Antietam: Essays on the 1862 Maryland Campaign

This is a book of essays edited by Professor Gary Gallagher. Out of the five essays in the book, Professor Gallagher contributes two essays, Dennis Frye, former Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry, contributes one essay, Robert K. Krick, former chief historian at the Fredericksburg Spotsylvania National Battlefield Park, contributes one essay, and A. Wilson Greene, former director of the Pamplin Historical Park, contributes one essay.

In “The Autumn of 1862: A Season of Opportunity,” Professor Gallagher writes, “A combination of diplomatic, political, and military factors formed an equation of potential opportunity for the Confederacy in the fall of 1862. The governments of England and France watched events with special interest. … A firm believer that the South must demonstrate its independence before Britain intervened as an arbitrator, Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston overlooked Federal activities west of the Appalachians and interpreted the Seven Days as a turning point. He wrote the queen on August 6 that England should propose an armistice in October, when the results of the fall campaigning in Virginia presumably would be known (and presumably would favor the South). Lee’s victory at Second Manassas on August 29-30 added to the expectation of probable Northern failure. … Lord John Russell, who as head of the Foreign Office had resisted British interference in the American upheaval, concluded that Lee’s movement north presaged an end to the war. … Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone favored outright recognition of the Confederacy; in these three men, the South had powerful supporters who might sway a cabinet that contained several members devoted to strict neutrality. The English people were divided on the question.” [p. 3] England, of course, was not the only European power contemplating intervention. “Emperor Louis Napoleon of France waited for England to make the first move. Confederate independence would abet his scheme to create a vassal state in Mexico and bring more cotton to French ports, but after the Russians declined a French suggestion for Anglo-French-Russian mediation in late July 1862 the emperor decided that British action was vital.” [p. 3] Politics in the loyal states also gave the confederates an opportunity. “Apart from their long-standing differences with the Republicans over economic issues, Democrats argued that draconian measures such as Lincoln’s selective suspension of the writ of habeas corpus mocked individual rights. They resented the Militia Act of July 17, 1862, which gave the president broad powers to coerce service in federal militia units. They blanched when Lincoln, facing a severe shortage of men, issued a call for three hundred thousand nine-month militiamen in the first week of August, and the War Department sent instructions on enrollment and draft procedures to the states. Perhaps most galling to the Democrats was increasing pressure from many Republicans to add emancipation as a Northern objective. … The extent of antiwar sentiment north of the Potomac was well known but imperfectly understood in the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis and R. E. Lee read newspaper accounts of a developing peace party. Lee thought the presence of his army north of the Potomac for several weeks in the fall of 1862 would galvanize Northern opposition to the war.” [pp. 4-5] As Professor Gallagher stated, their understanding was imperfect. “Lee and Davis were correct in assuming that a Southern victory or a protracted stay north of the Potomac would hurt the Republicans in November. They went too far, however, in thinking that even a resounding Democratic victory would bring Northern recognition of Confederate independence. They confused Democratic unhappiness with the direction of the war with sentiment receptive to disunion. Only extreme Democrats countenanced the notion of a sovereign Confederacy; most were devoted to a conservative prosecution of the conflict embodied in the slogan ‘The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was.’ ” [pp. 5-7] He also discusses the opportunity the confederates believed they had with the State of Maryland. “Success on the battlefield in Maryland probably would have earned few recruits for Lee’s army. More important, Democratic political gains triggered by such a victory almost certainly would not have led to mediation of the question of Southern independence. Confederate opportunity to affect Northern politics through military success thus was limited to influencing how rather than if the North would continue to wage the war for the Union.” [p. 7] The real opportunity, though, according to Professor Gallagher, belonged with the Union. “Confronted with a range of potential rewards, the audacious Lee had calculated the risks and chosen to go north. He relied on a period of Federal confusion and inaction after Second Manassas to permit his establishment of a good position in Maryland before having to confront any menace from the Army of the Potomac. But Lee underestimated George B. McClellan’s brilliance in rallying Pope’s dispirited troops. Within days McClellan restored morale and built confidence among the ranks of his combined force, and Lincoln discerned that a beautiful opening lay before the Federals. Lee’s army was vulnerable once it had crossed into Maryland, its safe passage to Virginia dependent on the Potomac’s fords. The farther north Lee went, though Lincoln, the more tenuous his position. Unaffected by the hysteria that gripped much of the North following news of the Confederate raid, Lincoln concentrated on offensive operations. Receiving reports on September 12 that the enemy was crossing back into Virginia, he urged McClellan, ‘Please do not let him get off without being hurt.’ Three days later the president implored his general to ‘destroy the rebel army, if possible.’ ” [p. 12]

