Battles and campaigns

Not Antietam!

A report on the Charles Rees December 2005 Lecture by Greg Bayne

 

If there is ever a time when you question whether your annual subscription is worth it then this lecture would have put those thoughts out of your mind. In the space of an hour and a half Charles took us on a meticulous journey across the Potomac and provided a unique insight into the command and control of the Army of Northern Virginia plus a view of General Lee and President Lincoln that I for one hadn't considered before.

 

 


Our journey started on Friday August 29th 1862 at what may be the pinnacle of southern fortunes. The army is a few miles from Washington, forces in the West are holding and Kentucky is being invaded. What is in Lee's mind? He was looking for General Pope, but it was Pope that found him, or rather Jackson, first. A two day slug-fest occurs that leaves Pope in disarray but the casualties on both sides were high - 1,400 CSA dead versus 2,000 Union and 7,000 CSA wounded and prisoner versus 10,000.

 

On Sunday August 31st, heavy rain hampers pursuit but Jackson pushes on to Fairfax. Pope sends McDowell's, Heintzelman's and Reno's Corps to attack on September 1st and the two forces meet at Ox Hill near Chantilly in a torrential thunderstorm just before dark. The Union loses 1400 and the Confederates 800 men. This was clearly enough for the administration in Washington, Pope is dismissed and McClellan is restored to command all Union armies in the East.

 

But the situation with McClellan is not perfect. On August 30th: a reporter says that he has never seen Lincoln so wrathful against McClellan, Secretary of War Stanton wanted McClellan court-martialed, Secretary of the Treasury Chase wanted him shot!

 

Added to this, four of Lincoln's Cabinet signed a memorandum urging the President to dismiss McClellan, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles did not sign but agreed with the sentiments in the memorandum. But despite this, at 7.30am on 2nd September Halleck and Lincoln went round to McClellan at breakfast and asked him to take command of all the troops retreating into Washington.

 

Lincoln's comments at the time on McClellan were:

 

• "The Young Napoleon is a superb organizer"

 

• "wrung by the bitterest anguish"

 

• "The Army was utterly demoralized and McClellan the only man who could reorganize the Army and bring it out of chaos."

 

• "He had the Army with him and we must use the tools we have."

 

• "If he can't fight himself he excels in making others ready to fight."

 

But McClellan and Washington were not Lincoln's only concern. Out west Kirby Smith occupies Lexington, Kentucky and the State legislature flees to Louisville. Lincoln must have been distraught - “I would like to have God on my side...but I must have Kentucky" he said. And "I guess that to lose Kentucky is just about to lose the whole game."

 

Meanwhile, Lee has not been idle. Whilst his army reorganises and tries to re-equip, he makes some decisions. On Wednesday September 3rd he writes a letter to his President.

 

• "The army is not properly equipped for an invasion of an enemy's territory”.

 

• “It lacks much of the materials of war, is feeble in transportation, the animals being much reduced, and the men are poorly provided with clothes, and in thousands of instances are destitute of shoes”.

 

• “The present seems to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate army to enter Maryland."

 

Lee would have known that Davis would not see his letter for several days but he sets his invasion plan into action. But before that, he had to clear up some of the problems within his own command. Longstreet had arrested General Hood.

 

Jackson had arrested General A P Hill. Jackson had been bruised when thrown from a mare gifted to him. Lee's horse shied and he fell and broke one wrist and sprained another. Amongst Lee's foot soldiers there was a feeling that a move north was not part of their remit. A number of desertions were reported and on the banks of the Potomac, 900 barefoot soldiers would not cross Their physical state left nothing to the imagination, a recruit stated "I have never seen a mass of such filthy, strong smelling men. Three of them in a room would make it unbearable, and when marching in column along the street the smell was most offensive."

 

A reporter for the New York Herald commented, "They were the roughest creatures I ever saw. Their features, hair, and clothing matted with dirt and filth, and the scratching they kept up gave warrant of vermin in abundance."

 

So without the direct agreement of his boss, with some troubles amongst his senior staff and some rumblings in the ranks Lee crosses the Potomac into the unknown.

 

On Thursday September 4th, Lee writes again and declares himself, "more fully persuaded of the benefits that will result from an invasion of Maryland. Accordingly I shall proceed to make the movement at once unless you should signify your disapprobation." Again the letter would not reach Jefferson Davis for at least 3 to 5 days but in fact elements of the Army of Northern Virginia are already moving across the Potomac. Lee added that he would enter Pennsylvania unless "you should deem it inadvisable upon political or other grounds."

