The Gleam of Bayonets

I recently reread this book by James Murfin. It covers the Maryland Campaign of 1862, centering on the Battle of Antietam. The book is dated, originally released in 1965, but it is one of what had been the few monographs that had been available on the battle.

In his Foreword, Murfin wrote, “Lee invaded Maryland in spite of McClellan; he divided his army in the face of the enemy because of McClellan; he stood at Sharpsburg in defiance of McClellan. Though Lee’s strategy has been questioned and his army was nearly ruined, in every way the Maryland Campaign was his show. He was fighting for survival. McClellan was fighting for his military career. When the battle was done, both had lost. The relationship, therefore, between these two generals is as important to the story as that between Lincoln and McClellan. It is the underlying theme of this manuscript.” [p. 11]

My former professor, James I. Robertson, Jr., wrote the Introduction to the book. In it, he said, “Tactically, Antietam was a draw. Strategically, politically, diplomatically and morally it was a Union victory of high magnitude. The Confederates were forced back to the battle-scarred fields of Virginia. Southern morale received a stiff blow. Even worse for the Confederates, the stalemate at Antietam cut short the prospects of foreign intervention at a time when it seemed most likely to materialize in behalf of the South. Lastly, and in many respects most importantly, Lincoln used the springboard of the Antietam ‘victory’ to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, a document which crystallized liberal opinion around the world in support of the Northern cause.” [p. 24]

Murfin takes us back to when George B. McClellan took command of the Army of the Potomac and takes us through his planning for an offensive against the rebels, through the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days. On April 1, Murfin wrote, “The general made no attempt to assure Lincoln that he was following his orders to leave Washington secure. It was not until after he had departed that a message arrived at the War Department indicating the arrangements he had made. McClellan stated that he had left 73,456 men to guard the capital. In this total he had included those troops at Manassas and surrounding areas, some 35,000 which were in the Shenandoah Valley, and those actually scattered along the Potomac and in Washington. He had counted men twice, counted non-existing regiments which he proposed calling up, and counted forces already moved to other areas. After his letter had been deciphered and appraisals made by the War Department, it appeared that only 19,000 men were in a position to actually defend the city. Had McClellan deliberately disobeyed Lincoln’s orders? It looked as though he had. Thoughts of treason again entered Lincoln’s mind. At the time this dangerous situation was realized, two corps were still in Alexandria awaiting departure for the Peninsula. Lincoln ordered one, the First Corps under McDowell, to remain, giving the city an additional 30,000 men. McClellan protested, stating that he was beginning to meet the enemy head on and that he needed all the troops he could get. He was outnumbered again.” [p. 45]

By July the Seven Days campaign was over and McClellan and the Army of the Potomac were ensconced at Harrison’s Landing on the James River. President Lincoln tapped Major General Henry W. Halleck to be the Union General-in-Chief, and Halleck visited McClellan at Harrison’s Landing. “McClellan still insisted on reinforcements. If he had 30,000 more men, he told Halleck, he could resume his offensive against Richmond. Halleck, skeptical of McClellan’s abilities at this point, agreed to send 20,000. But n o sooner had Halleck returned to Washington than McClellan stated that Lee still had 200,000 troops and that he must have at least 40,000 reinforcements before he could advance. This was the same old story Lincoln had heard a dozen times over. He saw no excuse to hear it again. His mind was made up. The Army of the Potomac would be withdrawn from the Peninsula and brought back to Washington.” [pp. 56-57] Lincoln had also brought Major General John Pope east to command a new army, the Army of Virginia, for a second campaign against Lee and Richmond. Lee moved against Pope and McClellan was ordered to send troops to Pope’s aid. “Throughout the next three days, McClellan delivered to his superiors one of the most flagrant examples of insubordination that the Civil War produced. He deliberately refused direct orders from his general-in-chief, orders that were written with good cause, validity, and sincerity. He attempted on almost every occasion to counteract the orders with open defiance, manufactured and unjustified excuses, and suggestions to help Pope’s Army of Virginia. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, commented in his diary; ‘Personal jealousies and professional rivalries, the bane and curse of all armies, have entered deeply into ours.’ ” [p. 59]

