Episode Four – the Battles of Kadesh versus Antietam

Today’s podcast is the first where we discuss two historically important battles, the Battle of Kadesh between two ancient civilizations, Egypt and the Hittites versus the bloodiest fight of the American Civil War, Antietam.

Ramses II at Kadesh
Ramses II at Kadesh

Let’s lay some groundwork leading up to Kadesh. We have the Egyptians, whose leader is the 29-year-old Ramses II, son of Seti I. Seti had led several large military expeditions during his time on the Egyptian throne which greatly increased its power in the region. The one city he was stymied by according to most historical records, was Kadesh although an alternative history suggests that Seti conquered the city with his son in tow, but as soon as he left with his army, it reverted to its original rulers. 

His opponents, the Hittites, the ones who took back Kadesh, was another great regional power, led by their king Muwatalli II. His father, Mursili II had fought against Seti in the past so there was a multi-generational feud going on between the two faction’s leaders.

Geographically, Kadesh is in what is present-day Syria. The Hittite empire was generally located in what is modern-day Turkey to the north with Egypt being in the south.

The area surrounding Kadesh was not only a strategic region, but it was also an economic crossroad which connected the Mediterranean basin to Mesopotamia. Both empires viewed the area as belonging to their zone of influence. 

So, what makes the Battle of Kadesh so important? First off, it is the first battle where we have a detailed account of the fighting. It was considered, by historians, to be the largest chariot battle in history. Think of it as the ancient version of the tank battle of Kursk during World War II between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

To understand the other reasons why this fight was so important, we need to learn more about the armies involved.

The Egyptians had four divisions of infantry and chariots, each marching separately. They were known as Amun, Ra, Seth, and P’tah. Each division had about 5,000 men along with a few thousand chariots. 

The Egyptian chariot had a lightweight design allowing for greater maneuverability compared to their Hittite opponents. They carried two men, one steering and controlling the chariot along with a shield. The other one was a warrior, wielding a bow and arrow along with a javelin.

The Hittites had put forth a massive army for the time, somewhere between 30-40,000 men with about 3,500 chariots. 

The Hittite chariot was bigger and more solidly built than their counterparts, with three crewmen; one driver and two warriors with various weapons.

The battle set up like this. The Hittites were amassed in and around Kadesh in one large group which was a common tactic of theirs. The Egyptian’s four divisions were spread out in a line, each about a half days march apart. The first, the Amun was led by Ramses himself, followed by the Ra, P’tah and lastly the Seth.

As Ramses nears Kadesh, two non-descript Bedouins enter the camp and claim that the Hittite leader, Muwatalli, left the battlefield in fear of the oncoming Egyptian army. Ramses bought into the lie as he didn’t know that the men were Hittite agents. 

Shortly after that though, some Hittite spies were captured and tortured. They admitted that Muwatalli had not only not run away but that he was about to slam into the scattered Egyptian armies. Ramses then ordered all of his division to get their butts up to Kadesh as fast as they could. 

Muwatalli figured that this would happen, so he sent a large part of his forces against the second division the Ra. Swinging back at Ramses’s Ammun unit with their big and rich baggage train, the Hittite’s began to plunder the riches in front of them. In the ensuing chaos, Ramses reorganized his chariots and infantry and counter-attacked. 

With reinforcements coming into the battle, Ramses turned back the Hittite forces and narrowly won the day. That’s the short story.

What ensued was what makes the Battle of Kadesh so important. Seeing that this strategic crossroad would have to be fought over and over again, we have the signing of the first peace treaty that we know of in history. While Ramses won the battle, Kadesh remained in Hittite hands. What ensued though, was a period of peace that lasted almost 100 years.

Ramses would solidify his perch as the top dog in the region allowing him to build his reputation over his 66-year reign. It would also affect the course of Near East history for centuries.

Time for our segment, Put it Into Perspective

We start with things that happened in the 13th century BC when the Battle of Kadesh occurred.

Wu Ding becomes the king of the Shang Dynasty in China. The Lion Gate at Mycene is built, and the Bronze Age collapses, and the Iron Age begins.

Now on to the United States Civil War and the bloody battle of Antietam.

Battle of Antietam
Battle of Antietam

The Battle of Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg, fought on September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest confrontation of the United States Civil War. The casualties for this one-day long fight, for both sides, was 22,717 dead, wounded or missing. Considering there were 125,000 combatants there with over 14,000 never seeing the field of battle, that represents a staggering casualty rate of 18%.

On August 28 through the 30th, 1862, the Second Battle of Bull Run was fought in Virginia, led by General John Pope for the U.S. and General Robert E. Lee for the Confederate States of America. It was a devastating loss for the US forces as they lost 14,000 men as opposed to 7,000 for the Confederates. The aftermath of this could be seen as the high point of the Confederacy.

