soldier with rifle american civil warSpecial Order 191


Taken At The Flood: Robert E. Lee
Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862
by: Joseph Harsh

Rebuttal by Joseph Ryan


"I would suggest for Lee's thinking on his Maryland Campaign, Joseph L. Harsh's Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862." Stephen Sears to Joe Ryan, July 12, 2012.





Joseph Harsh's exposition of the Maryland Campaign is a good example of the sloppy history the historians and civil war writers continually sell to the public about the Antietam Campaign. Let's look at the several chapters that make up the core of the book and see how Harsh presents the story.

Chapter I

Lee's Strategic Dilemma, Sept 2-3

Harsh sets the stage by telling us what Lee was thinking when he ordered his army to move toward Leesburg and the Potomac crossings.

"What Lee sought to destroy was the Northern will to put forward large numbers of men and vast amounts of money.  Lee [thought] the South might win if he could deny the enemy the possibility of easy success.


There could be no better chance to test the soundness of this strategy than the opening days of September 1862. . . The decision to strike came easily to Lee. Where to deliver the blow was not so readily apparent. His initial assessment indicated there were strong reasons for not moving in any of the four points of the compass. And that was his strategic dilemma." (Italics added.)


Ryan's Comment

Professor Harsh acknowledges the fact that General Lee admitted after the war that he "could not have maintained the army in Fairfax (county), so barren was it of subsistence and so devoid were we of transportation." Instead of focusing on the question where, then, could Lee maintain his army, Harsh takes the reader on a cruise through the familiar list of circumstances that existed in September 1862: the political situation in Britain, the November congressional elections etc, leading her up to the grand moment of Lee's supposed decision to enter Maryland.

"And it was to a turning movement that Lee understandably resorted to exploit the advantages of his successes and to minimize the weakness of his present condition.


. . . The plan emerging in Lee's mind on the afternoon of September 2 envisioned a combination of [threatening Union supply lines and target some enemy weak point)


Lee's new plan assumed that the simple move of entering Maryland  might be enough. . . to strike terror into the heart of the Union Government.  In addition, Northerners must necessarily assume the move was an invasion and would imagine Lee as a threat to Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Baltimore, as well as Washington. Moreover, by presenting a multiple threat, Lee would compel the Federals to divide their large army to provide for several contingencies. The Confederate commander would then maneuver to engage a fraction of their forces in the open field. (italics added.)


With a turning movement into Maryland Lee would retain his hold on the initiative (true). He would create the opportunity to inflict another and even more shattering blow to the armies of Pope and McClellan. (True as to "opportunity." Not true as to "shattering blow.") And there would be no doubt Lee would intend battle—engaged at the time and place of his choosing—to be the end game of his maneuver." (Italics added.)


Ryan's Comment

Sweep away all the clutter and focus on Harsh's acknowledgement that, as of September 2, 1862, General Lee was organizing a plan in his mind that, in entering Maryland, he would maneuver the Union army into a battle at the time and place of his choosing.

The primary evidence plainly supports Harsh's italicized statement. This evidence is, first, two letters Lee appears to have authored and sent, in the winter of 1868, one to Confederate general, D.H. Hill, and the other to a Virginia citizen named William McDonald; second, Lee's letters to President Davis during September 1862; and, third, President Davis's statements which he made in his book, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Included within this class of evidence, though on shaky ground, is the hearsay statements offered to history by William Allan, a professor at VMI during Lee's tenure as president of Washington College, and those offered by Lee's clerk, E.C. Gordon.

Here is the text of the letter Lee apparently sent to William McDonald:


Assuming a foundation can be laid in court for the authenticity of this letter, the historical record has a direct admission of fact made by General Lee six years after the event, that he entered Maryland, "to threaten Washington, call the Federal army north of [the Potomac], relieve our territory and enable us to subsist the army." Notice that, in this letter, General Lee does not admit that he entered Maryland with the intent to fight a general battle.

What prompted General Lee to write this letter, if he did? The answer probably lies in the fact that Confederate General D.H. Hill, reacting to the smear his reputation suffered at the hands of E.A. Pollard, who, in 1867, published The Lost Cause, published an article the magazine, The Land we Love, in February 1868. Perhaps, in terms of Southern politics of the time, Lee had to make a public explanation of the intent of the campaign.


Defending himself against Pollard's slur—Pollard had written publicly that Hill had "thrown the order to the ground"—Hill wrote in his article the following:

"I next examine the allegation that the loss of the dispatch was a serious damage to the Confederate cause. It will not be difficult to show that it was just the reverse. . . The important fact gained by finding Lee's order was, that Lee had divided his forces; in every other respect, the order mystified and deceived [McClellan]. I have too much respect for McClellan to believe that he could not have gained this one fact without Lee's order in his pocket. The merest blunderer, at the head of an army, could learn that much about his antagonist.


