Tag Archives: George B. McClellan

McClellan Finally Moves

October 26, 1862 – Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac crossed from Maryland to Virginia, nearly 40 days after the Battle of Antietam.

Maj Gen George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

Besides ordering some minor scouting expeditions, McClellan effectively ignored President Abraham Lincoln’s order to move against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Instead, McClellan requested reinforcements despite having 133,433 men “present for duty” as of October 20. On that same day, Lee reported having just 68,033 effectives.

After McClellan charged Lincoln with doing an “injustice” to the army by stating that the Confederate cavalry was superior, Lincoln wired the general:

“Most certainly I intend no injustice to any, and if I have done any I deeply regret it. To be told, after more than five weeks’ total inaction of the army… that the cavalry horses were too much fatigued to move, presents a cheerless, almost hopeless, prospect for the future, and it may have forced something of impatience in my dispatch.”

That same day, McClellan’s army finally began crossing the Potomac River into Virginia. They crossed on a pontoon bridge at Berlin (now Brunswick), Maryland, five miles downstream from Harpers Ferry. The Federals then moved along the “inside track” toward Richmond that Lincoln had urged McClellan to take weeks earlier.

McClellan ignored the president’s message of regret, instead complaining that the army regiments were “skeletons” that needed filling “before taking them again into action.” McClellan asked “that the order to fill up the old regiments with drafted men may at once be issued.”

Lincoln quickly asked, “Is it your purpose not to go into action again until the men now being drafted in the States are incorporated into the old regiments?” McClellan replied that the statement “before taking them again into action” had been added by a staffer thinking that was what McClellan meant. He explained, “This phrase was not authorized or intended by me. It has conveyed altogether an erroneous impression as to my plans and intentions.”

McClellan assured Lincoln that he did not have “any idea of postponing the advance until the old regiments are filled by drafted men… The crossing will be continued as rapidly as the means at hand will permit. Nothing but the physical difficulties of the operation shall delay it.” Lincoln replied, “I am much pleased with the movement of the Army. When you get entirely across the river let me know. What do you know of the enemy?”

By the 28th, Lee had begun shifting his Confederates in anticipation that McClellan would drive toward Richmond via Culpeper Court House and Manassas Junction. Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps would guard the Blue Ridge passes while Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps moved toward Culpeper, and Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry harassed the Federal right flank.

McClellan left troops behind to guard various towns on the Potomac, but he told General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that these would not be “as sufficient to prevent cavalry raids into Maryland and Pennsylvania.” Halleck promised to send reinforcements from Washington as McClellan moved farther south, but “no new regiments can be sent from here to the Upper Potomac. The guarding of that line is left to your own discretion with the troops now under your command.”

McClellan next wrote Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin stating that he did not consider the force along the Potomac “sufficient to prevent raids and have so represented to General Halleck, who informed me that he has no more troops to send.” He urged Curtin to hurry his state’s militia draft and send the new troops “with the least possible delay to Chambersburg, Hagerstown, Sharpsburg, Williamsport, and Hancock to prevent the possibility of raids.”

McClellan claimed that if he had gotten the reinforcements he requested, “I could have left men enough to have made your frontier reasonably safe. As it is I cannot do it with due regard to the success of the main Army, and beg to warn you in time.”

Turning to the militia draft, McClellan complained to Lincoln about the process of creating new regiments rather than filling shorthanded old regiments with new recruits. McClellan argued that “no greater mistake has been made than the total failure to reinforce the old regiments.” McClellan wrote his wife:

“I have just been put in excellent humor by seeing that instead of sending the drafted men to fill the old rgts (as had been promised me) they are forming them into new rgts. Also that in the face of the great want of cavalry… they are sending the new cavalry rgts from Penna to Louisville instead of hither!! Blind & foolish they will continue to the end.”

As McClellan grumbled, Lincoln made note that his path to Richmond was shorter than Lee’s, who was reorganizing his men west of the Blue Ridge. Lincoln privately resolved that if Lee shifted his forces eastward to block the Federals without McClellan putting up a fight, Lincoln would remove the commander.

