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The War’s Worst Day

Looking back at Antietam

Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Lee, meanwhile, was faced with the question, What now? He could not attack McClellan, who was inside the protection of strong defensive positions around Washington with an army that strongly outnumbered his. Nor could Lee simply remain in place, on the ground outside Washington. He required food for his men and forage for his horses. This country had been stripped nearly bare, and his supply system was not up to keeping his army fed and clothed. Simply returning to defensive positions around Richmond would mean surrendering the initiative to McClellan, who could attack when he had rebuilt his army and was certain of success.

Lee wanted to force McClellan into a fight while the Union Army was still demoralized and disorganized and in the midst of another change of command. He was confident that by invading Maryland and threatening Washington, Baltimore, and even Philadelphia, he would provoke that fight and win it.

If he crossed the Potomac, into Maryland, Lee further reasoned—with Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, in agreement—he might pry away some border states where a sizable part of the population might by sympathetic to the cause. And, finally, a decisive victory over McClellan on Union soil might be the shock that was needed to gain recognition, by England and France, of Confederate independence. This, very likely, would end the war with the South victorious.

So on September 4, the Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac at White’s Ford, near Leesburg.
As invading armies go, it was not an especially imposing force. Not to the ordinary observer, at any rate. Lee’s men had been fighting and marching all summer on thin rations, living mainly off corn and apples. Their uniforms were patched and tattered. Many of them had no shoes and marched into Maryland on bare feet. They looked more like a pack of hungry scavengers than an invading army with a reputation for victory.

One observer wrote:

A dirtier, filthier, more unsavory set of human beings never strolled through a town—marching it could not be called. .  .  . Faces looked as if they had not been acquainted with water for weeks; hair, shaggy and unkempt. .  .  . Many of them were without shoes. .  .  . [T]he odor of clothes worn for months, saturated with perspiration and dirt, is intense and all-pervading.

But, he went on, these men were also “stout and sturdy, able to endure fatigue and anxious to fight. .  .  . They all believed in themselves as well as their generals and are terribly in earnest.”

There were no more than 50,000 of them. Many of the men who started north with Lee fell out of the march. Some because they could not go any further on sore feet and many because they suffered from dysentery. Some because they had joined to defend their own homeland, not to invade somebody else’s. And some because they were slackers. McClellan, meanwhile, had done what he did best, which was to get an army—and a recently beaten one, at that—organized and equipped and ready to fight. And he had done it quickly. But then, he came down with his fatal affliction, which Abraham Lincoln called “the slows.”

McClellan’s critics saw his tardiness as, at best, a character flaw and, at worst, treason. He was “soft” on the political aims of the war and insufficiently opposed to slavery. He rationalized his caution by overestimating his enemy’s strength and, typically, believed that Lee outnumbered him. In fact, when he did move out of Washington to give battle, it was with over 80,000 troops, and he left almost that many behind, in reserve.

By then, Lee had formulated his strategy, and it had become clear to him that he must remove threats to his supply line that were in his rear—specifically, the federal garrisons at Martinsburg and Harper’s Ferry. His plan called for dividing his army into four elements (and later, five) that would separately accomplish this and, then, reunite around Boonsboro and move farther north, into open country, where he would compel McClellan to give battle.

It had been said of Lee that “his name might be ­Audacity.” And dividing his already inferior force in the face of the enemy certainly qualified. But he knew his adversary and when questioned about his flouting of conventional military wisdom said, “Are you acquainted with General McClellan? He is an able general but a very cautious one. His army is in a very demoralized and chaotic condition, and will not be prepared for offensive operations—or he will not think it so—for three or four weeks. Before that time I hope to be on the Susquehanna.”

McClellan moved a bit more expeditiously than Lee had predicted, but not by much. On September 7, he left Washington, advancing toward his enemy. Cautiously.

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