Lee's order was calculated to deceive McClellan in two important particulars. First it taught him to believe that Jackson would not go to Harper's Ferry. . . .Second, it taught him that Longstreet was at Boonesboro, just at the foot of the South Mountain, whereas he was at Hagerstown.To this false information is doubtless due the salvation of the Southern army."


 D.H. Hill sent a copy of his article to Lee and it was at this time, the evidence shows, that Lee made several public statements about his intent in entering Maryland. First, in February 1868, he sent a letter to D.H. Hill which reads like a lawyer's brief, written to rebut Hill's contention that the loss of the order was a benefit, not a detriment, to Lee's operations in Maryland.

"At the time the order fell into McClellan's hands, I considered it a great calamity. . . When [the order] was issued, I supposed there would be time for [accomplishing the capture of Harper's Ferry] and for the army to reunite before McClellan could cross South Mountain. . . .Early on the morning of the 14th I received at Hagerstown a message from Stuart stating. . . that McClellan was in possession of the order directing the movement of our troops. . . .I do not know how the order was lost. . . ."


At the same time that Lee received Hill's article, William Allan, the VMI professor, claims to have recorded a statement Lee made to him about his intent in entering Maryland and, also, at the same time, E.C. Gordon, Lee's clerk, claims to have recorded essentially the same statement. Here is Gordon's record:

If, in fact, Lee stated to Gordon that, "McClellan was, up to the time of his finding the dispatch, in complete ignorance of the whereabouts and intentions of the Southern army, Lee was denying the objective reality of the matter: for the Official Record of the Rebellion documents the fact that, during the time the front of McClellan's army was moving up to the line of the Monocacy River, many reports had been received that Lee's army, in several columns, was recrossing the Potomac into the Shenandoah Valley; and, as a consequence of these reports, McClellan—during the night of the 12th—was geared toward moving the main body of his army directly upon Harper's Ferry, to intercept the supposed retreat of the enemy toward Winchester.

The credibility of Gordon as a honest reporter of Lee's statements, however, does not stand up to the standard of objective reality. Gordon tells us that Lee said that, if he could have kept McClellan "ignorant for just a few days longer he could have crushed him." But the evidence of the Rebellion Record shows that it was impossible to keep McClellan ignorant of the fact that the rebel army was crossing the Potomac into the Valley and it was equally impossible—given the numerical weakness of Lee's army—that Lee could have "crushed" McClellan. Therefore, Gordon's hearsay statement, like Allan's, must be taken by the jury with great caution—the jury digesting it with the standard of objective reality as the guide, sifting the grains of truth from the falsity.

In the trial court, the jury ought to be struck by the similarity of language, of argument, between Gordon's statement of what Lee said to him on February 15, 1868, and Lee's apparent letter written to D.H. Hill on February 28, 1868. What is plain here is that Lee thought it necessary to publicly reject the theory of the case that Hill had articulated in his article. Given the timing of these several statements, it is reasonable to conclude the group of men hanging around Lee in February 1868 was involved in constructing a story line that contradicted Hill's. James Longstreet, an outsider looking in, can be accepted by the jury as an objective witness with precipient knowledge of events and he sums up the situation succiently: "This `lost order' has been the subject of much severe comment by Virginians who have written of the war. It was addressed to D.H. Hill, and they charged that its loss was due to him. . . Ordinarily, upon getting possession of such an order, the adversary would take it as a ruse de guerre, but it seems McClellan gave it his confidence and made his dispositions accordingly." (Battles & Leaders, Vol II, Part II, p. 665.)

Accompanying Gordon's memorandum, which he sent to William Allan in 1886, is a cover letter; in it Gordon makes additional statements of what Lee is supposed to have said.

Apparently, what was in dispute among the "Virginians" Longstreet was alluding to, in 1886, when his article was published in the Century Magazine (Battles & Leaders), was Gordon's statement that,"The distinct and emphatic impression made on me by the conversation was that Lee attributed without hestitation the loss of the campaign to the lost dispatch." (Italics added.)

What is Gordon talking about here? "The loss of the campaign" was because of the "lost dispatch?" What "loss of the campaign?" How is the campaign properly characterized as a "loss?" A military loss? A political loss? What did Gordon, indeed what do present day historians, think would have made the campaign a gain. What was the gain of the campaign supposed to be, in these men's minds? Sloppy history is easy. Clear serious reasoning, in light of complex facts, is difficult.

