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The March meeting was once again opened by our Deputy Chairman, Mr "Flip" Hoorweg, who is still standing in for our chairlady, who is away on an overseas holiday. Flip commenced with the usual notices and then introduced our first speaker, Mr Terry Leaver. Mr Leaver is the Chairman of "the Friends Of The Museum" and a former National Committee member of our own Society and has addressed us before. The topic of his lecture was "Britain, The Middle East And T.E. Lawrence".
Mr Leaver started by pointing out that three of the world's major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all trace their origins to the biblical figure of Abraham and have an equal claim to the Holy Land in that respect. He then used a selection of illustrations and maps, and a power point presentation, to take us briefly through the history of the Middle East, basing his talk on the theme of "Whose land is it anyway"? Not wanting to be the subject of a fatwa, Terry declined to come to a conclusion on this and invited the audience to draw their own conclusions from the background he had presented. He also put forward a list of books which he had used for reference and which he recommended for further reading.
This was followed by a brief question period and then the lucky draw for this month's DVD. It was won by Mr Colin Dean. The next draw will be in May.
"Flip" then introduced Mr Robin Smith, a prominent member of our Natal Branch. Mr Smith is a keen amateur historian and a "collector" of battlefields, in that he makes it his hobby to visit battlefields all over the world and has so far "collected" a considerable number. He, too, used a power point computer presentation to present a lavishly illustrated talk on "Antietam - The American Civil War's Bloodiest Day".
The Battle of Antietam, sometimes also known as Sharpsburg, took place on Wednesday, 17 September 1862, during the course of the United States Civil War and was fought by the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Virginia.
The Union General, George McClellan had had a brilliant career up until then and was a Major General at the age of 35. He forged the Army of the Potomac into a magnificent fighting machine but was extremely reluctant to use it. His lack of action led to him losing the trust of his superiors as for nine months he had sat watching the Confederate Army, which he believed to be firmly entrenched and numbering 500 000 men.
The Confederate Army, under General Johnston who was supposed to be threatening Washington, also did nothing over this period and eventually retreated from its position at Manassas to over the Rapahannock River. This led to Johnston being replaced by General Robert E Lee. McClellan finally decided to move and made an attempt to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. In this he was too cautious and was driven back by Lee. Lee was not strong enough to take Washington and so moved North of that city. He had a brilliant collection of subordinates, such as "Stonewall" Jackson, James Longstreet and J E B Stuart, who were all to become famous, and with them crossed the Potomac above Washington and so into Maryland. McClellan moved to block him off from Washington and Baltimore and to contain Lee in Maryland. His intelligence was very poor and, as he consistently overrated the size of the opposing Confederate army, he thus moved very cautiously. Lee advanced rapidly through Maryland, dividing his army in two and moving on the above two cities. McClellan felt that he was facing a gigantic army and called for more reinforcements (which he received) before finally deciding he was able to attack. However, on 13 September 1862, he had a tremendous stroke of luck when an envelope containing three cigars and a letter with the full details of Lee's proposed advance contained therein was picked up and handed in by two Union soldiers.
This was passed on to McClellan, who purely accidentally was properly positioned to block the advance contained in these plans. Lee proposed to advance to take Harpers Ferry and the Union arms depot there. This he did quite easily, moving on to the nearby town of Boonsboro, separated by Antietam Creek from the town of Sharpsburg. This creek was crossed by three strategically important stone bridges.
Although he had 87 000 men, compared to Lee's 18 000, McClelland still took his time in getting into position and spent three days manoeuvring around and indulging in an artillery bombardment of the Confederate positions. At daybreak on 17 September 1862 the Union army finally advanced against Lee. The battle surged back and forth around the local church, a large cornfield and a sunken road which was being used as a Confederate strongpoint. Lee encouraged his troops and generals by personally riding up and down the line, whereas McClellan ensconced himself in a nearby farmhouse, leaving the battle to his subordinates who pursued a series of heavy attacks on the Confederates. These were resisted by the Confederate forces, whose line held and who were reinforced by more troops coming up. The Antietam was an obstacle to which the three bridges were the key. Eventually General Burnside captured the centre bridge, forcing the opposing troops back and starting to turn Lee's flank. At precisely this time General A P Hill arrived with Confederate reinforcements and was able to push Burnside back.
With the coming of sunset the battle drew to a close. Despite the major Union assaults the Confederate line had held and Lee was prepared to go on holding it. By contrast, McClellan had had enough. With four reserve divisions, comprising 22 000 men who had not yet gone in to action, he decided to wait for yet more reinforcements and for the whole of the next day the two armies faced each other with neither making a move. Eventually, on the night of 18 September, Lee decided that a further advance through Maryland was not feasible and retreated back over the Potomac in to Virginia.
The Union forces suffered 12 400 casualties in this battle and the Confederates 10 300 - 22 700 casualties in one battle. Lee had failed in his attempt to take Washington and McClelland had failed to crush the Confederate army. Although the battle had ended in a stalemate, both sides claimed a victory, especially the Union as Lee had been forced to give up his advance. This encouraged Lincoln to issue the "Proclamation of Emancipation" regarding the abolition of slavery.
McClelland remained at Sharpsburg and started rebuilding his army so that he could eventually pursue Lee. On 26 October he finally moved but his progress was so slow that Lincoln's patience ran out and he relieved McClellan of his command, replacing him with Burnside. McClellan left the army, entered politics and stood against Lincoln in the next presidential election in 1864. He was soundly beaten, retired and died in 1885. Lee continued as commander of the Confederate forces and became a national hero, even in defeat.
After a brief question time, Mr Smith was thanked by committee member John Parkinson for his most interesting and well-researched talk and the audience adjourned for tea.
ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING
This serves as notice that the 40th AGM of the Society will take place in the J.C. Lemmer Auditorium at the SA National Museum of Military History at 20h00 on Thursday 13th April 2006.
The Agenda will include:
The other branches of the Society will also hold their AGMs during April.
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