Murfin next analyzes Lee’s reasons for moving north and initiating the Maryland Campaign. “Aside from the need of subsistence, always a basic and compelling reason, Lee had six motives for invasion. First, ‘The purpose, if discovered, will have the effect of carrying the (war) north of the Potomac.’ Lee knew he would be discovered and he was well aware of the psychological effect an invasion would have on Washington and the North. … Secondly, ‘If it is ever desired to give material aid to Maryland and affording her an opportunity of throwing off the oppression to which she is now subject, this would seem the most favorable.’ … On December 21, 1861, the Confederate Congress had passed a resolution ‘that no peace ought to be concluded with the United States, which does not insure to Maryland the opportunity of forming a part of the Confederacy.’ … Thirdly, ‘We can not afford to be idle, and though weaker than our opponents in men and military equipment, (we) must endeavor to harass, if we can not destroy them.’ … Fourthly, ‘Should the results of the expedition justify it, I propose to enter Pennsylvania … ‘ As the Mississippi River was to the Confederacy, so the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad were to the Union. They were not only main lines of supply to the west but vital lines of communication. The B&O, although running on the border, as it were, was solidly controlled by strong Union support. Its vast potential of 4,000 locomotives and cars, and its capabilities of supplying 10,000 troops daily, made it a prime target. Once Lee had crossed the Potomac, B&O traffic could be interrupted. Then, if he was in a strong defensive position, his next target would be the Pennsylvania Railroad. He intended to reach Harrisburg where he would destroy the Susquehanna River bridge. once this was accomplished, and only then, would he consider any moves on Baltimore and Washington. Lee’s next reason for invasion was of primary importance to the cause for Southern independence. Both England and France were favorably impressed with the Confederacy’s progress in the war. Although they had not recognized it as an independent nation, they had given it belligerent rights, ceasing to regard Confederate ships as mere pirates on the open seas. Cotton was extremely important to both nations, a point of diplomatic negotiations the Confederate State Department had not failed to exploit. Also, the ineffectiveness of Lincoln’s naval blockade of the South was proving an important advantage for negotiations. The time was ripe for recognition. … The sixth reason, as indicated by Lee’s dispatch to Jefferson Davis on September 8, was his hope to influence the forthcoming Northern Congressional elections. In the election of 1860, the Republican Party had come to power on two main factors–the split in the Democratic Party, which had been transpiring during the Buchanan administration, and the platform on the slavery-freedom issue. To some then, the answer to the South’s problems did not lie in secession, but in the acquisition of Northern allies in Congress and in the courts. Lee figured that the needed influence could be bought, not with money and political skullduggery, but by a military victory on Northern soil. … There was a seventh reason for invasion; not Lee’s but one which Jefferson Davis harboured as extremely important to the cause. Davis was both a military man and a public servant. A West Point graduate, he had served in the war with Mexico, in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and as Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce. His career had been long and distinguished and now he was in the midst of the herculean task of organizing and maintaining the loosely knit Confederate states. He was, and has been for a century, the subject of severe criticism for his policies, both political and military. Only recently, in the light of more objective studies, has the real Davis come to light. It is a tribute to modern research that his ‘national strategy’ for the South is now understood. … But with conditions as they were in early September, he revised his strategy and with good reason. In addition to Lee being in Maryland, Generals Braxton Bragg and E. K. Smith were on a concerted drive into the seesaw state of Kentucky. In a political two-pronged maneuver, Davis proposed to carry the Stars and Bars to enemy territory, not as a conquering army, but as bearers of peace. … The President directed that the people of the Union should be informed, by proclamation, of the Confederate war aims; that their design was not conquest, but self-defense, and that ‘the responsibility thus rests on the people of (the individual state being entered) of continuing an unjust and aggressive warfare upon the Confederate States.’ … Davis’ letter was dated after Lee crossed the Potomac, and carried blank spaces for specific state names to be filled in when the appropriate time was reached. It was a noble effort and a fascinating document designed as a strategic political and diplomatic move to follow a show of Confederate strength. Records do not reveal that any of the states involved ever heard Davis’ words. There was an eighth reason for Lee’s invasion. Although it can not be considered tantamount to the others, it can be assumed with certainty that public opinion played an important role in the decision.” [pp. 62-67]

The book takes us through the Harpers Ferry maneuvers, Special Orders 191, the “Lost Orders,” the battle of South Mountain, and the battle of Antietam. It’s a pretty good discussion of what happened, but it’s marred by a lack of footnotes, which to me is a serious shortcoming. It is also in serious need of maps. While the narrative is, generally speaking, fairly accurate, I can’t in good conscience recommend it when there are other books around that have good maps and footnotes for us.

One comment

  1. Lost in all the shuffle of ‘win, lose or draw’ is the fact that on July 4, the front was 10 miles south of Richmond, and 2 months later this battle was fought 40 miles west of Washington.

    In the meantime the new Union Army of Virginia was created and destroyed, Maryland invaded, Harpers Ferry captured and the massively numerically superior AotP battled to a stand-off (okay, more talk of a ‘draw’).

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