soldier with rifle american civil warSpecial Order 191


James M. McPherson's story
of General Lee's intent






James M. McPherson's story of General Lee's intent

in entering Maryland, in 1862.

"Lee hoped his invasion might tip the scale in favor of the peace Democrats in the forthcoming northern congressional elections. "The present posture of affairs," Lee wrote to Davis after his army had crossed the Potomac into Maryland, "places it in our power to propose to the Union government the recognition of our independence. Such a proposal, coming when it is in our power to inflict injury on our adversary, would enable the people of the United States to determine at their coming elections whether they will support those who favor prolongation of the war, or those who wish to bring it to a termination. Those who were in favor of prolongation were, of course, the Republicans. Those who wished to bring it to a termination were the Democrats. . . . Northern morale fell to the lowest point. . . Newspapers agreed that the "country is in extreme peril." [This fact] is what the Democrats, and R.E Lee, counted on to give them control of the House of Representatives in November 1862. Republicans feared that prospect. In mid-September it appeared certain that the Democrats would win control of the House (Really? Just count the numbers.).

The diplomatic consequences of Confederate victories were also full of promise for the Confederacy. After Second Manassas, Palmerston seemed ready to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy. "The Federals," he wrote to Lord John Russell on September 14, 1862, "got a very complete smashing. And it seems not altogether unlikely that still greater disasters await them, and that even Washington or Baltimore might fall into the hands of the Confederates. If something like that happened, would it not be time for us to consider whether England and France might not address the contending parties and recommend an arrangement on the basis of separation, and if the Federal Government refuses, we might recognize the Confederacy as an independent State." Russell concurred. (McPherson, here, ignores the reality that Disraeli certainly would not.). . .

Professor James M. McPherson, in repetitive writings, makes the pitch that, in the fall of 1862, the British Government was champing at the bit to recognize the Confederacy and break the Union blockade of Confederate ports. To support this contention, Mr. McPherson cites a letter British Prime Minister, John Palmerston, wrote to William Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer, on September 24, 1862; this at a time when news of the Battle of Antietam had not yet reached Britain.

"Palmerston informed Gladstone of the plan to hold a cabinet meeting on the subject of [Britain's recognizing the Confederacy as an independent State] when [Foreign Minister, Lord John Russell, returned from abroad]. `If,' Palmerston wrote, `the Federals sustain a great defeat their cause will be manifestly hopeless. . . " Palmerston put the basis of British recognition another way on October 2, 1862: There would have to be "a great success of the South against the North."  (See, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, Chapter Five, p. 72. Oxford University Press 2007.)

Of course, Professor McPherson readily acknowledges that, in fact, Antietam was neither a "great defeat" suffered by the Union nor a "great success" achieved by the Confederacy, so there was, in fact, no real chance that, by a consensus of cabinet members, much less by Queen Victoria and the Parliament, Britain might actually have recognized the Confederacy's status as a Nation, in the fall of 1862.

Here is the political position on the issue of Benjamin Disraeli, leader of the Opposition in the House:

Benjamin Disraeli"I do not know any member of this House—either among my colleagues or among those who sit on the other side of the House—who has ever maintained the monstrous proposition that England ought never, under any circumstances, to interfere in the affairs of foreign States. There are conditions under which it may be our imperative duty to interfere. We may clearly interfere in the affairs of foreign countries when the interests or the honor of England are at stake, or when in our opinion the independence of Europe is menaced. But a great responsibility devolves upon that Minister who has to decide when those conditions have arisen.

The general principle that we ought not to interfere in the affairs of foreign nations is there must be a clear necessity, and that it ought to be held a political dogma that the people of other countries should settle their own affairs without the interference of foreign influence or foreign power is one which, I think, the House does not only accept, but, I trust, will cordially agree to." (Disraeli's Papers, Volume III, Chapter 7, pp. 186-187.)

