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Chapter 20: review of the Maryland campaign.

  • Confederate expectations
  • -- General Lee's salutatory to the people of Maryland -- the “lost despatch” -- McClellan's movements -- turn in the tide of war -- a miracle great as the throwing down of the walls of Jericho -- in contempt of the enemy the Confederate army was dispersed -- Harper's Ferry a “man trap” -- it diverted the army from the main issue -- Lee and McClellan compared and contrasted -- Tribute to the Confederate private soldier.

For conveying to the reader a comprehensive view of the military zodiac at the time we crossed the quiet Potomac, the 5th day of September, 1862, and an understanding of the logical sequence of the events following, something should be added here to the plain narrative of occurrences, and so I undertake a review of the Maryland campaign.

The Army of Northern Virginia was afield without a foe. Its once grand adversary, discomfited under two commanders, had crept into cover of the bulwarks about the national capital. The commercial, social, and blood ties of Maryland inclined her people to the Southern cause. A little way north of the Potomac were inviting fields of food and supplies more plentiful than on the southern side; and the fields for march and manoeuvre, strategy and tactics, were even more inviting than the broad fields of grain and comfortable pasture-lands. Propitious also was the prospect of swelling our ranks by Maryland recruits.

At the head of the army of sixty thousand men encouraged, matured, and disciplined by victory stood the Confederate chief, challenging on its own soil the army that had marched to conquer the Southern capital. On the 7th he pitched his bivouac about Frederick City. On [280] the 8th he made his salutatory to the people in these words:

Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia, Near Fredericktown, Md., September 8, 1862.
To The People of Maryland:
It is right that you should know the purpose that brought the army under my command within the limits of your State, so far as that purpose concerns yourselves. The people of the Confederate States have long watched with the deepest sympathy the wrongs and outrages that have been inflicted upon the citizens of a commonwealth allied to the States of the South by the strongest social, political, and commercial ties. They have seen with profound indignation their sister State deprived of every right and reduced to the condition of a conquered province. Under the pretence of supporting the Constitution, but in violation of its most valuable provisions, your citizens have been arrested and imprisoned upon no charge and contrary to all forms of law. The faithful and manly protest against this outrage made by the venerable and illustrious Marylander, to whom in better days no citizen appealed for right in vain, was treated with scorn and contempt; the government of your chief city has been usurped by armed strangers; your legislature has been dissolved by the unlawful arrest of its members; freedom of the press and of speech has been suppressed; words have been declared offences by an arbitrary decree of the Federal Executive, and citizens ordered to be tried by a military commission for what they may dare to speak. Believing that the people of Maryland possessed a spirit too lofty to submit to such a government, the people of the South have long wished to aid you in throwing off this foreign yoke, to enable you again to enjoy the inalienable rights of freemen, and to restore independence and sovereignty to your State. In obedience to this wish, our army has come among you, and is prepared to assist you with the power of its arms in regaining the rights of which you have been despoiled.

This, citizens of Maryland, is our mission, so far as you are concerned. No constraint upon your free will is intended; no intimidation will be allowed within the limits of this army, at least. Marylanders shall once more enjoy their ancient freedom of thought and speech. We know no enemies among you, and will, protect all, of every opinion. It is for you to decide your destiny freely and without constraint. This army will respect [281] your choice, whatever it may be; and while the Southern people will rejoice to welcome you to your natural position among them, they will only welcome you when you come of your own free will.

R. E. Lee, General, Commanding.

At this very time the recently displaced commander, General McClellan, reinstated in command, was marching for an opportunity to recover his good name, and the Union cavalry was active and aggressive in work against the Confederates at Poolesville.

On the 9th the Confederate commander organized his plans for the surrounding and capture of Harper's Ferry, and put his army in motion on the 10th. Close upon the heels of the march followed the Army of the Potomac, only twenty-five miles behind the rear of the Confederate army, with the cavalry of the armies in contact. The march of the former was as cautious as that of the latter was venturesome. On the 10th the Union commander was informed of the march of J. G. Walker's brigades up the river from Cheek's Ford. On the 11th his signal service reported the camp across the river at Point of Rocks. On the 12th, at Urbana, he was informed of the combination against Harper's Ferry, and the march towards the Cumberland Valley, and ordered pressing pursuit to force the Confederates to a stand. Under that order General Pleasonton, the Federal cavalry leader, hurried his troops and cleared the way to South Mountain on the 13th. From day to day the Confederates marched their dispersing columns, from day to day the Union columns converged in easy, cautious marches. At noon of the 13th, General Lee's order distributing his forces and a despatch from the Governor of Pennsylvania were handed General McClellan,--the former the celebrated “lost despatch,” given on a previous page,--the latter reading as follows: [282]

When may we expect General Reynolds here Services needed immediately. Longstreet s division is said to have reached Hagerstown last night. Jackson crossed the Potomac at Williamsport to capture Martinsburg and Harper's Ferry. We are assembling militia rapidly at Chambersburg. Can we do anything to aid your movements

This told of the change of march of my brigades from Turner's Pass to Hagerstown, and, with the “lost despatch,” revealed that Hill's five brigades were the only troops at the former place.

