Maryland, My Maryland? Jefferson Davis and the Maryland Campaign of September 1862

Confederate soldiers splashing across the Potomac River in early September 1862 jubilantly bellowed out the tune “Maryland, My Maryland” as they marched into the Old Line State. Just months earlier, with the war escalating around the Confederate capital of Richmond, this feat seemed impossible. As the Southern army placed its collective foot on the soil of Maryland, one of the Confederacy’s early war aims was about to be realized.

Recognizing Maryland’s status as a border state caught between North and South, the Confederate Congress issued a series of resolutions on December 8, 1861 about the state’s status and their desire to join it with their fledgling nation. “[I]t is the desire of this government, by appropriate measures, to facilitate the accession of Maryland, with the free consent of her people, to the Confederate States,” the Congress resolved. Confederate successes in the summer of 1862 now made this goal a possibility.

Despite the joyous mood of the Confederate soldiers entering Maryland, Robert E. Lee, commanding those soldiers, remained skeptical that Maryland’s citizens would return the favor in kind. “I do not anticipate any general rising of the people in our behalf,” Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis on September 7. The general sought Davis’ assistance days before, requesting that the President send former Maryland governor and Southern supporting exile Enoch Lowe to rouse Marylanders to the Confederate cause.

Himself excited by Confederate fortunes north of the Potomac River, Davis told Lee to issue a proclamation to the people of Maryland declaring “the motives and purposes of your presence among them at the head of an invading army.” The President then listed out a blueprint of eight resolutions and statements Lee could draw from for the proclamation he ultimately issued on September 8.

Jefferson Davis’ enthusiasm for Confederate advances in the summer of 1862 did not end with the stroke of his pen, however. Seizing on Lee’s request for Enoch Lowe to aid the Confederate effort in Maryland, President Davis decided to accompany Lowe to the Potomac River as far north as Leesburg. Perhaps Davis could join his troops in Maryland next.

A “special train” carrying Davis and Lowe left Richmond on September 7 and made its way to Rapidan Station, where Davis notified Lee of his journey. Davis’ September 7 correspondence with Lee is unfortunately lost to history. Thus, his true intentions in traveling north are unknown. Southern newspapers theorized the purpose of Lowe’s visit, though: “placing Maryland within the political association of the Confederate States.” Correspondents in Richmond could only surmise what the departure of Davis truly meant.

Robert E. Lee also could not divine Davis’ reasons for heading north. Regardless, the general did not believe Maryland was a good place for his commander-in-chief. “While I should feel the greatest satisfaction in having an interview with you,” Lee said, “I cannot but feel great uneasiness for your safety should you undertake to reach me.” The trek would be “very disagreeable,” the general warned. It would also expose Davis to the risk of capture by Federal patrols ranging throughout northern Virginia. Exercising extreme caution in this case, words alone on paper would not do for Lee. To further convince Davis of the dangers plaguing his northern excursion, Lee sent his staffer Walter Taylor to intercept the President before he reached Leesburg.Taylor departed the Confederate camps outside Frederick, Maryland at midday on September 9. That night, he slept at the Harrison home in downtown Leesburg, which served as Lee’s quarters shortly before crossing into Maryland. Walter Taylor reached Warrenton on September 10 and found that his journey was for naught: Davis turned around on September 8, headed back to the Confederate capital.

Enoch Lowe continued his efforts to bring Maryland into the folds of the Confederacy even though Davis no longer traveled with him. It is possible that Walter Taylor met Lowe and the two traveled to Winchester together. From the Shenandoah Valley town, Lowe continued to champion Maryland’s supposed dormant Confederate sympathies. “He said Maryland, long disappointed, had been perfectly taken by surprise on the entrance of our army, and that when it was seen to be no mere raid, 25,000 men would flock to our standard, and a provisional government would be formed,” wrote one eyewitness. The lofty goal of 25,000 Marylanders rising to fight under the Confederate banner never materialized, as Lee predicted. Perhaps as few as 200 men signed up with the Army of Northern Virginia. The Confederate foray into Maryland failed to fulfill Southern hopes for a fourteenth star on its flag.

