ON THE DAY LEE WRECKED POPE ON THE plains of Manassas, driving him headlong across Bull Run to begin his scamper for the Washington intrenchments, Kirby Smith accomplished in Kentucky the nearest thing to a Cannae ever scored by any general, North or South, in the course of the whole war. This slashing blow, the first struck in the two-pronged offensive Bragg had designed to recover for the Confederacy all that had been lost by his predecessors, was delivered in accordance with Smith’s precept, announced at the outset, that “brilliant results … will be accomplished only with hard fighting.”
Accordingly, on August 25, after a week’s rest at Barbourville, he had resumed his northward march. There were 21,000 men in his four divisions, but the largest of these—9000-strong; the others had about 4000 each—remained in front of Cumberland Gap, observing the 9000 Federals who held it, while the rest continued their advance toward the Bluegrass. Meanwhile this was still the barrens, which meant that water was scarce, the going rough, and people in general unfriendly. This last might well have been based on fear, however, for the appearance of the marchers, whether they came as “liberators” or “invaders,” struck at least one citizen as anything but prepossessing: “[They were] ragged, greasy, and dirty, and some barefoot, and looked more like the bipeds of pandemonium than beings of this earth.… They surrounded our wells like the locusts of Egypt and struggled with each other for the water as if perishing with thirst, and they thronged our kitchen doors and windows, begging for bread like hungry wolves.… They tore the loaves and pies into fragments and devoured them. Some even threatened to shoot others if they did not divide with them.” (“Notwithstanding such a motley crew,” the alarmed observer added with relief, “they abstained from any violence or depredation and appeared exceedingly grateful.”) As a supplement to what could be cadged in this manner, they gathered apples and roasting ears from roadside orchards and fields, eating them raw on the march with liberal sprinklings of salt, a large supply of which had been procured at Barbourville. Spirits were high and there was much joking, up and down the column. CSA, they said, stood for “Corn, Salt, and Apples.”
No matter how much horseplay went on within the column itself, passing through London on the 27th the men continued to obey their commander’s insistence upon “the most perfect decorum of conduct toward the citizens and their property.” Two days later, by way of reward for good behavior, they climbed Big Hill, the northern rim of the barrens, and saw spread out before them, like the promised land of old, the lush and lovely region called the Bluegrass. Years afterward, Smith would remember it as it was today, “a long rolling landscape, mellowing under the early autumn rays,” and would add that when it “burst upon our sight we were astonished and enchanted.” However, there was little time for undisturbed enjoyment of the Pisgah view. Up ahead, near the hamlet of Rogersville, seven miles short of Richmond, the principal settlement this side of the Kentucky River, the cavalry encountered resistance and was driven back upon the infantry. This was a sundown affair, soon ended by darkness. Although he did not know the enemy strength, Smith was not displeased at this development; for it indicated that the Federals would make a stand here in the open, rather than along the natural line of defense afforded by the bluffs of the river eight miles beyond Richmond. Earlier that week he had written Bragg that he would “fight everything that presents itself,” and now, having issued instructions for his men to sleep on their arms in line of battle, he prepared to do just that at dawn. After more than a hundred miles of marching, they were about to be required to prove their right to be where they were and—if they won—to penetrate farther into what Smith would call the “long rolling landscape.”
The bluecoats slept in line of battle, too, and there were about 7000 of them. They were under William Nelson, whom Buell had sent north two weeks ago, a month after his promotion to major general, to take charge of the defense of his native Kentucky. “The credit of the selection will be mine,” Buell had told him. “The honor of success will be yours.” Nelson was of a sanguine nature—“ardent, loud-mouthed, and violent,” a fellow officer called him—but by now, having completed a tour of inspection of what he had to work with, he was not so sure that either credit or success, let alone honor, was very likely to come his way as a result of the contest he saw looming. Kirby Smith was closing on him with an army of 12,000 hardened veterans, while his own, hastily organized into two small divisions under two ex-civilian brigadiers, was composed almost entirely of green recruits hurried forward by the governors of Ohio and Indiana in response to an urgent call from Washington. Their periods of service ranged in general from three weeks to three days, and for all his arrogant manner, his six feet five inches of height and his three hundred pounds of weight, Nelson was considerably worried as to what they would do when they heard the first shot fired in their direction.
He was not long in finding out. At 2.30 in the morning, August 30, a courier knocked at his bedroom door in Lexington and informed him that the Confederates had come over Big Hill the previous afternoon, approaching Richmond, but that his two brigadiers—Mahlon Manson and Charles Cruft—were on the alert and had intercepted the gray column before it reached the town. This was not at all what Nelson wanted to hear, for he was doubtful that his green men could be maneuvered in open combat, and had intended for them to be pulled back to a better defensive position. Apprehensive, he got dressed and rode forward to see for himself, hearing gunfire as soon as he crossed the Kentucky River. It was well past noon by the time he got to Richmond, however, since he was obliged to travel the byroads to avoid being picked up by rebel horsemen. Arriving at last he found the troops, as he later declared, “in a disorganized retreat or rather rout.” With the assistance of Manson and Cruft he got what was left of his army into line on the edge of town, partly under cover of the rock walls and tombstones of a cemetery. Once the rallied men were in position, he walked up and down the firing line, exposing his huge bulk to enemy marksmen and talking all the while to encourage his nervous recruits. “If they can’t hit me they can’t hit anything!” he roared as he strode back and forth amid the twittering bullets.
