Ultimate General Civil War– (South Mountain)
On September 4, 1862 Lee readied the army for the movement into Maryland. He reduced the number of wagons to those absolutely needed for each regiment. In the artillery unfit horses were removed, crews reassigned to other batteries, and battalions transferred to Jackson’s and Longstreet’s commands. In all, seventy-eight regular batteries and three horse artillery batteries accompanied the army. Lee appointed Lewis A. Armistead to command of the army’s provost guard, with the duty of rounding up stragglers. In the same order Lee warned stragglers that they would be punished and enjoined “the gallant soldiers” to aid “their officers in checking the desire for straggling among their comrades.”
The main body of the army, led by Jackson’s veterans, began crossing the Potomac at White’s Ford on September 5. “The water being limestone,” wrote a soldier, “it was as clear as crystal. The men removed their shoes, socks, and ‘britches.’” Staff officer Thomas G. Pollock watched as the men, in ranks of four, waded into the river. “I never expect as long as I live to witness such a spectacle.” “No body spoke,” he explained, because “it was a time of great feeling.” Pollock rode into the current, then turned in his saddle and looked to the rear. The column of marchers stretched as far as he could see. He confided to his father, “I felt, I was watching what must be the turning point of the war.”
When the men reached the Maryland riverbank, they cheered. A band played “Maryland, My Maryland.” Jedediah Hotchkiss, Jackson’s topographer, boasted to his wife in a letter, “The passing of the Rubicon was not more memorable for we were really advancing.” Jackson, wrote Hotchkiss, was “more than usually attentive to all that passed.” Writing the day before, a Virginian had observed, “Jackson next to Lee is the favorite here and I think Jackson inspires more enthusiasm in the men than Lee.” Hotchkiss thought that there was “fewer straggling than I almost ever saw.”
In Leesburg, meanwhile, at the residence of Henry T. Harrison, a distant kinsman of Lee, the commanding general had a letter prepared for Davis. “As I have already had the honor to inform you,” he stated, “this army is about entering Maryland, with a view of affording the people of that state an opportunity of liberating themselves. Whatever success may attend that effort, I hope, at any rate, to annoy and harass the enemy.” A local physician visited the Harrison home and attended to Lee’s injured hands, applying new splints and giving him slings for his arms.
The next morning, September 6, Lee, Longstreet, and the wing commander’s troops headed toward the Potomac crossings. “You may expect to hear of wonders performed by the consolidated, veteran armies of Longstreet and Jackson,” predicted a soldier with the column. In his memoirs Longstreet affirmed that the army “was then all that its leaders could ask, and its claim as master of the field was established.” A Georgian noted, however, “Many of our men did not cross the river for want of shoes.”
By September 7 the campsites of the Army of Northern Virginia sprawled south and east of Frederick, Maryland, by the Monocacy River. Farther to the east Jeb Stuart’s three cavalry brigades and three batteries of horse artillery, about 4,500 officers and men, strung a cordon of vedettes, or picket posts, from New Market on the army’s left flank, through Hyattstown in the center, to the Urbana-Barnesville area on the right. Stuart had orders to confuse the Federals by threatening Baltimore and Washington and closely watching their movements. The horsemen remained on the broad arc until September 11.
Lee had established army headquarters at Best’s Grove, a stand of oak trees about two miles south of Frederick. The Confederate commander issued a proclamation to the people of Maryland, announcing that his army had entered their state to assist them “in throwing off the foreign yoke” of Federal authority. In this pro-Union section of the state, however, the reaction was decidedly mixed. Some of the soldiers purchased shoes and clothing with Confederate money, but many Marylanders “turned the cold shoulder every where,” in the view of one officer. The hoped-for a influx of recruits from the state amounted to fewer than 200.19
Stonewall Jackson arrived at army headquarters on the afternoon of September 9; most likely Lee had requested a meeting with the subordinate. An artillerist who saw the famous Stonewall in Maryland remarked, “Jackson looks as if wading the Potomac and other streams has in no wise improved his appearance.” Three days earlier Jackson had been “stunned and severely bruised” when he spurred a “gigantic gray mare,” given to him by a Marylander, and rider and horse fell to the ground. The general’s favorite mount, Little Sorrel, had been stolen recently and was not yet recovered. The injury forced Jackson, like Lee, to use temporarily an ambulance.
Lee informed Jackson that the army would march west, cross South Mountain, and operate in either the Hagerstown or Cumberland valleys. His intent was to draw the Army of the Potomac farther away from the Federal capital before possibly engaging his opponent in a battle. The Confederates’ supply line would be relocated from east of the mountains to the Shenandoah Valley, with its base at Winchester. To secure the flow of supplies Lee proposed the capture of the 13,000-man Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry, located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. He had expected the isolated enemy force to withdraw from the indefensible town, which lay at the bottom of a bowl formed by three heights. In Washington, however, it had been determined, over the opposition of George McClellan, to defend Harper’s Ferry.