 

On Friday September 5th he wrote again "..this army is about entering Maryland." But he is already there! The invasion was first noted by US Signal Corps on Sugar Loaf Moun­tain 4 pm on the 4th.The news froze the Union army around Washington.

 

Union forces were at Harper's Ferry, Winchester and Martinsburg but Lee writes "I have no doubt they will leave that section as soon as they learn of the movement across the Potomac." Despite not having Davis's permission, Lee kept his boss in the picture. On Saturday September 6th he wrote to Davis, "Two Divisions have crossed the Potomac. I hope all will cross today."

 

On the Union side, McClellan took stock. He has organised an army of 85,000 men in seven corps and a further reserve of 75,000 protects Washington. In the summer of 1862 Lincoln called for 300,000 nine-month volunteers and 35 new regi­ments arrived in Washington by the first week in September. Many would be blooded in the days to come.

 

On Sunday September 7th Lee wrote to Davis, "all the divisions of the army have crossed the Potomac" (excluding the third who decided not to go!) and Lee is advancing into Maryland. This leads to panic in Washington and ships stand by to evacuate the Cabinet.

 

But he continues, "The men are poorly provided with clothes..." Jackson's Corps had taken a bat­tering at second Manassas but it is often forgotten that Longstreet's Corps took as many casualties in their 4 hours of fighting as Jackson's Corps took in 2 day's.

 

Being shoeless on the grassy tracks of Virginia was one thing; on the macadamised roads of Maryland it was another.

 

On Monday September 8th Lee issues his proclamation to the people of Maryland. Again, Davis did not receive this, for another 3 to 5 days. Davis, and after all he was the President, issued his own proclamation on 7th September. This was Charles's bombshell - Lee had taken the military initiative (from his President as well as the North) but he was now taking the political initiative.

On Tuesday September 9th Davis says he wants to be there with Lee. Lee responds beautifully: having received Davis's message saying that he is coming for a visit like a straight left, Lee sways back onto the ropes. "I should feel the greatest satisfaction in having an interview with you and consulting up on all subjects of interest". But immedi­ately he bounces back off the ropes and counters with the left. "I cannot but feel great uneasiness for your safety should you undertake to reach me". He follows this up with another straight left and informs Davis that he was "cutting communications east of the Blue Ridge Mountains." Lee clearly does not want JD there! He sends Walter Taylor who had just joined him to reinforce the message but in fact Davis had given up by this time. He was unwell but he also got the message.

 

Charles then recounted the relation­ship between the two men. It was intriguing. It is generally accepted that Joseph Johnston had a poor relationship and that Lee had a good one. Lee had worked as Davis's military advisor and knew the working of his mind. Accordingly he wrote every day but what was he writing? In fact he was suggesting that he might do things that he had already accomplished or certainly started. But there is a credibility gap. Lee says he wanted to talk to Davis about "all subjects of interest," but in fact he wants Davis in Virginia, not Maryland. Charles's verdict? He agrees with Stephen Sears "Behind the cool, calm, dignified face he presented to the world, Robert E Lee had the calculating instincts of a riverboat gambler."

 

What was Lee's Strategy? Clearly it was a raid and a turning movement but why?

It was a turning movement with a very small force. A raid meant that the Army was dispersed for foraging and concentrated to fight. Having fought it must inevitably disperse again for foraging. (Archer Jones) Lee himself said, "Though weaker than our opponents in men and military equipment, we would endeavour to harass if we cannot destroy them. I do not consider success impossible". The suggestion is one of limited offensive. But Lee aimed higher, "the Confederacy could propose an end to hostilities in exchange for independence. Such a proposal coming when it is in our power to inflict injury on our adversary would enable the people of the United States to determine at their coming elections whether they will support those who favor a prolongation of the war, or those who wish to bring it to a termina­tion." So on this hand he was encouraging the Peace Democrats, he went on, "Such a proposition coming from us at this time could in no way be regarded as suing for peace; but being made when it is in our power to inflict injury upon our adversary would show conclusively to the world that our objective is the establishment of our independence and the attainment of an honorable peace."

 

In other words it would present Northern voters with the choice to either support those who favour a prolongation of the war or those who wish it to bring it to termination.

Lee's target here was Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Congressional majority.

Later in 1868 Lee says, "I went to Maryland to give battle." (At least William Allen said that Lee told him he did.. He also told Davis that he wanted to go into Pennsylvania for the purpose of "opening our line of communication through the valley, in order to procure sufficient suppliers of flour." Hardtack was the staple diet of the Army; once procured he planned to stay. A direct line of supply down the Shenandoah into Maryland would completely change the direction of operations.