Lee left Jackson’s corps in the Valley on the 30th and rode east with Longstreet. The Confederates swiftly marched 60 miles southeast through the Blue Ridge passes and reached Culpeper Court House before McClellan could establish his position at Warrenton, 20 miles to the northeast. As Lincoln feared, Lee blocked McClellan without a fight.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 164-68; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 227; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 752-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 225-26; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 281-82; 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. 569

The Army of the Potomac Remains Stationary

October 13, 1862 – The Federal high command continued prodding Major General George B. McClellan to move his Army of the Potomac into Virginia, but McClellan continued resisting.

A week after receiving orders to confront the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, McClellan still had not moved. During that time, General Robert E. Lee had time to reorganize and resupply his force, and his cavalry under Major General Jeb Stuart had made another daring ride around McClellan’s army almost unopposed. With his patience nearly exhausted, President Abraham Lincoln wrote McClellan a long letter of advice.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Explaining strategy and tactics that a general should already know, Lincoln noted that the Confederate army, currently at Winchester, would have to move southeast through the Blue Ridge to defend the Confederate capital at Richmond, while McClellan’s men could move east along the Blue Ridge and get to the city quicker. Lee’s route “is the arc of a circle,” Lincoln explained, “while yours is the chord.”

Lincoln had previously suggested attacking Lee at Winchester, but McClellan rejected that idea because he would need to open a railroad line between Winchester and Harpers Ferry to supply his army. Lincoln challenged this claim by reminding McClellan that the Confederates consistently marched and fought with little or no supplies.

The president wrote that opening a rail line “wastes all the remainder of autumn to give it to you; and, in fact ignores the question of time, which can not and must not be ignored… We should not so operate as to merely drive him away. If we can not beat the enemy where he is now, we never can… If we never try, we shall never succeed.” Lincoln added:

“You remember my speaking to you of what I called your over-cautiousness. Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you cannot do what the enemy is constantly doing? Should you not claim to be at least his equal in prowess, and act upon the claim?… I would press closely to him, fight him if a favorable opportunity should present, and at least try to beat him to Richmond on the inside track, unless you admit that he is more than your equal on a march. It is all easy if our troops march as well as the enemy, and it is unmanly to say they cannot do it. This letter is in no sense an order.”

Before sending this letter, Lincoln sought advice from Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. Hamlin praised McClellan for organizing the Army of the Potomac into such a finely tuned force, but he condemned McClellan’s lack of aggression. Hamlin compared McClellan to Major General Ulysses S. Grant in Tennessee, who operated with much more limited resources yet always seemed ready and willing to fight. Hamlin claimed that McClellan was “the first man to build a bridge, but the last man to cross it.”

When McClellan received Lincoln’s letter on the 16th, he replied that he did not have the time to give “the full and respectful consideration which it merits at my hands.” He acknowledged to one of his subordinates that this was probably Lincoln’s last warning for him to move. McClellan said, “Lincoln is down on me. I expect to be relieved from the Army of the Potomac, and to have a command in the West.”

Despite Lincoln’s prodding, McClellan remained motionless except for some reconnoitering around Harpers Ferry. Meanwhile, criticism of McClellan’s inactivity intensified, especially among the Radical Republicans. An editorial in the pro-Radical Chicago Tribune stated, “What devil is it that prevents the Potomac Army from advancing? What malign influence palsies our army and wastes these glorious days for fighting? If it is McClellan, does not the President see that he is a traitor?”

General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck gave up trying to prod McClellan into action and wrote, “I am sick, tired, and disgusted… There is an immobility here that exceeds all that any man can conceive of. It requires the lever of Archimedes to move this inert mass.”

Lincoln drafted a memorandum estimating the strength of the Army of the Potomac at 231,997 officers and men, of which 144,662 were present for duty. McClellan reported that the army contained 133,433 men “present for duty” and an “aggregate present” of 159,860. Even so, he again asked for reinforcements and new equipment for his men and horses.