Confederate efforts to bring another state under the country’s flag came off on October 4, 1862 in Frankfort, Kentucky but did not amount to much except a great deal of fanfare. Southerners held similar hopes for Maryland, but their dreams fizzled before there was a chance. The Charleston Mercury quickly denounced Davis’ trip north as nothing more than “merely for recreation and to have a quiet talk with the Governor [Lowe]. If Lowe is to be proclaimed Provisional Governor, it is to be hoped the people will rally to him, and our army keep in front of him, otherwise the affair will resemble the Provisional Government of Kentucky, which was rather a farce, tending to alienate rather than encourage the inhabitants.”

Establishing a provisional government in Maryland, it turned out, was the least of the Confederacy’s worries in the Old Line State in September 1862 and the Southern nation’s dreams of enticing more states to its cause and expanding its boundary to the Mason-Dixon Line never came to fruition. Maybe September 1862 represented the best odds for that to happen, or perhaps by then it was a foregone conclusion and Jefferson Davis, Enoch Lowe, and the Confederate Congress were only whistling into the wind.

The Heroics of Capt. John Woodward, 1st Vermont Cavalry

The Civil War constantly moved past the Aldie Mill. On March 2, 1863, it became the site of the famous Aldie Races (courtesy of Richard T. Gillespie)

On March 2, 1863, fifty-nine troopers of the 1st Vermont Cavalry trotted into Aldie and stopped at the village’s prominent mill to rest. Suddenly and unexpectedly, two Vermont scouts on the northwest end of town stumbled into an advancing force of Confederate cavalry belonging to John S. Mosby’s command. “A charge was immediately ordered,” Mosby recalled. Mosby’s tactics caught the Vermonters—who dismounted their horses and wandered around the Aldie Mill and the village—completely by surprise. The Federal cavalrymen panicked and ran in several different directions. Few fought back against Mosby’s charge.

Amidst the chaos, twenty-three-year-old Capt. John Woodward leapt onto his horse and began firing at the Confederates during his first taste of combat. Woodward desperately attempted to rally his soldiers, but he mainly fought alone in that effort. Mosby’s men zeroed in on the heroic officer. The young captain continued to fire until he ran out of ammunition. Dropping his revolver, Woodward drew his sabre and charged into the enemy. A bullet struck down Woodward’s horse, which collapsed on top of him and trapped him underneath. Still, Woodward refused to give in, and pulled a smaller revolver out of his coat pocket. The revolver had only two shots, but he made good use of them, mortally wounding one enemy soldier bearing down on him. Now faced with no more options, Woodward threw up his hands in surrender.

Woodward’s injuries sustained during the brief fight in Aldie earned him a stay in a nearby home. That evening, Mosby visited the heroic captain, supposedly remarking that Woodward “was the bravest and best fighting man he [Mosby] ever saw.” Respecting his gallantry and the hard-fighting 1st Vermont Cavalry, Mosby paroled Woodward, sending him back to the Federal camps in northern Virginia the next day.

Capt. John Woodward’s grave in Cambridge, Vermont (courtesy of Sabina, findagrave.com)

John Woodward found himself in another predicament four months later in Maryland. During the Confederate army’s retreat from Gettysburg, a fight erupted in the streets of Hagerstown on July 6, 1863. The well-respected Vermont cavalrymen charged into the fight, spurred on and led by Capt. Woodward. Two bullets pierced Woodward’s body simultaneously, one through the brain and another into his breast. He pitched forward onto his mount’s neck and died almost instantly. A countercharge by his Confederate adversaries left his body in the enemy’s hands for one week while Southern soldiers “rifled, stripped and buried” his remains. Federals recovered the body when Hagerstown once again fell within Union lines and reinterred them “in the Presbyterian burying ground at Hagerstown.” His father, the regiment’s chaplain, retrieved the remains and returned them home to Vermont for burial.

