Taken At The Flood, Part 2

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

Chapter 1
“We cannot afford to be idle”, Lee’s Strategic Dilemma, September 2-3, 1862

Chapter 1 is all about decisions. Lee had driven the Union forces under John Pope back into the fortifications surrounding Washington, D.C. As he closed the Second Manassas Campaign, Harsh says, the planning for the new campaign began immediately. As Lee looked at the four points of the compass, he did not see many opportunities to press his advantage. Moving east to Washington, D.C. was out of the question. Lee never seriously considered attacking Washington, according to Harsh. There were simply too many heavy guns and too many fortifications to have a reasonable chance of success. The author also rules out a siege. The Confederates did not have enough men to successfully cut off the ground routes to the Union capital, and even if they did, the powerful Federal navy could simply resupply Washington via the Potomac River. Even worse, the Confederates would have had a base in war ravaged Fairfax County. Lee simply could not supply his army with the utter lack of resources that county had available. In fact, Lee immediately decided he couldn’t stay long in Fairfax County period. He needed to move, but where? In looking south, Lee could have fallen back to a defensive line around Fredericksburg or Culpeper, but since Harsh could not find any references to this as a possibility, he believes Lee never even seriously considered it. Harsh doesn’t believe Lee wanted to move due north and launch an invasion of the North either. Lee apparently felt he had too few troops for a full-scale invasion, and he also might have felt (along with most other Confederates) that this would have exceeded Confederate war aims. Lastly, an invasion launched to make the Northerners feel the hard hand of war could possibly backfire and cause newfound resolve from the Northern populace to win the war to avenge any actions Lee’s army had taken. Moving west was the only possibility that had some promise. Lee could move all the way to the Shenandoah Valley to clear out the few remaining Federal garrisons there and create a secure supply line south, but there were drawbacks. This move might not force the Federals to come out from behind their fortifications in Washington, giving them time they desperately needed to refit and recover. Second, moving too far west opened up the possibility of a Federal move on Richmond. And lastly, this would allow the Federal army to cross back over into Virginia and reclaim territory Lee was determined to keep for the Confederacy. Lee could temporarily move a shorter distance west to Loudoun County, site of the earlier Battle of Ball’s Bluff near Leesburg. This area hadn’t been ravaged like Fairfax County, and it had the added benefits of keeping Richmond protected and hopefully keeping the Northerners north of the Potomac. However, Loudoun County had to be only a rest stop. Lee couldn’t sit there for weeks and allow the Union army to refit.

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Harsh next discusses three “tangents” which existed that could help Lee decide what to do. The first was the possibility of foreign intervention. The author discusses the prospects of this happening and believes that if the Confederates had won one more victory on Northern soil, it may have happened. However, Harsh says this did not play into Lee’s strategic thinking because he could not have known of events in Britain by the time he crossed the Potomac River. The second was the fact that fully six other Confederate armies were in the process of launching offensives in the west, and a seventh under Kirby Smith was already in Kentucky. William W. Loring and Albert Jenkins moved to attack in western Virginia, Braxton Bragg and Humphrey Marshall were set to join Smith, and Sterling Price and Earl Van Dorn were set to move north just east of the Mississippi River. Lee was probably also unaware of these events as well, since in early September he recommended that Bragg’s Army be moved east to join him if it wasn’t already being put to use. The third tangent was the massive calls for reinforcements by Lincoln after the Seven Days. Fully 600,000 new men would be in arms by the time these men had been recruited, armed and trained. The Confederacy’s ratio of men would go from a very favorable 4:3 to a decidedly unfavorable 2.6:1. Lee probably had an idea that this was happening, says Harsh. Further, Lee believed that the large force in the Federal capital was demoralized and would need time to recover. Already 20,000 new troops had reached Washington, D.C., but Lee knew that they would not be as valuable before they were fully trained. His own Army, on the other hand, had received large numbers of reinforcements from D.H. Hill’s reinforcing column, and his men were confident in themselves and their leader.