In “Drama Between the Rivers: Harpers Ferry in the 1862 Maryland Campaign,” Dennis Frye writes of Lee’s plan for capturing Harpers Ferry, “The Confederates converging on Harpers Ferry would have just three days to seize high ground to the east, south, and west of the town (coordinating their movements with signal flags), trap the enemy, bombard the defenses, force a surrender, remove captured booty, and march quickly northward to reunite with the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia at a predetermined point.” [p. 14] This was laid out in Special Orders No. 191. “Lee thus expected his special orders to yield rapid and favorable results. But was his army, hungry and ragged and worn from two months of solid campaigning, equal to the task? Had Lee adequately considered the condition of his men in formulating Special Orders No. 191? Probably not, for the tired and foot-blistered columns heading for Harpers Ferry quickly fell behind schedule; as a result, Lee almost gambled his army into extinction.” [p. 15] In command of the Union garrison at Harpers Ferry is Colonel Dixon S. Miles, a West Point graduate and veteran of over forty years of service to the United States who had been disgraced by a charge of drunkenness at First Bull Run. Miles knew there was a threat from the confederates and set up his defenses. “Comfortable with his defensive lines, Colonel Miles nonetheless had doubts about his soldiers. Two weeks before Lee’s invasion commenced, Miles had received trainloads of raw recruits at his Harpers Ferry headquarters. Many of these new faces were men from upstate New York who had just enlisted for three years’ service. Miles declared the newcomers unfit, reporting on August 27 that they ‘never had a gun in their hands until the boxes were opened and the muskets issued to them yesterday.’ Disdainful of the new men’s leaders as well, Miles stated that they scarcely deserved to call themselves officers since they knew hot ‘how to drill or anything about the drill.’ The colonel bitterly complained to a superior that Harpers Ferry had become ‘nothing more than a fortified camp of instruction.’ When Miles divided his force into four brigades on September 4, he attempted to obviate the problem of inexperience by placing at least one veteran regiment (and ninety-days’ men qualified as ‘veterans’) in each of the four.” [p. 18] Frye gives the story of the confederate assault, telling us that Maryland Heights was the key. “So long as Maryland Heights remained in union hands, the garrison would be secure.” [p. 22] However, a crucial error by Colonel Thomas Ford, 32nd Ohio Infantry, who “commanded the Union brigade posted on Maryland Heights,” [p. 19] opened the way for the confederates. “The troops along the crest of Maryland Heights, who had regrouped after the retreat from the breastworks and faced no further Confederate advance, received peremptory instructions from Colonel Ford: ‘You are hereby ordered to fall back to Harper’s Ferry in good order. Be careful to do so in good order.‘ Dumbfounded by Ford’s dictum, the commander on the crest, Lieutenant Colonel S. W. Downey of the 3rd Maryland Potomac Home Brigade, hesitated to obey it. But fifteen minutes after arrival of the first order, Downey’s adjutant brought a second identical order to his vacillating chief.” [p. 22] Downey obeyed the order. Delays by both sides would put the confederates even further behind schedule, but in the end they achieved their goal and took Harpers Ferry, with a bright spot for the Union being the escape of the Union cavalry under Colonel Benjamin F. “Grimes” Davis, a Mississippian who stayed loyal to the Union. “Three days behind schedule, the Confederates had taken their prize at last. And what a prize! Harpers Ferry yielded 73 pieces of artillery, 13,000 small arms, 200 wagons, and 12,500 prisoners–the largest surrender of United States troops during the Civil War.” [p. 33]

