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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. II
p405
Chapter XXVIII

Sharpsburg in Review

The seemly silence of a vast cemetery lay over the green ridges on the morning of September 18. The Confederate line had been drawn in about 200 yards on the centre; elsewhere it remained where it stood at the close of the battle. Numerous stragglers had come up during the night.1 For the first time in days, meat and bread were eaten in reasonable abundance by all.

Nowhere on the long front did the enemy stir.2 Reconnaissance showed that he had massed his artillery on the east bank of the Antietam, as if expecting an attack.3 Encouraged by this, Lee ordered another examination of the left, to see if it would be possible to break through the enveloping lines on that flank and to resume manoeuvre. He rode there himself to prepare for the move,4 but to his manifest disappointment, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson had to confess that the enemy's guns were too strongly posted.5

Deprived of his only hope of a turning movement, Lee was still confident that he could resist successfully a Federal attack and he waited expectantly.6 Noon brought no action by an enemy whose front had been aflame ere daybreak on the 17th. Most of the wounded had been evacuated. The spirit of the men was reviving somewhat. Still, the strength of the army was too low for Lee to consider an immediate offensive on so shallow a field.7 Every sign indicated the early arrival of very substantial Federal reinforcements to take the place of the fallen.8 If Lee could not attack where he stood, and if the enemy would not do so till fresh troops came up, it was the policy of prudence for the army to retire across the Potomac and to choose some new line of advance p406 for a continuance of the campaign of manoeuvre. So, at 2 o'clock, Lee notified Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet of his intention to withdraw that night. He began quiet preparations9 without repining. For there were other fords and other roads, surely, by which he could re-enter Maryland as soon as he was ready for new adventures there.

The day ended as quietly as it had opened and witnessed no challenge of the Confederate position. After midnight of the 18th-19th, Longstreet led the way over the Potomac and formed line of battle on the right flank.10 Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stuart crossed with part of the cavalry at Shepherdstown and advanced up the Potomac in order to return into Maryland again and vex the Federal flank if the retirement of the army was contested.11 Fitz Lee was to remain and to cover the temporary retreat. Steadily through the night and into the morning of the 19th the gray columns passed back into Virginia at the ford a mile and a quarter below Shepherdstown. Lee himself took post at the crossing, to give directions to the teamsters,12 and when Walker's division was over and its commander reported that only his wagons with his wounded and a single battery of artillery remained behind, Lee voiced an audible "Thank God."13 Not so reverent were the men. When going northward, they had sung "My Maryland." Now, to quote one who waded the river, "all was quiet on that point. Occasionally some fellow would strike that tune, and you would then hear the echo, 'Damn my Maryland.' "14

Safely on Virginia soil again, Lee had only to fear a strong and vigorous pursuit by the Federals. They attacked Fitz Lee on the morning of the 19th as he guarded the rear15 and they might attempt to force a crossing. To guard against this possibility, Lee directed General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pendleton to cover with his reserve artillery the ford by which the army had passed. To support the guns, Lee left Pendleton two infantry brigades, which, however, numbered only 600 bayonets.16 The remainder of the tired army moved a p407 short distance back from the river and spread itself out on the hills to rest from its battles. Darkness on the 19th found Lee and his staff bivouacked under an apple tree, supperless but fed with the promise of long-desired silence.

About midnight Lee was awakened by an urgent visitor, none other than General Pendleton, whom he had left at the ford. That bewildered officer had a startling tale to tell. The Federals, he said, had silently crossed the river above the point he was guarding. His infantry support had been driven back, and . . . and all the guns of the reserve artillery had been captured.

"All?" asked Lee in amazement.

"Yes, General, I fear all."