Later, in the House, Disraeli said this:

"In the United States there were smoldering elements which indicated the possibility of a change, and perhaps of a violent change. The immense increase in population; the still greater increase of wealth; the introduction of foreign races in large numbers as citizens, not brought up under the laws and customs which were adapted to a more united, and practically a more homogeneous race; the character of the political constitution, consequent perhaps on these circumstances; and above all, the increasing influence of the United States upon the political fortunes of Europe—these were all circumstances which indicated the more than possibility that the mere colonial character of these States might suddenly be violently subverted, and those imperial characteristics appear which seem to be the destiny of man.

I cannot conceal from myself the conviction that, whoever in this House may be young enough to live to witness the ultimate consequences of this American Civil War, will see, whenever the waters have subsided, a different America from that which was known to our fathers, and even from that of which this generation has had so much experience. It will be an America of armies, of diplomacy, of rival States and maneuvering cabinets, of frequent turbulence, and probably of frequent wars." Prophetic indeed.

Professor McPherson's whole purpose in invoking Palmerston's letter to Gladstone is to bootstrap himself into the argument that General Lee actually thought the battle he meant to fight in Maryland would meet Palmerston's political criteria for recognition, an argument both Palmerston's official writings and D.H. Hill's letter of 1885 demolishes.

Reality Check

Palmerston's Actual State of Mind
In September-October 1862

Professor McPherson goes to great lengths to manufacture a basis for his students to believe General Lee would have reasonably thought his movement into Maryland—to give battle to McClellan at Antietam—might induce the British Government to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation. The objective truth of history, however, demonstrates the void of fact upon which McPherson stands when he intones this to gullible audiences.

Here is the relevant text of Palmerston's biography, published in 1927, and written by Philip Guedalla, who Professor McPherson quotes—an important and knowledgeable historian of the British Cabinet in general and Lord Palmerston in particular.

"But Palmerston, after half a century of official life, was not without an attitude towards the Americans. It was composed of many elements. His view of the Republic was always colored by his strong distaste for slavery.
The slave trade was carried on under the American flag and Palmerston could not forget their slaves. So, by an odd irony, the cause of abolition colored his view of the United States of Mr. Lincoln.

In the first stages of the Civil War he steered a course of impeccable neutrality through the problems of belligerent status, privateering, and blockade:

`Our best and true policy seems to be to go on as we have begun, and to keep quite clear of the conflict between North and South,' Palmerston wrote at one point; and at another, in a message to the Foreign Office he said—'It is no doubt certain that if the Southern Union is established as an independent state, it would afford a valuable and extensive market for British manufactures. But the operations of the war have as yet been too indecisive to warrant an acknowledgement of the Southern Union.'

There is little trace in the judicious terms of this highly confidential document of that malignant determination to destroy the Republic at all costs, with which Palmerston is sometimes credited in American fancy. (McPherson's)

The British Cabinet faced the question, when Palmerston in June 1862 declined to offer mediation.  A message to the Foreign Office showed his view of the conditions necessary for recognition of the South:

`We ought to know that their separate independence is a Truth and a Fact before we declare it to be.'

Prime Minister Lord Palmerston in the House of Commons.
(Russell stands behind the Speaker's Chair; across from Palmerston,
staring at him
, is Disraeli. Gladstone sits behind Palmerston.)

But, as the year went on, pressure began to come from Paris, for the Emperor was deep into his Mexican adventure, and Palmerston began to veer.

In July 1862, Mr. Gladstone found that he `has come exactly to my mind about some early representation of a friendly kind to America, if  we can get Russia to join in.' In August, Palmerston was thinking of a move in the fall; and in September news from the front appeared to indicate that Washington or Baltimore might fall: `If  this should happen, would it not be time for us to consider whether in such a state of things England and France might not address the contending parties and recommend an arrangement upon the basis of separation?' Lord John Russell leapt at the notion, and proposed to intervene at once and, if mediation was refused, recognize the South. Lord Palmerston was less impulsive, preferring to wait in order to associate Russia in the proposed mediation and to see the results of fighting still in progress. But such delays were not for Gladstone [who] informed a Newcastle audience that `Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army, and they have made what is more, they have made a nation.'

