September 4, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac River into Maryland to take the war to the North for the first time.
Following the Second Bull Run campaign, Lee’s army was within 25 miles of Washington. This gave Lee four options:
- He could attack heavily defended Washington, which would probably end in failure.
- He could remain in the area outside Washington, which had been stripped of foodstuffs.
- He could fall back to the Rappahannock River and await an attack, allowing the Federal army to become even more powerful.
- He could withdraw into the Shenandoah Valley, leaving Richmond vulnerable to capture.
Lee then came upon a fifth option, which he explained in a long letter to President Jefferson Davis from his Chantilly headquarters:
“The present seems to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate Army to enter Maryland… We cannot afford to be idle, and though weaker than our opponents in men and military equipments, must endeavor to harass, if we cannot destroy them.”
“The army is not properly equipped for an invasion of an enemy’s territory. It lacks much of the material 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… What occasions me the most concern is the fear of getting out of ammunition.”
However, invading Maryland outweighed the alternatives, and Lee noted there was strong pro-Confederate sentiment there, which could offer “an opportunity of throwing off the oppression to which she is now subject.” A Confederate invasion of the North would reduce the burden of war on Virginia’s resources and allow Lee’s troops to resupply in the rich northern farmlands. A Confederate military victory on northern soil could earn foreign recognition for the Confederacy and influence the upcoming Federal midterm elections by prompting northerners to elect anti-war politicians.
In Washington, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck expressed confidence that Lee would not attack the capital, and even if he did, he could never penetrate such strong fortifications. But Halleck also knew that Lee would not sit outside Washington for long. He notified Major General George B. McClellan, who had recently been restored to command all Federals around the capital:
“There is every probability that the enemy, baffled in his intended capture of Washington, will cross the Potomac, and make a raid into Maryland or Pennsylvania. A movable army must be immediately organized to meet him again in the field.”
Halleck expected quick, decisive action, something McClellan had never done before. As McClellan set about merging the two armies around Washington into one, Lee informed Davis:
“I am more fully persuaded of the benefit that will result from an expedition into Maryland, and I shall proceed to make the movement at once, unless you should signify your disapprobation. Should the results of the expedition justify it, I propose to enter Pennsylvania.”
Lee’s army was reinforced by three divisions from Richmond. However, this did not make up for the 9,000 Confederates lost during the Second Bull Run campaign. Worse, straggling became an epidemic, as thousands of soldiers fell out due to exhaustion, malnutrition, or their refusal to enter Maryland. Many others moved deliberately slow to show they were “morally opposed to invasion.” Lee wrote Davis, “Our great embarrassment is the reduction of our ranks by straggling, which it seems impossible to prevent… Our ranks are very much diminished–I fear from a third to one-half of our original numbers.”
Lee assigned General Lewis Armistead to be a provost guard who would “follow in rear of the army, arrest stragglers, and punish summarily all depredators, and keep the men with their commands. Stragglers are usually those who desert their comrades in peril. Such characters are better absent from the army on such momentous occasions as those about to be entered upon.”
Those caught straggling would “come under the special attention of the provost-marshal, and be considered as unworthy members of an army which has immortalized itself in the recent glorious and successful engagements against the enemy, and will be brought before a military commission to receive the punishment due to their misconduct.” Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson ordered the immediate execution of anyone caught deserting.
Without waiting for Davis’s response, Lee moved his army out of Chantilly and toward the shallow Potomac River fords west of Washington near Leesburg, Virginia. Federal forces at Winchester abandoned the town in the face of the oncoming Confederates, leaving a large amount of ammunition which the Confederates picked up the next day. As they continued toward Leesburg, the Confederates skirmished with Federals at Harpers Ferry, Falls Church, Bunker Hill, and Fairfax Court House.
With Major General D.H. Hill’s division leading, the Confederates began crossing the Potomac at White’s Ford, about 35 miles above Washington, on the 4th. Regimental bands played “Maryland, My Maryland” as the troops entered the state. The small Federal force stationed a few miles north at Frederick, Maryland, quickly evacuated.
News of the Confederate advance reached Washington a few hours later, causing even greater panic than there had been after Second Bull Run. Gunboats prepared to defend Washington, government employees took up arms, and rumors circulated that the steamer U.S.S. Wachusett was ready to transport President Abraham Lincoln and other top officials to New York if necessary.
Contrary to Lee’s hopes, most Marylanders did not welcome the incoming Confederates, and few volunteered to join the army. In addition, Lee expected the Maryland incursion to scatter Federals stationed at Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry in western Virginia, thus opening a supply line into the Shenandoah Valley. But this did not happen, so Lee had to change his plans by detaching a portion of his army to force the Federals out of those locales.
McClellan began moving the revised Army of the Potomac out of Washington on the 5th. McClellan led six handpicked corps totaling 84,000 men as they moved north and west into Maryland. Two corps stayed behind to defend the capital. President Lincoln served water to Federal troops on the White House lawn as they moved out. McClellan boasted, “I will save the country.”
Residents of Baltimore and other northern cities began panicking as Jackson’s Confederates arrived in Frederick unopposed on the 6th. The Confederate command prohibited any looting or vandalism, but instead of being welcomed as liberators, businesses closed and residents shut their doors and windows. A witness noted that “everything partook of a churchyard appearance.”
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 323; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 84-85; Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 8-10, 13-15; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17275-82, 17300; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 209; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 662; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 202-04, 207; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 480-81; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 261-62; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 534; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 151-64, 267-68; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 19-20; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q362