Local Vermont newspapers covered the young captain’s death extensively. One mourned the loss of the University of Vermont graduate, calling him “a young man of high spirit and sense of duty, and of genial qualities which endeared him greatly to his friends, and a capable and efficient officer.”

A Historian Stops Being A Historian When…

McDonough’s interpretation of Sherman’s performance at Shiloh provides a valuable lesson for historians to follow.

When I first picked up James McDonough’s 2016 William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country, A Life, some of the first words I read jumped off the pages immediately. McDonough, a seasoned historian and author of five previous Civil War titles, justified his writing another biography of Sherman by looking at the general’s life “sometimes with different interpretations, than previous biographies.” He continued: “For example, I am convinced, after taking another look at the Battle of Shiloh, that Sherman deserves more credit for that Union triumph than earlier biographers have assigned him; indeed, more credit than I gave him in my book about Shiloh, which I researched and wrote between 1971 and 1973.”

It was the last part of the statement that told me I was in for a treat with this read. Not only do I automatically move books that promise a new way of looking at things to the top of my never-ending reading stack, but McDonough’s willingness to change his interpretation after many years of writing speaks volumes about an important reminder that we as historians should all remember: never stop becoming a student of history, never shut oneself off to look at past events differently (even if we have interpreted them the same way for decades), and never believe that we have learned or discovered everything there is to know about a particular event, battle, or person. A historian stops being a historian when they become dead set in their interpretations and never take a second look at their past conclusions.

If historians can always remain students as well as teachers, it opens up a lot of possibilities about how we can continue to change the way we think about and talk about the Civil War.

Book Review: “The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1861-1865”

In Ken Burns’ nine-part documentary The Civil War, Shelby Foote notably described Nathan Bedford Forrest as one of “two authentic geniuses” generated by the Civil War. At another point in the series, Foote lays out Forrest’s maxims of war after calling the civilian turned soldier with no military experience before 1861 “a natural genius.” How did Forrest the civilian come to be Forrest, one of the most feared cavalry commands in the Confederate Army?

Retired United States Army special forces general John R. Scales’ work seeks to answer that question. Scales is quick to point out that this book is not a biography of Forrest, and the only controversy one finds within these pages regarding the general is the wisdom or folly of his military decisions, which of course includes the April 12, 1864, action at Fort Pillow. To nail home this objective further, Scales begins the book with Forrest’s enlistment into the Confederate Army in June 1861 and concludes it in May 1865.

The pages in between are filled with detailed descriptions of Forrest’s military movements. To help build his case at how Forrest gained his prowess, Scales hardly leaves a stone unturned, examining every action that Forrest participated in during the war, no matter how large or small. In his studies of these many campaigns and battles, Scales is quick to point out Forrest’s mistakes (if there were any), his successes, and what lessons he learned that made him successful at later points in the war. Following the latter throughout the book makes it easy to watch the upward evolution of the general’s military career.

But Scales does not miss the forest for the trees. While examining Forrest’s military progression, Scales mentions the moments when the general’s actions had an impact on the Civil War at a higher level than the local one. Indeed, there are four times during his service from 1861 to 1865 that Forrest had a “significant and measurable impact on the overall course of the war”: his July 1862 attack on Murfreesboro, Tennessee that halted Don Carlos Buell’s campaign to occupy Chattanooga; Forrest’s operations in West Tennessee during the winter of 1862 delayed Federal occupation of Vicksburg; stalling the United States campaign to strike at the heart of the Confederacy by taking Selma and Mobile, Alabama in early 1864; and, finally, Forrest’s negative impact on the war, the confused fighting at Fort Pillow resulting in the massacre of black troops (441).

