On this day in 1862 Confederate General Robert E Lee began his first invasion of the North, initiating the Maryland Campaign that would culminate in the Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg as it was called in the South). Little did he know that he would set off a chain of events that would change the war and the course of the nation forever.
By the late summer of 1862 the American Civil War had taken a dramatic turn. Barely a month before, Union General George B McClellan and the Union Army of the Potomac were within site of the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. A prolonged and bloody siege of the city seemed inevitable. The Confederacy was facing its first real test. However, as fate would have it, on May 31st 1862 the commander of the Confederate forces, General Joe Johnston, was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. Without hesitation, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed his most trusted military advisor, Robert E Lee, to take over the command.
Lee came from one of the most celebrated families in the nation. His father ("Light Horse" Harry Lee) was a favorite lieutenant of George Washington and his wife was the granddaughter of Martha Washington. As a commander of men in the field Lee’s brilliance was a somewhat unknown commodity at this time in the war. However, Jefferson Davis could not have chosen a better man for the job. When the Civil War began, Colonel Robert E Lee was considered by his peers as one of the best soldiers the nation had. He was offered the command of all the Union forces by Abraham Lincoln, but he declined and followed his home state of Virginia out of the Union. Replacing General Johnston he named his new command the Army of Northern Virginia; it would become one of the most famous armies in history. In two months the bold and aggressive Lee would shift the fighting from the outskirts of Richmond to within 30 miles of Washington DC. After he forced McClellan off the Virginia Peninsula during the Battles of the Seven Days, he turned north and defeated General Pope at the second Battle of Manassas (also called the 2nd Battle of Bull Run).
With the initiative well in hand Lee had a critical decision to make, and he had several different options to choose from:
He could stay where he was near Manassas Junction and wait for the Federals to attack.
He could withdraw back to the Richmond defenses, dig in and wait for an attack.
He could move his army west into the Shenandoah Valley.
Or he could keep the initiative by continuing the offensive, moving his army into Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The first three options presented Lee with no real advantage. Certainly, he could have used this time to rest and refit his tired army. Some of his men had been marching and fighting for months without a break, but fighting from a defensive position was not in Lee’s nature. He also knew that if he assumed a defensive posture, it would be only a matter of time before the superior numbers of men and material the North possessed overwhelmed his army. In the end, Lee decided that the best defense is a good offense.
In addition, an operation into the North presented several military and political possible upsides for the confederacy.
First, they could take the fighting out of the worn down countryside of northern Virginia and into the fertile farmlands of Maryland and Pennsylvania where food and fodder were plentiful. It would also, as the Confederacy believed, allow the citizens of Maryland to throw off the oppressive government of Abraham Lincoln and join ranks with the Confederate states. A victory on northern soil would demonstrate to France and England that the Confederacy was a legitimate nation deserving of recognition. Recognition by Europe was critical to the future of the Southern government. It was equally critical to the Lincoln administration to prevent such a move by England and France.
On the 3rd of September Robert E Lee sent a dispatch to Confederate President Jefferson Davis announcing his intention to take the war to the North, stating “The present seems to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate Army to enter Maryland.” Lee had good reason to feel an offensive was his best and only move. Because of its recent defeats in the past few months Lee felt the Army of the Potomac was demoralized, beaten and not at all ready for renewed fighting. He also read in the northern papers that the Federal forces were getting some 60,000 raw recruits; it would take some time to train, coordinate, and fold these new men into the army. These two factors made Lee believe that it would be several weeks before the Union Army could get organized and come out of the Washington defenses to offer him battle. “By that time”, Lee told a subordinate, “I will be on the banks of the Susquehanna.”
Opposing Robert E Lee was the dashing young Major General George Brinton McClellan. McClellan was an over achiever his whole life, and early on in the war he was one of the few Union generals who actually won battles. He was soon elevated to commander of the Army of the Potomac and devised a plan that he was sure would defeat the Confederacy. He would float his massive army down the Potomac River and land it on the Virginia Peninsula, overwhelm the Confederates in front of Richmond, capture the city and end the war. This was a very ambitious strategy. Although he was extremely confident in his own abilities, McClellan was glacially slow on the battlefield. For almost a year he drove the Lincoln administration crazy with his incredibly plodding movements.
