Taken At The Flood: Robert E. Lee & Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862

Taken At The Flood: Robert E. Lee & Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862
by Joseph L. Harsh

Taken At The Flood picks up where Confederate Tide Rising left off. On September 2, 1862, Robert E. Lee had been in command of the Army of Northern Virginia for almost three months. In that time, he had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat around Richmond in the Seven Days, driving McClellan back from Richmond. Lee, never content to rest on his laurels, decided he must move north against John Pope’s threatening Federal Army of Virginia, even before he knew McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was evacuating the Peninsula. Lee had again won a smashing victory at Second Manassas, and now found himself within 20 miles of the Federal capital, a stunning reversal considering where he had been on June 3. I will again be commenting on Harsh’s work chapter by chapter, but I hope to be a little more succinct when covering this volume. If I’m not, I’m afraid you might be reading a book length set of blog entries! With that said, this initial post will discuss Harsh’s preface and the first chapter. On September 2, 1862, Lee was debating what move to make next. Harsh discusses the options Lee had open to him, as well as the shortcomings he now had to deal with.

In the preface to the book, Harsh discusses why his authorship of a book on Antietam was probably inevitable. He grew up in Hagerstown, Maryland, located only thirteen miles from Sharpsburg, and he discusses his frequent visits to the battlefield as a youth. He goes on to mention his fascination with Antietam in his professional studies as a historian, including devoting his Master’s Thesis to the subject. Harsh recollects that the commonly held view of McClellan as a cautious man who always overestimated his enemy’s strength and intentions, the McClellan of popular history, disappeared in his studies of the Antietam Campaign. This gives the reader the idea right off the bat that Harsh will not simply rehash what you will find in some 1960’s issues of Civil War Times Illustrated or American Heritage. Harsh recalls that Ted Alexander, a National Park Service historian at Antietam, finally prodded him into writing about his lifelong interest. Even though Sears’ Antietam book was less than a decade old and Harsh disagreed with Sears’ interpretation of events in many cases, he believed that another full-length campaign study was not needed. Instead, he decided to write several essays covering various topics where he and sears didn’t see eye to eye. Harsh wanted to include views on the strategy of each side, the Lost Orders (naturally enough, as no Antietam study can be without it!), the strengths of each side during the campaign (of particular interest to me), and the tactics at the battle itself (also of major interest, if you’ve been paying attention while reading this blog for any period of time). Luckily for the rest of us, Mr. Harsh likes to go into as much detail as I like to read about. His one volume currently stands at three books and (possibly, if he writes a companion book to this one from the Federal side similar to Sounding The Shallows, which focused on the Confederates) could go to four or more in the future. Harsh concludes the Preface by mentioning that this book is NOT a full narrative of the Maryland Campaign in the same vein as Sears. Instead, his is a work covering the strategy of Robert E. Lee during the campaign. He mentions that literally everything Lee said or wrote about the Maryland Campaign has been studied and is included in this book. I continue to be amazed by Joe Harsh and his utterly comprehensive knowledge of all things Antietam. There are about ninety pages of notes for five hundred pages of text, and I look forward to browsing through these as I read.

Part 1Part 2Part 3 – Part 4 (Not Yet Active)

The introduction to Taken At The Flood contains numerous fascinating points. As we all know, Gettysburg has come to be known as the turning point in the Civil War as far as consensus history goes. Harsh points out that during the early years of the war, Antietam clearly was the turning point. It stopped a long string of Confederate successes in the east, it arguably deterred Great Britain and France from getting too serious about joining the fight, and it led to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamtion. It was at that time and remains to the present time the bloodiest single day in American history. After McClellan was sacked and after Gettysburg was fought, the emphasis on Antietam as a turning point considerably lessened. It is very interesting to note that one of the reasons for Antietam’s diminished emphasis at the time was due to the fact that it wouldn’t be politically acceptable to laud a McClellan victory as a turning point. Dimitri Rotov would agree emphatically with Harsh on that point I’m sure. Harsh catalogs the various ways in which Gettysburg has been given greater attention, some of which include:
-More visitors to a larger and better funded National Military Park
-Many more books written about Gettysburg

Harsh says this all started to change when Bruce Catton declared that Antietam, not Gettysburg, was the turning point of the war in 1957. This led to a great increase in the amount of literature covering the battle. Harsh concludes that Antietam is probably the second most studied battle of the entire war. And with that conclusion, he believes the reader is probably wondering why the battle needs more coverage. Harsh agrees that a traditional campaign study is not needed at this point since several others have already been written. What he sets out to do in Taken At The Flood is to reassess some of what he believes to be incorrect assumptions and conclusions that have crept into the popular consciousness. Most of these have to do with the cardboard cutout caricatures of “dashing” Robert E. Lee and “timid” George McClellan. Harsh says he has three reasons for doing this:
1. “It is simply unhealthy for historical assumtpions to go untested for 130 years”
2. the campaign has often been reduced to the personalties of its commanders
3. hindisght is used too often; Harsh wants to look at the campaign through what the commanders knew at the time

Harsh concludes his introduction by describing in great detail the methods he wished to use to make sure he looks at the campaign as Lee and McClellan saw it.

Reprise: “From the interior to the frontier”: Lee Reaches The Potomac, September 1, 1862
As the title of indicates, this section more or less repeats the Intermezzo from the end of Confederate Tide Rising. Harsh discusses the location and condition of the Confederate forces on September 1, and says that Lee had many decisions to make in the coming days.

In the ensuing blog entries on Taken At The Flood, I hope to follow a much shorter format than that used for my entries on Confederate Tide Rising. Each chapter will be summarized in a paragraph or two, and I will follow that with comments on various things Harsh says that I find particularly interesting.

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