From Beaver Dam Creek to Antietam: Lee’s Virginia-Maryland Campaign of 1862

Mackubin T. Owens

June 1, 2007

With few exceptions, Civil War historians tend to conflate battles and campaigns, especially in the Eastern theater. Thus they talk about the Second Manassas Campaign or the Chancellorsville Campaign, when in fact both were battles that took place in the context of a broader campaign. A battle is a tactical engagement that may or may not have an impact beyond the particular battle itself. A campaign is a series of related operations, including movements, battles, and support operations, designed to achieve a strategic objective within a theater of operations.

A case in point is Lee’s Virginia-Maryland campaign of 1862. Rather than viewing the Seven Days’ Battles, Second Manassas/Bull Run, and Antietam as isolated events, it is much more fruitful to see them as parts of a whole during which Lee’s objective was, first, to save Richmond, which was in danger of falling to a Union siege, and then to inflict the sort of catastrophic defeat on a Union force that he thought was necessary to convince the people of the North that the cost of subduing the Southern Confederacy was too great.

Thus there is a continuity to Lee’s actions that runs from the opening of his offensive designed to drive Gen. George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac from the gates of Richmond, to his defeat of Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia at Second Manassas, to his subsequent invasion of Maryland. I outlined this argument in a 2004 piece for the Ashbrook site entitled “September 17: High Tide of the Confederacy?” There I cited the historian Joseph Harsh who wrote:

“the single tapestry” of the campaign “[stretching] from Beaver Dam Creek on June 26 to Shepherdstown on September 20… represented a calculated attempt to restore Confederate resources, to demoralize the North, and to win the war in the summer of 1862.” Lee believed that “the Confederacy had reached the fulcrum of its fate” and judged that “it was necessary to risk all because a similar opportunity most likely would never come again.” Mr. Harsh believes Lee’s strategic perception to be correct. “Lee’s strategy to demoralize the North, and for the most part his execution of that strategy gave the Confederacy the best chance it would ever have to win its independence.”

This is not to say that Lee envisioned an invasion of Maryland when he unleashed his attack against McClellan on June 26, 1862. However, as opportunities presented themselves over the next few weeks, Lee took advantage of them.

Spring 1862: Low Point for the Confederacy and the Emergence of Lee

Casual students of the Civil War often do not realize how bad things were for the Confederacy in the spring of 1862. A Confederate army had won a stunning victory at Manassas in July of 1861, but then Southern fortunes faded.

In the west, Union armies under Henry Halleck drove the Rebels from Missouri, then subsequently penetrated the Confederate line of defense running from the Mississippi River to the Appalachians, using the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers as the main line of operation to flank Rebel strongholds in Kentucky and on the Mississippi.

Maj. Gen Ulysses Grant captured Forts Henry and Donelson in February of 1862, driving deep into western Tennessee. He survived a close call at Shiloh in April, eventually driving the Confederates from the field, subsequently capturing the critical railroad junction at Corinth, Mississippi. Also in April, New Orleans fell. In short order, the only stretch of the Mississippi that the Confederates controlled lay between Vicksburg and Port Hudson.

Things were not much better in the east. In September of 1861, Union force under McClellan drove the Confederates (under Robert E. Lee!) from Western Virginia. Given command of the main Union army in Virginia (and for a short time, overall command of Union forces), McClellan developed a brilliant plan to use Federal naval power to get at the Confederate capital, Richmond. Rather than approaching overland, he transported a massive army to the peninsula created by the James and York Rivers. The army debarked on April 2 and engaged a small Confederate force at Yorktown beginning April 5.

McClellan was an extremely cautious commander who frequently exaggerated the strength of his opponent. At Yorktown, he overstated the Confederate force under John Magruder by a factor of ten. Rather than overwhelming the Rebel defenders, McClellan settled in for a siege, giving the Confederates time to reinforce Magruder’s tiny force. The overall Confederate commander, Gen. Joseph Johnston, feared that McClellan would flank the Rebel defensive line at Yorktown, so on May 4, he abandoned the position.

By the end of May, Johnston had retreated all the way to the outskirts of Richmond. With Federal reinforcements on the way, McClellan settled in for another siege. The threat finally impelled Johnston to attack, which he did on May 31 at Seven Pines/Fair Oaks. The uncoordinated attack soon bogged down and the Rebels were forced to retreat. Casualties on both sides were heavy.

