The Maryland Campaign Sesquicentennial

After their stunning victory at Second Manassas in August of 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee began his movements toward the north. After attempting to cut the Union Army of Virginia’s retreat into Washington at Chantilly on September 1st, the Confederate army pushed toward Leesburg. Near Leesburg, Virginia on September 2nd, the advance cavalry units of Lee’s army skirmished with Union cavalry. This skirmish wounded several Emmitsburg residents serving in Cole’s Cavalry, a Union cavalry command.

Once Leesburg was secured, Lee’s army began to occupy the town. General Robert E. Lee had a huge decision to make. He could carry the war into the north, and by doing so, the Confederate army could sustain themselves from the rich agriculture produce of the northern farms as well as gain additional supplies. This would also relieve the civilian population in the south, including the farmers of the Shenandoah Valley, giving them time to harvest their crops.

Politically, the war had grown unpopular with the northern people and with elections coming, Lee could take advantage of the lack of confidence in their elected officials. As several Confederate officers from Maryland told Lee, he could recruit Maryland civilians for his army, replenishing his ranks from the hard summer of fighting in Virginia. If Lee could win a major victory in the north, the Confederate government may gain international aide and recognition from European countries such as England and France. In order for all of Lee’s plans to come together, it was important for his army to be viewed by the Maryland residents as the “Liberators” and not as the “Invaders.”

On September 4th, with blessings from Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Lee’s army began to ford the Potomac River at White’s Ford, with fife and drums playing to the beat of Maryland My Maryland. By September 7th, the Confederate army was on the Maryland banks of the Potomac River with Frederick as their concentration point. The advance units of the Army of Northern Virginia had arrived in Frederick as early as September 6th.

In the wake of the Confederate campaign in Maryland, hundreds of civilians fled, blocking the roads leading to Emmitsburg, and Baltimore. Rumors spread from town to town about the Confederate invasion. Once fully concentrated in Frederick, Lee’s army received a cool reception. Geographically, Frederick was a southern city, but when it came to loyalties, the majority of its citizens didn’t want to see the Union dissolved.

Hundreds of men flocked toward Frederick with the intention of enlisting, but once they caught a glimpse of the condition of Lee’s army, they were quickly dissuaded.  One such instance involved more than 87 men from Emmitsburg who traveled to Frederick to enlist, but seeing how ragged and dirty the Confederate army was, they returned to Emmitsburg. Lee received less than one hundred recruits for his army.

While Lee was in Frederick, General George McClellan was given the opportunity to reform, re-supply, and reorganize his Army of the Potomac, Burnside’s army that came in from North Carolina, the shattered remains of the Army of Virginia and the Kanawha Division. Soon McClellan began marching out of Washington to meet the Confederate army in Maryland.

On September 9th, realizing that the garrison at Martinsburg and Harper’s Ferry threatened his line of communications, as well as his supply line, General Lee issued Special Orders No. 191. These orders divided his army into several sections. General Stonewall Jackson and his command, supported by the divisions of Lafayette McLaws, Richard Anderson and John Walker, were to besiege Harper’s Ferry. Lee and Longstreet would move to Boonsboro and Hagerstown. General Daniel Hill was to guard the rear of the Confederate army while General JEB Stuart’s cavalry brought up stragglers. Once those garrisons fell, these commands were to reunite with Lee in Boonsboro or Hagerstown.

By September 10th, Lee’s army was put into motion. By September 12th, the Confederate rearguard skirmished in the streets of Frederick with the leading elements of the Union army. That night, Union cavalry commander General Alfred Pleasanton, was ordered to send out his cavalry division to scour and locate the rear of the Confederate army. As a result, at dawn on September 13th, the sounds of battle were heard from the CatoctinMountain at Braddock’s Gap, and by the afternoon, JeffersonPass also became a battleground. 

As the cavalry battles were occurring, a copy of the Lee’s orders came into General McClellan’s possession. Between the cavalry battles, reports of Confederate activity, and the Lee’s lost orders, General McClellan had everything he needed to destroy the Confederate army. But McClellan hesitated, and to make matters worse, the Confederate activity near Harper’s Ferry was finally reported. But McClellan had a simple plan; attack and destroy each element of the Confederate army before it has a chance to reunite.

As September 14th dawned, the advance units of the Union army moved closer to SouthMountain and by nine in the morning, the Battles of South Mountain erupted, starting at Fox’s Gap. The fighting was fierce, and by late afternoon SouthMountain became a battleground, with fighting taking place at Frostown, Turner’s, Fox’s, and Crampton’s Gaps and BrownsvillePass. Over 6,000 soldiers fell on the battlefields at SouthMountain. The Battles of South Mountain was the turning point both socially and politically. McClellan’s army had gone up against a great Confederate army, causing Lee, who was on the offensive, to take up a defensive strategy. In its aftermath, Lee was forced to withdraw his Confederates off of SouthMountain and concentrate at Sharpsburg to wait for news on Harper’s Ferry.

With Harper’s Ferry under siege by Jackson’s force, a portion of the Union army attacking Crampton’s Gap had the best chance of relieving the besieged garrison. Their mission was to break through Crampton’s Gap, occupy PleasantValley via Rohorsville, and split Lee’s army in half. From there they could help relieve the garrison. But as the sun set on September 14th, the garrison at Harper’s Ferry realized that no aide was coming to their relief. That night, the cavalry escaped from Harper’s Ferry without conflict from the Confederates. The next day, the garrison of 12,500 soldiers was forced to surrender and Harper’s Ferry fell.

With this news, General Lee decided to remain at Sharpsburg and confront the Union army. By the evening of September 16th, the first shots were fired at Antietam. The next day, the bloodiest single day of the American Civil War was fought with more than 23,000 casualties of wounded, missing, and killed in action. Although none of the soldiers fighting in the Battle of Antietam would realize it that day, the Battle of Antietam would change the war politically, laying the foundation for the Emancipation of the African American people held in the bondage of slavery. 

On the 18th, the armies still held their positions. Lee decided to remove his army from the battlefield at Antietam and ford the Potomac River at Shepherdstown. By September 19th and the 20th, the Battle of Shepherdstown forced Lee to give up his first campaign into the north.

For the last year, I have been writing articles relating to the Maryland Campaign. September of 2012, marks a very important month in American history. Not just militarily, but socially, and politically as well. It is important that we commemorate the events that unfolded during the first major Confederate offensive of the north. Several historical sites locally, statewide, and nationally will commemorate the Maryland Campaign. I encourage you, the reader, to participate in this once in a lifetime opportunity to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Maryland Campaign and honor those brave soldiers who gave their lives to protect and defend Maryland.

In honor of the sesquicentennial, Maryland Public Television will air a new documentary on September 5th, telling the story about the importance of the Maryland Campaign and how it changed the course of the war. I had the great opportunity to participate and was one of sixteen historians to be interviewed for this documentary.

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