Halleck telegraphed McClellan on the 21st, “Telegraph when you move, and on what lines you propose to march.” McClellan declared that he was ready to move the next day, but he needed more cavalry horses. He cited a report from the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry stating that most of the regiment’s horses suffered from “sore-tongue, grease, and consequent lameness, and sore backs… The horses, which are still sound, are absolutely broken down from fatigue.”

Lincoln sent an especially impatient response on the 25th: “I have just read your despatch about sore tongued and fatiegued (sic) horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”

McClellan responded that the fatigue had been caused by reconnoitering and raiding, as well as chasing Stuart’s Confederates. Lincoln countered, “Stuart’s cavalry outmarched ours, having certainly done more marked service on the Peninsula and everywhere else.”

McClellan angrily asked if making such a statement did “injustice to the excellent officers and men” of his army. He then wrote his wife: “I was mad as a ‘march hare.’ It was one of those dirty little flings that I can’t get used to when they are not merited.” McClellan continued:

“The good of the country requires me to submit to all this from men whom I know to be my inferior!… There never was a truer epithet applied to a certain individual than that of the ‘Gorilla.’ I have insisted that (Secretary of War Edwin) Stanton shall be removed, & that Halleck shall give way to me as Comdr. in Chief. The only safety for the country & for me is to get rid of the lot of them.”

Before finally mobilizing his massive army, McClellan countered Halleck’s message asking which route he would take by asking Halleck which route he should take. McClellan then expressed concern “that a great portion of (General Braxton) Bragg’s Army (withdrawing from Kentucky) is probably now at liberty to unite itself with Lee’s command.”

Halleck responded to the first query, “The Government has entrusted you with defeating and driving back the rebel army in your front.” Regarding the second, Halleck stated that McClellan should not “have any immediate fear of Bragg’s army. You are within 20 miles of Lee’s, while Bragg is distant about 400 miles.” The Federal high command then continued waiting for McClellan to move.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 164; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 751-52; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 222-23; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 278, 280-81; 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. 568-69; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 178

Stuart’s Second Ride Around McClellan

October 10, 1862 – Major General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s Confederate cavalry reached Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in a daring raid on Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac.

Confederate General Jeb Stuart | Image Credit: Flickr.com

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, instructed Stuart to take 1,800 horsemen and ride around McClellan’s relatively stagnant army. Stuart was “to gain all information of the position, force, and probable intention of the enemy which you can,” much like Stuart’s ride around the Federals four months ago. He was to observe strict secrecy and “arrest all citizens that may give information to the enemy.”

Stuart also had orders to seize any prominent Pennsylvanians so “that they may be used as hostages, or the means of exchanges for our own citizens that have been carried off by the enemy.” Lee ordered Stuart to treat these people “with all the respect and consideration that circumstances will admit.”

Finally, Lee directed Stuart to wreck the Cumberland Valley Railroad bridge over the Conococheague River near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. This connected to the Pennsylvania Railroad and the coal fields and iron factories of Pittsburgh, thus serving as a vital artery to the Federal supply line.

Stuart assembled his troopers at Darkesville, south of Martinsburg, on the 9th. They rode toward Williamsport that afternoon and early evening, stopping to camp for the night at Hedgesville. The next morning, the Confederates crossed the Potomac at McCoy’s Ford above Martinsburg. They captured several Federal pickets, but some escaped to warn of the Confederates’ approach. When General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck learned the news, he notified McClellan that “not a man should be permitted to return to Virginia.”

The Confederates moved through Maryland’s narrow panhandle along the National road. They captured a signal station, preventing the Federals from signaling their location. As the Federals began mobilizing to find them, Stuart’s men turned north and entered Pennsylvania. The horsemen had observed strict prohibitions on looting in Maryland, a state they hoped might still join the Confederacy. Pennsylvania received no such protection. Some of the Confederates plundered farms and houses.

After a 40-mile ride, the Confederates descended on Chambersburg by nightfall. Stuart demanded the town’s surrender, but all Federal officials had already fled except for newspaper editor Alexander McClure and Judge Francis M. Kimmell. McClure surrendered to General Wade Hampton, whom Stuart appointed as the town’s “military governor.”