One of Lee's officers, awakened by the conversation, heard Pendleton's confession and was so outraged that he sprang up and ran off to conceal his feelings. And well he might. To permit the enemy to cross the river unhindered and capture all the reserve artillery, some forty guns, was to threaten Virginia with new invasion and the army with ruin. Lee was, of course, much disturbed, but he said little; and as it was futile to attempt a counterattack in the dark, he decided to do nothing until daylight.17

When Jackson heard the news he showed more anxiety than he had ever exhibited during the war.18 He rode back at dawn to the ford to supervise the operations of A. P. Hill, whom he directed to move up those and drive the enemy into the river. Lee sent him two anxious messages during the morning of the 20th and was immensely relieved when Jackson characteristically answered his second note, "With the blessing of Providence, they will soon be driven back."19 He was as good as his word. Hill's men attacked with the vigor they had shown at Sharpsburg and forced the enemy to abandon the south bank. Some two hundred were captured, many were drowned in attempting to recross, and the Virginia side of the stream was clear again. Instead of capturing the whole of the reserve artillery, as Pendleton in his alarm had feared, the Federals had taken only four pieces.20 McClellan p408 made no further attempt to pursue the Southern army.

Lee withdrew his command on September 20 to the vicinity of Martinsburg,21 in order to manoeuvre to the westward, to pass over the Potomac again at Williamsport, to move on to Hagerstown, and to defeat McClellan.22 If that could not be done, his plan was to occupy the enemy on the frontier, and, should the occasion require, to enter the Shenandoah Valley.23 But it could not be. Even with stragglers who had come up, he had only 36,418 infantry present for duty on September 22.24 Absentees were scattered through a wide country. Thousands had no shoes, no blankets, and scarcely any garments.25 Lee called vigorously for clothing and footgear and urged stern measures against straggling,26 but for the time his initiative was paralyzed. He had to forgo all his plans for further manoeuvre in Maryland in order to collect stragglers and refit the ragged faithful. What might be termed the "Maryland phase" of the campaign — it should not be regarded as a campaign in itself — was at an end.

Judged by comparative losses, Lee had given a good account of the men entrusted to him. He sustained a total of 13,609 casualties during the whole of the Maryland operation. The Federals lost in killed, wounded, and prisoners, including the Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg garrisons, 27,767.27 A commander who disposes in thirteen days of enemy forces exceeding 50 per cent of his entire army is not usually charged with failure. The seventy-three guns and the 13,000 small arms captured at the Ferry were rich prizes. The 11,000 prisoners, duly exchanged, compensated for p409 Lee's losses. He was not pleased, of course, at having to leave Maryland,28 but he was gratified at what the army had achieved, and in time he became prouder of Sharpsburg than of any other battle he directed, because, as he believed, his men there faced the heaviest odds they ever encountered.29 "History," he wrote Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Mr. Davis, "records but few examples of a greater amount of labor and fighting than has been done by this army during the present campaign."30 In his congratulatory orders to the troops, issued on October 2, he praised the "indomitable courage [the army] has displayed in battle and its cheerful endurance of privation and hardship on the march."31 The letters of one of his aides, Major Walter H. Taylor, contain a more detailed appraisal of the results and reflect the spirit of the command immediately after the return to Virginia. "Don't let any of your friends sing 'My Maryland,' " Taylor wrote, "— not 'my Western Maryland' anyhow." Harpers Ferry, Taylor went on, was compensation for all the trouble they had experienced. "The fight of the 17th," he said, "has taught us the value of our men, who can, even when weary with constant marching and fighting, and when on short rations, contend with and resist three times their own numbers. . . . We do not claim a victory. . . . It was not decisive enough for that. . . . If either had the advantage, it certainly was with us. . . . Congress must provide for reinforcing us, and then we will be enabled to realize their sanguine expectation. Give us the men and then talk about invading Pennsylvania. Our present army is not equal to the task, in my opinion. You see, the Federals get 3000 or 4000 new troops a day; and though we have done wonders, we can't perform miracles."32

Although this was fair judgment, by no means all historians have confirmed it. The three weeks covered by the Maryland expedition have been the most criticised of Lee's entire military career. His strategy in invading Maryland has been assailed; his division of the army for the capture of Harpers Ferry has been condemned as rash and unsoldierly; his dispatch of Longstreet to Hagerstown instead of keeping him with Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.D. H. Hill on the march westward from Frederick has been held responsible for p410 failure at Boonsboro; his decision to accept battle on the 17th, and, still more, his determination not to leave Maryland the night after the battle have been said to exhibit an infirmity of judgment he disclosed at no other time.

