Category Archives: Maryland

The Maryland Campaign Ends

September 18, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defiantly awaited another attack from Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac after the Battle of Antietam.

Gen. R.E. Lee, CSA and Maj Gen G.B. McClellan, USA | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

The opposing forces worked out truces the morning after the battle to collect the wounded and bury the dead. Many men saw the terrible carnage the fight had produced for the first time. Nearly 12,000 men were killed or wounded in the Cornfield alone. Bodies were stacked four-high in “Bloody Lane.”

The U.S. Sanitary Commission distributed massive amounts of clothing, foodstuffs, and medical supplies that had been bought by donations from northerners. Even so, many wounded soldiers died of infections due to unsanitary hospital conditions. That night, a wounded sergeant of the 15th Massachusetts wrote in his diary:

“… Another painful night. Oh good a whole line of our skirmishers are coming… By and by our boys come along. What lots of the 15th… Dr. looks at my wound and calls it doubtful case. Get me on ambulance at 3 p.m. but do not get to hospital till nearly dark. Plenty of water which gives us a chance to take down inflammation. Nurses worn out by fatigue. Placed on straw near the barn.”

Besides moving 200 yards inward in the center, Lee’s Confederate line remained as it stood 24 hours before, poised to meet another Federal attack. Lee considered moving around the Federal left, but massed artillery in that sector made such a move impossible.

On the Federal side, McClellan wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “The battle will probably be renewed today. Send all the troops you can by the most expeditious route.” McClellan awaited reinforcements despite his overwhelming numerical superiority, which included about 20,000 reserves who did not get into yesterday’s fight. Two divisions arrived later that day, giving McClellan more fresh men than Lee had total men.

But McClellan still would not move, instead writing that “a careful and anxious survey of the condition of my command, and my knowledge of the enemy’s force and position” showed that “the success of an attack was not certain” without more men. Thus, both armies remained stationary.  

Lee considered attacking, but his scouts told him the Federal positions were too strong to break. If Lee could not attack, and if McClellan refused to attack, then Lee resolved to go back to Virginia. Around 2 p.m., Lee informed Major General James Longstreet that the army would retire across the Potomac River that night. Commanders issued orders, and after midnight, the men left their campfires burning as Longstreet led the withdrawal. The Confederates left dead and wounded comrades who could not be moved.

This marked the first time that the Army of Northern Virginia had been compelled to retreat, even though the Battle of Antietam had been a tactical stalemate and Lee held his ground for two days before leaving. Despite McClellan’s sluggish combat performance, his army had captured an unprecedented 39 Confederate battle flags in the fights at South Mountain and Antietam.

McClellan boasted to his superiors, “I have the honor to report that Maryland is entirely freed from the presence of the enemy, who has been driven across the Potomac. We may safely claim a complete victory.” He wrote his wife, “Our victory was complete. I feel some little pride in having with a beaten and demoralized army defeated Lee so utterly, & saved the North so completely.” Apparently, McClellan was so emboldened by his “complete victory” that he vowed to make demands on the Lincoln administration:

“I have insisted that (Secretary of War Edwin) Stanton shall be removed and that Halleck shall give way to me as Commander in Chief. I will not serve under him–for he is an incompetent fool–in no way fit for the important place he holds… I have shown that I can fight battles and win them! I think my enemies (in Washington) are pretty effectively killed by this time.”

Yet McClellan did little to follow up his “complete victory,” and he missed a chance to destroy the Confederates as they crossed the Potomac. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote in his diary, “Nothing from the army, except that, instead of following up the victory, attacking and capturing the Rebels, they… are rapidly escaping across the river… Oh dear!”

McClellan was deeply disturbed to receive an admonition, and not a congratulation, from Halleck for failing to keep Washington more closely informed of what was happening. McClellan angrily responded:

“I regret that you find it necessary to couch every dispatch I have the honor to receive from you, in a spirit of fault finding, and that you have not yet found leisure to say one word in commendation of the recent achievements of this Army, or even to allude to them.”

The last Confederate infantrymen waded across the Potomac near dawn on the 19th. Brigadier General John G. Walker informed Lee that all had crossed unmolested except for an artillery battery and the ambulance wagons. Lee replied, “Thank God!” He directed Brigadier General William N. Pendleton to guard Boteler’s Ford, which the Federals would use to pursue the Confederates across the river, with two brigades and 45 guns.

