September 20, 1862 (Saturday)
“I have the honor to report that Maryland is entirely freed from the presence of the enemy, who has been driven across the Potomac,” wrote General George McClellan. He had done it. “We may safely claim a complete victory.” His army was intact and the Rebels were on the run.
To his wife, he wrote that General Lee’s Confederates were “completely beaten.” He predicted that Southern dreams of invading Pennsylvania had been “dissipated for ever.”
“I feel some little pride,” he continued completely unaware of the virtue of humility, “in having with a beaten and demoralized army defeated Lee so utterly, and saved the North so completely.”
With the battle won and the Union saved, McClellan was going to try another coup. A meeting of state governors was happening in Altoona, Pennsylvania on the 24th. Through them, he hoped to make his stand. “I have insisted that Stanton shall be removed and that Halleck shall give way to me as Commander in Chief. I will not serve under him – for he is an incompetent fool – in no way fit for the important place he holds.”
In closing, he added another prediction. “I have shown that I can fight battles and win them! I think my enemies [the anti-McClellan faction in Washington] are pretty effectively killed by this time!”
They were not. The “incompetent fool,” Henry Halleck had absolutely no idea what McClellan had done since the battle of Antietam on the 17th. McClellan wrote him about the cavalry pursuing the Rebels, but nothing else. When Halleck asked for more details, McClellan informed him that a few of his corps had ventured towards Harpers Ferry and Williamsport, but he also showed his scorn.
“I regret that you find it necessary to couch every dispatch I have the honor to receive from you, in a spirit of fault finding,” shot McClellan, “and that you have not yet found leisure to say one word in commendation of the recent achievements of this Army, or even to allude to them.”1
Though McClellan’s “enemies” were not at all killed, Lincoln had been looking for a victory. Antietam wasn’t really one, but it wasn’t an embarrassing defeat, and had stopped the Rebel invasion. The President wanted to issue the document that he had been working on for months, the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all of the slaves in the disloyal states.
On the 19th, he had received a letter from abolitionist and Indiana congressman Robert Dale Owen, reminding him that nearly two months ago, he [Lincoln] had warned the Southern states that if they did not return to the Union within sixty days, he would seize their property, including slaves. The 23rd would mark the 60th day.
“The twenty-third of September approaches,” warned Owen, “the date when the sixty-day notice you have given to the rebels will expire–expire without other reply to your warning than the invasion of Maryland and a menace to Pennsylvania. Is it to rest there? Patiently we have waited the time. Is nothing to follow? Are our enemies to boast that we speak brave words–and there an end of it?”
The Indiana abolitionist mused that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would be “the very turning point in the nation’s fate! A day to the rebels of despair, to every loyal heart of exultant rejoicing! A day of which the anniversary will be celebrated with jubilee while the American Union endures! A day to be remembered not on our land alone, but wherever humanity mourns over the wrongs of the slave, or rejoices in his liberation!”2
Lincoln received the letter on the 19th, but had no idea if the battle was a victory or not. When McClellan first wrote, directly after the battle, that he had won a great victory, Lincoln, understandably didn’t believe him. It wasn’t until this date that he was convinced that the Union won at Antietam. In light of this, the President, staying at the Soldiers Home just outside the city, began touching up the Proclamation, planning to release it on the 23rd, exactly sixty days since the warning.
General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia were not, however, defeated. They had been turned back, it was true, but Lee had no plans to sit around until McClellan worked up the guts to come after him. Lee knew that he needed to gather his troops and regroup, but once that was accomplished, there was nothing to stop him from trying the invasion again.
It would take days for Lee to understand just how bad it really was. He would spend those days hurrying artillery to the front and procuring supplies, clothing and shoes for his men.
McClellan had thrown some of Fitz John Porter’s Corps towards Shepherdstown, mostly to make sure that Lee was leaving. Some crossed the Potomac, but were beaten back by two brigades under A.P. Hill, ordered by Stonewall Jackson to do just that. The fighting lasted an hour and though casualties were light, it was enough to make McClellan thing twice about hitting Lee.
And there started the problem yet again.3
- Letters from Mac to Halleck and Mrs. McClellan, September 19 and 20, 1862. [↩]
- Owen to Lincoln, September 17, 1862. As printed in The New Harmony Movement by George Browning Lockwood. [↩]
- Books used today: Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation by William Klingaman; Lincoln’s Darkest Year by William Marvel; Lincon’s Emancipation Proclamation by Allen Guelzo; Counter-Thrust by Benjamin Franklin Cooling; Landscape Turned Red by Stephen W. Sears; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson. [↩]