 

There were also flashes of his ambitions during the campaign. Lee was very explicit when he talked to John G Walker with two brigades of reinforcements from Richmond.

 

He stood at a large map and pointed to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (70 miles north of the Maryland line.) "I want to destroy that bridge." Bruce Catton says, "The only rational justification of Lee's strategy was that he believed he could win"!

Stephen Woodworth says "With the river at his back, Lee could well face ruin if his line was broken. In short, the decision to accept battle at Antietam was ‘audacity run amok’."

Back at the war, the Confederate invasion had cut off Harper's Ferry, (10,500 men + 2,500 at Martinsburg.) McClellan asked Halleck to release these troops to augment his army. Halleck refused and ordered the garrison to defend Harper's Ferry "to the last extremity." Fighting talk from Halleck but why? What state was Halleck in? He was only recently appointed and was up day and night since his appointment and therefore in a state of exhaustion. His crown­ing moment came when having ordered the garrison to hold, he left the problem entirely to McClellan.

On Tuesday September 9th Lee issues order 191. In it he details that the ANV is to be divided into 4 parts, Jackson to cross the Potomac at Sharpsburg and approach Harper's Ferry Lafayette McLaws to capture Maryland heights, John G Walker to capture Loudon heights and Longstreet to stay near Hagerstown and watch the gaps in South mountain.

On Wednesday September 10th Lee put Order 191 into action and leaves Frederick.

McClellan's Army leaves Rockville for Frederick. Somewhere things started to go awry for both sides. What happened?

 

• ANV to March from Frederick west to Middletown and divided into four.

• Longstreet with two divisions (Hood and Jones) to press west on to Boonsboro. (In fact turned north to Hagerstown).

• Jackson with three divisions (i.e. AP Hill, Alexander Lawton & J R Jones) to re-cross the Potomac at Sharpsburg, march on Martinsburg and then move down the Baltimore & Ohio RR to Harper's ferry. (In fact he crossed at Williamsport, attacked the Martinsburg garrison and followed them back to Harpers Ferry).

• McLaws with two divisions (i.e. his own & Anderson's) march south from Martinstown to seize Maryland heights.

• Jon Walker with undersized Division (3000) to re-cross the Potomac east of Harpers Ferry and seize Loudon Heights.

 

• DH Hill with 1 Division to remain in Boonsboro where all the Confederates were to concentrate.

• Lee wanted Harpers Ferry captured by September 12th.

On Saturday September 13th the Army of the Potomac arrives in Frederick and McClellan gets a hero’s welcome. Corporal Barton W Mitchell finds Order 191 and takes it to McClellan with Sergeant John Bloss. He says "I forgot those cigars," but history does not record their fate. At first elated with the news, McClellan did not move for 14 hours!

It refers to "returning to the main body." How big was the main body? It is correct to suppose that Lee would invade with a large force. We know it was small. McClellan as usual believed he was outnumbered. It was not in Lee's handwriting. Both wrists had been injured (August 31st). It was written by Chilton. (But Col Samuel Pittman recognised Chilton's handwriting). 27% of McClellan's men were new recruits. In the bloody lane some Union forces were sent over without ammunition! McClellan received 29 pieces of intelligence, none of which supported GO 191. As a result McClellan did not act for 14 hours until daylight September 14th

 

This was a crucial delay. McClellan (at 6.20pm on the 13th) told Franklin to move at daybreak the next day the 12 miles from Buckeystown to Crampton's gap. If Franklin had moved at 6.20pm he would have been at Crampton's gap by midnight and moved through unopposed. He eventually took the Gap after 3 hours heavy fighting. Union losses were about 530. Confederate, the same plus 400 prisoners.

 

 

 

At Turner's Gap there were a variety of skirmishes. It was not the ANV's finest hour. "The Confederate reports of this action are not characterised by that fine tone of superiority with which all students of their reports are familiar." (Gen Francis W Palfrey). "As it was, they took the wrong posi­tions, and in their exhausted state, after a long march, they were broken and scattered." (D H Hill).

 

On Sunday September 14th, the Army of the Potomac attacks the gaps through South Mountain - Crampton's, Fox's and Turners gap. By evening Crampton's is in Union hands and the ANV threatens to be cut in two.

 

 

 

By 8 pm Sunday September 14th the clouds of desperation are gather­ing in Lee's camp.