Federals attacked near dusk on the 19th, driving the Confederates off. Pendleton could not see the action in the dark and hurriedly reported to Lee that the Federals had captured all 45 guns. Lee responded by sending Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates to regain the cannon and drive the Federals back into Maryland.

Jackson deployed General A.P. Hill’s “Light Division” on the morning of the 20th. The Confederates advanced through Federal artillery fire and drove the enemy back across the river. The 118th Pennsylvania, also known as the “Corn Exchange Regiment,” sustained heavy casualties after being pushed over a bluff and then fired upon from above while trying to escape.

The Federals suffered 363 casualties while the Confederates lost 261. Pendleton had been wrong; the Federals captured only four of the Confederates’ 45 guns. He was relegated to desk duty following this engagement. This skirmish secured Lee’s rear and enabled him to complete his withdrawal to Opequon Creek, near Martinsburg in western Virginia, where he could rest and retool his army. He had just 36,418 infantrymen present for duty, many of whom lacked adequate clothing or footwear.

The Federals scored a major victory in the Maryland campaign. They stopped the Confederate incursion and forced Lee to return to Virginia. This in turn discouraged Great Britain from formally recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation, thus depriving the South of much-needed economic and military aid. However, the Lincoln administration noted that McClellan’s reluctance to pursue Lee and finish the fight may have been a missed opportunity to destroy the Confederate army and end the war.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 332; Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 150-52, 156; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 213; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 55-57; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17429, 17498; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 214-17; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 701-02; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 213-14; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4878-90, 4901; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 481; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 15-18; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 268-69; 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. 544-45; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 488; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 19-20, 679; 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

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The Battle of Antietam

September 17, 1862 – The bloodiest day in American history occurred as the armies of Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan fought to a standoff near Sharpsburg, Maryland, along Antietam Creek.

Gen. R.E. Lee, CSA and Maj Gen G.B. McClellan, USA | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Before dawn, Lee had arrayed his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia with Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s men on the north (left), Major General James Longstreet’s Confederates in the center, and the small remainder of Lee’s command holding the south (right) until Jackson’s remaining division under General A.P. Hill could arrive from Harpers Ferry, 17 miles away.

Combat opened around 5:30 a.m. as Major General Joseph Hooker’s Federal corps advanced on the Hagerstown turnpike and attacked Jackson’s men in fog. The Federals hoped to seize the ground around the Dunker Church and turn the Confederate left.

Federals drove the first Confederate line out of the North Woods and into an area later known as the Cornfield. A Confederate counterattack led by General John Bell Hood pushed the Federals back to the Miller farm, with the lines surging back and forth over a dozen times.

Hooker later reported that “every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in the ranks a few moments before.” Hooker was wounded himself and taken from the field, replaced by General George G. Meade.

Major General Joseph K. Mansfield’s Federal XII Corps then charged along Hooker’s left, moving through the East Woods and making a stand north of Dunker Church. Mansfield was shot in the chest after riding into a group of Confederates that he thought were Federals firing on their own men; he was replaced by General Alpheus Williams and died the next day.

The attack stalled until General John Sedgwick’s division from Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s corps attacked around 9 a.m. Confederates fired on them from three sides and sent them reeling. Sedgwick was wounded and out of active duty for several months.

During the fight, Lee shifted troops from his right to reinforce Jackson on the left. Meanwhile, McClellan’s plan to attack with overwhelming numbers turned into uncoordinated attacks that failed to reach their maximum impact. The Confederates held their ground, but Federals repelled a final counterattack. Fighting subsided around 10 a.m. with over 8,000 casualties inflicted in the northern sector of the field alone, including two Federal corps commanders.

A new fight soon erupted farther south, where General William French’s division of Sumner’s corps veered away from the fighting to the north and confronted Major General D.H. Hill’s 5,000 Confederates along a sunken road. French sent his troops against the Confederates one brigade at a time, and they were all repelled within an hour, sustaining 1,750 casualties out of 5,700 men.

Lee committed his last division in reserve, 3,400 men under Major General Richard H. Anderson, to Hill’s right, around 10:30. By that time, Major General Israel Richardson’s 4,000-man division under Sumner came up on French’s left. Federal troops eventually surged through a gap in the line caused by a Confederate officer mistakenly pulling out a regiment.

