our monthly programs through the month of December on line via the Zoom video format.
 
This September Monthly Meeting Notice will be followed by an invitation to all members and friends on our mailing list to sign on to the Zoom video link in order to view and participate in the presentation. The invitation will provide detailed instructions for the sign in process.
 
We believe that the content of our forthcoming programs will not be compromised by this change in format, so we encourage all to join us.
 
Our September offering involves a presentation by Kevin Pawlak about the Battle of Antietam, which was fought on September 17, 1862

Robert E. Lee Defends the Confederate High Water Mark at Sharpsburg

And this, I think, will be pronounced by military critics to be the greatest military blunder that Gen. Lee ever made.”  That was how E. P. Alexander summed up Robert E. Lee’s decision to stand and fight the Federal army at Sharpsburg, Maryland on September 15, 1862.  Since then, historians studying the situation have not been kind to Lee.

He fought outnumbered without entrenching with a river at his back that only had one rocky ford (Boteler’s Ford) which could carry his army back into Virginia and to safety, they say.  Alexander called the Potomac River–and the fact that Lee stood backed up against it–the “one feature of [the field] which should have been conclusive against giving battle [at Sharpsburg].”  But armchair generals looking back on Lee’s decision get so caught up thinking about what lay three miles behind Lee that they forget what lay directly in front of him–the Antietam Creek.

Robert E. Lee entered Maryland to draw the Federals out of Washington, where Lee could give battle and defeat it.  “I intended then to attack McClellan,” Lee said in 1868.  Should that happen and victory be achieved, then all of the campaign’s other goals–Confederate independence, European intervention, bringing Maryland into the Confederacy’s fold, giving Virginia farms a respite–would have fallen into place.  It did not happen at South Mountain; Lee hoped it might work at Antietam.

Following the setback at South Mountain, Lee’s army headed westward towards Virginia.  His trek through what would become the Union lines during the Battle of Antietam gave Lee the rare luxury of being able to see what his adversary’s view of the battlefield would be, and Lee liked what he saw.  Rolling ridges rose from the Antietam Creek, and the west side of this long defensive position would shield many of his troops from the enemy’s eyes.

Once Lee reached the area where today’s National Cemetery sits, he liked what he saw even more.  Forgetting the Potomac River at his rear, the steep banks of the Antietam and its few, narrow crossing points in his front provided a buffer between his army and that of McClellan.  In order for the enemy to get at him, it had to sacrifice numerical superiority while in the process of crossing the creek.  Even worse for the attackers in a scenario like this is the fact that one must divide one’s own army when sending it across a stream, creek, or river to attack the enemy.  Military theorist Karl von Clausewitz called a river on a battlefield an “important object” for “it always weakens and upsets the offensive.”

When George B. McClellan inevitably divided his army to attack Lee on September 16, 16,000 of his soldiers under Joseph Hooker sat precariously separated from the rest of the army, and dangled in front of Lee like a juicy piece of raw meat in front of a lion.  Lee saw this opportunity before him once earlier in the war, and it precipitated the Seven Days’ Battles.  The Gray Fox’s fondness for utilizing a river to divide his enemies especially becomes apparent in May 1864 when one looks at his plan of attack along the banks of the North Anna River.

E. P. Alexander believed if Lee had ever before crossed the Potomac River at Boteler’s Ford and seen its rough condition that he never would have offered battle at Sharpsburg.  But Lee did personally cross the Antietam.  He knew its strengths and the opportunities it offered him and his army to resurrect his campaign and strike a war-ending blow to the United States.

Kevin Pawlak is a Historic Site Manager for the Prince William County Historic Preservation Division and works as a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Antietam National Battlefield. Kevin also sits on the Board of Directors of the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association and the Save Historic Antietam Foundation.

Previously, Kevin has worked or completed internships at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, The Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, and the Mosby Heritage Area Association.

Kevin is the author of Shepherdstown in the Civil War: One Vast Confederate Hospital, published by The History Press in 2015 and the co-author of To Hazard All: A Guide to the Maryland Campaign.

He has also authored “‘The Heaviest Blow Yet Given the Confederacy’: The Emancipation Proclamation Changes the Civil War” in Turning Points of the Civil War, part of Emerging Civil War’s Engaging the Civil War Series with Southern Illinois University Press.

 

Mosby Heritage Area Association on-line programs details

American Civil War Museum August on-line series and video catalog details

Civil War Round Table Congress June - August on-line lecture series  details

Visit the American Battlefield Trust site to view animated Peninsula Campaign map

Visit the Williamsburg Battlefield Association (view newsletter)
(http://www.williamsburgbattlefieldassociation.org/)
(https://www.facebook.com/WilliamsburgBattlefieldAssociation)

Membership to the Williamsburg Civil War Roundtable Mailing List For Newsletters and Meeting Notices

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