Robert K. Krick contributes “The Army of Northern Virginia in September 1862: Its Circumstances, Its Opportunities, and why it Should Not Have Been at Sharpsburg.” He says, “It would be difficult to overemphasize the casual approach of Civil War armies, particularly Southern ones, to staff functions of all sorts. The monumental inadequacy of commissary, quartermaster, and ordnance services left Lee with tremendous problems, but they did not create a situation in which he seriously considered any alternative other than further advance.” [p. 36] Regarding Lee’s reasons for the campaign, Krick tells us, “Ample and numerous military and political reasons for a move across the Potomac appealed to Lee as he contemplated the prospect. Three of them deserve at least brief dilation in this context: the depleted countryside south of the Potomac badly needed surcease; Maryland offered Lee the chance for maneuver, which he did incomparably well, and for high-stake fruits as the result of any victory he could attain; and, Maryland seemed politically ripe for liberation from what looked like an intolerable Federal yoke.” [p. 37] Much is made of straggling and desertion in the confederate ranks during the Maryland campaign. Krick writes, “Confederate strength at Sharpsburg was pitifully small. Arguments raged through the postwar years about precise numbers and losses at Sharpsburg (and elsewhere), and the publication of those arguments grew into a virtual cottage industry both North and South. Without wading into that sticky morass more than shoetop deep it is safe to certify that even at day’s end on September 17 Lee had not put forty thousand men on the field. The number in fact probably was a good deal fewer than that, and may have been not much more than thirty thousand. To avoid quibbling, let it be stipulated that Lee had far fewer men at Sharpsburg than on any other of his major fields–perhaps only half as many. That salient verity hangs over every discussion of the events of September 1862.” [p. 39] He expands on desertion and straggling: “R. E. Lee solved his straggling problem for all practical purposes soon after Sharpsburg. The degree of chronic straggling endemic to any army in the field always continued, of course, but at a tolerable level. When Lee made the army his own, and bent its staff functions to his own purposes, acute straggling disappeared. Desertion, however, gradually grew to proportions that most students of the Confederacy simply have not imagined. As suggested above, North Carolina troops suffered disproportionately from the malady. During the spring after Sharpsburg, Lee bewailed the ‘frequent desertions from the North Carolina regiments. …’ Within the same week Lee received a plaintive plea from talented young General William Dorsey Pender–himself a brightly distinguished North Carolinian at the head of a fine brigade from his native state. Pender reported the loss of two hundred men from a single North Carolina regiment within the past thirty days and gloomily told his army commander that he expected that the ‘matter will grow from bad to worse.’ In a concurrent letter to his wife, Dorsey Pender sorrowfully wrote, ‘Poor old N.C., she will disgrace herself just when the worst is over. ..’ Revisionist work now afoot intending to lower North Carolina’s relative desertion rate will need to use hundreds of thousands of original service records to achieve definition. Meanwhile, the official summary of Confederate deserters compiled by the United States provost marshal general shows that nearly one-half of all Confederate officers who deserted to the enemy came from North Carolina. The deserting commissioned Carolinians outnumbered the second-place state (Tennessee) by nearly three to one and the third-place state (Virginia) by more than five to one. The same report covering enlisted ranks awards the trophy to North Carolina by a two-to-one margin.” [pp. 45-46] As we’ve come to expect from Mr. Krick’s writings, this essay is packed with facts and highly useful to students of the war.

The next essay, by A. Wilson Greene, is titled, ” ‘I Fought the Battle Splendidly:’ George B. McClellan and the Maryland Campaign.” He starts by providing some contrasting views of McClellan from different historians. ” ‘Nowhere has [a] charge of slowness been less justly levelled,’ [sic] argues Joseph Harsh. ‘On September 2, 1862, McClellan assumed command of the disorganized, dispirited and chaotically intermingled fragments of five separate armies. Within one week, he marched into Maryland with a field army which was still sorting out its wagons and batteries and leavened by a high percentage of raw troops snatched directly from the mustering-in ceremonies. In another week he brought Lee to bay at Antietam Creek and inflicted upon him the severest casualty rate ever suffered by the Army of Northern Virginia in the bloodiest day’s battle of the entire war.’ Francis Palfrey, writing with shorter hindsight, evaluates Little Mac more critically: ‘Of McClellan’s conduct of the battle there is little to be said in the way of praise beyond the fact that he did fight it voluntarily, without having it forced upon him.’ General peter S. Michie is less charitable still. ‘It does not seem possible to find any other battle ever fought,’ insists Michie, ‘in the conduct of which more errors were committed than are clearly attributable to the commander of the Army of the Potomac.’ ” [p. 56] Greene says, “The Federal commander still operated under two crippling handicaps, one external and one self-imposed. First, Halleck persisted in his unreasonable fear for Washington’s security. Referring not to Stonewall Jackson’s developing encirclement of Harpers Ferry, but to the phantom gray legions lurking about the Virginia forts, Old Brains wired McClellan on September 13, ‘Until you know more certainly the enemy’s forces south of the Potomac, you are wrong in thus uncovering the capital.’ This was nonsense and McClellan knew it. Lee’s whole army, not a diversionary detachment, had entered the Free State. Determining the accurate size of that army, however, posed more serious problems for Little Mac.” [p. 60] Hence the second problem, the constant tendency of McClellan and his intelligence chief, Allan Pinkerton, to grossly overestimate the size of the confederate forces facing McClellan. Unfortunately, Greene accepts the Stephen Sears claim that McClellan had Special Orders No. 191 in hand before noon on September 13. “Eighteen hours elapsed before the first Northern soldier marched in response to the intelligence bonanza contained in Special Orders No. 191. The Federal commander spent the interim studying his maps, contemplating Lee’s vast legions, and slowly adjusting to the new situation.” [p. 61] Of course, if McClellan didn’t receive the document until late afternoon/early evening, much less time elapsed before the first Union soldiers moved early on the morning of September 14. He also accepts Sears’ position that McClellan “tipped his hand” by sending Joe Hooker and his corps across Antietam Creek on the evening of September 16. There is considerable disagreement about that assessment. This essay is definitely anti-McClellan. While McClellan made mistakes during the campaign and battle, current scholarship is not as tough on him as Greene’s essay.