The Federals then opened a murderous enfilade fire on the defenders along the road. A sergeant of the 61st New York said, “We were shooting them like sheep in a pen. If a bullet missed the mark at first it was liable to strike the further bank, angle back, and take them secondarily.” The road was later called “Bloody Lane.”

The Federals were on the verge of breaking the Confederate line when Longstreet brought up artillery. A Confederate artillery shell wounded Major General Israel B. Richardson, who lingered 47 days before dying. This stalled Federal momentum, and the fighting soon ended in this sector. Some 5,600 total casualties were sustained along the sunken road from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

McClellan held some 20,000 Federals in reserve that could have been used to split Lee’s army in two. Major General George Sykes offered to lead these men in a charge through the Confederate center, but McClellan turned him down. The Federal commander missed a golden opportunity to destroy the Confederate army. McClellan wrote his wife that afternoon, “We are in the midst of the most terrible battle of the age. So far God has given us success but with many variations during the day.”

Action shifted to the weakened Confederate right, where Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps moved to cross Antietam Creek after various delays. Burnside directed his men to cross Rohrbach’s Bridge, even though Antietam Creek was only waist deep at various spots beyond Confederate range. The Federals were held up several hours at what became known as Burnside Bridge, allowing Lee to send more reinforcements to his left and center.

Federal attack on Burnside Bridge | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meanwhile, other Federals struggled through brush to find Snavely’s Ford, about two miles downstream. They finally began wading across in early afternoon, around the time that the Confederates guarding the bridge were running low on ammunition. With Federals now on their flank, the Confederates withdrew after stalling Burnside’s main advance for over three hours.

Burnside prepared to pursue the Confederates, but he was delayed two hours by ammunition and supplies being funneled across the creek on the narrow bridge. This gave Lee time to reinforce his right. Burnside planned to turn Lee’s right and block Boteler’s Ford, Lee’s only escape back to Virginia. But by this time, A.P. Hill’s 3,000-man “Light Division” was arriving across the ford to bolster the flank. Hill’s men had marched since 7:30 a.m. and arrived just in time to save Lee’s army.

Hill slammed into the Federal left, prompting Burnside to order a withdrawal all the way back to Antietam Creek. When he called for reinforcements, McClellan responded, “I can do nothing more. I have no infantry.” But McClellan had V and VI corps under Major Generals Fitz John Porter and William B. Franklin in reserve. Fighting ended around 5 p.m. when McClellan called off the attacks.

Both sides sustained a combined total of 26,193 casualties in the most terrible single day of the war. The Federals suffered 12,469 losses (2,010 killed, 9,416 wounded, and 1,043 missing) out of about 75,000 effectives, while the Confederates lost 13,724 (2,700 killed, 9,024 wounded, and 2,000 missing) from roughly 40,000. Casualties were inflicted at the rate of about 2,200 per hour. The Federal Black Hat Brigade, recently nicknamed the “Iron Brigade,” lost 42 percent of its strength.

Medical personnel hurried to tend to the wounded; they turned nearby houses, churches, barns, and other buildings into makeshift hospitals. Local women volunteered as nurses. Doors were ripped from hinges to serve as operating tables. Surgeons worked nonstop through the night without washing their hands or instruments before going from one patient to another. A U.S. Sanitary Commission worker reported:

“Indeed there is not a barn, or farmhouse, or store, or church, or schoolhouse, between Boonesville, Sharpsburg, and Smoketown that is not gorged with wounded–Rebel and Union. Even the corn-cribs, and in many cases the cow stable, and in one place the mangers, were filled. Several thousands lie in open air upon straw, and all are receiving the kind services of farmers’ families and the surgeons.”

McClellan demonstrated his tactical ineptitude yet again by never committing more than 20,000 men to the fight at any one time. This helped Lee thwart the many Federal attacks. Antietam was one of the war’s few battles in which both commanders chose the battlefield and planned their tactics in advance. It was also the first battle that Lee directed from start to finish. Although the Confederates had not won, Lee skillfully directed reinforcements to points on the line where and when they were needed most, which prevented his army’s complete destruction.

