By September 12, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was divided into four sections:
- Major General James Longstreet’s command was at Hagerstown, Maryland;
- Major General D.H. Hill was at Boonsboro, Maryland;
- Major General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry was at South Mountain in Maryland;
- Three forces led by Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson were converging on Harpers Ferry in northwestern Virginia.
Stuart reported that advance Federal units drove him from the Catoctin Mountain, about seven miles east of South Mountain, that night.
Meanwhile, Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, took up headquarters at Urbana as his troops finally began pursuing Lee’s army in earnest on the 12th. As McClellan later explained:
“During these movements I had not imposed long marches on the columns. The absolute necessity of refitting and giving some little rest to the troops worn down by previous long-continued marches and severe fighting, together with the uncertainty as to the actual position, strength, and intentions of the enemy, rendered it incumbent upon me to move slowly and cautiously until the head-quarters reached Urbana, where I first obtained reliable information that the enemy’s object was to move upon Harper’s Ferry and the Cumberland Valley, and not upon Washington and Baltimore.”
Federal forces began entering Frederick from the east, just as the last Confederates in the town withdrew to the west. McClellan wrote his wife Ellen:
“From all I can gather, secesh is skedadelling & I don’t think I can catch him unless he is really moving into Penna–in that case I shall catch him before he has made much headway towards the interior. I begin to think that he is making off to get out of the scrape by recrossing the river at Williamsport–in which case my only chance of bagging him will be to cross lower down & cut into his communications near Winchester. He evidently don’t want to fight me–for some reason or other.”
Once again, McClellan was misunderstanding Lee’s intentions. Back in Washington, President Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet continued to debate the wisdom of allowing McClellan to lead the army in pursuit. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair said, “McClellan is not the man, but he is the best among the major-generals. We have officers of capacity, depend upon it, and they should be hunted out and brought forward.” Lincoln made it clear that General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, not he, had urged McClellan’s reinstatement. As Navy Secretary Gideon Welles recalled:
“‘The officers and soldiers,’ the President said, ‘were pleased with the reinstatement of that officer (McClellan), but I wish you to understand it was not made by me. I put McClellan in command here to defend the city, for he has great powers of organization and discipline; he comprehends and can arrange military combinations better than any of our generals, and there his usefulness ends. He can’t go ahead–he can’t strike a blow. He got to Rockville, for instance, last Sunday night, and in four days he advanced to Middlebrook, ten miles, in pursuit of an invading enemy. This was rapid movement for him. When he went up the Peninsula there was no reason why he should have been detained a single day at Yorktown, but he waited, and gave the enemy time to gather his forces and strengthen his position.’”
Welles added the next day, “The country is very desponding and much disheartened. There is a perceptibly growing distrust of the Administration and of its ability and power to conduct the war. Military doubts were whispered on the Peninsula by McClellan’s favorites before his recall, and when he was reinstated public confidence in the Administration throughout the country was impaired.”
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