October 31, 1862: A Counterfactual

by James Durney on October 31, 2012 · 4 comments

October 31, 1862

The Confederate offensive of 1862 resulted in defeats at Antietam, Perryville and Corinth.  What would happen if the battles of Antietam and Perryville had not taken place?  What if Van Dorn had not risked everything attacking Corinth?  Over estimating the size of armies is endemic in 1862.  Yes, my numbers for Lee, Bragg and Van Dorn are way above actual strength.  Given the times, I do not feel they are very unrealistic for 1862.

On September 16, reports of a large Confederate force advancing from Harpers Ferry toward Washington DC panics the government.  Washington orders the Army of the Potomac to break contact with the Army of Northern Virginia and return to the ring of forts around the city.

  • The Army of Northern Virginia secures communications with Richmond and fortifies South Mountain.
  • Stuart’s cavalry raids the outskirts of Baltimore and comes within 30 miles of Philadelphia.   Lee is reported to have over 120,000 in his army.
  • The murder of General “Bull” Nelson by General Jefferson Davis freezes the Army of the Ohio in Louisville.  On October 14, orders relive giving command to George Thomas.  Thomas and the administration become involved in a contentious debate on a number of issues.  The major one being how Thomas is to deal with the reported 85,000 men in Bragg’s army.
  • Kentucky has a Confederate government in Frankfort as Kentuckians start to rally to the Confederate cause.
  • Richmond put Braxton Bragg in command of all CSA forces in Kentucky.  Kirby Smith is relived and his force combined with Bragg.  This army is screening Frankfort and “besieging” Louisville.
  • The garrison at Nashville surrenders on October 28 to local “militia” returning the city to Confederate control.
  • Van Dorn and Price are active in Northern Mississippi and Southern Tennessee.  Corinth is virtually under siege isolated with the railroad being destroyed as fast as it can be repaired.  Grant tells Halleck Rosecrans’ command is at risk.  Grant asks to abandon Corinth as part of a consolidation of forces in Nashville.  The Confederates refuse to engage in battle conducting a campaign of harassment.  The Van Dorn/Price army is reported at 50,000.
  • Morgan, Forrest and Wheeler raid west and central Tennessee.  They overpower small garrisons; destroy railroads, attack riverboats and contraband camps.  Outside of Nashville reduced rations are normal.
  • Democrats win the majority of the October elections.  Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio and Indiana elect men more inclined to end the war than continue it.  Expectations are the November elections in New York, New Jersey and Illinois will continue this trend.  The next Congress may not be willing to continue fighting and accept secession.
  • John Adams’ sources say Her Majesty’s Government is talking with France, Prussia and Russia about intervention.  When the news of the retreat into the DC forts reached London Palmerston’s government voted for intervention.
  • At a state dinner, Napoleon III toasts Jefferson Davis.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation is locked in Lincoln’s desk.  Lead by Seward and supported by Stanton and Blair the cabinet is united against issuing the proclamation.  Lincoln accepts their “the last dying shriek” argument.  Staunton fears the proclamation will cause the army to mutiny or lose their willingness to fight.  Blair says it will give the Democrats another advantage in the remaining elections.  In any event, a Congress with heavy Democratic majorities will refuse to honor the proclamation in January.
  • Communication between Lincoln and McClellan is totally broken down.  McClellan, with the support of many Corps commanders, maintains it is impossible to attack with inferior numbers.    The general plan is stay in the forts and wait for reinforcements.  However, recruiting is at a standstill, men refuse to volunteer and governors are not sending regiments into Federal service.
  • The Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War is conducting a witch hunt.  Loyalty, to the Republican Party, is the major issue.  Democrats, most of the senior army officers, are under suspicion as the Radicals try to purge the army.  The committee is investigating and aggressively questioning most of the senior army officers.
  • “Fighting Joe” Hooker is scheming to gain command of the Army of the Potomac.  His faction undercuts McClellan and officers loyal to him.  Working with the Radicals, Hooker is partially responsible for the arrest of Fitz John Porter.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Christopher Coleman November 1, 2012 at 7:58 am

There is only one point in your “what if” scenario that I would take issue with and this actually strengthens your argument. General Bragg didn’t actually lose the Battle of Perryville. The Union left wing was pummeled and came close to breaking; Buell, due to “acoustic shadow” was unaware of the threat until nearly the end of the day. Had Bragg followed up with a renewed assault the second day instead of retreating (much to Buell’s surprise) at the very least the battle would have been considered a draw; perhaps Buell would have had to fall back in defeat. It was only a “defeat” because of Bragg’s failrue of nerve.


Dan November 1, 2012 at 11:49 am

Interesting, though I would quibble with one part: the bit about Van Dorn/Price conducting only a harassing campaign around Corinth. I doubt Van Dorn—who was never EVER that circumspect as a general—would do so now. Given half a chance, he would probably have butted his head (rather, his men’s heads) against the fortifications around Corinth in 99 scenarios out of 100.

Not that this would make much of a deal in the overall situation you portray. Just throwing it out there…


James W. Durny November 1, 2012 at 3:05 pm


While I agree that Van Dorn is out of character, the CSA needs all 3 armies to be doing well. Grant having real problems makes this even more possible.


Richard Small November 1, 2012 at 3:48 pm

As an alternate history author, I really enjoyed reading the article. That’s the thing about the Civil War. There are a thousand places where history could be “tweaked” to produce an interesting alternate history outcome. This was just another period in the war that I had not thought about, but the scenario was an interesting and plausible one.

Thanks Mr. Durnay


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