The gain of the campaign was that it removed the enemy's main army from the territory of Virginia, from September 1, 1862 to about October 26, 1862. This was, according to Jefferson Davis, who ought to know, exactly the Campaign's objective.

"It was decided to cross the Potomac east of the Blue Ridge, in order, by threatening Washington and Baltimore, to cause the enemy to withdraw from the south bank, where his presence endangered our  communications. . .  Having accomplished this result, it was proposed to move the army into Western Maryland, establish our communications with Richmond through the Valley of the Shenandoah, and, by threatening Pennsylvania, induce the enemy to withdraw from our territory. . . "



This, of course, brings the reader to the crucial point—for the campaign to be a success, somehow General Lee had to induce the enemy army not to pursue him when he moved, as he must at some point, into the Shenandoah Valley to find rest and sustenance.

So, on September 2, 1862, contrary to Professor Harsh's story, General Lee did not have a "strategic dilemma;" he knew he had only one option to achieve President Davis's stated objective: maneuver the enemy into a battle in Western Maryland which would result in the enemy not pursuing him into the Shenandoah Valley.


Chapter V

Lee's Plans, whatever they were, unravel

Here's Professor Harsh's rendition of the lost order story.

"With his heart still pounding from his triumphant entry into Frederick, [McClellan] saw spread before his eyes a document marked `confidential' and addressed to Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill that detailed the marching orders for the Army of Northern Virginia. It answered in an instant several puzzling questions confounding him. It not only confirmed the fragmentation of the enemy army, it also explained Lee's separation of his forces."


Ryan's Comment

"It also explained Lee's separation of his forces." A reasonable person reading the text of the movement order, especially a general as well trained as McClellan, would immediately recognize that, if the order was true, the enemy had no intention of capturing Harper's Ferry.

Why, because the troops the order assigned to the task could not possibly accomplish the task. McLaws, with Anderson's division, supported by Walker's, was assigned the task of "endeavoring to capture that place;" but the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers prevented these forces from doing it. From this fact, and the additional fact that the order specified the return of Jackson's command to the Cumberland Valley, after having marched to Martinsburg, a general in McClellan's shoes would naturally conclude that McLaws's force was intended by Lee as a blocking force when McClellan moved toward the Potomac pontoon bridges at Harper's Ferry; and Jackson's command, cooperating with Longstreet's, would attack his columns as they crossed the South Mountain into Pleasant Valley.

Of course, Historian Harsh offers an entirely different explanation for the movement order's separation of Lee's forces.

"Apparently, the Confederates had paused in their invasion of Pennsylvania to scoop up the Federal garrisons in the Valley. (Sears liked "scoop" and adopted it as his own.) It also relieved McClellan's fears that Jackson was engaged in a turning movement from south of the Potomac. . . ."


Harsh is conjuring here the idea that McClellan had "fears" that Jackson's column, which had been reported a day earlier as crossing the Potomac at Williamsport, was then marching east, passing Harper's Ferry, crossing the Shenandoah River and the Blue Ridge, and moving into Loudoun County, heading where? To Leesburg? Alexandria? Do you see the silliness? (Halleck suggested this.)

According to Harsh, Mac reads the order and concludes this "fear" is unfounded?

Because Any one, not an idiot, reading the order would "fear" this happening.

How Does Harsh Explain Lee's "Plan?"

Let's walk through the chapters of Harsh's book, nailing down, if possible, what Harsh tells us he thinks Lee's "plan" was.

"Clearly the ideal movement for Lee now to make would be one that kept the initiative in his hands. . . (No kidding.)" This "ideal movement" would "allow time for rest and refitting and [would] open new resources for supply. By the later afternoon of September 2, just such a plan had begun to take shape in his mind." (p.46.)


Note: Lee's forces were concentrated at Frederick by September 7; three days later they were moving in different columns to their assigned places. Three days is hardly enough time for Lee's soldiers to "rest and refit." The "new resources" Harsh conjures did not last any longer than the rebel army's stay at Frederick, and very little was captured at Hagerstown.


"The plan emerging in Lee's mind on the afternoon of September 2 envisioned a combination of [threatening the enemy's supply lines and the targeting of some enemy weak point].


At Ox Hill Lee had run out of room for offensive maneuvering in Virginia. Any new turning movement would require crossing the Potomac and entering Maryland. Lee's new plan assumed that this simple move might be enough." (Huh?)


Note: Harsh, without any connection to the reality of military operations, defines, for himself, Lee's movement into Maryland as a "turning movement." And then he tells us that his definition of a "turning movement" is to threaten supply lines, or target some enemy weak point. This is silliness.