The same afternoon General McClellan's signal service despatched him that the Union signal station on Maryland Heights had gone down. General Lee's signals failed to connect, so that General McClellan was better informed of the progress of the Confederate movements than was the Confederate commander. That afternoon the Union army was in hand for battle. The Confederates were dispersed and divided by rivers, and drifting thirty and forty and fifty miles apart. Under similar circumstances General Scott, or General Taylor, or General Worth would have put the columns at the base of South Mountain before night, and would have passed the unguarded gaps before the sun's rays of next morning could have lighted their eastern slopes.

The Union commander claims to have ordered more vigorous pursuit after the “lost despatch” was handed him, but there is nothing to support the claim except his call on General Franklin, and in that he only ordered preparation at Crampton's to await events at Turner's Pass.

General Pleasonton was at Turner's Pass on the afternoon of the 13th, and made a reconnoissance of the ways leading up the east side of the mountain. He was not [283] informed of the despatches received by his chief, nor had he any information of Confederate movements except such as he had gleaned in closely following their rear. At daylight of the 14th he led General Cox and the Ninth Corps to attack, and in this manner the battle was opened.

His orders to call the Confederates to a stand did not anticipate the provocation of a general engagement, but a wait for his chief, who rode up about one o'clock. He thought that he was battling against seventeen brigades, while there were but five; and, had the battle been held in wait for McClellan, his well-known habit of careful reconnoissance would have consumed the balance of the day. His last orders for General Franklin directed a wait for Couch's division, which joined him at eight o'clock in the evening. It is difficult to find that a quicker move was given the Union army in consequence of the “lost despatch ;” but one may rather concede General Hill's claim, that in consequence of that despatch the Union army was so delayed as to give the Confederates time to make their way back to the soil of “Old Virginia.” Without it, the main column of the Union forces could have marched through Crampton's Pass, and relieved Harper's Ferry on the 14th, but, guided by it, their commander found it important to first guard against the seventeen brigades that should be at Turner's Pass, on the right rear of a column, moving against Crampton's.

The razing of the walls of Jericho by encircling marches of priests and soldiers, at the signal of long-drawn blasts of sacred horns and shouts of the multitude, was scarcely a greater miracle than the transformation of the conquering army of the South into a horde of disordered fugitives before an army that two weeks earlier was flying to cover under its homeward ramparts.

Providence helps those who can avail themselves of [284] His tender care, but permits those who will to turn from Him to their own arrogance. That His gracious hand was with the Confederates in their struggles on the Chickahominy, and even through the errors of the Bull Run campaign, cannot be questioned. When, however, in self-confidence, they lost sight of His helping hand, and in contempt of the enemy dispersed the army, they were given up to the reward of vainglory. That the disaster was not overwhelming they have to thank the plodding methods of the Union commander. With as much faith as Captain Joshua, his success would have been as complete.

But for the proper solution of the campaign we must turn again to the condition of the Confederate army when it crossed into Maryland. It was then all that its leaders could ask, and its claim as master of the field was established, but it was worn by severe marches and battles, and in need of rest. Its record before and after shows that, held in hand and refreshed by easy marchings and comfortable supplies, it would have been prepared to maintain its supremacy. The first necessity was a little time to refresh, while the grand object was to draw the enemy from his intrenched lines to free and open battle. These facts carefully observed, the Confederate army would have been assured of its claim and prestige.

In the confusion about Washington incident to the Bull Run campaign, General McClellan was ordered to receive the retreating columns and post them to defend and hold their fortified lines. He had not emerged from the clouds that hung about his untoward campaign in Virginia, but, familiar with the provisions that had been made for defence, he was most available for the service. He had hardly posted the troops and arranged the garrison when he found that the Confederates, instead of moving against his fortifications, had turned the head of their columns north, and were marching to invade Union [285] territory. He was quick to discover his opportunity, and, after posting guards for the works about the capital, assumed command of the army and took the field, lest another commander should be assigned. His clouded fame and assumption of authority committed him to early aggressive work. He had nothing to lose, but the world to gain, and that upon the field of battle.

All that the Confederates had to do was to hold the army in hand and draw the enemy to a field wide enough for manoeuvre; then call him to his battle. It is possible that ragged affairs about the mountain passes might have given him safe retreat to his capital, leaving the army of the South afield, a free lance.

It had been arranged that the Southern President should join the troops, and from the head of his victorious army call for recognition. Maryland would have put out some of her resources, and her gallant youth would have helped swell the Southern ranks,--the twenty thousand soldiers who had dropped from the Confederate ranks during the severe marches of the summer would have been with us. Volunteers from all parts of the South would have come, swimming the Potomac to find their President and his field-marshal, while Union troops would have been called from Kentucky and Tennessee, and would have left easy march for the Confederate armies of the West to the Ohio River.

Even though the Confederates were not successful, the fall elections were against the Federal administration. With the Southern armies victorious, the results of the contest at the polls would have been so pronounced as to have called for recognition of the Confederacy.