The Confederates bivouacked that night in the streets of Chambersburg, and Stuart reported that all civic officials had abandoned the town. McClure showed the Confederates such kind hospitality that they did not follow orders to take him hostage in exchange for captured Confederate citizens.

Stuart led his men out of Chambersburg at dawn on the 11th, worried that last night’s hard rain might have flooded the Potomac crossings. Before leaving, the troopers burned the supply depot, railroad machine shops, trains, and any military equipment they could not take. They also cut the telegraph wires and stole local horses. However, they could not burn the iron Conocoheague Bridge, and a bank employee had escaped from Chambersburg with all the money from the town’s bank vault.

The Confederates moved east, expecting McClellan to send Federals to cut off their upper Potomac escape route. They rode beyond the Blue Ridge into Cashtown, Pennsylvania, where they stopped to feed their horses and raid the Cashtown Inn. Stuart then moved south, avoiding Gettysburg and passing through Emmitsburg, Maryland, in late afternoon. The rains actually helped the Confederates because the horses created no dust clouds that could alert nearby Federals of their presence.

At Emmitsburg, Stuart prohibited any residents from leaving town, fearing that someone might run off to give the Federals his location. Most civilians expressed support for the Confederacy. As the troopers rode out of Emmitsburg, a captured Federal informed Stuart that the Federals awaited him at Frederick, 20 miles away. The troopers bypassed that town and forded the Monocacy River that night.

Federal cavalry began an effort to stop Stuart based on information that McClure provided McClellan. However, McClellan claimed he could spare just 800 horsemen to contend with the Confederates. He dispatched a few cavalry units to pursue the enemy and guard the river fords; he also directed two infantry brigades to protect the bridge spanning the Monocacy River. Another division was sent to guard Poolesville.

On the 12th, Stuart and his men passed through Hayattstown and slipped between two Federal cavalry units near Poolesville. After executing several deceptive maneuvers to throw the Federals off their track, the Confederates crossed the Potomac at White’s Ferry, which was guarded by a single Federal regiment that fell back upon seeing the large force approaching.

The Federals hurried up to the riverbank just after the Confederates crossed. According to William W. Blackford, who rode with Stuart:

“We were not half across when the bank we had left was swarming with the enemy who opened a galling fire upon us, the bullets splashing the water around us like a shower of rain. But the guns from the Virginia side immediately opened on them and mitigated their fire considerably, and we soon crossed and stood once more on Virginia soil.”

The Confederate troopers returned to their base south of Martinsburg the next day. Stuart had failed in his mission to destroy the Conococheague River bridge, but every other aspect of this operation was a resounding Confederate success.

Stuart’s cavalry circumvented McClellan’s army for the second time in four months, covering 126 miles in three days. They had caused an estimated $250,000 in property damage while seizing 1,200 horses, 30 civilian officials who could be exchanged for Confederate prisoners, and valuable intelligence on McClellan’s troop positions. Stuart lost just a few men wounded and two men missing.

The raid embarrassed and infuriated President Abraham Lincoln, especially considering it occurred just before the Federal midterm elections. Lincoln’s secretary, John Nicolay, stated the president “well-nigh lost his temper over it.” General Lee reported to Richmond on the 14th:

“The cavalry expedition to Pennsylvania has returned safe… It had crossed the Potomac at Williamsport and re-crossed at White’s Ford, making the entire circuit, cutting communications, destroying arms, and obtaining many recruits.”

The southern press celebrated Stuart’s feat as another sensational and daring ride around the mighty Federals, and even the influential New York Tribune conceded, “The cavalry raid around our entire army… is the one theme of conversation. It was audacious and brilliant.”

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 164, 166-67; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 125; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 224; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8214-25; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 749-50; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 221-22; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 277-78; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 528; 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), Q462

Lincoln Visits the Stationary Army of the Potomac

October 1, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln left Washington to visit Major General George B. McClellan and inspect the Federal Army of the Potomac after the Battle of Antietam.