Harsh then takes on the strength and mettle of the Confederate Army. He says that most people have underestimated the strength of the Confederate Army on September 2, 1862. Many people seem to forget Hill’s reinforcing column or severely reduce the number of troops Hill brought with him. According to Harsh, Hill’s column increased Lee’s Army by half, from approximately 50,000 to 75,000 men. Harsh then goes into a history of the reinforcing column. Ironically, Harsh notes, this determination to downplay the size of Lee’s army led others to question the soundness of crossing the Potomac River into Maryland in the first place! Harsh goes on to discuss the “mettle” of Lee’s army. He makes a good case that no other army North or South could match the Army of Northern Virginia in terms of battlefield success and number of battles fought. In addition, any conscripts or other groups of reinforcements were parceled out to existing regiments. This had the benefit of allowing these new men to learn from experienced veterans on all sides. In contrast, the North usually raised brand new regiments, and it would take time to properly train these men and a few battles to properly harden them into combat veterans. Harsh also discusses Lee’s informal “Wing” structure, and indicates that Lee must not have trusted D.H. Hill or other candidates enough to form a true third wing. Instead, he issued orders directly to the four divisions of the reinforcing column. One potential problem area was in the number of qualified officers available to command regiments, brigades, and even divisions in some cases. The period of time from June 25-September 1 had been marked by a lot of hard fighting, and many leaders had been killed, wounded, or captured. Nevertheless, Lee believed that the Yankees were probably in worse condition than his army was in this matter. Some of Lee’s men, especially in Jackson’s divisions, were simply worn out. Luckily, the men under Longstreet and those of the reinforcing column were in better shape. Many of the men had worn out their shoes as well. One final concern was lack of ammunition. If Lee moved further away from his supply bases, this could become a serious matter. Even if the Marylanders wanted to help Lee’s Army with supplies, they would not be able to offer ammunition.

Lee wanted to retain the initiative, and a new option was placed in front of him. He could launch a turning movement into Maryland. This would keep the all-important initiative. Lee believed a move into that state might hit a sore spot in the North and cause the Union to react immediately. This would not give them the time to refit after the disaster at Second Manassas. In addition, the Northern home front might see this turning movement as a full-scale invasion of the North, and clamor for their politicians and armies to do something. Lee could also wreck two important supply lines feeding Washington fro the west: the B&O Railroad and the C&O Canal. This would surely force McClellan’s hand and cause him to move out of the Washington fortifications…and out into the open where Lee’s Army could fight a battle on ground of their choosing. Other advantages included creating a secure supply line through the Shenandoah, provided the Federal garrisons there would flee or provided Lee could reduce them quickly. And lastly, every day his army spent in Maryland meant one less day the army would have to draw on the dwindling resources of Virginia.

Lee decided on an “open-ended decision”. He would move west to Loudoun County, where he could simultaneously threaten Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley while feeding his men from the resources there. Lee apparently discussed this move with both Jackson and Longstreet, with both agreeing on the subject. Lee ordered his forces to march on the night of September 2. Harsh says that Lee used his cavalry curiously by having them all guard the rear and front of his infantry columns rather than sending some on a raid into Maryland or even to scout the fords across the Potomac leading into Maryland. Harsh concludes that Lee’s quick decision to at least start the new campaign so quickly given the obstacles facing him was more than most generals would have accomplished in such a short period of time.

On September 3, Lee sent two dispatches. The first was to Secretary of War Randolph concerning the possibility of conscription in the northern Virginia counties recently freed from Yankee rule. Always looking for ways to increase manpower, Lee hoped 4,000-5,000 men could be rounded up in these counties. The longer dispatch Lee sent to Davis. In it, he describes the results of the Second Manassas Campaign. Harsh believes it is more interesting for what it does NOT contain. Lee makes absolutely no mention of his march to Leesburg or that he has been thinking of crossing the Potomac. Harsh believes that Lee knew the importance of such decisions and decided to write a dispatch focusing exclusively on those topics.

September 3 was apparently a very good day in the history of the Army of Northern Virginia. Harsh describes the leisurely marches of most of Lee’s men. In addition, it was an absolutely beautiful day in Northern Virginia, with the temperatures reaching into the 60’s. The head of Lee’s army was already in Leesburg, while the tail was farther east at Dranesville. It was at the latter place where Lee wrote his second letter of the day to Davis. In it, he says that the time was ripe for entering Maryland, and he gives his reasons supporting that action. Harsh says Lee’s dispatch is aggressive and that it assumes Davis would agree in principle to a forward movement. Lee discusses the advantages to be gained by such a movement, including forcing the enemy to operate north of the Potomac River and retaining the initiative, while also explaining the difficulty of attacking Washington directly and acknowledging that the plan contained some risks. Interestingly, at this point Lee thought the Union had 60,000 new troops in the capital and that John Pope, not George McClellan, would be the leader of any force sent to oppose him. Harsh ends the chapter by pointing out that Lee never asks for Davis’ explicit approval for a march into Maryland, nor does he even indicate he is willing to wait for a response from Davis. Second, Lee did not ask for reinforcements. Harsh postulates that he made have known none were available, or (interestingly, to me) that he knew how much Hill’s reinforcing column had strengthened him. Lastly, he does not mention straggling. Harsh believes he either was not yet aware of the problem, or that Lee possibly did not want to mention such a major drawback to his plan of entering Maryland.

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