 

"The day has gone against us" said Lee to McLaws and "this Army will go by Sharpsburg and cross the river…It is necessary for you to abandon your position tonight…You must get back to Virginia anyway you can..." Lee is throwing in the towel. The Riverboat gambler is trying to leave the table with whatever chips he has!

 

Did Lee really mean to retreat? McLaws provides much of the narra­tive for these crucial hours. Lee told McLaws "Cross the river between Harper's ferry and Shepherdstown but leave Shepherdstown (Boteler's Ford) for this command."

 

At 11.15pm Lee to McLaws: "We will take position at Centreville with a view of preventing the enemy from cutting you off and enabling a conjunction with me…Either pass through South Mountain at Weverton, heading south along the Potomac in search of a ford at Point of Rocks" (now Brunswick) or move to Sharpsburg via the river road beside Harper's ferry or across Elk ridge at Solomon's gap."

 

Early am September 15th, Lee to McLaws: "You are desired to withdraw immediately from your position and join us here at Keedysville…The utmost dispatch is required!"

 

In fact McLaws did not evacuate until the morning of the 16th and gave six reasons why. The enemy occupied Crampton's gap and Northern Pleasant Valley, cutting off hope of joining Lee near Boonsboro! The Solomon gap escape route was too near the enemy in Pleasant Valley. The Weverton Gap route depended upon a "doubtful ford"..

 

The force at Harper's Ferry could cut off his escape route under the bluffs along the river. He could not pass over the mountain except in a scat­tered and disorganised condition. In finally, no contingency could he have saved the trains and artillery.

 

Why McLaws? Lee sent no orders to Longstreet because he had him with him. Jackson and Walker were safe on the other side of the Potomac McLaws was the only one he needed to write to and his anxiety is revealed in these letters.

 

But at 8 am Lee finds an ace - Jackson has taken Harpers Ferry! "Through God's blessing, the advance, which commenced this evening, has been successful thus far, and I look to Him for complete success tomorrow." - Jackson. Lee writes fresh orders to McLaws! "Get to Sharpsburg."

 

At this juncture, we broke for tea and biscuits. During the interval the battle of Sharpsburg was fought.

 

Early on Thursday September 18th. Both armies at Antietam remain in position.

 

The Union Divisions under Couch and Humphreys arrive but McClellan will not employ them until they have received "rest and refreshment." Lee sent Stuart against McClellan's right and established that there was no way through there. At 2 pm Lee and Longstreet decided it was impossible to make any move except a direct assault on some portion of the enemy’s lines. Lee orders with­drawal and Longstreet leads over Blackford's Ford at midnight.

 

On Friday September 19th the ANV withdraws over the Potomac unmo­lested. The last brigades (i.e. Branch, Gregg and Archer) leave at 3 am and finally Gregg is away by noon.

 

The next day Lee informs Davis "our position was a bad one to hold with the river in rear."

 

But by Saturday September 20th Lee is on the offensive again! "The army was immediately put in motion toward Williamsport in order to threaten the enemy on his right and rear and make him apprehensive of his communications." (Lee to Davis).

 

Stuart and Wade Hampton were sent across the Potomac. McClellan responded vigorously and Stuart withdrew. "It was my intention to re-cross the Potomac at Williamsport and move to Hagerstown but the condition of the Army prevented it." (Lee to Davis).

It is left to others to comment. General Porter Alexander;

 

• "And this I think will be pro­nounced by many critics to be the greatest military blunder that Gen Lee ever made.... In the first place Lee's inferiority of force was too great to do more than hope to fight a sort of drawn battle. Hard & incessant marching & camp dis­eases aggravated by irregular diet, had greatly reduced his ranks, & I don't think he mustered much if any over 40,000 men."

 

• "McClellan had over 87,000 with more & better guns & ammunition, &, besides that, fresh troops were coming to Washington & being organized and sent him almost every day. A drawn battle such as we did have was the best possible outcome one could hope for."

 

• "Lee gave battle unnecessarily at Sharpsburg Sept 17th 1862.... He fought where he could have avoided it, & where he had noth­ing to make and everything to lose - which a General should not do."

 

But now let us switch the emphasis from Military to Political. From the South to the North. Barely had the sounds of gunfire faded away when Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation.

 

Why had Lincoln done this at this time? At his election, Lincoln's party expected him to secure emancipa­tion, but Lincoln insisted he would not and it would require a mandate from Congress. As war broke out, the question of slaves as property came up. Butler and Fremont took matters into their own hands.