Since the Federal victory at Antietam in September, Lincoln had implored McClellan to move his army and finish off General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. But McClellan had not only remained stationary while the enemy escaped back into Virginia, he resumed his pattern of demanding massive reinforcements as well. Moreover, Lincoln had heard rumors of anti-administration fervor among McClellan and his command, particularly regarding their opposition to the recently released Emancipation Proclamation.

To help push McClellan into action and investigate the rumors, Lincoln and some advisors left Washington on October 1 to visit the general’s headquarters in western Maryland. McClellan, who had not been informed of the visit beforehand, learned while Lincoln was en route and arranged to meet him at Harpers Ferry, which the Federals had regained after the Confederate withdrawal.

Lincoln explained that the official purpose of his visit was to see the battlefield and visit the troops. A witness observed that Lincoln looked “careworn and troubled” upon his late arrival. He and McClellan rode together while inspecting the troops camped at Bolivar Heights overlooking Harpers Ferry. After McClellan returned to headquarters, Lincoln visited the town, including the arsenal that John Brown and his followers had seized in 1859 in hopes of sparking a mass slave uprising.

Lincoln occupied a tent beside McClellan’s for the next two days. He became a conspicuous sightseer in his black suit and stovepipe hat as he reviewed troops stationed at Loudoun and Maryland Heights with Major General Edwin V. Sumner. Lincoln visited army camps and hospitals, and he toured the Antietam battlefield in an ambulance “with his long legs doubled up so that his knees almost struck his chin,” noted a Federal officer. McClellan tried describing the battle, but Lincoln curtly ended the tour and returned to camp.

Meeting of Lincoln and McClellan | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Lincoln calculated army strength at 88,095 troops, more than enough to confront Lee. This prompted McClellan to write his wife, “I incline to think the real purpose of his visit is to push me into a premature advance into Virginia.” He complained that the army was “not fit to advance–the old regiments are reduced to mere skeletons and are completely tired out–they need rest and filling up.” McClellan concluded, “These people don’t know what an army requires, and therefore act stupidly.”

McClellan later claimed that Lincoln told him privately, “General, you have saved the country. You must remain in command and carry us through to the end.” McClellan also alleged that Lincoln told him not to move the army until he was completely ready and confident of success, and he would defend McClellan against his critics. This was not corroborated, though Lincoln did discuss what he believed to be McClellan’s “over-cautiousness” in refusing to move.

Before dawn on the 3rd, Lincoln brought friend Ozias M. Hatch out for a walk. They climbed a hillside overlooking the white tents of the Federal army below, where Lincoln asked, “Hatch, Hatch, what is all this?” Hatch replied, “Why, Mr. Lincoln, this is the Army of the Potomac.” Lincoln said, “No, Hatch, no. This is General McClellan’s bodyguard.” Only the troops’ strong devotion to McClellan prevented the president from replacing their beloved commander.

Lincoln reviewed the troops later that day, where some noted that he did not cordially greet them as he had done in past reviews. One officer stated that Lincoln offered “not a word of approval, not even a smile of approbation.” After the review, Lincoln rode with friend Ward Hill Lamon, who tried cheering him by singing songs and telling funny stories. Opponents later accused Lincoln of insulting fallen soldiers by laughing on the battlefield.

Lincoln continued touring hospitals and camps on the 4th and then left for Washington that afternoon. McClellan addressed the issue of possible dissension within the army by ordering subordinates to remain obedient to civil authority, even if they disagreed with administration policies. McClellan stated, “The remedy for political errors, if any are committed, is to be found only in the action of the people at the polls.”

Back at Washington, Lincoln discussed his visit with his cabinet on the 6th, and then issued an order to McClellan through General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“The President directs that you cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south. Your army must move now while the roads are good. If you cross the river between the enemy and Washington, and cover the latter by your operation, you can be re-enforced with 30,000 men. If you move up the Valley of the Shenandoah, not more than 12,000 or 15,000 can be sent to you.

