By Sunday, September 7, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was at Frederick, Maryland. Reports of “tremendous excitement” came from Baltimore, 45 miles away, as well as the nearby Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg. Lee’s advance isolated the Federal garrisons at Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg from Washington. He developed a plan in which part of his army would capture Harpers Ferry while the rest moved north to cut the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at Hagerstown. The Confederates would then destroy the Rockville bridge above Harrisburg.
The Confederates continued to get a tepid response from the locals around Frederick, despite Major General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart hosting an elaborate ball southeast of town at Urbana. The festivities were interrupted by Federal artillery, which the Confederate horsemen rode out to silence before returning to their ladies at the party.
Concerned by the skepticism of Marylanders, President Jefferson Davis suggested to Lee, “It is deemed proper that you should, in accordance with established usage, announce, by proclamation, to the people of Maryland, the motives and purposes of your presence among them at the head of an invading army; and you are instructed in such proclamation to make known.”
Lee assigned Colonel Bradley Johnson, a native of Frederick, to be provost marshal and issue an address to his friends, relatives, and neighbors:
“After 16 months of oppression more galling than the Austrian tyranny, the victorious Army of the South brings freedom to your doors. The men of Maryland, who during the long months have been crushed under the heel of this terrible despotism, now have the opportunity for working out their own redemption, for which they have so long waited and suffered and hoped.”
Johnson declared that the Confederate armies would not stop “until Maryland has the opportunity to decide for herself her own fate. We have the arms here for you, and rise at once in arms and strike for liberty and right!”
At the same time, Lee issued a statewide proclamation “To the People of Maryland”:
“It is right that you should know the purpose that brought the army under my command within the limits of your State, so far as that purpose concerns yourselves. The people of the Confederate States have long watched with the deepest sympathy the wrongs and outrages that have been inflicted upon the citizens of a commonwealth allied to the States of the South by the strongest social, political, and commercial ties. They have seen with profound indignation their sister State deprived of every right and reduced to the condition of a conquered province… our army has come among you, and is prepared to assist you with the power of its arms in regaining the rights of which you have been despoiled.
“This, citizens of Maryland, is our mission, so far as you are concerned. No constraint upon your free will is intended; no intimidation will be allowed within the limits of this army, at least. Marylanders shall once more enjoy their ancient freedom of thought and speech. We know no enemies among you, and will protect all, of every opinion. It is for you to decide your destiny freely and without constraint. This army will respect your choice, whatever it may be; and while the Southern people will rejoice to welcome you to your natural position among them, they will only welcome you when you come of your own free will.”
The proclamations did not garner the support the Confederates had hoped, indicating that the upcoming campaign may be harsher than expected. That same day, Lee wrote Davis suggesting that he offer to discuss peace with the Lincoln administration based on Confederate independence:
“The present position of affairs, in my opinion, places it in the power of the government of the Confederate States to propose with propriety to that of the United States the recognition of our independence… 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 sole object is the establishment of our independence and the attainment of an honorable peace.
“The rejection of this offer would prove to the country that the responsibility of the continuance of the war does not rest upon us, but that the party in power in the United States elect to prosecute it for purposes of their own. The proposal of peace 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, which can but be productive of good to both parties without affecting the honor of either.”
Meanwhile, Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac continued moving north in pursuit, even though it was still not clear where the Confederates were. As the Federals advanced to within 30 miles of the enemy, President Abraham Lincoln received alarming reports that General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Mississippi was moving north from Chattanooga to join forces with Lee. He sent messages, “Where is Gen. Bragg?” and “What about Harper’s Ferry?” but received no response.
On the night of the 7th, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles went out walking and came across McClellan and his staff. McClellan halted to shake hands with Welles and let him know that he was taking command of the pursuit. Welles replied, “Well, onward, General, is now the word; the country will expect you to go forward.” McClellan said, “That is my intention.” Welles responded, “Success to you, then, General, with all my heart.” McClellan wrote his wife Ellen, “I have now the entire confidence of the Govt & the love of the army–my enemies are crushed, silent & disarmed–if I defeat the Rebels I shall be master of the situation.”
By the 8th, McClellan was at Rockville, Maryland, on the Monocacy River about 25 miles south of Lee. Lincoln asked, “How does it look now?” McClellan responded, “I think that we are now in position to prevent any attack in force on Baltimore, while we cover Washington on this side. We are prepared to attack anything that crosses the Potomac this side of the Monocacy.”
McClellan still asserted he was “by no means satisfied yet that the enemy has crossed the river in any large force. I am ready to push in any direction,” hoping “very soon to have the supplies and transportation so regulated that we can safely move farther from Washington, and clear Maryland of the rebels. The time occupied in ascertaining their position, strength, and intentions will enable me to place the army in fair condition. As soon as I find out where to strike, I will be after them without an hour’s delay.”
But McClellan spent the next four days reorganizing his army rather than pursuing the enemy with any urgency. Under the reorganization, McClellan had six movable corps:
- The First Corps, formerly commanded by McDowell, was now led by Major General Joseph Hooker, who had been promoted per McClellan’s request.
- The Second, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth corps were led by Major Generals Edwin V. Sumner, Fitz John Porter, William B. Franklin, and Ambrose E. Burnside respectively.
- The Twelfth Corps was now temporarily led by Major General Alpheus Williams. Williams would be replaced by Major General Joseph K.F. Mansfield once Mansfield was ready to take command.
McClellan forwarded the estimate of secret service chief Allan Pinkerton that the Confederate army numbered about 100,000 men, which was much higher than the actual number. McClellan reported, “They are to march to Frederick thence to Gettysburg thence to York & thence to Baltimore. This can be depended upon up to 11 o’clock today.”
It was becoming clear that the usual pattern of McClellan overestimating enemy strength and refusing to take blame for any shortcomings had returned. To his wife, McClellan wrote, “I have been obliged to do the best I could with the broken & discouraged fragment of two armies defeated by no fault of mine… under the circumstances no one else could save the country, & I have not shrunk from the terrible task… I expect to fight a great battle & to do my best at it… the men & officers have complete confidence in me & I pray to God that he will justify their trust.”
Intense skirmishing occurred in the Poolesville, Maryland, area as McClellan continued probing to find Lee’s army.
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