General McClellan wrote General Halleck of the effect, in case of defeat of his army,--

But if we should be so unfortunate as to meet with defeat, our country is at their mercy.

So much has been said and written about Harper's Ferry and the surrender of the garrison, that it seems difficult to pass it without notice. In more than one report General McClellan mentioned it as a “shameful” surrender. He had disapproved the position as false, and asked if it could not be given up. Colonel Miles, the commander, who gave his life in its defence, was acting under the following order from the department commander,viz.:

Baltimore, September 5, 1862.
Colonel Miles, Harper's Ferry:
1 The position on the heights ought to enable you to punish the enemy passing up the road in the direction of Harper's Ferry. Have your wits about you, and do all you can to annoy the rebels should they advance on you. Activity, energy, and decision must be used. You will not abandon Harper's Ferry without defending it to the last extremity.

John E. Wool, Major-General.

The simple truth is, it was defended to the last extremity. The nearer the approach of the succoring army, the more imperative would have been the demand for action on the part of the Confederate columns, and had battle been forced it could not possibly have resulted in any save one way,--Confederate victory, and an overwhelming one at that.

The position was denounced as a “man-trap,” and so it proved to Colonel Miles and his eleven thousand troops, but it was in fact a far more formidable trap for the Confederates, who to seize it sacrificed the fruits of heavy war,--victory in the main battle of the campaign,--and were forced to draw their crippled ranks to homeward defence. General Jackson wanted it till he got possession; then gave it up. General McClellan wanted to give it up before it was taken. After it had been taken [287] and given up, he reoccupied it. It was left severely alone in the Gettysburg campaign,--an admission by both sides of its uselessness as a point d'appui.

A word in closing about the chiefs opposed in this great campaign. General Lee and General McClellan were both graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point. The former took the second honor of the class of 1829, the latter the second honor of the class of 1846. Their service in the United States army was as military engineers. In 1854 they were both selected by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis for promotion to the new cavalry regiments as lieutenant-colonel and captain respectively. Their early opportunities, social and educational, were superior. They studiously improved them in youth, and applied them with diligence in after-life. Aspirations leading to the higher walks of social and professional life seem to have been alike controlling forces in the character and career of each. They were not unmindful that physical development was important in support of mental improvement. In moral tone and habits they may be called exemplars. In his service, General Lee's pride was duty to his government and to the army under his command. He loved admiration of the outside world, but these duties better. General McClellan's ambition was not so limited.

In stature General Lee stood five feet ten inches, was of well-developed muscular figure, as trim as a youth, and weighed one hundred and seventy pounds. In features he was a model of manly beauty. His teeth were of ivory whiteness; his mouth handsome and expressive of frankness, kindness, and generosity. His nose and chin were full, regular, strong, and gave his face force and character. 'Twas seldom that he allowed his mind to wander to the days of his childhood, and talk of his father and his early associates, but when he did, he was far more charming than he thought. As a commander he was much of the [288] Wellington “Up-and-at-‘em” style. He found it hard, the enemy in sight, to withhold his blows. With McClellan it was more difficult to strike than to march for the enemy.

General McClellan was of short, stout figure, but was of soldierly presence, graceful, and handsome-featured.

In their mounts neither of the great commanders lost anything of his admirable presence. Both were masters of the science but not of the art of war. Lee was successful in Virginia; McClellan in Maryland.

Unjust criticism has been passed upon the Confederate soldiers in the Maryland campaign, based principally upon the great number of absentees. To those who have spent their lives near the ranks of soldiers and learned from experience that there is a limit to physical endurance, explanation is not called for; to those who look upon the soldier as a machine, not even needing oil to facilitate motive power, I will say, try to put yourselves in the soldiers' places. Another point to be noted was, that in the Confederate ranks there were thousands of soldiers who had been wounded once, twice, and in some instances three times, who in any other service would have been on the pension-rolls at their comfortable homes.

Sickness and weakness that creep into an army from irregular food, collected in the stress of march, were no trifling impediments to the maintenance of our ranks in vigorous form.

When, in mature judgment, the historian builds monuments of words for the leaders of the campaign in Maryland, there will be flowers left for the private soldiers, and. for the private soldiers' graves.

The full significance of Sharpsburg to the Federal authorities lay in the fact that they needed a victory on which to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln had prepared two months before and had held in abeyance under advice of members of his [289] Cabinet until the Union arms should win a success. Although this battle was by no means so complete a victory as the President wished, and he was sorely vexed with General McClellan for not pushing it to completion, it was made the most of as a victory, and his Emancipation Proclamation was issued on the 22d of September, five days after the battle. This was one of the decisive political events of the war, and at once put the great struggle outwardly and openly upon the basis where it had before only rested by tacit and covert understanding. If the Southern army had been carefully held in hand, refreshed by easy marches and comfortable supplies, the proclamation could not have found its place in history. On the other hand, the Southern President would have been in Maryland at the head of his army with his manifesto for peace and independence.

1 Rebellion Record, vol. XIX. part i. p. 520.

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