The most consequential casualty for the Confederacy was Johnston, who was badly wounded. Command of the Rebel army now fell to Robert E. Lee. Lee’s ascent changed the character of the war, indeed transformed it into something far different from what it had been up to that point. Had the aggressive Lee not emerged at this time, the Civil War might well have ended in 1862, with the seceded states returning to the Union with slavery intact. Instead, it became a total war that concluded only with the complete subjugation of the South and the end of slavery.

Lee’s later reputation obscures the fact that up until this time, his performance had not been particularly remarkable. Yes, he had been offered command of Union armies by Gen. Winfield Scott before he chose to go with his state of Virginia when it left the Union, but he was not even the general that Jefferson Davis expected to lead the Confederacy to victory. That was Albert Sidney Johnston, who was killed at Shiloh. After Lee had been driven from Western Virginia, he assumed responsibility for coastal defenses of Virginia and North Carolina, where he earned the nicknames “Granny Lee” and “the King of Spades.”

In the spring of 1862, Lee was Davis’s military adviser. At this point in the war, the only successful Confederate general—and the only one that provided a ray of hope for the Southern people—was Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, whose exploits in the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1862 thrilled the Confederate nation.

The late Russell Weigley has described Lee as the most Napoleonic general of the war. Like Napoleon, Lee sought a decisive battle of annihilation, one that might end the war in a single blow. That quest guided Lee’s action for the next three and a half months. As soon as he assumed command of the Confederate army that had been pushed back to Richmond, he immediately prepared to go on the offensive.

The Seven Days

Before he could launch his counterstroke, Lee had to determine the disposition of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. To do so, he turned to his cavalry arm. At this point in the war, Confederate cavalry was far superior to its Federal counterpart. Unlike Yankee cavalry, which was doled out across the army in small detachments, Rebel cavalry was organized into a separate corps responsive to the army commander. Lee was blessed with an extraordinary cavalry leader, the remarkable James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart.

On June 12, Lee dispatched Stuart on a reconnaissance mission to gather intelligence for his planned attack. In three days, pursued by Union cavalry led by his father-in-law, Stuart rode around the entire Army of the Potomac, discovering that Fitz-John Porter’s corps on the Union right was separated from the rest of the army by the swollen waters of the Chickahominy River, and that its right flank was exposed. Lee, adumbrating his bold stroke at Chancellorsville a year later, determined to leave a small covering force to face the bulk of McClellan’s army south of the river while he concentrated on the isolated corps.

Lee’s plan called for a fixing attack by A.P. Hill’s Light Division, timed to coincide with a flank attack by Jackson, who, undetected, was moving his force from the Valley. But Jackson did not appear at the scheduled time. Hill became impatient and launched his attack against the Federal defenses behind Beaver Dam Creek in what is known as the Battle of Mechanicsville late in the afternoon of June 26, supported by the divisions of James Longstreet and D.H. Hill. In a series of bloody but fruitless frontal assaults, the Confederate attackers suffered 1,484 casualties to only 361 for the Union.

Still Jackson did not join the battle. He had stopped for the night at Hundley’s Corner, within earshot of the raging battle. Historians have often been puzzled by Jackson’s performance, not only at Mechanicsville, but during the remainder of The Seven Days’ Battles. The answer, it seems, is sheer physical exhaustion. After constant campaigning for three months, Jackson had ridden from the Valley to meet with Lee at the latter’s headquarters, and then immediately returned to bring his army to join Lee. He had been without rest for an extended period. As the Douglas Southall Freeman, dean of Virginia historians once observed, “beware the fifth day.” Unfortunately for Lee, Jackson performed lethargically during the entire operation.

Although he didn’t participate in the action of June 26, Jackson’s location at Hundley’s Corner put him in position to threaten Porter’s rear, so the latter withdrew some five miles to Boatswain’s Swamp, near Gaines’ Mill, still north of the Chickahominy. On the 27th, Lee launched a series of assaults that finally pierced Porter’s position, forcing him to retreat in some confusion across the Chickahominy. This was to be Lee’s only tactical success during The Seven Days’ Battle.