Not only did the Confederates hold their ground against vastly superior numbers, but Lee even proposed to counterattack the next day. Lee believed an attack could succeed based on McClellan’s chronic lack of aggression. But after receiving his commanders’ reports and determining that he had no more than 30,000 men left, Lee decided that he could not renew the contest, especially with his back to the Potomac River. Even so, he defiantly held his ground and waited for McClellan to renew the battle on the 18th. McClellan characteristically declined.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 332; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 83-85; Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 69, 78, 98, 130, 150-51; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 234-35; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 213-14; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 700; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 210-12; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4839-51, 4878, 4901-13; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 15-18; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 267-68; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 456; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 385; 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. 539, 544; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 19-20, 229-30, 473, 629

Maryland: The Armies Gather at Sharpsburg

September 16, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee concentrated his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia near Sharpsburg as Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac approached.

Gen. R.E. Lee, CSA and Maj Gen G.B. McClellan, USA | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Following his defeat at South Mountain, Lee led the Confederates under Major Generals James Longstreet and D.H. Hill west to Sharpsburg, a hamlet among various hills and ridges between Antietam Creek and the Potomac River. Lee planned to concentrate the forces at hand before returning to Virginia, but he changed his mind when he received word that Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates captured Harpers Ferry. Lee read the message and said, “That is indeed good news. Let it be announced to the troops.”

Lee had just 18,000 men, but he relied on Jackson and the rest of the Confederates at Harpers Ferry to hurry and join his army at Sharpsburg, which would give him close to 45,000. Then, pointing to the hills outside Sharpsburg, Lee told his staff, “We will make our stand on those hills.”

Lee needed to make a stand in Maryland. Retreating without a fight would demoralize the Confederacy and possibly even destroy hopes of foreign recognition. Lee was confident that, like in the Seven Days Battles, McClellan would fold in the face of aggression, having never waged an offensive battle in the war thus far.

Even with all his 45,000 men, Lee still had a very small army to face McClellan’s 90,000 Federals closing in. But Lee counted on McClellan’s usual cautiousness, and he would not be disappointed. McClellan’s troops slowly began crossing Antietam Creek, east of Sharpsburg, on the afternoon of the 15th. The entire army was across by nightfall, gathering in the hills opposite the Confederates. As Lee guessed, McClellan was in no hurry to attack.

McClellan received varying accounts of the fight at South Mountain, with some reporting that Lee had been wounded and others claiming that the entire Confederate army had been pushed back into Virginia. McClellan wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “Lee last night stated publicly that he must admit they had been shockingly whipped.”

McClellan then boasted to his old adversary, former General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, “R.E. Lee in command. The rebels routed, and retreating in disorder.” Scott replied, “Bravo, my dear general! Twice more and it’s done.” President Abraham Lincoln read this message and replied to McClellan, “God bless you and all with you. Destroy the rebel army if possible.”

But to McClellan’s surprise, the Confederates were not retreating. They were holding their ground in the hills around Sharpsburg. McClellan did not order any reconnaissance to determine the enemy’s strength, otherwise he might have learned that the Confederates were hopelessly outnumbered and vulnerable to annihilation (which he should have already known since he had a copy of Lee’s Special Orders No. 191). McClellan vowed to attack the next day.

Sharpsburg, Maryland | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

McClellan wrote his wife on the morning of the 16th, boasting that he “no doubt delivered Penna & Maryland.” Writing to Halleck, McClellan could “ascertain that some of the enemy are still there,” but he would not attack until he learned how many there were. He wrote Major General William B. Franklin, commanding VI Corps, “I think the enemy has abandoned the position in front of us, but the fog is so dense that I have not yet been able to determine.”

Reports continued arriving at McClellan’s headquarters stating that Lee was returning to Virginia. He shared these with Halleck, who responded, “I think you will find that the whole force of the enemy in your front has crossed the river. I fear now more than ever that they will recross at Harper’s Ferry or below, and turn your left, thus cutting you off from Washington.”

As McClellan spent the day guessing how many enemy troops he faced, two of Jackson’s divisions and Brigadier General John G. Walker’s Confederate division arrived to reinforce Lee at Sharpsburg. The troops had marched through the night to hurry there. Lee directed Jackson to take positions on the left, while Walker took the extreme right. Longstreet and D.H. Hill would hold the center and right. A.P. Hill’s division remained at Harpers Ferry, 17 miles away, paroling Federal prisoners and collecting captured supplies. That night, Lee ordered those men to hurry and join the main force as well.