But Palmerston's policy (and, thus, the Queen's) moved far more slowly. Palmerston was waiting for `some more decided events between the contending armies.' The pause continued; and the news of Antietam arrived. The South began to flag. (How important to the Union and the South was that battle!)

There was a cross-fire of memoranda in the Cabinet, which left Palmerston `very much inclined to change the opinion on which I wrote you (Russell) when the Confederates seemed to be carrying all before them, and I am very much come back to our original view of the matter, that we must continue to be lookers-on till the war shall have taken a more decided turn. The Tories and Lord Clarendon both shared his view; and when the French proposed to intervene, he let his colleagues riddle the project under the angry eyes of Gladstone and Russell. So Palmerston toyed warily with intervention and withdrew."
See, Palmerston, by Philip Guedalla  G.P. Putnam's Sons New York 1927: pages 462-476.

Letter of D.H. Hill To The Southern Historical Society,

Written in 1885


Secretary Southern Historical Society:

DEAR SIR,- Permit me a brief reply to a portion of the able and eloquent address of General Bradley T. Johnson, which appears in the last number of the HISTORICAL SOCIETY PAPERS. . . .

General Johnson thinks that great things might have been accomplished by the Maryland campaign- a possibility of the capture of Washington and Baltimore, recognition by the powers in Europe, peace and independence. But that the campaign failed "principally by the negligence which lost Lee's special order No. 191."

Let us look for a moment at these gigantic claims. General Johnson says that Lee crossed the Potomac with 35,000 men, and that McClellan had 160,000 in hand and 11,000 at Harper's Ferry. it must be remembered that our remnant of an army was what was left after two months' constant marching and fighting and after beating two armies, each superior in numbers to itself. Could the jaded, worn-out, ragged, barefooted and half- starved fragment beat five times their numbers and capture two great cities? We must recollect that the age of miracles is past. No one more feelingly remembers than I do, the courage, patience and endurance of that grand army; but its illustrious commander did not expect miracles from his veterans. He said in his official report: "Although not properly equipped for invasion, lacking much of the material of war and feeble in transportation, the troops poorly provided with clothing and thousands of them barefooted, it was yet believed to be strong enough to detain the enemy on the Northern frontier until the approach of winter should render his advance into Virginia difficult, if not impracticable."

Not one word is said of "the possibility of the capture of Washington and Baltimore, the recognition of the Confederacy by the powers, of independence and of peace." Lee was too sagacious a man to think of the possibility of the impossible.

At Sharpsburg, I made a careful estimate of our forces and placed our numbers at 27,000. This was the army that supposedly but for the loss of order No. 191would have beaten McClellan's forces, now swelled to 180,000, captured Washington and Baltimore, received recognition from foreign governments and established the Southern Confederacy! This might have happened in the time of Hezekiah and Sennacherib, but hardly in the days of Lee and McClellan.

General Lee made a second invasion of the North with an army three times as strong, well rested, well equipped and full of enthusiasm. There was no lost order, no marplots, no frustration of plans, but he met disaster and not success. The North was recruiting from all parts of the globe and we were fighting the whole world in arms. That heroic army of Northern Virginia accomplished more than any one army known to history ever did. All honor to its great leader and to his devoted followers. They did all that mortals could do, but they could not whip the whole human race.

The fruits of the Maryland campaign were our gains of 12,000 prisoners, seventy- five pieces of artillery and vast military stores of every kind. The fruits of the Pennsylvania campaign were our losses of men, arms and munitions of war.

If General Johnson must needs find one scape goat for the first campaign, how many must he find for the second?

But this was not the spirit of our illustrious commander. When trouble, failure and disaster came, he did not look round to find a scape goat. he was chary of censure of conduct, and still more so of motive. Let all who admire his greatness imitate his noble example.

Respectfully and truly,


Last Words On Antietam