Lee expected McClellan to withdraw westward toward his base of operations at White House on the Pamunkey River. But McClellan surprised Lee by shifting his base to Harrison’s Landing on the James and retreating south. Lee reacted to the change. In a series of attempted turning movements, Lee tried to cut the Federals off from their new base and destroy them. There was a sharp clash between the pursuing Confederates and McClellan’s rearguard at Savage’s Station on June 29. With Jackson in pursuit, Lee swung around the Union left in an attempt to cut McClellan’s line of retreat on June 30. But the Union rearguard easily repulsed Jackson’s desultory attack at White Oak Swamp and Lee’s main attack was beaten back at Glendale. On July 1, Lee assaulted the strong Union position on Malvern Hill but was repulsed with staggering losses. During the Seven Days, Lee incurred some 20,000 casualties while inflicting nearly 16,000 on the Army of the Potomac.

Although Lee only achieved a single tactical victory during the Seven Days, he scored a strategic victory because McClellan chose to withdraw from the Peninsula, ending the proximate threat to Richmond. Lee learned many lessons from the operation. His plans were too intricate and depended on the initiative of too many subordinates. The number of subordinate units he had to direct exceeded his “span of control.” His untried staff did not perform up to snuff. He subsequently reorganized the army into two corps, one commanded by Longstreet, the other by Jackson. It is a sign of his disappointment with Jackson’s performance that he assigned more divisions to Longstreet than to Jackson.

Second Manassas

While McClellan licked his wounds at Harrison’s landing under the protection of Federal gunboats, another threat to the Confederacy was brewing to the north—the Army of Virginia under Maj. Gen. John Pope, which began to move toward Culpeper Court House in mid-July. Remaining on the Peninsula with Longstreet to ensure that McClellan was indeed withdrawing, Lee took the initiative, dispatching Jackson north to deal with Pope.

In early August, Jackson attacked an isolated Union corps under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks at Cedar Mountain. The Confederates prevailed against Banks but Pope reinforced him, and Jackson withdrew across the Rapidan River. For two weeks in July and early August, Lee and Pope maneuvered along the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers, each trying to get the advantage over the other.

On August 22, Stuart led a raid to cut Pope’s line of communication. He also captured much of Pope’s headquarters equipment near Catlett Station. Among the things captured was Pope’s dispatch book, from which Lee learned that McClellan was supposed to unite with Pope on the Rappahannock and resolved to defeat the latter before the union could occur. Lee’s plan was consistent with his preferred operational approach: to employ a turning movement in open country where he could use his advantages—fast moving infantry and cavalry—to negate the Union advantages—naval power, engineering, and artillery—in order to achieve the Napoleonic battle of annihilation that he constantly sought.

Opting once more for the bold move, Lee sent Jackson on a daring march north to gain Pope’s rear. On August 25, Jackson, having apparently recovered from his Peninsula lethargy, began a forced march that covered 54 miles in 36 hours, disappearing west of Carter’s Mountain and then reemerging through Thoroughfare Gap to attack Popes’ base at Manassas Junction. The Confederates feasted on Yankee rations and then burned what they couldn’t eat or carry. As Pope turned to meet Jackson’s threat to his rear, the latter disappeared again, taking up a defensive position behind a railroad cut north of the Warrenton Turnpike with his left flank on Bull Run.

For three days, Pope tried without success to locate Jackson. He finally found him on the evening of August 28 when Jackson attacked a Union brigade at Broward Farm, precipitating the Second Battle of Manassas/Bull Run. Pope, whose aggressiveness matched Lee’s, attacked Jackson’s position throughout August 29. Finally in the late afternoon, one of Pope’s divisions captured a portion of the railroad cut but was dislodged by A.P. Hill’s counterattack.

Pope continued his attack on August 30, but unbeknownst to him, Lee had arrived with Longstreet’s corps of 30,000 troops the previous evening, extending the Confederate right well beyond Pope’s left. At 3:00 PM, Pope launched another attack against Jackson that was bloodily repulsed. As the survivors retreated, Lee unleashed Longstreet against Pope’s overlapped left, which rolled up the entire Union line. Only a stout Federal defense at Henry Hill (where Jackson had earned his sobriquet “Stonewall” the previous July), saved Pope from annihilation by buying time for his shattered army to retreat across Bull Run.