The Confederates could see the enormous Federal army gathering in the hills across the fields; Longstreet called it “an awe-inspiring sight.” Lee’s army remained vastly outnumbered, but the Federals only threatened him with a light artillery barrage. Lincoln, trying to gather all the information he could, wired Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, “What do you hear from Gen. McClellan’s army?”

About 60,000 Federals had arrived by the end of the 16th, with the rest en route. The Federal army was short of medical supplies and personnel, having left most of their equipment and ambulances on the Virginia Peninsula. Hospital tents were also a rare commodity, prompting the army’s medical director, Jonathan Letterman, to commandeer homes and barns in the vicinity and prepare them to receive wounded troops.

McClellan finally drafted a plan of attack around 2 p.m., or 24 hours after arriving in the Confederates’ front. The plan called for each of the six corps commanders to report directly to McClellan rather than operate within the three wings he had created before leaving Washington. This decentralized the command structure at a time when centralization could have been much more effective.

The attack, which McClellan had said would happen on the 16th, was postponed until the morning of the 17th. Three corps would overwhelm the Confederate left, with a fourth corps in the center joining in once the left was turned. A fifth corps would move against the right to secure the Potomac River crossing, thus cutting off Lee’s escape, and the last corps would remain in reserve.

Major General Joseph Hooker’s I Corps was to begin the attack. Hooker’s Federals advanced west and took up assault positions around 4 p.m. They briefly exchanged fire with Confederates under General John Bell Hood, which indicated to Lee that McClellan would focus on that sector of the field. Rain fell during the evening as troops on both sides readied themselves for the fight.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 326-28; Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 60-61, 63-64; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 228; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17344, 17373; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 212-13; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 682; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 209-10; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4744-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 266-67; 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. 537-39; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 485; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 19-20

The Fall of Harpers Ferry

September 15, 1862 – As part of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia fought at South Mountain, another portion led by Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson forced the largest Federal surrender of the war.

Harpers Ferry | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

About 12,500 troops guarded the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in northwestern Virginia. On the night of September 14, Jackson began bombarding the Federals with artillery positioned on the heights above them, and General A.P. Hill led one of Jackson’s divisions to Bolivar Heights. In addition, Confederates led by General Lafayette McLaws held Maryland Heights east of town, and Brigadier General John G. Walker’s Confederates held Loudoun Heights south of town.

The Confederate defeat at South Mountain earlier that day meant Jackson had to hurry if he wanted to capture the vital position. He contacted McLaws on the morning of the 15th:

“So soon as you get your batteries all planted, let me know, as I desire, after yourself, Walker, and myself have our batteries ready to open, to send in a flag of truce, for the purpose of getting out the non-combatants, should the commanding officer refuse to surrender. Should we have to attack, let the work be done thoroughly; fire on the houses when necessary. The citizens can keep out of harm’s way from your artillery. Demolish the place if it is occupied by the enemy, and does not surrender.”

Confederate artillery opened as Hill’s 3,000 men lined up on Bolivar Heights. Colonel Dixon Miles, commanding the Federal garrison, conferred with his officers and decided to surrender before the attack began, but an artillery shell nearly tore his leg off before he could notify the Confederates; he died the next day. Federals raised the white flag at 7:20 a.m., and Brigadier General Julius White surrendered the vital Federal garrison.

The Confederates captured all 12,500 men, 73 artillery pieces, 13,000 sorely needed small arms, and tons of valuable equipment and livestock in the largest Federal capitulation of the war. In addition to those surrendered, the Federals sustained 217 casualties (44 killed and 173 wounded), while the Confederates lost 286 (39 killed and 247 wounded).

Federal officials posthumously charged Miles with drunkenness and ineptitude for his feeble defense of Harpers Ferry. He had failed to secure Maryland Heights, and he had released Confederate prisoners without considering they could have told their officers all about the Federal defenses. Some of his men accused him of treason, and some even alleged that a Federal cavalryman had fired the shell that killed him.

When Jackson rode into town in his customary threadbare uniform, a Federal prisoner said, “Boys, he’s not much for looks, but if we’d had him we wouldn’t have been caught in this trap!” Jackson wrote Lee:

“Through God’s blessing, Harpers Ferry and its garrison are to be surrendered. As Hill’s troops have borne the heaviest part of the engagement, he will be left in command until the prisoners and public property shall be disposed of, unless you direct otherwise. The other forces can move off this evening so soon as they get their rations. To what place shall they move?”