“The President advises the interior line between Washington and the enemy, but does not order it. He is very desirous that your army move as soon as possible. You will immediately report what line you adopt and when you intend to cross the river; also to what point the re-enforcements are to be sent. It is necessary that the plan of your operations be positively determined on before orders are given for building bridges and repairing railroads.”

This message amazed McClellan, who thought he had persuaded Lincoln that the army needed more time to regroup before moving. McClellan answered that he was “pushing everything as rapidly as possible in order to get ready for the advance,” but then he asserted that he lacked the necessary supplies and made no major movements.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 86; Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 161; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 220-21, 223; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8180-203; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 216-19; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 484-85; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 748-49; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 273-76; 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. 559; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 489-90

The Army of the Potomac Stays in Maryland

September 27, 1862 – Major General George B. McClellan sought more approval from Washington, while President Abraham Lincoln addressed reports of disloyalty within the army.

Maj Gen George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

McClellan grew sullen and resentful when he did not receive the credit he felt he deserved for driving General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia out of Maryland. He dispatched his intelligence chief, detective Allan Pinkerton, to Washington to meet with Lincoln and determine if Lincoln intended to retain him as army commander.

During the meeting, Lincoln asked several questions, including:

  • Why did McClellan not rescue the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry?
  • Why did McClellan not resume his attacks after the first day at Antietam?
  • Why did the Confederate army escape back into Virginia?

Based on Pinkerton’s answers, Lincoln concluded that McClellan had squandered an enormous opportunity to destroy Lee’s army and end the war. Nevertheless, Pinkerton returned to McClellan and told him that Lincoln “impresses me more at this interview with his honesty towards you and his desire to do you justice than he has ever done before.”

Meanwhile, McClellan settled his men into camps near Sharpsburg rather than push them into Virginia to chase down Lee. In fact, McClellan was glad Lee had escaped, as he explained to his wife, “I will be able to arrange my troops more with a view to comfort.” McClellan finally submitted his official report on the Battle of Antietam (telling his wife, “I would really prefer fighting three battles to writing the report of one”) and received General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck’s response:

“The valor and endurance of your army in the several conflicts … are creditable alike to the troops and to the officers who commanded them. A grateful country while mourning the lamented dead will not be unmindful of the honors due the living.”

Despite this praise, McClellan wrote his wife the next day, “I do think that man Halleck is the most stupid idiot I ever heard of.”

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain

At Washington, the recent Emancipation Proclamation and suspension of habeas corpus had put the Lincoln administration on high alert for dissension and disloyalty, especially in the military. Lincoln received a report stating that Major John J. Key, a member of Halleck’s staff and brother of McClellan’s judge advocate, had made disloyal statements.

Key had conversed with Major Levi Turner, during which Turner wondered why McClellan had not “bagged” the Confederate army. Key replied sarcastically, “That is not the game. The object is that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery.”

Lincoln summoned both men to the White House, writing, “I shall be very happy if you will, within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this, prove to me, by Major Turner, that you did not, either literally or in substance, make the answer stated.”

Key and Turner met with Lincoln the next day, where Key admitted he made the statement. Lincoln declared that it was “wholly inadmissible for any gentleman holding a military commission from the United States to utter such sentiments.” If there was indeed a “game” to keep from destroying the Confederacy, Lincoln said that “it was his object to break up that game.”

Lincoln issued an order: “Therefore, let Major John J. Key be forthwith dismissed from the military service of the United States.” Key’s dismissal would serve as “an example and a warning” to stop officers from making such “silly, treasonable expressions.”

After getting rid of Key, Lincoln turned once more to the Army of the Potomac. McClellan reported having nearly 100,000 men under his command, including the troops defending Washington. Lincoln wondered why McClellan had not returned to Virginia after the Battle of Antietam and finished the Confederates off. By month’s end, Lincoln scheduled a trip to McClellan’s headquarters to see for himself.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8146-57, 8169-80; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 216; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 271-72; 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. 559

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

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 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

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