Joe Harsh and Confederate PFD Strengths in September, 1862

by Brett Schulte on November 9, 2005 · 13 comments

I’ve always been interested in Present for Duty (hereafter referred to as PFD) strengths of various units during the war, just due to my own curiosity and also due to my hobby of wargaming the Civil War. One area in particular along these lines involves the Maryland Campaign of 1862, culminating in the Battle of Antietam. I recently posted the following note to several of the Civil War forums and groups I read on a daily basis:

I’ve always been interested in regimental strengths and the overall PFD strengths of armies and other military units during the war. My recent studies of Second Manassas and Chantilly led me to wonder how the Confederate PFD strength of 75,528[1] on September 2, 1862 could possibly shrink all the way to sources as varied as Priest’s 30,646[2] to Cannan’s 37,351[3] on September 17, 1862 (Priest says Sept. 16-18, 1862)? Were significant numbers of men left in Virginia or at Harper’s Ferry?

I have a few ideas of my own as far as troop loss goes. First, Jackson’s men especially had been marching and fighting since early August, and they
were simply worn out. I wouldn’t be surprised at thousands of men simply failing to keep up with their comrades on the march north. Second, I’ve read many reports of some Confederates stopping at the Potomac River and refusing to invade the North. How widespread this phenomena was I have no idea. I’d love to hear from others who might be a lot more knowledgeable in this area. Third, the macadamized roads of Maryland were brutal on a Confederate Army which had a large number of men with no shoes. I can see thousands more dropping out due to this cause.

I’d love to hear the opinions of those of you who know much more than I do and who have looked at this in some detail. I’d also appreciate it if
anyone can point me to more literature on this particular topic, since I realize Cannan and Priest probably aren’t the best sources for Confederate strength at Antietam.

[1] John Owen Allen, “The Strength of the Union and Confederate Forces At Second Manassas” (Masters Thesis, George Mason University, 1993), 209.

[2] John Michael Priest, Antietam: The Soldier’s Battle, 1st paperback ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 332.

[3] John Cannan, The Antietam Campaign: August – September 1862, revised and expanded ed., (Pennsylvania: Combined Books, 1994), 228-229.

I received quite a few varied and interesting responses, some of which you can read for yourself at the Civil War Discussion Group and in the Usenet group alt.war.civil.usa. One theme kept coming back: “Read the set of books on the Maryland Campaign by Joseph Harsh.” What’s even more interesting is that the PFD strength above for September 2 was researched by John Owen Allen. Harsh was Allen’s advisor at George Mason University, so I figured that those numbers would be generally in line with Harsh’s view on the subject.

Camp Pope Publishing

For those of you who don’t know, Harsh has written a trilogy books on Confederate strategy early in the war. The first, Confederate Tide Rising, discusses Lee’s and the Confederate High Command’s strategy and military policy early in the war, from 1861up to the start of the Maryland Campaign in September, 1862. The second, Taken At The Flood, discusses Lee’s strategy throughout the Maryland Campaign itself. And the last, Sounding The Shallows, is basically a large set of appendices for Taken At The Flood. Read together, from what I’ve been told, these three books give the reader a great understanding of the thinking of Confederate leaders in these early war battles, especially Antietam. I’ve since ordered them from www.amazon.com and I look forward to reading them. I’ll be giving readers of this blog a blow-by-blow account as I go. Look for that in the near future.

Lastly, I’d love to hear the comments of others who wish to offer answers of their own to the question: “How could the PFD strength of Lee’s Army shrink in half over the course of 15 days, and how could that same strength be back to 70,000+ weeks later with no significant reinforcements in terms of units arrived?”

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Harry November 9, 2005 at 9:32 am

Brett,

Your question concerns one of the great mysteries of the Civil War. In their writings, some Union participants (including Grant) questioned the accuracy, really the honesty, of the strengths reported by Confederates during and after the war. Palfrey, in “The Antietam and Fredericksburg”, quipped that it would come to be known that Lee fought the battle at Antietam with only himself and a one-armed orderly. Some post-war correspondence between Lee and Taylor suggests that Lee was attempting to low-ball Confederate numbers for posterity. Did his army lose men to straggling and reluctiance while on the march to and through Maryland? I’m sure they did…all armies did. But half?