One of the book’s real gems is the 109 maps produced by Hal Jespersen, which are each accompanied by a driving tour, allowing a reader to take what they learned on the page and apply it to the extant Civil War landscape in the Western Theater. Indeed, it becomes evident from examining the maps and reading through the driving directions that the author visited the site of most, if not all, of Forrest’s campaigns and engagements, viewed the terrain, and made his judgments on Forrest’s performance not only from a study of the written record but from a survey of the battlefield terrain. That’s a valuable lesson for any military historian, and here Scales excels. If you do a lot of driving through what was once the western Confederacy, keep this book handy in your vehicle; you never know when you might spring onto a Forrest battlefield!

Overall, Scales’ work is a worthwhile addition to the Forrest historiography. It is an excellent examination of how someone with no prior military experience learned from his actions and propelled such a meteoric rise not often seen in the Civil War.

John R. Scales, The Battles and Campaigns of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1861-1865.

Savas Beatie, 2017.

465 pages, 109 maps, footnotes, bibliography, index.


Searching for George Brinton McClellan

George_B._McClellan_-_Brady-Handy

In preparation for Rob Orrison’s and my upcoming ECWS book, To Hazard All: A Guide to the Maryland Campaign, 1862, we closed the books and hit the trails and cement roads zigzagging through northern Virginia and central and western Maryland. At the end of one particular long day (soon to be even longer since we were squarely on the wrong side of rush-hour traffic), we made our last stop in the middle of bustling Rockville, Maryland. Our destination was the home of the Montgomery County Historical Society.

Before the historical society moved in, during the Maryland Campaign of September 1862,

 

the two-and-a-half story brick dwelling belonged to the widowed Jane Beall, “an old maid of strong Union sentiment.” Rob and I wandered around all four sides of the house, reading each interpretive marker dotting the property. None of them had anything to do with why we were there. They made no mention of the Maryland Campaign, only the Gettysburg Campaign that eclipses all others in public memory.

Despite the setback, there was no mistaking why we were there. George B. McClellan slept there his first night in the field–September 7–during his campaign to rid Maryland of the invading Confederate army. But still, no mention.

 

Rob turned to me and quipped, tongue in cheek, “You should write Searching for George Brinton McClellan,” calling to mind Tom Huntington’s Searching for George Gordon Meade. “Why isn’t Meade better remembered today?” Huntington questions in his opening pages. Here we were, at a point crucial to McClellan’s story in the campaign, and nothing. Why isn’t McClellan remembered at all here, today? I wondered. 

Of course, it is no secret that George McClellan is a lightning rod of controversy. It was not always so.

In the fallout of the Federal defeat at First Bull Run, a desperate Lincoln administration handed the 34-year-old general almost everything. “I seem to have become the power of the land,” he believed, as many in Washington appeared to bow down to him. “A better officer could not be found,” wrote William Tecumseh Sherman in the war’s early stages.

Sixteen months after McClellan arrived in the eastern seat of war, raised the Army of the Potomac from the ashes, and crafted it in his image, the relationship between McClellan, Lincoln, and some members of Congress dropped out the bottom. McClellan lost his job and never again rose to the pedestal he had occupied in the summer of 1861.

The war of words swirling around McClellan’s head began even in his moments of prominence in the nation’s vast struggle. “By some persons he is considered the greatest strategist of the age. By others he is regarded as unfit to command even a hundred men,” commented an early biographer. Indeed, Ulysses S. Grant tried to dodge the debate entirely: “McClellan to me is one of the mysteries of the war.”

No matter which way one sits in the ongoing conversation, very rarely does one find themselves wavering back and forth or sitting squarely on the fence in their deep-rooted opinions of the man. To have an unbiased discussion of McClellan is a rare occurrence at all.

Perhaps the turning point of all this comes when examining the general’s relationship with his most immediate superior, Abraham Lincoln. McClellan’s private letters to his wife demeaning (even dehumanizing) his commander-in-chief became public following his death. By that time, Lincoln had become a well-seated martyr for the Union cause and was well on his way to being memorialized on the National Mall in a temple of stone. Anyone anti-Lincoln was undoubtedly not a fan favorite.