Because of Bull Run, General Lee had an opening to invade the North and wreak havoc starting in the state of Maryland. This presented a major problem for President Lincoln of the US as mid-term elections were slated for November and if Lee were to be successful in his campaign, antiwar sentiment, which was brewing in the North, might become too strong which could jeopardize the continuation of the Civil War, splitting the country in two.

Maryland was also a border state and they might conceivably switch sides further weakening Lincoln’s hand. To top it off, some European countries, notably Great Britain and France, were debating internally whether to acknowledge the Confederacy as a sovereign nation. If this had occurred, the South would have likely won the war.

So, that is our setup for Antietam. The South was on a long win streak, the resolve of the North was waning and the existence of the United States of America, as we know it today, was in serious jeopardy.

The Northern Army, consisting of the Army of the Potomac, was led by General George McClellan while the Army of Northern Virginia, part of the Confederacy, was led by Robert E. Lee.

In Lee, we have a master tactician in the field, bold and confident. His troops trusted him and were extremely loyal.

McClellan was popular with his soldiers as well, but he had some major flaws. He consistently overestimated his opponent’s size which made him overly cautious, often holding large numbers of troops in reserve instead of sending them into battle.

To show how cautious McClellan was, he was made aware of Lee’s battle plan to attack Harpers Ferry via “Special Order 191” which was found on the ground by Northern soldiers. Despite this, he didn’t send in his troops quickly enough which allowed General Stonewall Jackson’s men to take Harpers Ferry for the South rather easily. This also allowed Lee to set up defensive lines to repel the expected Northern attack. 

McClellan, as he was want to do, came up with a pretty brilliant plan to attack Lee’s army but it was very complex and required precise timing which would, and was, very difficult to accomplish.

Fighting began on the morning of September 17, 1862, focusing on the Confederate center. Despite early successes, the Army of North Virginia started to run out of men and ammunition. They were in very desperate straits. Despite this, McClellan held back some 14,000 men from the fight even though they were less than a mile away. If he had attacked, it is likely that the Civil War would have been significantly shortened in my opinion.

Still, the North could have destroyed Lee’s army if not for the sudden appearance of General A. P. Hill’s troops. The Southern army was forced to retreat as they were exhausted. Hill’s arrival allowed for a safe and organized return to safety. McClellan again showed timidity as he failed to pursue the Confederates even though he had yet another 14,000 fresh troops available.

The Battle of Antietam was a shallow victory for the North or as some have claimed, a real win for the South. Whatever opinion you take, the Battle of Antietam broke the South’s streak of battlefield wins and renewed assurance in the North’s ability to win the war which gave voters the confidence in Abraham Lincoln and his political allies.

 Just five days after the battle, on September 22, 1862, President Lincoln issued a warning that he would order the emancipation of all slaves, in any state, that did not end the rebellion. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the famous Emancipation Proclamation which was in part, spurred on by the North’s victory at Antietam.

Here is part two of Putting it into Perspective for 1862.

Anna Leonowens accepted the offer to teach the wives and children of Mongkut, the King of Siam. You may know her better from the musical and movie, The King and I. The Transvaal Civil War in South Africa broke out. Otto Von Bismarck becomes the Prime Minister of Prussia. Westminster Bridge in London, England opened, and Les Misérables by Victor Hugo was published.

Now for the scoring to determine the winner. The first 40 points for the impact the battle had on the country or countries involved goes to both Kadesh and Antietam. They were highly influential in the course of history for the Hittites, Egypt, and the United States of America which is why I give them both the full number of points allowable.

The long-term effects are where we have a wide gap between the two battles. While Kadesh brought about peace, Antietam gave the North hope that it could win the war which it did, it solidified President Lincoln’s political future and spurred on the Emancipation Proclamation, calling for the end to slavery. For this reason, I am giving Antietam 25 points and the Battle of Kadesh 15.

The next 20 points are given based on the impact of the battle on the world at that particular time. Since Kadesh resulted in a peace treaty and settled a long-term conflict between the Egyptians and Hittites, I give that battle the full 20 points. Antietam, while very important in the long run, wasn’t quite that impactful for that moment in time as it relates to the Civil War. For that reason, I give it 15 points.

For the last 15 points, we use the number of people involved as our goal post. Antietam had 125,000 men at the battle between the North and the South while at Kadesh, the estimate, which varies greatly, had at least 60,000 men. Given the populations at the time, we have to give a little bit of leeway to Kadesh, so I will award Antietam the full 15 while giving Kadesh 13. 

So, the totals are as follows Kadesh with 88 and Antietam with 95 which means Antietam goes on to the next round to face…, The Battles of Midway versus Poltava.

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