Possible deliberate obfuscation on the part of participants and the fundamental differences between the armies in calculating PFD could mean we may never learn the answer to Confederate PFD at Antietam, or be able to reconcile the before and after numbers you have cited. Most attempts to do so smack of rationalization to me. The ANV, reinforced by two fresh divisions after BR2, had neither fought nor marched harder than the veteran units in AotP in the month leading up to South Mountain, and in fact each regiment of the ANV was battle tested and hardened while many in the AotP were brand new and had never marched any long distances. Yet the AotP did not suffer anywhere near the reductions we are to believe the ANV experienced. And before anyone shouts out about the brutal up-hill march of Longstreet’s men up the west side of South Mountain, remember the east side of the mountain is just as steep, and that the AotP was not scooping up thousands of rebel stragglers on their way to Antietam Creek.

Harry

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Will Keene November 10, 2005 at 12:39 am

Harry: “Yet the AotP did not suffer anywhere near the reductions we are to believe the ANV experienced.”

I have a couple observations on that point:

1) The US units that had suffered most in the BR2 campaign were left behind in the Antietam campaign. Specificaly the 3rd and 11th Corps and even initially the 5th, which did not leave DC until several days after the rest of the AotP.

2) Right after Antietam Meade reported on the temporary reduction in PFD that occurred in the 1st Corps at the time of the battle. The percentage decrease is dramatic. Prior to the battle I think there is a reference from Hooker at how many stragglers there are. The 1st Corps appears to me to have been close to cracking.

3) US army administration and logistics were much better than CSA

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Brett Schulte November 10, 2005 at 6:07 am

Harry,

I meant to reply yesterday, but Will’s comments jogged my memory. One other thing I wanted to point out was how much better fed the Union troops were. In _Tempest at Ox Hill_, David Welker drives the point home repeatedly that even through their trials and tribulatons on the retreat back to Washington, D.C., at least the Federals had some food to look forward to.

Brett

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Harry November 10, 2005 at 10:13 am

I think two week’s free grazing in the Maryland countryside alleviated most of the ANV’s commissary woes. The army was not dashing about Maryland at lightning speed.

It is important to note that while 5th Corps did not leave at the same time as the rest of the army, it then had to march to Antietam Creek in less time. Morrell’s division, IIRC, was pretty wasted by the time it arrived. But good points have been made, and maybe we need to look at Union PFD numbers a little more critically too. I’ve always thought that a good effective number for the AotP would be 65K to 70K, but maybe I need to consider a bigger straggling factor, especially considering the number of new regiments that had seldom marched more than 5 miles at a pop.

Harry

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Will Keene November 10, 2005 at 10:18 am

“I think two week’s free grazing in the Maryland countryside alleviated most of the ANV’s commissary woes. The army was not dashing about Maryland at lightning speed.”

But I think the major straggling occurred at the beginnign of the period and not at the end.

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Harry November 10, 2005 at 10:34 am

Will,

So is it your belief that the bulk of the 30,000 some odd stragglers were strung out between Manassas and Frederick? Unless they didn’t cross over the river at all (I believe Priest claims something like this), you would think they would have been “gobbled up” by the thousands. And if they didn’t cross at all, or crossed and crossed back, I think that speaks to something more than straggling.

Harry

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Mitch H. November 10, 2005 at 12:49 pm

1) The Union divisions had much less further to march in the two-week period prior to Sharpsburg than their Confederate peers. Almost all of them followed very simple, direct-line-of-march arcs from the Washington defenses to the South Mountain gaps, and then from the gaps, converging on the banks of the Antietam. I think only Franklin’s divisions had to do any backtracking at all.

2) Two-thirds of Lee’s divisions had to ford a major river three times in two weeks. This represented several extreme physical and organizational efforts which their opposite numbers were *not* required to perform, those having had to cross having done so on the Washington bridges.

3) Those divisions which were required to make those additional fording operations were also compelled to make a number of hard marches, especially the last series of forced marches from Harper

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WIll November 10, 2005 at 3:56 pm

“So is it your belief that the bulk of the 30,000 some odd stragglers were strung out between Manassas and Frederick?”

Yes. I suspect that most of them didnt make it across the Potomac so they were strung out between Manassas and the river.

“you would think they would have been “gobbled up” by the thousands.”

If the bulk of the straggling occurred in Maryland, you would think they would have been gobbled by the thousands up regardless of when it occurred.

“And if they didn’t cross at all, or crossed and crossed back, I think that speaks to something more than straggling.”

What does it say to you? Becuase I dont know what you mean.