On the flip side of that equation, McClellan sparred against a general viewed with much admiration throughout American history–Robert E. Lee. While not literally carved in stone to the extent of Lincoln, Lee’s symbolic figure equally seems untouchable. Indeed, George McClellan could not rival or best the Virginian Lee.

McClellan’s conflicts with Lincoln and Lee and the status those two achieved automatically places him at a disadvantage when it comes to being remembered. Additionally, his meteoric rise to fame and power followed by his corresponding fall from grace is something not easily equaled in the annals of history.

All of these factors, and probably more, combine to wane the memory of McClellan’s role in the Civil War. Like any career, his had its ebbs and flows. But for a time, perhaps George B. McClellan was the right man for the job, coming to Washington’s rescue in July 1861 and again when he rode through the night to reach his army’s camps around Rockville in September 1862. Despite this, he, like George Gordon Meade, appears to have been left behind it all.

McClellan Gun Club sign

It’s blurry, but that’s George Meade on the McClellan Gun Club sign. I guess they both shared the same first name, right?

 


Was Lee’s “Lost Order” a Turning Point? (part three)

TurningPoints-logo(part three of three)

What exactly the Lost Order told McClellan has been the subject of much heated debate and controversy almost from the moment he glanced its contents.

From an intelligence standpoint, the Lost Order was important to McClellan, but not as much as has often been portrayed. As stated in the previous installment of this series, the most perplexing part about the campaign thus far to McClellan had been what Lee’s movements, heading in two different directions, meant. Now, the Lost Order simply solidified in McClellan’s mind exactly what Lee’s odd movements were all about. “I obtained reliable information of the movements and intentions of the enemy, which made it clear that it was necessary to force the passage of the South Mountain range and gain possession of Boonsborough and Rohrersville before any relief could be afforded to Harper’s Ferry.”[1]

Despite the clarification, the Lost Order was four days old when McClellan read it, and the wording called for the various parts of Lee’s plan to be achieved by Friday, September 12—the day before Union soldiers found the order. 

Naturally, the first thing to be done was to get his cavalry chief Pleasonton to verify the days old order. At 3:00 pm, Chief of Staff Randolph B. Marcy updated Pleasonton’s mission.[2] While time faded away as Pleasonton’s horsemen went about their business determining the veracity of the order, McClellan, now very aware of the possibility that Lee’s army may be divided in his front, pushed more of his army in that direction almost instantaneously.[3]

While setting the van of his army in motion, McClellan continued to browse through the order. It did seem that the discovery was a great find, but for as much as it told McClellan of Lee’s thus far undetermined intentions, the fog of war did not dissipate away like an early morning’s blanket of haze.

First, the order—which had been addressed to Gen. D.H. Hill, dropped by someone in the Confederate army, and then scooped up by three Indiana soldiers—began with Paragraph III. Either the Confederate high command proved unable to perform a simple arithmetic function (a highly unlikely proposition) or there was more to the order than what McClellan held in his hands. What did the first two paragraphs say further about Lee’s intentions?

A simple glance in the Official Records reveals that Paragraphs I and II state nothing about Confederate plans in Maryland. For McClellan to have known that was an utter impossibility. Certainly, the unanswerable question hung over his head throughout all of this: what was missing from the Lost Order?[4]

The wayward copy of Special Orders No. 191 also did McClellan no favors in the numbers department, already not one of the general’s best attributes. Earlier reports flooding into headquarters told McClellan of an enemy force numbering as high as 200,000 strong.[5] By the end of September 13, McClellan lowered this estimate not quite by half, concluding the enemy in his front “amounts to 120,000 men or more.”[6] The Lost Order does not mention anything of troop strength, but clearly designates five separate enemy columns before dropping in two vague references to the main body. Was the main body another column or one of the columns already mentioned, just by a different name? In addition, the very essence of Lee’s plan outlined in Special Orders No. 191 suggested a large number of Confederate soldiers in Maryland. Would the enemy divide itself into such disparate columns in a foreign land if it was such a small force? The Lost Order could not answer that question either.

