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Antietam and National Monte Cristo Day

Mid-September and the fall cleanup should be well underway in the Great Lakes. The air conditioner shouldn’t run most nights by now, and the leaves here should be turning. Great time of year.

On 17 September 1787, the US Constitution was adopted by the Congress that, at that time, existed only by habit and the Articles of Confederation. The new document would replace the body that created it. Interesting juxtaposition. And on this day in 1944, Operation Market-Garden would commence with a mass drop of nearly 20,000 paratroopers on three large areas in Holland to be joined together by an armored column. Nice in theory, but the disaster came when the Germans rallied faster than anyone expected and put up a stiff defense against the ground attack with a front ten yards wide by five miles long. And on 17 September 1996, Spiro Agnew, once Vice-President under Richard Nixon and once Governor of Maryland, died in Berlin, Maryland. Agnew resigned as vice president when he pled guilty to tax evasion in October 1973, less than a year before his boss would. Today is also Apple Dumpling Day because someone said so and they haven’t changed their minds. But today we’re going to talk about bloodletting and sandwiches.

While the Confederates under Robert E. Lee couldn’t afford too many stand-up fights, the Union under McClellan could, but just didn’t like to.

By the summer of 1862, the American Civil War in the east–the 90 miles between the two opposing capitals–was in a sort of stasis mostly imposed by two stale realities: the timidity of George McClellan and the relative poverty of the Confederate armies. While the Confederates could win battles, they couldn’t win and hold territory. While the Union armies could hold turf–and was doing just that in the west–the Army of the Potomac was commanded by a brilliant administrator who hated the idea that his troops had to fight. While the Confederates under Robert E. Lee couldn’t afford too many stand-up fights, the Union under McClellan could, but just didn’t like to.

Civil War Trust
Maryland Campaign

To break this stalemate before another winter in camp, Lee conceived a plan to bring McClellan’s army to battle on northern soil. There Lee would defeat the Union. This would demoralize the Union in time to influence the mid-term Congressional elections, destabilize Lincoln and the radical Republicans and bring the conflict to a negotiated conclusion, leaving The South (TM) to go on its merry way. All this depended on Lee’s ability to get the Army of the Potomac to fight somewhere outside Virginia and defeat it. Thus was born the Maryland Campaign of 1862.

Only distance and logistics stopped the Federals from overrunning the Confederacy altogether.

Conceptually it was something of a hail-Mary. Everything depended on everything else going in the Confederacy’s favor, something that had not really happened yet in the war. While the Manassas campaign of 1862 was something of a Federal rout, the Confederates lacked the wherewithal to capitalize on Federal disorganization.  Even if the Confederacy were victorious in the east, elsewhere the Union armies were moving more or less unencumbered by Confederate forces. Only distance and logistics stopped the Federals from overrunning the Confederacy altogether.

There they waited for the morning when McClellan’s force–over twice Lee’s strength–would surely crush the Army of Northern Virginia.

But Lee launched his campaign on 3 September 1862 with the best of intentions, fighting a minor battle in the mountain passes where McClellan had stolen a march on Lee and cut him off. After two weeks of marching and fighting, Lee’s depleted army came to rest near Sharpsburg, Maryland on the evening of 16 September, knowing that the Army of the Potomac was just across the small tributary of the Potomac called Antietam Creek. There they waited for the morning when McClellan’s force–over twice Lee’s strength–would surely crush the Army of Northern Virginia.

While Lee knew that the big enemy army was badly handled, he also knew that even a badly handled but huge force could simply run over his weakened force in an afternoon.

That’s one version. Another is that Lee knew full well how timid McClellan was, and also knew that concerted action by corps commanders was not a Union strength. Lee almost certainly had taken the measure of McClellan many times and found him wanting as a field commander. While the Army of the Potomac was large, it was not as destructive as all that. While Lee knew that the big enemy army was poorly handled, he also knew that even a badly-handled but colossal force could run over his weakened host in an afternoon.

The 22,000 plus casualties incurred had mostly been in the morning, and the fighting slowed to a smoke-choked crawl by noon: McClellan might have destroyed Lee then and there.

The battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg has been described by better scribes than I so I won’t duplicate those efforts or paraphrase from them. The critical thing to remember about the bloodletting of 17 September at the bridge or the wheat field or the cornfield or anywhere else is that it was an uncoordinated mess that actually used less than 40% of the available Union forces. By the time McClellan stopped fighting not only was Lee pretty well beaten but it was just late afternoon, with as much as another three hours of daylight left. The 22,000 plus casualties incurred had mostly been in the morning, and the fighting slowed to a smoke-choked crawl by noon: McClellan might have destroyed Lee then and there.

…rid of McClellan, the Army of the Potomac could fight on its own terms.  

But he didn’t. He liked having his army, not fighting it. The result was a tactical draw, but a partial Federal victory for having turned Lee back to Virginia again. But it disgusted the Federal commanders enough to prompt McClellan’s replacement, and the battle itself affected the mid-term elections, not at all: rid of McClellan, the Army of the Potomac could fight on its own terms.


And there’s National Monte Cristo Day, originated in 2015 by Bennigan’s, one of many Irish-pub-themed restaurant chains struggling just like the rest of them in the face of me-too competition. A Monte Cristo is a pan- or deep-fried ham and cheese sandwich, a variation of the French croque-monsieur, sometimes called a French Sandwich, a Toasted Ham Sandwich, or a French Toasted Cheese Sandwich. A Monte Cristo is typically savory rather than sweet. It is usually dipped in egg batter. Variations may include sliced turkey and different types of cheese. It can be served grilled or open-faced and heated under a grill or broiler. It can also be sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with jam or preserves.

Eh, whatever. Typically I won’t get that elaborate about sandwiches: slice it up raw, save the time and energy and put it on a plate or a napkin, all the same to me. Or just hand it to me. Powdered sugar? Jam or Preserves? What for? It’s a ham sandwich, for all love.

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