Following the Battle of Chantilly on September 1, General Robert E. Lee gave his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia a day of rest. The Confederates were within 25 miles of Washington, and Major General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry scouted the Federal positions to the south and west. Lee began planning his next move and decided that he had four options:
- He could attack heavily defended Washington, which would end in almost certain failure.
- He could remain in the area outside Washington, which had been stripped of foodstuffs.
- He could fall back south to the Rappahannock River and await an attack, giving the Federal army time to regroup and become even more powerful.
- He could withdraw into the Shenandoah Valley, leaving the Confederate capital of Richmond vulnerable to capture.
Lee then came upon a fifth option, which he explained in a long letter to President Jefferson Davis: “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.”
Lee acknowledged, “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 turn northerners against the war just before the upcoming midterm elections.
In the North, citizens were up in arms about the sudden turn of events. Confederates in the east were now within striking distance of the capital, while Confederates in the west were moving into Kentucky as far north as the Ohio River. Prominent New Yorker George Templeton Strong wrote on the 3rd, “The morning papers and an extra at mid-day turned us livid and blue… Stonewall Jackson (our national bugaboo) about to invade Maryland, 40,000 strong… Cincinnati in danger. A rebel army within forty miles of the Queen City of the West. Martial law proclaimed in her pork shops.” General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck responded by censoring the press, but stopping the flow of information only caused more panic and unrest.
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, as did President Abraham Lincoln, that Lee would not sit idle outside Washington for long. Lincoln therefore directed Halleck to organize an army to take the field in pursuit. Halleck in turn 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 Brigadier 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.
Colonel Dixon Miles, commanding the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, received instruction from his superior, Major General John E. Wool: “The position on the heights ought to enable you to punish the enemy passing up the road in the direction of Harper’s Ferry. Have your wits about you, and do all you can to annoy the rebels should they advance on you. Activity, energy, and decision must be used. You will not abandon Harper’s Ferry without defending it to the last extremity.”
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 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.
Even in this time of crisis, the tension between McClellan and the Lincoln administration was apparent. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles noted that “some twenty or thirty thousand” troops marched past his house “for three hours” on the 6th. He found this strange since it had previously been tradition for troops marching through Washington to move down Pennsylvania Avenue and cheer the president as they passed the White House. But this time, the troops were marching past McClellan’s headquarters, where “they cheered the General lustily, instead of passing by the White House and honoring the President.”
Meanwhile, 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.”
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