When Lee learned of Jackson’s victory, he canceled plans to return to Virginia and instead ordered Jackson to hurry and join the rest of the army to make a stand at Sharpsburg, a small hamlet 17 miles away. Jackson left Hill to conduct the surrender and rushed to Sharpsburg. Meanwhile, Lee positioned his forces on a ridge overlooking Antietam Creek, with the Federal Army of the Potomac closing in on them.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 50, 56-59; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 227, 228; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17335-44; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 212; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 681; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 208-09; Krick, Robert K., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 340-41; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 245; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 266-67; 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. 538; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 477; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 493; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 19-20

The Battle of South Mountain

September 14, 1862 – A portion of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defended key mountain passes in Maryland against Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac.

Sixteen hours after receiving Lee’s lost Special Order No. 191, McClellan finally moved to attack Lee’s scattered army. Part of Lee’s forces besieged the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, while another part guarded the path to Harpers Ferry and the army’s supply train through the passes of South Mountain, a part of the Blue Ridge chain about 20 miles south of the Pennsylvania border. McClellan planned to “cut the enemy in two and beat him in detail.”

The Federals descended on three mountain passes: Turner’s Gap in the north, Fox’s Gap in the center, and Crampton’s Gap in the south. A small Confederate force led by Major General D.H. Hill guarded Turner’s and Fox’s, which were essential to preserving the army’s supplies. The Federal army’s right wing–two corps numbering some 30,000 men under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside–advanced on these two gaps.

Fighting began when Major General Jesse L. Reno’s Federal IX Corps attacked Confederates in the pastures in front of Fox’s Gap around 9 a.m. Confederates led by Brigadier General Samuel Garland counterattacked, and both Reno and Garland were killed in action. The Federals captured most of Garland’s brigade, but their assault on Fox’s Gap stalled in the face of stubborn resistance and the arrival of Confederate reinforcements.

The Battle of South Mountain | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Meanwhile, the Federal I Corps under Major General Joseph Hooker advanced on the National road in Boonsboro to seize Turner’s Gap, a mile north of Fox’s. Confederate defenders resisted into the afternoon, but superior Federal numbers eventually overwhelmed them. As the Confederates began breaking, two divisions under Major General James Longstreet reinforced them and prevented a rout. Fighting continued until the Federals secured the high ground at Turner’s around 10 p.m., and the Confederates withdrew near midnight.

At Crampton’s Gap, the southernmost defile, the Federal left wing–Major General William B. Franklin’s 12,000-man VI Corps–advanced with orders to break through the pass and “cut off, destroy or capture (General Lafayette) McLaws’ command & relieve Col (Dixon) Miles” at Harpers Ferry, just a few miles away.

A single Confederate brigade under Colonel William A. Parham guarded the gap when the Federals attacked around noon. The Confederates held against repeated attacks for several hours, but they eventually wavered and broke. Brigadier General Howell Cobb arrived with Confederate reinforcements, but they soon wavered as well and joined the panicked retreat down the mountainside into Pleasant Valley.

The arrival of McLaws and his men from Harpers Ferry finally stabilized the Confederate line. Franklin, unaware that his troops could have easily destroyed the enemy, called a halt and camped for the night, missing a prime opportunity to relieve the garrison and cripple Lee’s army.

The battle ended in Federal victory, but the Confederates had held the mountain passes for most of the day against a force five times their size. This gave Lee the time he needed to concentrate his army. The Federals sustained 2,325 casualties (443 killed, 1,807 wounded, and 75 missing) out of about 28,000 effectives. The Confederates lost 2,685 (325 killed, 1,560 wounded, and 800 missing or captured) from some 18,000.

When Lee received news of the fight at South Mountain, he decided to return to Virginia. Word of Federals taking Crampton’s Gap and threatening McLaws’s rear at Harpers Ferry confirmed Lee’s decision. Lee sent a message to McLaws that night: “The day has gone against us and this army will go by Sharpsburg and cross the (Potomac) river.”