Lee proposed dividing the army, assigning a force to the Harper’s Ferry movement, while the remaining units crossed South Mountain and halted around Boonsborough. Jackson objected to the plan. “At the council held at Frederick,” he told Harvey Hill months later, “I opposed the separation of our forces in order to capture Harper’s Ferry. I urged that we should all be kept together.” Jackson argued further that the army should remain east of the mountains. Evidently Jackson had asserted to Hill days earlier that the Confederates should advance into Pennsylvania and “give them a taste of war.”
Whether Lee explained his reasoning to Jackson is unknown, but the commanding general presented his thinking in his report: “The advance of the Federal army was so slow at the time we left Fredericktown as to justify the belief that the reduction of Harper’s Ferry would be accomplished and our troops concentrated before they would be called upon to meet it.” Lee expected that the capture of the Union garrison could be completed by September 12 or 13.
The two generals discussed the details of the operation. When they completed the work, Lee heard the voice of Longstreet outside the closed headquarters tent and asked his other wing commander to join them. During their march together to Frederick, Lee had broached the plan to Longstreet. “I objected,” Longstreet later recounted, “that the move would be very imprudent as we were then in the enemy’s country, that he would be advised within ten or twelve hours of our movement, and would surely move out against us in our dispersed condition.” Both of them left it at that for the present.
Once inside the tent, Longstreet heard the specifics of the plan. “They had gone so far,” he wrote of Lee and Jackson, “that it seemed useless for me to offer any further opposition.” Instead he suggested that the entire army be used in the movement to Harper’s Ferry. When Lee rejected the recommendation, Longstreet countered that Richard Anderson’s division be added to the five divisions assigned to the detached force and that his two divisions and Harvey Hill’s command be kept together. Lee agreed to this and said written orders would be issued. The meeting—one of the most momentous in the army’s history—concluded.
The commanding general incorporated his operational ideas in Special Orders No. 191, distributed to the army later, on September 9. The orders directed Jackson, with three divisions and artillery, to recross the Potomac upriver from Harper’s Ferry and to close the western approaches to the town. The divisions of Lafayette McLaws and Richard Anderson were ordered to march down Pleasant Valley and to seize towering Maryland Heights, across the river from the site of John Brown’s failed October 1859 raid. Like Jackson’s command, John G. Walker’s division was to reenter Virginia and occupy Loudoun Heights, east of the Shenandoah River. Longstreet’s two divisions were to cross South Mountain with the reserve, supply, and baggage trains and halt at Boonsborough. Trailing Longstreet, Harvey Hills’s five brigades were to act as the army’s rear guard. Stuart’s cavalry would cover the route of march and gather up stragglers. The army would move the next day, September 10.
In a postwar article Longstreet asserted, “The division of the army to make this attack on Harper’s Ferry was a fatal error.” The old warrior went even further in another piece, declaring that Lee’s decision was “not only the worst ever made by General Lee, but invited the destruction of the Confederate army.” Longstreet’s criticisms benefited from the clarity of hindsight, but the operation was a potentially dangerous gamble, predicated on a timely capture of Harper’s Ferry and a ponderous advance of McClellan’s army. Unquestionably the discovery of a copy of Special Orders No. 191 by the Federals altered the campaign’s course. Nevertheless, Lee compounded the boldness of the advance into Maryland with the dispersal of his divisions, based on an optimistic, and ultimately unrealistic, timeframe for the “reduction of Harper’s Ferry.” In his fine campaign study Joseph Harsh concluded: “The decision Lee made on the 9th put at risk his campaign in Maryland and possibly even the safety of his army. It did so at the time he wrote Special Orders, No. 191, and long before events prevented these orders from a timely execution—or before they fell into the hands of his enemies.”
Before daylight on September 10, coming from the north, east, and south, the Confederates started passing through the streets of Frederick, heading west. Jackson’s troops led the march on National Road, followed by the veterans of Longstreet, McLaws, Anderson, and Harvey Hill. “Much speculation as to our destination,” jotted an officer in his diary. When Longstreet’s men filed past the civilian onlookers, a regimental band played “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” With the entire army, except for Walker’s division and the main body of Stuart’s cavalry, on the single road, the column stretched for thirteen miles.
Throughout the next two days the various commands marched toward their assigned destinations. By nightfall on September 12 units of the army lay scattered, dozens of miles apart, with Lee’s timetable in shambles. His orders anticipated the capture of Harper’s Ferry on this day, but none of the three columns had closed on the Union garrison. After swinging farther west in an attempt to bag a Federal detachment at Martinsburg, Virginia, Jackson had halted several miles west of Harper’s Ferry. On Maryland Heights McLaws’s advance had stalled before enemy defenses and the rugged terrain. After marching and countermarching, Walker’s small division had bivouacked eight miles from Loudoun Heights.