McClellan was completely out generaled by Lee at what was called The Battles of the Seven Days. After being chased off the Peninsula, his army was taken from him piece by piece to reinforce General Pope now advancing below Washington DC. McClellan was in a state of flux. It would not take long before he was thrust into the spotlight once again. Lee’s Confederates smashed Pope’ army. Defeated, Pope retreated back to Washington DC. Lincoln felt his only choice to save the day was to place Little Mac, as he was called, back in command. For all of his failings as a field commander Lincoln knew McClellan did possess assets that would be essential at this point: he was a master of organizing and training men for war. He was also the one Union general that held the confidence and support of the rank and file soldiers. He would skillfully use these assets to reform and refit the army in an incredibly short amount of time and get it ready for operations.
On September 4th Lee’s army of 40,000 men began to cross the Potomac River at White’s ford about 25 miles upstream from Washington DC. This sent waves of panic and misinformation throughout the North. The ragged and dirty Army of Northern Virginia march confidently into the Union to the strains of “Maryland My Maryland”, the state song. Lee was as confident as his men. But little did he know that McClellan’s Union force of 80,000 men would soon be on the march and in pursuit of him. The overly cautious McClellan was very careful to keep his force between Lee’s and Washington DC.
Then fate took over. On the 13th of September two union soldiers stumbled on a copy of Lee’s Special Order 191 just outside the town of Frederick, Maryland. Carelessly misplaced by a Confederate soldier whose name is lost to history, this order detailed Lee’s entire plan of operation. Lee had divided his army sending a large part of it to capture the federal stronghold at Harpers Ferry. This was one of those rare military opportunities that only happens once in a generation. If he moved quickly, McClellan could destroy the Confederate force in detail. But that was contrary to his nature. He did move just fast enough however to compel Lee to fight a holding action at South Mountain on the 14th. Lee’s force was too small to hold the federals back and they broke through the South Mountain Passes before nightfall. Being in a very tight spot with his army scattered all over Lee contemplated withdrawing from Maryland. Just then a timely message arrived from Confederate General Stonewall Jackson---the garrison at Harpers Ferry had capitulated and he was marching the bulk of his force north to rejoin Lee. It was at this time Lee decided to concentrate his army at the small hamlet of Sharpsburg, Maryland. This quite dusty crossroad sat in a crook of land between the Antietam Creek and the Potomac River. Lee was still in a very vulnerable spot, but he again counted on the slow moving McClellan to give him the time he needed to gather his widely scattered army. McClellan did not disappoint; he did not have his men in place and ready to attack until the night of the 16th. Lee had arranged his men in a defensive line just west of the Antietam Creek. McClellan set up east of the river. The Union general outnumbered his opponent by almost two to one, but he believed just the opposite was true. McClellan sent two corps across the river to attack the confederates at first light the next morning. The Confederates were not fooled by this obvious move and shifted several regiments to their left flank to meet this attack. On that day, September 17th 1862, the epic Battle of Antietam took place. It is known as the bloodiest day in American history. The day would see over 23,000 casualties, including more than 3600 killed. When all of the dust settled and the smoke cleared the massive battle was essentially a tactical draw. But George McClellan could claim a victory as Robert E Lee had to retreat back to Virginia with over 25% of his army killed, wounded, or missing.
During the course of the Maryland Campaign, McClellan had several excellent chances to destroy the rebel army, but he missed every single one. It was a campaign marked by desperate gambles and missed opportunities. McClellan did ,however, manage to check Robert E Lee and his seemingly unstoppable force. In the nine months to follow the Confederate tide would surge again as Lee would go on cement his reputation as one of the finest military minds this nation has ever produced.
Even if it was an incomplete victory in Lincoln’s eyes, it would have to do. He used the political momentum to issue the “Emancipation Proclamation”. This freed all the slaves living in states currently rebelling against the government. It was a political masterstroke. Without immediately freeing a single slave, Lincoln lifted the war to a higher moral ground. It would also end any real hopes of England and France intervening on behalf of the South. The war was dramatically changed, at least north of the Mason Dixon line, from one of preservation of the Union to one of emancipating slaves.
McClellan would eventually be fired by Lincoln because of his unwillingness to persue the Confederates and finish them off.
Undeterred, the audacious Robert E Lee would invade the North again less than a year later. That campaign would culminate near a small town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg. But that is another story.