Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Just when did Lee know?

   It had been a successful (but costly) summer campaign. In late June 1862, Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had pushed the Army of the Potomac from the outskirts of Richmond back down the Peninsula. Then, portions of Lee’s army tangled with another Federal army at Cedar Mountain in August, scoring a victory. In August, Stonewall Jackson stole a march on his Federal counterpart, destroying a large Federal supply depot, then falling back into a defensive position and inviting the Federals to attack. They did, and Jackson was able to hold on until Lee arrived with the rest of the Army, beating the Federal army in detail. This was followed by another small victory at Chantilly on September 1.

   Lee and his lieutenants had faced a couple of different commanders. Major General George B. McClellan had commanded the Army of the Potomac during the Seven Days Battles, while Jackson had faced off against Maj. Gen. John Pope at Cedar Mountain. Lee, Jackson, and James Longstreet fought Pope, reinforced by elements of McClellan’s command, at Second Manassas.

   The campaigns in Virginia had led Lee to the outskirts of the Washington, D.C., the Federal campaign. However, with wrecked rail lines and a war-ravaged countryside, Lee was unable to support his army. He chose to move north into Maryland, hoping that the people of that state would rally to the colors and carry the state out of the Union. Lee would go on to fight a Federal force led by McClellan at South Mountain, Sharpsburg, and Shepherdstown.

   McClellan was an early rising star of the Federal army. After winning a victory at Rich Mountain, McLellan was brought in to take command of the Army of Potomac following the defeat at First Manassas. When General-in-Chief Winfield Scott retired in November 1861, McClellan was appointed to the role. McClellan was a brilliant organizer.  However, he failed to use the army he had built. In the spring of 1862, Abraham Lincoln removed him as General-in-Chief. McClellan then allowed the Confederates to slip away from a thinly defended line in Northern Virginia, back behind the Rappahannock River. After landing on the Peninsula east of Richmond, McClellan squandered an opportunity to brush aside a small Confederate force and capture Richmond, instead becoming bogged down in a month-long siege at Yorktown. Eventually he was able to advance to the outskirts of Richmond, not so much a deed performed due to his daring, but because the Confederate command at the time was trying to draw McClellan away from his naval support. In a series of bloody battles, new Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee, pushed McClellan back down toward his base. Unable, or more likely unwilling, to take the offensive, McClellan was ordered to abandon his position at Harrison’s Landing on August 3 and transfer the army to Washington, D.C. The movement began on August 14 and was completed on August16. McClellan was without a field command from the time he left Harrison’s Landing until September 2, when he was placed in command of the troops in the fortifications around Washington, D.C.[1]

   However, Henery Halleck, who had been appointed General-in-Chief after McClellan, testified that the meeting between Lincoln, Halleck, and McClellan took place on the morning of September 7.[2]

   So the greater question is just when Lee knew McClellan was back in command of Federal forces in and around Washington, D.C. On August 30, 1862, Lee writes Davis that he has won “a signal victory over the combined forces of Genls. McClellan and Pope.” While there were elements of McClellan’s army present (like Porter’s Corps) it was in no way a combined army. If McClellan had been present, he would, by nature of rank, have assumed command of both forces.[3] Lee wrote Jefferson Davis on September 3 that there were now “two grand armies of the United States that have been operating in Virginia.” Lee wrote that he had “been told by some prisoners” that “Pope’s army, and. . . that the whole of McClellan’s, the larger portion of Burnside’s and Cox’s, and a portion of Hunter’s, are united to it.” Lee never states that McClellan was in command or even present.[4] Lee’s missive the next day refers to “the movements of McClellan’s army,” and that his “latest intelligence shows that the army of Pope is concentrated around Washington and Alexandria in their fortifications.”[5] His letters to Davis on September 5-7 make no mention of the commanders of Federal armies. On September 8, Lee writes that “nothing of interest, in a military point of view, has transpired.”[6] Again on September 9, he writes that “Nothing of interest, in a military point of view, has transpired since” the previous day. Lee does have intelligence that Federals-- Sumner, Sigel, Burnside, and Hooker--are advancing along the Potomac River toward Seneca Mills.[7]

   In a postwar account, Maj. Gen. John G. Walker recalled meeting with Lee on September 9 in Frederick. As Lee laid out the upcoming campaign to Walker, Walker recalled Lee directly mentioning McClellan.[8]

   What do the historians say? Stephen Sears writes that Lee had learned of McClellan’s reappointment as army commander when Lee wrote to Davis on September 3.[9] Michael Korda writes that Lee “could not have guessed that McClellan would replace the ignominious and clumsy Pope as his opponent…”[10] Freeman writes, regarding McClellan assuming command right before Sharpsburg, that “It was known that McClellan had replaced Pope in general command, and that was not pleasant news, for Lee regarding McClellan as the ablest of the Federal commanders…”[11] Clifford Dowdey: “McClellan had just been restored to command and, given his second chance…”[12] Emory Thomas: Sooner “or later, Lee knew that McClellan or someone else would lead the Union army out of Washington to confront him.”[13] Joseph Harsh: “Unknown to Lee, John Pope had already been stripped of army command. The very panic that Lee had worked so hard to create had impelled Lincoln—over the angry protest of his cabinet—to restore George McClellan to a measure of authority.” However “by midday of the 9th Lee did surmise he would be contending against McClellan [;] his assumption was based on inconclusive information he had received within the last twenty-four hours.”[14] 

   Every one of the accounts by historians misses a key point. What evidence did Lee have that McClellan was not in command? McClellan was the ranking field commander. If McClellan and Pope’s armies were merging into one unified fighting force, McClellan would, by nature of seniority, have been in command. When McClellan arrived in Washington, D.C., he would have assumed command as the ranking officer (Henry Halleck, as General-in-Chief, would technically outrank McClellan due to his position. However, Halleck’s confirmation to major general was dated February 10, 1862. McClellan’s confirmation was August 3, 1861.) Many of Lee’s missives mentioned McClellan, and Lee must have assumed that McClellan exercised some element of command. It does not seem that the conflict between McClellan, Lincoln, and the cabinet filtered into any of Lee’s correspondence at the time.

   We will probably not ever really know the answer to this question and speculation will continue for some time.

[1] Sears, Georga McClellan, 259-60; Carman, The Maryland Campaign, 1:121.

[2] Hartwig, To Antietam Creek, 703, n4.

[3] Freeman, Lee’s Dispatches, 60.

[4] OR, 19, 2:590-91.

[5] OR, 19, 2:591-2.

[6] OR, 19, 2:600.

[7] OR, 19, 2:602.

[8] B&L, 2:605.

[9] Sears, Landscape Turned Red, 66.

[10] Korda, Clouds of Glory, 462.

[11] Freeman, R.E. Lee, 2:356.

[12] Dowdey, Lee, 303.

[13] Thomas, Robert E. Lee, 257.

[14] Harsh, Taken at the Flood, 84, 141.