In Maryland, meanwhile, Harvey Hill’s five brigades guarded Turner’s Gap in South Mountain and rested at the mountain’s base around Boonsborough. To the east, across the mountain range, Stuart’s cavalrymen were receding before mounting Union pressure. “I do not wish you to retire too fast before the enemy,” Lee instructed Stuart on this day, “or to distribute your cavalry wide apart.” But it was too late, as the Federals had entered Frederick. Finally, a report of an enemy militia advancing from Pennsylvania toward Hagerstown had brought Longstreet’s two divisions north from Boonsborough. During the march to Hagerstown Lee and Longstreet rode together. At one point, with evident frustration, Longstreet grumbled to Lee, “General, I wish we could stand still and let the damned Yankees come to us!”
Time pressed against the Confederates, they were behind schedule, and the vanguard of McClellan’s army had reached Frederick. Most critically the ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia had been thinning with each successive mile during those three days. While in Frederick Lee had written to Davis: “I need not say to you that the material of which it [the army] is composed is the best in the world, and, if properly disciplined and instructed, would be able successfully to resist any force that could be brought against it. Nothing can surpass the gallantry and intelligence of the main body.” He noted, however, “One of the greatest evils, from which many minor ones proceed, is the habit of straggling from the ranks. The higher officers feel as I do, and I believe have done all in their power to stop it. It has become a habit difficult to correct.”
The straggling had begun during the Seven Days, worsened on the roads to Second Manassas, and swelled into a flood in Maryland. As Lee indicated, the efforts of officers could not stanch the bleeding. Hunger, exhaustion, and illness pulled men from the ranks in droves, human eddies flowing away from the marching columns back across the Potomac into Virginia. Their letters at the time and memoirs later were frank in discussing “a great curse of the army.” Officers and men foraged and even plundered for food. A South Carolinian recalled that he and his comrades chewed tobacco to alleviate hunger pangs. For barefoot men, claimed a Virginian, the state’s rocky roads were “more than most of us were used to.” A North Carolinian believed that every regiment in the army lost soldiers to the “curse.”
The extent of the straggling and desertion was staggering. Before the army had crossed into Maryland, thousands had abandoned the ranks. A newspaper correspondent with the army described the situation beyond the Potomac, “Candor compels me to say that the straggling and desertion from our army far surpasses anything I had ever supposed possible.” An Alabamian believed that “the army then was little better than a mob.” Writing in early September, a soldier averred, “I would not have believed without actual experience, that flesh, blood and muscle could stand what we have stood.” In fact too many could no longer withstand the marching in bare feet, the lack of food, and the cumulative strains of weeks of campaigning. At least 20,000, probably closer to 30,000 Confederates either remained behind in Virginia or returned there during the campaign. Their absence put at risk the entire army.
The consequences for a depleted and divided Confederate army loomed graver on Saturday, September 13. At Harper’s Ferry Jackson’s troops approached from the west and deployed before Union defenders on Bolivar Heights. To the east, across the Shenandoah River, Walker occupied Loudoun Heights with infantry but needed another day to haul artillery to the crest. After an all-day struggle McLaws’s veterans wrested Maryland Heights from the Federals and closed the road from the town at its eastern end. Like Walker, McLaws could not place cannon on the 2,000-foot-high Loudoun Heights until September 14. The operations against the garrison at Harper’s Ferry took on the characteristics of a siege.
At Frederick meanwhile George McClellan rode into the community. On September 6 Lincoln had restored him to command of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Virginia. McClellan then integrated John Pope’s corps into the Army of the Potomac and assigned dozens of new regiments to brigades. Within days of his reappointment to command, he started his 95,000-man army in pursuit of the Rebels. When he entered Frederick, throngs of civilians cheered him, even holding up children for him to kiss. Before noon an officer handed the general a copy of Lee’s Special Orders No. 191, which had been discovered by a soldier in the 27th Indiana in a field outside of town. The copy was addressed to Confederate Major General D. H. Hill and wrapped around three cigars. Who lost the copy remains unresolved.
When the Union commander received the copy, he was addressing a group of local citizens. He stopped to read it and then exclaimed, “Now I know what to do.” One of McClellan’s staff officers attested to the document’s authenticity; having served with Robert H. Chilton in the antebellum army he was familiar with the handwriting of Lee’s chief of staff. McClellan wrote to Abraham Lincoln: “I have the whole Rebel force in front of me but am confident and no time shall be lost.… I think Lee has made a gross mistake and he will be severely punished for it. The Army is in motion as rapidly as possible. I hope for great success if the plans of the Rebels remain unchanged.… I have all the plans of the Rebels and will catch them in their own trap if my men are equal to the emergency.… Will send you trophies.”