On the Trail of Grant and Lee - Frederick T. Hill

Lee and the Invasion of Maryland

Lee's masterly defense of Richmond, and his complete triumph over McClellan and Pope had, in three months, made him the idol of the Confederacy. In all military matters his word was law, while the army adored him and the people of the South as a whole regarded him with a feeling akin to reverence. This was not entirely the result of his achievements on the field. Jackson had displayed an equal genius for the art of war and in the opinion of many experts he was entitled to more credit than his chief. But Jackson was regarded with awe and curiosity rather than affection. He was hailed as a great commander, while Lee was recognized as a great man.

It was not by spectacular efforts or assertiveness of any kind that Lee had gained this hold upon his countrymen. He avoided everything that even tended toward self-display. His army reports were not only models of modesty, but generous acknowledgements of all he owed to his officers and men. He addressed none but respectful words to his superiors and indulged in no criticisms or complaints. He accepted the entire responsibility for whatever reverses occurred to the forces under his command and never attempted to place the blame on the shoulders of any other man. In a word, he was so absolutely free from personal ambition that the political schemers unconsciously stood abashed in his presence, and citizens and soldiers alike instinctively saluted the mere mention of his name.

Never by any chance did he utter a word of abuse against the North. Even when his beloved Arlington was seized, and the swords, pictures, silverware and other precious mementos of Washington were carried off, his protest was couched in quiet and dignified language, well calculated to make those to whom it was addressed (and later every American) blush with shame. Likewise in the heat of battle, when wild tongues were loosed and each side accused the other of all that hate could suggest, he never forgot that his opponents were Americans. "Drive those people back," or "Don't let those people pass you," were the harshest words he ever uttered of his foes.

To him war was not a mere license to destroy human life. It was a terrible weapon to be used scientifically, not with the idea of slaughtering as many of the enemy as possible, but to protect the State for whose defense he had drawn his sword. This was distinctly his attitude as he watched Pope's defeated columns reeling from the field. Neither by word nor deed did he exult over the fallen foe or indulge in self-glorification at his expense. His sole thought was to utilize the victory that the war would be speedily brought to a successful close; and, spreading out his maps in the quiet of his tent, he proceeded to study them with this idea.

Almost directly in front of his victorious army stretched the intrenchments of Washington but, although he knew something of the panic into which that city had been thrown by the last battle, he had not troops enough to risk assaulting fortifications to the defense of which well-nigh every able-bodied man in the vicinity had been called. The fall of Washington might perhaps have ended the war, but the loss of the neighboring state of Maryland and an attack on some of the Pennsylvania cities, such as Harrisburg and Philadelphia, promised to prove equally effective. The chances of wresting Maryland from the Union seemed particularly favorable, for it had come very close to casting its lot with the Confederacy and thousands of its citizens were serving in the Southern ranks. He, accordingly, made up his mind to march through Maryland, arousing its people to the support of the Confederate cause, and then carry the war into Pennsylvania where a decisive victory might pave the way to an acknowledgment of the independence of the Southern States and satisfactory terms of peace.

Thus, four days after Pope's defeat at Manassas saw Lee's tattered battle flags slanted toward the North, and on September 6, 1862, the vanguard under "Stonewall" Jackson passed through the streets of Frederick City, singing "Maryland, My Maryland!" This was the moment which Whittier immortalized in his verses recording the dramatic meeting between "Stonewall" and Barbara Frietchie [Note from Brett: The poem is entitled "Barbara Frietchie" and there is some question as to the accuracy of the details of the poem. In general, however, Whittier retold the story (poetically) that he claims he heard ("from respectable and trustworthy sources") and Barbara Frietchie was strongly against the Confederacy and was not a fictional character. It is believed that Ms. Frietchie, who was 95 at the time, was sick in bed on the day the soldiers marched through, but did wave her flag when the Union army marched through two days later. A Ms. Quantrill and her daughters, however, did wave the Union flag as the Confederate soldiers marched through the town, so there is some thought that the two got combined.]; but, though no such event ever took place, the poet was correctly informed as to the condition of Jackson's men, for they certainly were a "famished rebel horde." Indeed, several thousand of them had to be left behind because they could no longer march in their bare feet, and those who had shoes were sorry-looking scarecrows whose one square meal had been obtained at Pope's expense. For all practical purposes Maryland was the enemy's country, but into this hostile region they advanced carrying very little in the way of provisions except salt for the ears of corn that they might pick up in the fields.

The authorities at Washington watched Lee's movement with mingled feelings of anxiety and relief. They were relieved because he was evidently not aiming at the national capital. They were alarmed because the real point of attack was unknown. Sixty thousand men, flushed with triumph and under seemingly invincible leadership were headed somewhere, and as the rumor spread that that "somewhere" was Harrisburg or Philadelphia, the North stood aghast with consternation.

Face to face with this desperate crisis, McClellan, who had been practically removed from command, was restored to duty and given charge of all the Union forces in the field. Had he been invested with supreme authority, at least one grievous blunder might have been avoided, for as he proceeded to the front, calling loudly as usual for reenforcements, he advised the evacuation of Harper's Ferry, garrisoned by some 12,000 men who were exposed to capture by Lee's advance on Frederick City. But Halleck rejected this advice and on September 15, 1862, "Stonewall" Jackson, with about 20,000 men, swooped down upon the defenseless post and gobbled up almost the entire garrison with all its guns and stores. To accomplish this, however, he was forced to separate himself from Lee, and while McClellan, with over 87,000 men, was protesting that his opponent had 120,000 and that it was impossible to win against such odds, Lee's strength had been reduced to about 35,000 and his safety absolutely depended upon his adversary's fears. It was hardly to be hoped, however, that McClellan's imagination would cause him to see three men for every one opposed to him, but such was the fact, and even when one of Lee's confidential orders fell into his hands, revealing the fact that Jackson's whole force was absent, he still thought himself outnumbered.

The discovery of this order was a serious blow to Lee, for it not only exposed his immediate weakness, but actually disclosed his entire plan. How it was lost has never been explained, for its importance was so fully realized that one of the officers who received a copy pinned it in the inside pocket of his coat, another memorized his copy and then chewed it up and others took similar precautions to protect its secret.

Some officer, however, must have been careless, for when the Union troops halted at Frederick City, through which the Confederates had just passed, a private in an Indiana regiment found it lying on the ground wrapped around some cigars and, recognizing its value, carried it straight to his superiors who promptly bore it to Headquarters.

Had Lee remained ignorant of this discovery it is possible that McClellan might have effected the capture of his army. But a civilian, favoring the South who happened to be present when the paper reached Headquarters, slipped through the Union lines and put the Confederate commander on his guard.

Lee had already noted that McClellan was moving toward him at unusual speed for so cautious an officer and, this was readily explained by the news that his plans were known and Jackson's absence discovered. He accordingly posted his troops so that he could form a junction with the rest of the army at the earliest possible moment and halted in the vicinity of Sharpsburg near Antietam Creek.