For the next two days Lee pursued Pope as the latter retreated towards Washington. On September 1, Jackson clashed with the Union rearguard at Chantilly, but the Federals escaped in the midst of a torrential thunderstorm.

Lee suffered 9,200 casualties while inflicting 16,000 on Pope. Lee had shattered a Union army but had not quite annihilated it. The remnants of the Army of Virginia were folded into McClellan’s Army of the Potomac which, after boarding navy transports at Harrison’s Landing on the James River had debarked at Alexandria and Aquia too late (or had moved too slowly) to help Pope at Second Manassas.

Lee now saw an opportunity to deliver a knockout punch to the Union by invading Maryland in order to lure McClellan into a battle in which Lee would accomplish what he had almost realized at Second Manassas: the destruction of a major Union army, this time on Union soil.

The Invasion of Maryland

Most historians have seen the Maryland campaign as a full-scale invasion of the North intended to reach the banks of the Susquehanna. Its goals included relieving Virginia from the scourge of foraging armies by subsisting for as long as possible off enemy resources; enticing Maryland into secession; strengthening the Northern peace party in the upcoming congressional elections; and encouraging recognition by Great Britain and France. Others have demurred, claiming the entire campaign was always intended to be a raid.

Lee’s invasion was certainly more than a raid. But Lee’s goal in invading Maryland was even more ambitious than bringing Maryland into the Confederacy or achieving European recognition. He aimed for nothing less than changing the character of the war. Consistent with his operational approach, he intended to execute a strategic turning movement and destroy McClellan’s army, thereby convincing the population of the North to give up the fight to subdue the South.

Thus as suggested at the outset, the Maryland incursion can be seen as the third phase of a unified campaign that began on the banks of the Chickahominy on June 26. The time appeared to “propitious,” as Lee wrote to Davis, to invade Maryland. Not only had Lee’s efforts during the Seven Days and especially at Second Manassas been crowned with success, but also Lee knew that with the April Conscription Act, the Confederacy had exerted its maximum effort to bring troops into the field while the North had barely tapped its manpower reservoir. Meanwhile, Confederate armies in the West were on the move toward the Ohio. As Joseph Harsh remarks, the Confederacy was indeed at flood tide. Without success, the tide would only recede.

As Harsh also observes, when Lee crossed into Maryland on September 4, “Lee’s army was an instrument of sufficient strength and mettle to justify crossing the Potomac. From the 14th onward, however, his unrelenting demands blunted the weapon in his hands and reduced its power.” The main problem was Lee’s decision to capture Harper’s Ferry, believing that the garrison there presented a threat to his lines of communication. To do so, Lee had to divide his force—this in itself was never a problem for Lee—but he now did so in ignorance of McClellan’s location.

Lee dispatched Jackson to capture Harper’s Ferry, assuming the garrison would either flee or surrender quickly. Meanwhile, he sent Longstreet to Boonsboro to guard against what he expected to be a characteristically cautious approach by McClellan. But the garrison at Harper’s Ferry did not behave as Lee expected and the local topography forced Jackson to divide his corps into three columns. This disrupted Lee’s timetable and put at risk his divided force, because McClellan’s advance toward western Maryland was much more rapid than Lee expected.

The conventional wisdom has usually attributed the rapidity of McClellan’s advance to the “Lost Dispatch,” a copy of Lee’s Special Order 191 that fell into Union hands. According to this view, McClellan now knew Lee’s plan and the disposition of his divided army. But the importance of S.O. 191 is overstated. The fact is that McClellan was already moving “more rapidly than convenient” against Lee’s rear before the discovery of the order. Lee was largely unaware of McClellan’s progress because of the failure of Stuart’s cavalry to provide the necessary intelligence—he was genuinely surprised when McClellan reached Frederick on September 12. Additionally, S. O. 191 gave McClellan no information about the strength of Lee’s army or its constituent parts.

Lee struggled to reunite his army before McClellan arrived. Longstreet attempted to delay the Union advance at South Mountain but on September 14, the advance guard of the Army of the Potomac dislodged the Confederates from their defensive position at Turner’s Gap. Harper’s Ferry finally capitulated on September 15, and except for A.P. Hill’s division, which remained to parole the 12,500 man garrison, Jackson hurried to rejoin Lee, who took up a position near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Even as late as the early afternoon of September 16, Lee fully intended to renew his offensive by drawing McClellan to the west where he could gain an advantage by maneuver. He had paused at Sharpsburg not to fight but to permit his army to reunite after the surrender of Harper’s Ferry. Only after Stuart reported that McClellan’s troops were crossing the upper Antietam did he grudgingly accept a defensive battle, his maneuver option now foreclosed.