Lee sought to concentrate his army at Sharpsburg, the first stop on his withdrawal, about six miles west of South Mountain. But news from Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson at Harpers Ferry soon compelled Lee to change his mind and make a stand.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 83-85; Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 45-48, 55; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 227; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17326-35; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 211; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 677; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 207-08; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4719-31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 266; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 385; 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. 537; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 477; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 623-24; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 19-20, 189-90, 706-07

Confederates Descend on Harpers Ferry

September 14, 1862 – Three Confederate forces converged on the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

Maj Gen “Stonewall” Jackson | Image Credit: SonoftheSouth.net

Harpers Ferry had been the site of one of the Federals’ largest arsenals, but Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had sent most of the weapons-making machinery south when he took the place in 1861. Now Jackson was coming to take the town again as he led one of the three forces approaching on the 11th.

Colonel Dixon Miles, commanding the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, was largely unaware that the Confederates were descending upon him. Scouting parties had reported seeing a Confederate force in the area, but, as Miles reported to his superiors, “I cannot learn he has any disposition to advance this way.”

That night, General Lafayette McLaws’s 8,000 Confederates arrived at Brownsville Gap, six miles northeast of Harpers Ferry in Pleasant Valley. Their target was Maryland Heights, the high ground east of the town. Brigadier General John G. Walker’s Confederate division advanced toward Loudoun Heights, the eminence south of Harpers Ferry (east of the Shenandoah River where it merged with the Potomac).

Jackson’s Confederates, slated to advance on the town from the north, took a detour around Martinsburg and were crossing the Potomac at Williamsport. Brigadier General Julius White, commanding 2,500 Federals at Martinsburg, learned from scouts that the town could not be held if Jackson decided to attack. He therefore loaded all the supplies he could onto trains and wagons and made for Harpers Ferry. Jackson dispatched General A.P. Hill’s division to probe Martinsburg.

By next morning, Miles estimated that about 10,000 Confederates were approaching him, which he felt confident to drive off since his force numbered about 12,000. He wrote, “I expect this will be the last you hear of me until this affair is over. All are cheerful and hopeful. Good-bye.” But Miles only expected McLaws’s division to threaten him; he was still unaware of Walker’s division and Jackson’s main force coming his way.

As McLaws’s Confederates approached, his men sealed off all eastern escape routes to Washington. By nightfall, McLaws’s advance units had ascended Maryland Heights. Walker was poised to take Loudoun Heights the next day, and Jackson accomplished his mission according to Special Orders No. 191, which was to “take possession of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, capture such of them as may be at Martinsburg.” Jackson sent A.P. Hill’s division ahead to gain a foothold north of Harpers Ferry before the rest of Jackson’s Confederates arrived.

By the 13th, about 23,000 Confederates had Harpers Ferry surrounded. McLaws drove the Federals off Maryland Heights and down into the town below after a six-hour fight. Meanwhile, Walker secured Loudoun Heights to the south, and Jackson’s main force soon came up to take School House Ridge north of town. White’s Federals retreating from Martinsburg arrived at Harpers Ferry to join the garrison, but there was little they could do at that point.

The arsenal sat on low ground surrounded by bluffs, making it extremely vulnerable to attack. Jackson once said he would rather “take the place 40 times than undertake to defend it once.” White outranked Miles, but he left Miles in command because of the latter’s knowledge of the positions. Miles refused to surrender, even though he had made little effort to secure the high ground outside the town. This virtually assured his defeat.

That night, Miles dispatched a small cavalry force to break through the Confederate lines and deliver a message to McClellan stating that the garrison could not hold out longer than 48 hours. Captain Charles Russell and nine men of the 9th Maryland Cavalry accomplished this mission, evading the Confederates and reaching the Federal lines by morning.

Jackson spent the next day positioning artillery to fire down into Harpers Ferry. McLaws had to dispatch some of his men to fend off the Federals at South Mountain, but the Confederate grip on the town remained tight nonetheless. Miles did nothing to try regaining Maryland Heights, even though McLaws’s force there had been severely depleted.

Still, the pressure was on the Confederates because Lee had ordered them to either capture Harpers Ferry by the 12th or return to the main army. They were two days behind schedule, with the rest of the army fighting a desperate holding action at South Mountain to the east.

A.P. Hill’s Confederates took positions on Bolivar Heights that night, in preparation for an assault the next day. Jackson’s guns opened fire on the garrison, but despite the noise, the cannon did little damage. Federal Colonel Benjamin F. “Grimes” Davis discovered an unguarded road out of town and led about 1,300 cavalrymen of the 8th New York and 12th Illinois out. Not only did they escape, but they captured 97 Confederate supply wagons.