When biography becomes defense, it descends to special pleading and forfeits all confidence. The facts must speak for themselves. The duty of the biographer is discharged when he has arrayed them in their proper place and order. The informed reader who follows the successive steps of Lee's planning must himself be the judge of the fairness of these criticisms; but the reader, at the same time, must examine all the circumstances in their relation to the desperate leadership of a desperate cause.

If this be done, the unsuccessful outcome of the operations in Maryland will be found to hinge upon the unexpected rapidity and assurance of the Federal movements on and after September 13. A Union army that had suffered demoralization at Second Manassas, and was now under a commander who was deliberation incarnate, suddenly began to march swiftly on Lee. A new McClellan seemed to emerge, a McClellan who divined the movements of his opponent. Lee did not understand this at the time and did not know the explanation until the publication of McClellan's official report.33 Then he learned that at Frederick, on the 13th, McClellan had received from the hands of a soldier, who had picked it up in the streets, a package of three cigars, wrapped in a headquarters copy of Special Orders No. 191, covering the movement to Harpers Ferry and the march of all the units of the army.34 This information had dissipated the "fog of war," had galvanized McClellan and had made it possible for him to advance in full knowledge of where Lee was and of what Lee intended to do. If the Maryland operations be hypothetically reconstructed on the assumption that McClellan had not received a copy of these orders, the division of the army for the capture of Harpers Ferry appears as a move that the fast-marching Army of Northern Virginia was justified in making when the slow McClellan was on the eastern side of the mountains and had p411 hardly ventured from the Washington defenses. It was not that Lee was reckless but that McClellan was lucky.a To justify this criticism of dispersion of force it is necessary, therefore, to argue a fundamental that Lee subsequently expressed, namely, "It is proper for us to expect [the enemy] to do what he ought to do."35 In other words, Lee can be condemned only on the assumption that he should have assumed that McClellan would discover the Confederate army was divided.

While Lee, then, is not reasonably censurable for detaching part of his troops to capture Harpers Ferry, he may be criticised for venturing into Maryland without reducing that post. He likewise erred in his logistics in that he underestimated by two days the time required to force the capitulation of the town. Still again, he made a mistake, if a very natural mistake, in dispatching Longstreet to Hagerstown, while D. H. Hill was left at Boonsboro. This final division of force was made on mistaken information that Federals were marching southward from Pennsylvania toward Hagerstown. Lee, of course, should have investigated this report, and should have had cavalry at hand for that purpose. Small as was his mounted force, he should have had enough of it in advance to have ascertained the falsity of the report without having to send off infantry. He had made a like mistake in separating himself from his cavalry, though with less serious results, when he moved Longstreet to Groveton the previous month.

Turning now from those criticisms that concern the dispersal of force, it is necessary to inquire to what extent Lee was responsible for the straggling of his army, responsible, that is, in the sense that he might have prevented this loss of strength. No student can read of Sharpsburg and not have a shock when he learns that an army which numbered 53,000 just before it entered Maryland mustered less than 40,000 in the critical hour of combat, though it had not sustained heavy battle losses during the preliminaries. Lee himself was conscious of failure here, for he told Alexander, "My army is ruined by straggling."36 There had never before been anything like it in the Army of Northern Virginia, and it never was repeated until the very end of the war.

p412 There can be no sort of doubt that Lee underestimated the exhaustion of his army after Second Manassas. That is, in reality, the major criticism of the Maryland operation: he carried worn-out men across the Potomac. As for the specific reasons for excessive straggling, these have already been given in part. Many soldiers fell out from weariness and some because they were unwilling to invade the North, being concerned only with the defense of their own homes. At bottom, the greater part of the straggling was due to bad shoes and good roads. The footgear of many of the men had been worn thin by their stern, fast marching from the Rapidan to the Potomac. The hard Maryland roads completed the ruin of their shoes, slowed down their marching, and cut their feet horribly. Surgeon S. G. Welch, who examined many of the men after their return to Virginia, bore witness to the suffering sustained by men who were accustomed to soft dirt roads.37 Straggling diminished as soon as the men's feet healed, and in the next phase of the campaign it was scarcely mentioned.