But even with a reunited army, Lee’s ability to stand and fight was severely limited. His soldiers had been scattered across western Maryland from Hagerstown to Pleasant Valley by the heat, the forced marches, and the confusion of retreats. Lee had asked too much of his soldiers. As a result, when McClellan unleashed his attack at dawn on September 17, Lee’s army was only half the strength of McClellan’s (38,000 to 76,000).

The first action of the day took place on the Union right as first Joseph Hooker’s corps and then Joseph Mansfield’s hammered the Confederate left. The battle raged back and forth at the West Woods, the Dunker Church, and David Miller’s cornfield. The Federals surged forward only to be driven back by desperate Confederate counterattacks. When asked where his division was, John Bell Hood replied, “dead on the field.”

As the fighting on the Union right ebbed, it surged across the center. After repeated failed assaults against the main Confederate defensive position running along a sunken road, one Union division was able to flank it, delivering a deadly enfilading fire. As the dead filled the sunken road, which came to be known as “Bloody Lane,” the Confederate center collapsed. Lee was able to patch together a defense, but had McClellan committed his reserve at this point, Lee’s army might well have been annihilated.

Meanwhile, the action now shifted to the Union left, where Ambrose Burnside’s corps was stymied in an attempt to cross a bridge over Antietam Creek (the stream was fordable further to the south) by a small detachment of Rebels. Finally in the middle of the afternoon, Burnside carried the bridge and was pressing the Confederate right back toward Sharpsburg. On the cusp of victory, Burnside was struck on the flank by A.P. Hill’s division returning from Harper’s Ferry. The Confederate position was held—barely.

Lee remained at Sharpsburg on the 18th, but McClellan refused to renew the battle. Although his casualties were heavy (12,400 dead, wounded, and missing), Lee’s were, of course, proportionately heavier (10,300). In addition, McClellan had a fresh reserve corps that was never committed. Under cover of darkness, Lee slipped away. When McClellan belatedly followed on September 19, his vanguard was repulsed at Shepherdstown.

September 17 remains the bloodiest day in American history. Of the 22,000 casualties on both sides, nearly 6,000 were killed or mortally wounded. Anyone who has visited the Antietam battle field cannot help but be struck by the compactness of the battlefield, especially in comparison to Gettysburg, which is much more expansive.

In his memoirs, Longstreet wrote that “at Sharpsburg was sprung the keystone of the arch upon which the Confederate cause rested.” Longstreet was correct. Antietam was a tactical draw but a Union strategic victory. Militarily, it represented the culmination of the Confederacy’s maximum effort. Lee would win other victories and indeed, would invade the North again. But this time instead of operating in conjunction with Confederate armies in the West, he would be trying to offset reverses at Vicksburg and Chattanooga. Politically, it provided Lincoln with the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which changed the character of the war.

The Most Consequential Campaign of the War

Lee’s 1862 campaign was perhaps the most consequential of the war. If this seems overstated, consider this. By hammering Union forces from the Virginia Peninsula to Western Maryland, Lee revived the hopes of a demoralized Confederacy. As argued above, had Lee not replaced Johnston after the latter was wounded at Seven Pines, Richmond very likely would have fallen to a siege. Under the circumstances, the seceded states may have been willing to reenter the Union under the old formula: “the Constitution as it is, the Union as it was,” i.e. with slavery.

Instead, Lee took a mediocre army, replaced marginal generals with others who understood what he wanted, especially Jackson and Longstreet, and honed it into a peerless striking force. Lee and his army became the hope of the Confederacy; no matter reverses in the West, at Vicksburg, Chattanooga, or even Atlanta, Lee fueled Southern optimism. Indeed, even during the winter of 1864-65, when historians concur that the Southern cause was lost, the people of the South kept faith, believing that as long as Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia was still in the field (even if besieged at Petersburg), success remained within the realm of possibility. It was a false hope by this time, but it kept the South hanging on.

Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.