General Lee Begins His March Towards Maryland

September 3, 1862 (Wednesday)

“The present seems to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate Army to enter Maryland,” wrote a stolid Robert E. Lee to President Jefferson Davis. Lee had driven the Federal Army of Virginia back into the defenses of Washington, where it was licking its wounds in the company of George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Knowing that he, with his 60,000 men, could never take Washington with two Union armies occupying it, Lee looked north.

General Lee

The two armies, which President Lincoln had united under General McClellan, were unorganized. Now was the time to strike. Lee was thinking of Maryland. In his heart, he knew that she was a Southern state. Slavery was still legal and if liberated, it would drive the Federal government from Washington.

There was a catch, however. “The army is not properly equipped for an invasion of an enemy’s territory,” wrote Lee. “It lacks much of the material of war, is feeble in transportation, the animals being much reduced, and the men are poorly provided with clothes, and in thousands of instances are destitute of shoes.”

Still, he could not just sit before Washington waiting for the Federals to attack him. “Though weaker than our opponents in men and military equipments, must endeavor to harass if we cannot destroy them.”

Thinking first of Virginia and the protection of Richmond, Lee suggested that Braxton Bragg’s army in the West could drop whatever it was that it was doing so it “could be advantageously employed in opposing the overwhelming numbers which it seems to be the intention of the enemy now to concentrate in Virginia.”

Lee believed that the Federal armies would more than likely stay in Washington and harass him little. It wasn’t really even a campaign in his eyes, but more of an “expedition,” as he would describe it in a follow up letter written the next day.1

This bold move had been discussed the previous day with Generals Longstreet and Jackson. Longstreet had mixed feelings on it. He believed that McClellan would never dare to attack Lee’s army. All they had to do was wait this out. On the other hand, he reminded Lee that in Mexico, the Old Army had to subsist off of the local green corn when the supply lines were slow. In Maryland at this time of year, those ears of corn would be fit for roasting.2

Sketch of Stonewall Jackson drawn on this date by Adalbert Volck near Dranesville.

Stonewall Jackson had no misgivings at all. He had been wanting to do just that for months. From the meeting, he dashed to his headquarters near Chantilly and issued orders to march at early dawn.3

Jackson’s men led the Army of Northern Virginia through Dranesville, stopping that night about a mile beyond the town. 4

After the camps were established, Jackson called together his three division commanders. Generals A.P. Hill, Alexander Lawton (replacing Ewell), and William Starke (temporarily replacing Taliaferro) met with Jackson at his headquarters.

Stonewall was in a noticeably foul mood. His horse, Little Sorrel had gone missing, and he had to make do with another mount. Also, and even more irksome, was the large amounts of straggling he witnessed on the day’s march. Jackson spelled out uncharacteristically specific marching orders for the next day. All four synchronized their watches and agreed to be on the road by early dawn. Speed was essential, but it was going to be a hot day and rests were needed. Jackson ordered all three to march for fifty minutes and then half for ten. He wanted these orders to be perfectly followed and saw no reason they could not be.5

A new campaign deserves a new large and approximate map.

While Union General McClellan was organizing his huge army in the defenses of Washington, a small command under Col. Dixon Miles held Harper’s Ferry. His gaggle, roughly 12,000-strong, was situated inside the town, with canyon-like walls encasing them. To the south, with the defeats at Bull Run and Chantilly, the lower Shenandoah Valley town of Winchester was abandoned on Miles’ orders. They carried what they could and burned what they could not, arriving in Harpers Ferry before dark, bringing the Federal total to 14,000.6

Dixon Miles hopes to do his best.

In Washington, the citizens feared that the Rebel throngs would fall upon their city. General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, however, was not convinced. For awhile, it looked pretty bad, but as McClellan’s army gathered and the defenses were fully manned, he realized that Lee would never make such an attack.

If Lee had no plans to attack Washington, there was just as little chance that he would simply wait at Chantilly. “There is every probability that the enemy, baffled in his intended capture of Washington, will cross the Potomac, and make a raid into Maryland or Pennsylvania,” wrote Halleck to General McClellan. “A movable army must be immediately organized to meet him again in the field.”

Halleck wanted McClellan to act quickly – something he wasn’t very fond of doing. In two days, he was to have a enough forces to take the field. They were to be supplied and ready for service.7

  1. Official Records, Series 1. Vol. 19. p590. []
  2. “The Invasion of Maryland” by General James Longstreet, as published in Battles & Leaders of the Civil War Vol. 2, p663, The Century Co., 1912. []
  3. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
  4. Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss, Southern Methodist University, 1973. []
  5. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillan, 1997. []
  6. Six Years of Hell by Chester G. Hearn, Louisiana University Press, 1996. Miles’ report to General Wool in Baltimore found in Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 1, p784. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 2, p169. []
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One thought on “General Lee Begins His March Towards Maryland

  1. I think it worth noting that Lee’s army remaining where it was was not really an option. A civil war army that stayed in the same place without a major supply route such as a railroad or river was much like a plague of locusts. Wood, whether in the form of fences or still growing trees, was rapidly consumed for fires. Everything that could be eaten by man or draft animal soon disappeared. And unless there was a large river or lake nearby, the shear volume of excrement produced by humans and horses led to both low morale and serious outbreaks of disease.

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