There remain but two criticisms to review. The first is that Lee should not have stood at Sharpsburg, but should have withdrawn to Virginia from South Mountain. The reasons that have been assigned in these pages for Lee's decision to fight at Sharpsburg are the only answer that can be made — perhaps all that need be made — to this contention. The second and final criticism is that, if Lee was justified at all in fighting at Sharpsburg, he should have retreated on the night of September 17 and should not have remained north of the Potomac on the 18th. This overlooks important facts. Lee needed time to secure the booty at Harpers Ferry, needed time to evacuate his wounded, and time to collect his stragglers. He could have done none of these things if he had retreated with an exhausted army on the night of the 17th. Believing that he could repulse McClellan's attacks the next day, he was willing to give battle to restore his army, to save his booty, and to care for his prisoners. The result vindicated his decision.38

p413 On the positive side, the Maryland phase of the campaign of manoeuvre was important in the development of the army and in the training of its commanders. The operations demonstrated, in the first place, the fine quality of the Army of Northern Virginia in defensive fighting, with which it had previously had little or no experience, except that acquired by Jackson's command at Second Manassas. Lee had felt that he could usually count on the army to capture a position; Sharpsburg satisfied him that he could always rely on it to hold one.

The staff and the division commanders, in the second place, learned other new lessons in co-operation at Sharpsburg. In a few reports there were complaints that supports did not arrive or that troops on the flank did not do their part, but far more often even the ambitious generals, jealous of the fame of their own commands, paid tribute in their reports to the units in the line that gave them assistance. To read the official narratives of the Seven Days and to follow these with a close scrutiny of the official narratives of Sharpsburg is to marvel at the progress the army made during a little more than three months in welding itself into an effective weapon. No longer could it be called a congeries of regiments.

At Second Manassas the artillery had given a far better account of itself than in the swamps and thickets along the Chickahominy and the James. At Sharpsburg the artillery was much criticised by D. H. Hill,39 and some of the gun positions were faulty and exposed, but many of the batteries had shared to the fullest the losses and laurels of the infantry.40 This was the more to their credit because, from the Confederate side, Sharpsburg was rightly styled an "artillerists' hell." The Southern guns, well-served, were outranged along the whole front by the heavier, rifled metal of the Federals. The 20 and 24 pounder Parrott guns p414 redeemed many a Federal mistake on that red field, so much so that when Lee was back in Virginia, one of his first appeals to the ordnance department was to prepare ammunition and forward four 24 pounder Parrotts captured at Harpers Ferry. At the same time he directed that two-thirds of future issues of ammunition should be for the long-range or rifled guns.41 Valor was not enough: the army could only stand on its guns. This was the third lesson learned at Sharpsburg.

Perhaps the greatest development of the Maryland operations was in Lee himself. He did not abandon his view that the chief duty of the commanding general was performed when he brought the troops into position on the field of battle. He continued to leave the tactical details of action to the brigade and division commanders. But in the emergency of the day at Sharpsburg, when every general had been occupied on his own front, the larger tactical direction of the action had fallen to Lee and had discharged it flawlessly. Walker had been moved from the right to the left at precisely the right moment: Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McLaws had been directed to that part of the line where he was most needed; R. H. Anderson had been at hand to support D. H. Hill when that officer's own division had been shattered; A. P. Hill had been sent to precisely the place where his timely arrival, and only his arrival, could save the day. In a word, Sharpsburg was the first major battle that Lee had completely directed, and if he had ever believed, deep in his own heart, that his ability as a tactician was less than his skill as a strategist, Sharpsburg must have given him new confidence. For that action remains a model in the full employment of a small force for a defensive battle on the inner line.


The Author's Notes:

1 O. R., 19, part 1, p151.

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2 McDaniel, 16.

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3 O. R., 19, part 1, p841.

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4 1 von Borcke, 237.

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5 White, 225; O. R., 19, part 1, p820.

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6 Cf. O. R., 19, part 1, p151: "We awaited without apprehension the renewal of the attack."

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7 O. R., 19, part 1, p151.

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8 O. R., 19, part 1, p151.

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9 O. R., 19, part 1, p841.