Mitch has pointed to hard marches and extreme physical and organizational efforts before Anteitam as reasons for the straggling. But consider the hard marches and efforts that occurred during the second half of August. As is stated in point5 “Lee had left a lot of his people behind on the battlefields of Chantilly and Manassas when he crossed the Potomac”. Also the argument made in point 4 equally applies to men who lagged from the army when Lee initially moved northward across the river.

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Mitch H. November 10, 2005 at 5:14 pm

Will: as I understand it, the documentary evidence for heavy straggling on the initial march northwards and the first crossing tends not to support the early straggling theory, at least according to Harsh.

Also, when we’re talking about the gap between the Sharpsburg estimates and the start-of-campaign records of 70,000+, those PFD totals were from the day or so after Chantilly, and would have explicitly factored in the losses and estrays represented by the two battles of Chantilly and 2nd Manassas. It was, after all, rather the point of having the reports made – to find out what was available after the preceding campaign and battles. The men and material being sent from the battlefields to the rendezvous at Winchester wouldn’t be part of the PFD totals, would they?

I don’t know, I could be misunderstanding Harsh on that point.

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Brett Schulte November 10, 2005 at 7:13 pm

First off, great discussion guys. I’m enjoying this tremendously. Going back through the posts, I have several thoughts.

1) I agree with Harry that we ought to look at Federal PFD strengths during this time as well. Does anyone know if Harsh does this in _Taken At The Flood_? I’ve begun reading _Confederate Tide Rising_, and the third (I think?) appendix concentrates on Union and Confederate PFD strengths during the Seven Days and the Second Manassas Campaign.

2) I agree more with Will than with Harry so far as straggling goes in that I believe that quite a few Confederates never made it across the Potomac, although Mitch’s comments on the majority of straggling occurring during the Harper’s Ferry operation is something I never really considered until now. I’ll save further comment on some of this until I’ve read Harsh’s books.

3) Mitch’s “Six Point Post” was extremely interesting and thought-provoking, just the sort of stuff I was hoping would be posted in response to my original blog entry.

4) Mitch, in your last post, your assumption is how I interpret the numbers I’ve seen from John Allen’s Masters Thesis (i.e. 75,000+ on September 2) and from what I know of Harsh’s ideas (i.e. the PFD number for the Confederates on September 17 only includes the men at Harper’s Ferry and those PFD at the Battle of Sharpsburg). The men left behind in West Virginia or otherwise south of the Potmac are NOT counted in those totals in any way.

Brett S.

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will November 11, 2005 at 10:00 am

I am not very familiar with Harsh’s work, but in my opinion the documentary evidence does support the early straggling theory.

Here are two examples:

On September 7 13 Lee wrote a message to Davis which included remarks about the straggling problem. He did not comment on a the number, but his remarks indicate that it was already a serious issue.

On September 13 Lee wrote a message to Davis which included remarks about the straggling problem. At this point he estimated that straggling had reduced his army by 1/3 to 1/2. This is stated 4 days before the battle at Sharpsburg and before he could be aware of any straggling associated with the Harper’s Ferry operation. Based on other documents, I think it more logical that the bulk of these stragglers were in Virginia rather than around Frederick MD

On the 21st Lee wrote to Davis with more comments on the straggling issue. In that letter he stated “A great many men belonging to the army never entered Maryland at all; many returned after getting there, while others who crossed the
river kept aloof.”

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Mitch H. November 11, 2005 at 3:51 pm

I looked up the Sept. 13th letter – http://ehistory.osu.edu/uscw/library/or/028/0606.cfm – to get straight on the details, since it does weigh heavily against my point as you lay it out.

The relevant two paragraphs would be this, I think:

(quote)I have received as yet no official list of the casualties in the late battles, and, from the number of absentees from the army and the vice of straggling, a correct list cannot now be obtained. The army has been so constantly in motion, its attention has been so unremittingly devoted to what was necessary, that little opportunity has been afforded for attention to this subject

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Will Keene November 11, 2005 at 4:31 pm

Mitch,

Lee acknowledged in that letter that from 1/3 to 1/2 of his army had been left behind due to straggling. This is a larger number of men left behind. If you hold the opinion you expressed at the end of your message, why would it matter whether you believe the reduction happened before or after Chantilly?

In my opinion Lee was bold and willing to take big risks in dealing with the enemy.

Yours,

Will

Reply

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