So far, Harsh is not admitting that, before he entered Maryland, Lee intended to fight a general battle at Sharpsburg. Instead, he is telling us that Lee intended the movement into Maryland, in itself, to "strike terror into the heart of the Union government." (p. 47)


"In addition, Northerners must necessarily assume the move was an invasion and would imagine Lee as a threat to Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Baltimore, as well as Washington. This. . . could. . . force the foe to leave his fortifications while still groggy from defeat."


Note: This is supposed to be serious historical narrative? Northerners "must necessarily assume?" They "would imagine Lee as a threat to Harrisburg?" The foe could thus be "forced" to leave his fortifications while still "groggy from defeat?"


"Moreover, by presenting a multiple threat (Harsh is claiming Lee's movement "threatened" Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Harrisburg), Lee would compel the Federals to divide their large army to provide for several contingencies."


Note: This fellow is sailing in outer space; he is not of this planet.


"The Confederate commander could then maneuver to engage a fraction of their forces in the open field."


Note: McClellan simply marched his 100,000 strong army, in three columns, toward Frederick on a twenty mile front.


"Finally, although he could not entirely cut off supplies from Washington he could drastically curtail them by destroying sections of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and sections of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad."


Note: Harsh is making this up as he goes along. In fact, neither of these lines carried supplies to Washington; if anything they would have carried supplies away from Washington to support McClellan's campaign.


Now, for one sentence Harsh slides back into reality, but not too long and not too deep.


"With a turning movement into Maryland Lee would retain his hold on the initiative. He would create an opportunity to inflict another. . . blow to the [Union army]. And there can be no doubt Lee would intend battle—engaged at the time and place of his choosing—to be the end game of his maneuver."


Note: So how to stop Harsh's dribbling, and get him to explain clearly what in fact this statement means. Lee, Harsh says, "would create an opportunity" to engage in a battle "at the time and place of his choosing." Harsh is writing this, remember, when he is still narrating what Lee is thinking on September 2, 1862.


Setting the silliness aside, the plain facts point to the reality that, when Lee entered Maryland, he was already thinking about bringing the enemy to a battle at Sharpsburg; expecting that the Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley would bail out as soon as his army crossed the river; at which point, waiting at Frederick for the Union army to come up, Lee would move west to Sharpsburg drawing the enemy after him. Had this happened, there would have been no need to draft a movement order and no need to lose it. But, once at Frederick, when the report came that the Union forces were still in the Valley, Lee turned to the device of the movement order as a means to the end of bringing the enemy to the battle.


"As Lee pondered his options on this late summer afternoon in his camp near Ox Hill, it must have seemed that the most logical course open to him was to cross the Potomac and turn Washington's fortifications."


Note: Harsh has set up a false concept: "turn" Washington's fortifications., Lee was not "turning" anything by entering Maryland. At Frederick he was facing Washington straightahead, giving the appearance of being poised to move directly upon it in an all out attack. McClellan waited for this event to develop and only when it was plain Lee was not coming east that Mac began to move west to engage him.


"During the afternoon of September 9. . . [Lee] met with Stonewall, and the two generals evolved a plan to eliminate this threat to the new line of communications through the Shenandoah Valley."


Note: Notice that the "threat" is to Lee's "line of communications," which in practical military terms, given the circumstances, means Lee's line of retreat from Sharpsburg. And Harsh continues, in his narrative, to use anything but a "battle" to be the immediate purpose of Lee's actions.



We've come a long way through the historians' literature now, and don't you see the true picture clearing? The key to understanding the reason why General Lee would lie about the fact that he went into Maryland intending to fight a battle at Sharpsburg, is to focus on what the clerk, E.C. Gordon, and the others at Lexington, were talking about when he characterized the campaign as a "loss." The "loss of the campaign" was caused by the loss of the order.

How so? What "loss" are these people talking about? Given President Davis's plain commitment that the object of Lee's going into Maryland was to induce the enemy army to get out of Virginia and to "check" the enemy from returning, where is the loss? From President Davis's point of view, plainly the campaign resulted in exactly the "gain" he was counting on.

But, thanks to sloppy historians, the public thinks that the plan was to establish a line of supply from Hagerstown to Winchester that would allow Lee's army to carry itself into Pennslyvania, and that the only reason the plan failed was because, once McClellan had in hand the movement order, he at once went forward rapidly and forced Lee to make a stand at Sharpsburg. If McClellan had not found the order, Lee would have had time to get his thousands and thousands and thousands of stragglers up, and he would have crushed the Union army.

Why Lee and his hangers-on thought it politically necessary to let the public's false understanding stand, and not tell the truth, is for you young, fresh-minded historians to discover.


By Joe Ryan

Los Angeles Civil Warriors Round Table: Antietam, September 17, 2012