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10 O. R., 19, part 1, p841.

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11 O. R., 19, part 1, p151.

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12 Figg, 57.

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13B. and L., 682.

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14 John H. Lewis: Recollections from 1860 to 1865 (cited hereafter as John H. Lewis), 46.

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15 O. R., 19, part 1, p151.

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16 O. R., 19, part 2, pp613, 831 ff.

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17 Mason, 151; Pendleton, 214; O. R., 19, part 1, pp142, 831 ff.

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18 Mrs. Jackson, 345.

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19 Ibid.

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20 O. R., 19, part 2, pp834, 957, 982. In Ham Chamberlayne, Virginia, edited by Churchill G. Chamberlayne, pp111, 115‑16, 118, 134, a young artillerist in contemporary letters very tartly criticised General Pendleton's behavior on this occasion. It was reported (p408)to Jackson's staff-officers that Lee was greatly excited when he heard of the Federal advance, and that he was about to order the whole army to fall back on the line held by Longstreet. Jackson's quick action, his officers believed, saved Lee from a move that would have meant a speedy pursuit. Major R. H. Dabney, on the authority of D. H. Hill, so stated in his Life of Jackson, but when General Lee reviewed the MS. of that work, at the instance of Mrs. Jackson, he insisted that Dabney was in error. Dabney, forced to accept either D. H. Hill's statement or Lee's, struck out his own language and substituted Lee's words in quotation marks without citing his authority (Cf. Dabney, 577‑78; R. H. Dabney: Memorandum for Col. G. F. R. Henderson, May 7, 1896 — McGuire Papers.).

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21 O. R., 19, part 1, p152.

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22 O. R., 19, part 2, pp626‑27; W. H. Taylor to his sister, Sept. 28, 1862, Taylor MSS.

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23 O. R., 19, part 1, p143.

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24 O. R., 19, part 2, p621.

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25 S. G. Welch to his wife, Sept. 24, 1862, Welch, 31.

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26 O. R., 19, part 1, p143. Ibid., part 2, pp614, 617‑19; cf. 1 R. W. C. D., 157.

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27 Alexander, 273‑75.

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28B. and L., 674.

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29 Andrew Hunter in 10 S. H. S. P., 503.

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30 O. R., 19, part 2, p633.

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31 O. R., 19, part 2, pp644‑45.

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32 W. H. Taylor to his sister, Sept. 21, 1862, Taylor MSS.

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33 McClellan's preliminary report, dated Oct. 15, 1862, merely stated that he received at Frederick "reliable information of the movements and intentions of the enemy" (O. R., 19, part 1, p26). His full report, of Aug. 4, 1863 (ibid., p36), quoted the "lost order."

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34 See p369, n72, supra. For the finding of the "lost order," see 2 B. and L., p603.

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35 O. R., 25, part 2, p624.

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36 13 S. H. S. P., 13.

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37 Welch, 31. Cf. Colonel Edward McCrady, Jr., in 13 S. H. S. P., 13.

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38 Most writers on this campaign have contended that the chief reason Lee did not retire was that he did not believe McClellan would attack. This is contrary to the spirit of Lee's remarks and preparations when he met his generals on the evening of the 17th, and contrary to other direct evidence. After the war, Lee stated to J. William Jones, "I (p413)remember distinctly that at Sharpsburg we held a large part of the battlefield, we remained in line of battle for the whole of the next day, expecting — and in fact hoping for — an attack, and that we only withdrew upon information that the enemy was being largely reenforced" (Jones, 240). In his dispatch of Sept. 20, 1862, to President Davis, Lee explained why he had recrossed the river. He said, inter alia, ". . . finding the enemy indisposed to make an attack on that day . . . I determined to cross the army to the Virginia side."

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39 O. R., 19, part 1, p1026.

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40 S. D. Lee's battalion of 300 men had eighty-six casualties (O. R., 19, part 1, p846).

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41 O. R., 19, part 2, p613.


Thayer's Note:

a The fault lies squarely with Lee and even at a higher level, with the Confederate War Department: there were no procedures in place for insuring that such highly sensitive information did not wind up as cigar wrapping.


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