Despite all of this, McClellan did plan an attack for September 14, armed with the solid information he did glean from Lee’s campaign plan. He began moving his forces into position on September 13 to carry the next series of ridges cutting north-south across the landscape of western Maryland.[7] So if the Lost Order did not provide McClellan with all of the information that he might have sought from such a fortuitous find, what then did it do?

As September 12 ended, the Army of the Potomac’s goals were to push west from Frederick and gain possession of Catoctin Mountain, a natural defensive barrier buttressed even more by the Confederate cavalry guarding the mountain passes. McClellan hoped that by carrying this mountain, Pleasonton’s cavalry could be in position the next day to go up and over the next barrier facing him—South Mountain.

The battle of South Mountain occurred on Sunday, September 14, and probably would have happened anyway, though perhaps on a smaller scale, as a natural extension of the Federals’ westward movement from Frederick whether the Lost Order was discovered or not. In McClellan’s first written report of the campaign, dated October 15, 1862, he also rightly recalled that the first place he received “reliable information that the enemy’s object was to move upon Harper’s Ferry and the Cumberland Valley, and not upon Baltimore, Washington, or Gettysburg” was while in Urbana on September 12.[8]

This is not to pronounce that the Lost Order had no significance whatsoever. Until that document came into McClellan’s hands, he was peering through the smoke screen attempting to derive the intentions of his opponent mostly unsuccessfully. Where the Lost Order proved crucial to McClellan’s intelligence reports was in its clear indication of what Confederate movements towards Harpers Ferry and the Maryland-Pennsylvania line meant. There were many other questions Special Orders No. 191 presented to the commanding Union general, but Lee’s intention no longer remained one of them.

The discovery of the Lost Order truly is an incredible story. Who could not indulge in a story like it? Its mysterious loss, the seemingly impossible find by three soldiers in a field, and its path up the chain of command right into George B. McClellan’s grasp accord the story a legendary status that few novelists could have framed better. Unfortunately, its import to the outcome of the campaign—and the war, say some—has been whisked into the legend of the Civil War.

Again, to say that the Lost Order’s odyssey is insignificant misses the point. To say that everything that subsequently happened in the Maryland Campaign hinged on this amazing story likewise does not stick to the track of the historical record. It is a story worthy of the ink spilled over its discovery, but does not accord it with the title of a major turning point of the Civil War.


[1] Report of George B. McClellan, OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 26.

[2] Randolph B. Marcy to Alfred Pleasonton, September 13, 1862, 3:00 pm, OR, vol. 51, pt. 1, 829.

[3] Randolph B. Marcy to Jacob D. Cox, September 13, 1862, 3:35 pm, ibid., 827; Edward M. Neill to Orlando B. Willcox, September 13, 1862, ibid., 827-28.

[4] The full text of Special Orders No. 191 is found in OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 603. The text of the Lost Order can be found in McClellan’s Report, OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 42-43. The Lost Order reproduced in McClellan’s report omits the paragraph numbers, but the original copy of the Lost Order found in McClellan’s papers in the Library of Congress show the oddly numbered order, GBM Papers, LOC, reel 31.

[5] Andrew G. Curtin to George B. McClellan, September 10, 1862, 10:00 am, OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 248.

[6] McClellan to Halleck, September 13, 1862, 11:00 pm, ibid., 281.

[7] In addition to the references previously cited in this work, George B. McClellan to William B. Franklin, September 13, 1862, 6:20 pm, OR, vol. 19, pt. 1, 45-46, also provides information about the Army of the Potomac moving into positions to strike at South Mountain and relieve Harpers Ferry on September 13.

[8] McClellan’s Report, ibid., 26-27.