 

The neutrality of the four Border States was in question and some ‘politicking’ had to take place. In July 1861 Salmon Chase believed that confiscation was the way forward and sent an amendment to Congress. The Constitution forbad confiscation and the precedent had been the attempted confiscation of British subjects’ property in the war of 1812-14. The flaw was that it would therefore have to concede 'nationhood' to the Confederacy to be legal under the Constitution.

But Lincoln could see that he had to act. Why was Lincoln against these measures?

First of all, slaves were people not property. There were legal problems with each and he did not want legal challenges. The fate of the four Union slave states was crucial. Washington was surrounded by Maryland. Kentucky could be crucial to the Confederate defence. With Pope beaten at 2nd Manassas August 29th/30th Lincoln felt compelled to act.

Lincoln worked on the document from September 5th to 17th. (The invasion was first observed on the 4th). Antietam was Wednesday but he did not know it was a victory until Saturday, September 20th. He called a Cabinet meeting on Monday 22nd and gave his document to them. "It is my last card and I will play it and may win the trick."

Why the change of mind? Lincoln rejected all three methods (contra­band, confiscation and martial proc­lamation) that had been tried out. He tried compensation in the Union slave states but was rebuffed. He also believed in re-colonisation and his early ideas were based on repa­triation. On the 22nd he informed his Cabinet of his declaration. He invited comments on its wording but not whether it would happen.

He told them "When the rebel Army was at Frederick, I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation..I said nothing to anyone; but I made the promise to myself and my Maker. The rebel Army is now driven out and I am going to fulfill that promise." This covenant with the Almighty really shocked the cabinet.

Meanwhile in October, McClellan goes on the offensive - but not against the Confederates, he wages a bitter campaign against Halleck and Stanton.

 

"General McClellan and myself are to be photographed ... if we can be still for long enough. I feel General McClellan should have no problem." (Lincoln to his wife).

McClellan says his cavalry are worn out. Lincoln rebuts "Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam which would fatigue anything?" Oct 24th and finally "McClellan has the slows."

At the end of October came the Elections. Throughout October to Nov 4th the North votes for Congress and House of Representatives. The emancipation Proclamation gives fuel to the Peace Democrats. The results are 'a disaster.' But on November 4th after New York has voted the Republicans still have a majority.......... The next day:

 

• Lincoln sacks McClellan

• Lincoln sacks Porter

 

• He has 2 of McClellan's other officers arrested, charges never known.

At the 37th Congress in December 1862 Lincoln defends his position:

• "On 22nd Day of September last a proclamation was issued by the executive....

• Consider the folly of this war. Did anyone believe that, even if the Confederacy should be successful in its bid for independence, the North American continent could be, in any practical way, divided between two republics?

• There is no line, straight or crooked, suitable for a national boundary, upon which to divide the existing States; and

• Any effort to manufacture one would set geography at war with economics.

Lincoln's message was 8,500 words!

• "Separate our common country into two nations ... and everyone west of the Appalachians is cut off from transportation and ocean commerce, not by a physical barrier but by embarrassing and onerous trade regulations.

 

•" In all its adaptations and aptitudes the continent demands union and abhors separation".

• "The rebels might win the war today, but tomorrow someone among them would inevitably be talking about reunion".

• "And at that moment, Southerners would have to come to grips all over again with the fact that the rest of the Nation would not allow them to spread slavery anywhere outside its present domains".

• “The same geography that made nonsense of the notion of an independent Confederacy would, sooner or later, make nonsense of the continuation of slavery."

 

• "Was it not time, after viewing the wreckage of the last 20 months, to see that the war was a merry­-go-round that would always bring Southerners back to the same problem they had started with?"

Lincoln produced the Emancipation Declaration at arguably the most injudicious time.

He gambled and won. This was the same man who at 7.30am on September 2nd crawled to McClellan ("nothing more than a well meaning baboon.") and yet sacked him on November 5th on news of the New York results.

Lee had learnt some valuable les­sons as well. He got away by the skin of his teeth and it was intact and recovered quickly and was maturing. He learnt he could live off the land.

He had in Longstreet and Jackson two superb lieutenants. Davis and the people were behind him. His strategic view was unchanged.

Lincoln had gambled and won. He was developing as commander in chief.

He had changed the Confederates from freedom fighters to slave own­ers (Rees) - and changed the direc­tion of the war. His emancipation proclamation (apparently strangely worded and despised) was accepted and was never challenged legally.

Both Lee and Lincoln gambled at the highest level but it was Lincoln who 'took the trick.'