Even with these heroics, the Confederate hold on Harpers Ferry would not slacken, and it was only a matter of time before the Federals would be compelled to surrender.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 23-24, 39, 43-45, 56-59; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17300, 17309, 17318, 17344; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 211; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 206-08; Krick, Robert K., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 340-41; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 477

Maryland: The “Lost Order”

September 12, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was divided into multiple sections as Federals entering Frederick discovered a document that threatened to destroy the Confederates.

By September 12, Major General James Longstreet’s Confederates were at Hagerstown, Major General D.H. Hill’s were at Boonsboro, Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry was at South Mountain, and three Confederate forces were converging on Harpers Ferry. Stuart reported that advance Federal units drove him from the Catoctin Mountain, about seven miles east of South Mountain, that night.

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

Troops of Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac began entering Frederick on the 13th, two days after the Confederates had left. The largely Unionist populace cheered the Federals’ arrival. Stuart informed Lee that the Federals had reached Frederick. This alarmed Lee because he had not expected McClellan to move so quickly. Lee was also troubled by having heard nothing from Harpers Ferry, which he expected to have been captured by today.

As the Federals entered Frederick, McClellan still did not know where Lee was. He wrote his wife, “From all I can gather, secesh is skedaddling & I don’t think I can catch him unless he is really moving into Penna… I begin to think that he is making off to get out of the scrape by recrossing the river at Williamsport.” McClellan told President Abraham Lincoln that he feared Lee might go back to Virginia before the Federals could give battle.

But Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, whose Federals comprised McClellan’s right wing and whose cavalry had been skirmishing with the Confederates, noted that the Confederates seemed to be moving in various directions. He wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“I can hardly understand how they can be moving on these two latter roads at the same time. If they are going into Pennsylvania they would hardly be moving upon the Harper’s Ferry road, and if they are going to recross, how could they be moving upon Gettysburg?”

As the word spread that Confederates may be invading Pennsylvania, panicked residents of Harrisburg and Philadelphia rushed to leave town. City officials shipped their state documents and archives to New York.

On the morning of the 13th, soldiers of the 27th Indiana (XII Corps) set up camp in the same meadow south of Frederick used by D.H. Hill’s men four days ago. Private Barton Mitchell found three cigars wrapped in official-looking Confederate documents laying in the grass. These papers were Hill’s copy of Lee’s Special Orders No. 191, written by Colonel Robert H. Chilton, the Confederate army adjutant general.

The documents were forwarded up the chain of command until they reached McClellan’s headquarters. One of McClellan’s staffers had served with Chilton in the old army and verified his handwriting. Not only did McClellan now have Lee’s plans, but he also knew that Lee’s army was divided and scattered over 25 miles apart. When Lincoln wired, “How does it look now?” McClellan responded:

“I have the whole rebel force in front of me, but am confident, and no time shall be lost. I have a difficult task to perform, but with God’s blessing will accomplish it. I think Lee has made a gross mistake, and that he will be severely punished for it. The army is in motion as rapidly as possible. I hope for a great success if the plans of the rebels remain unchanged. We have possession of Catoctin. I have all the plans of the rebels, and will catch them in their own trap if my men are equal to the emergency. I now feel that I can count on them as of old… My respects to Mrs. Lincoln. Received most enthusiastically by the ladies. Will send you trophies.”

McClellan showed one of his subordinates Lee’s “lost order” and said, “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home.” But McClellan did not issue general marching orders for the army until 6:20 p.m., six hours after receiving the “lost order.” And the Federals would not be moving until the next morning, another 10 crucial hours later.

Under McClellan’s plan, nearly 70,000 Federals would march down the National road and confront the Confederates at Boonsboro, while the other 19,000 moved through Crampton’s Gap in South Mountain to rescue the Harpers Ferry garrison.

The Federals began pushing west from Frederick, leaving Lee confused as to how such a supposedly demoralized enemy would be closing in on him so fast. A pro-Confederate Frederick resident informed Stuart that McClellan knew Lee’s plans. Lee hurried to consolidate his army to meet the growing Federal threat, ordering Longstreet to move eight of his nine brigades from Hagerstown to Turner’s Gap.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 325-26; Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24-28, 38, 43-45; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17309, 17318; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 211; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 673; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 206-07; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4696; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 237; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 264-65; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 432; 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. 537; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 19-20, 473