The final essay is “The Maryland Campaign in Perspective” by Gary Gallagher. He calls the Maryland Campaign a “watershed” of the war. “People behind the lines struggled to come to terms with hideous casualty lists. Photographic evidence from the battlefield at Antietam altered forever romantic conceptions of war. Abraham Lincoln took a momentous step toward emancipation, while European leaders recast their thinking about the likelihood of Confederate independence. Maryland remained firmly in the Union; Republicans breathed a bit more easily about the coming Northern elections. Complex in execution and impact, the Maryland campaign qualified as a pivotal event of the war.” [p. 84] In assessing performance, Professor Gallagher wrote, “The Confederate side is a fascinating blend of accomplishment and useless loss, of brilliant leadership on the battlefield and questionable strategic decisions after September 15. Lee’s movement north represented an effort to take the war out of Virginia, gather food and fodder, threaten Washington from the west, and prevent another Union incursion south of the Potomac before the onset of winter. He accomplished the first three of these, and managed also to postpone the next Federal drive toward Richmond until Ambrose E. Burnside’s unusual winter campaign that ended ignominiously for the Union at Fredericksburg in mid-December. Mounting a raid rather than an invasion, Lee knew he would have to fall back to Virginia at some point, preferably in late fall. The battle of Antietam compelled him to withdraw sooner than he wished. But because McClellan allowed him to maintain a position immediately south of the Potomac, Lee was able to accomplish from northern Virginia what he had planned to do in western Maryland or southern Pennsylvania. The captures at Harpers Ferry constituted a bonus that Lee did not envision at the outset. Against these positive results must be reckoned the loss of more than a quarter of the Army of Northern Virginia. The vast majority of those casualties came at Antietam, where Lee stood to gain not a single military advantage. After the fighting on South Mountain, Lee retained no viable offensive options.” [p. 88] The Federals don’t escape his gaze. “If Lee’s gravest error was in striving to do too much with a limited force, McClellan’s was in asking too little of a powerful one. High marks must be his for restoring confidence and discipline to a recently defeated army. He also forced Lee out of Maryland, a principal Federal goal in the campaign. In his mind that may have been enough. McClellan wanted a restoration of the old Union with the least possible cost in blood. He may have thought Antietam impressive enough to convince Southerners that independence was beyond their grasp, whereas a more decisive triumph might provide a springboard for Republicans to solidify their political grip on the nation and construct a new Union without slavery. The salient feature of the entire Maryland campaign, however, was McClellan’s opportunity to inflict a catastrophic defeat on Lee’s army. No other commander on either side during the Civil War enjoyed a comparable situation.” [p. 89] In discussing the campaign’s impact on potential foreign intervention, Gallagher wrote, “Neither Lee’s withdrawal from Maryland nor the [Emancipation] proclamation guaranteed that Europe would stay aloof, but together they helped persuade the British to wait until military developments favored the Confederates. Southern arms ultimately proved unequal to the daunting task of compiling enough victories to bring European intercession.” [p. 93] Regarding the Emancipation Proclamation itself, and its impact on the political situation, he said, “Ironically, the Emancipation Proclamation–made possible by Lee’s retreat–did provoke angry reaction that helped the Democrats. Results of the canvass of 1862 showed only modest Democratic gains for an off-year election–thirty-four seats in the House of Representatives, gubernatorial victories in New York and New Jersey, and control of the Illinois and Indiana legislature. The Republicans managed to gain five seats in the Senate and retain control of the House (their net loss in the House was the smallest in the last ten elections for the majority party). The war would continue under Republican direction.” [pp. 93-94]

This is a valuable book for the insights these historians provide. While the views of George McClellan need to be tempered, the rest of the material provided is excellent. I can recommend this book for students of the war.

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