This excellent book is not a standard battle history of Antietam (called Sharpsburg by the South) -- it is an excellent summary of the war to that point, and why the battle was so important in shaping issues beyond the battlefield. It examines examining the changing moods of both North and South up to that point, their changing expectations, what they were willing to put up with in terms of sacrifice and casualties. There is no sense of inevitability to the North's eventual victory here; the war was at midpoint and at the time a strategic draw. And although Antietam was the single bloodiest day in American history, while not to be ignored, this is hardly its significance. As a Union victory, it gave Lincoln the political capital to finally issue the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in the Southern states. This changed the war decisively, rendering it a battle for and against slavery that it hadn't explicitly been to that point. For this reason it also foreclosed the possibility of any European recognition of the South, which was quite eminent and perhaps the South's closest means of drawing the war to a close in its favor.
In addition to these strategic issues, McPherson is also quite good at drawing out several personalities involved in the battle. Lincoln's difficult balance in withholding his Emancipation Proclamation without some tangible Union success is explained thoroughly, some generals are described, various European reactions are explored -- but the character one remembers most is the ambivalent general of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan. It is an excellent study of failings and success in command, and failings and success in character.
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