In this he was mistaken, as he presently found out. They hit him twice, in fact, both flesh wounds, no less painful for being superficial. But what hurt him worst, apparently, was the conduct of his men, who refused to be encouraged by his example. “Our troops stood about three rounds,” he afterwards reported, “when, struck by a panic, they fled in utter disorder. I was left with my staff almost alone.” He made his escape, considerably hampered by a bullet in his thigh. So did Cruft; but not Manson, who was pinned under his fallen horse and captured. Nelson listed his casualties as 206 killed, 844 wounded, 4303 captured or missing.
Smith’s were 78 killed, 372 wounded, 1 missing out of the approximately 7000 he too had had engaged. After the initial decision to give battle he had left the tactical details to the commander of his lead division, Brigadier General Patrick R. Cleburne, who had charge of the two brigades sent by Bragg from Chattanooga. Cleburne was Irish—about as Irish in fact as possible, having been born in County Cork on St Patrick’s Day, thirty-four years ago. As a youth he had done a hitch in the British army, rising to the rank of corporal, then had emigrated to Helena, Arkansas, where he studied and practiced law with the same diligence he applied to his other two prime absorptions, pistol marksmanship and chess. When the war broke out he was elected captain of the local volunteer company, the Yell Rifles. By the time of Shiloh he had attained his present rank and led his brigade of Tennesseans, Mississippians, and Arkansans with conspicuous skill and gallantry through that fight. Today in Kentucky he did likewise, keeping up a slow fire with his guns until the situation was developed, then launching an attack which broke the first of the three lines the bluecoats managed to form between then and sundown. Cleburne himself was not on hand for the breaking of the others, nor for the rounding up of the fugitives in the twilight. While speaking to a wounded colonel, he was struck in the left cheek by a bullet that knocked his teeth out on that side before emerging from his mouth—“which,” as one who was with him said, “fortunately happened to be open”—and forced his retirement, speechless, from the field. But the continued application of his tactics against the subsequent two rallies produced the same results, together with the capture of about 4000 prisoners, the entire Union wagon train, substantial army stores, 10,000 small arms, and 9 guns.
“Tomorrow being Sunday,” Smith announced in his congratulatory order, “the general desires that the troops shall assemble and, under their several chaplains, shall return thanks to Almighty God, to whose mercy and goodness these victories are due.” The day was also spent attending the wounded, burying the dead, and paroling the host of prisoners, after which preparations were made for continuing the advance. September 1, unopposed—three fourths of Nelson’s army had been shot or captured; the rest were fugitives, hiding out in the woods and cornfields—the gray marchers crossed the Kentucky River and made camp on the northern bank. Next day they entered Lexington, where large numbers of townspeople turned out to greet them with smiles and cheers, including a delegation of ladies who presented Smith with a flag they had embroidered in his honor. September 3 his troopers rode into Frankfort, to find the governor and the legislature fled to Louisville. Having no suitable Confederate ensign with them, the graybacks raised the colors of the 1st Louisiana Cavalry over the state house. Another southern capital had returned to what the victors called its true allegiance.
Lexington had been the goal announced by Smith when he left Knoxville, and there he made his headquarters throughout September, in virtual control of Central Kentucky, while waiting for Bragg to join or send for him. Back at Cumberland Gap, after holding out through a month of siege, the Federals under George Morgan blew up their magazine, set fire to a warehouse containing 6000 small arms, and made their escape across the barrens, via Manchester and Booneville, to Greenup on the Ohio River, eluding pursuers all two hundred miles of the way. This was a disappointment to Smith, who had counted on capturing his West Point classmate, but at least it permitted his other division to join him at Lexington. Meanwhile he had not been idle. In addition to occupying Frankfort, Cynthiana, Georgetown, and Paris, he sent sizeable detachments of cavalry and infantry to demonstrate against Louisville and Cincinnati, both of which were thrown into turmoil. Summoned to command the defense of the latter city, Lew Wallace decreed martial law, ordered all business activities suspended, and impressed citizens to resume work on the fortifications begun the year before at Covington and Newport, on the opposite bank of the Ohio. “To arms!” the Cincinnati Gazette urged its readers. “The time for playing war has passed. The enemy is now approaching our doors!”
Smith was not so much concerned with the reaction of the people of Ohio, however, as he was with the reaction of the people of Kentucky. So far, this had been most gratifying, he informed the Adjutant General on September 6. “It would be impossible for me to exaggerate the enthusiasm of the people here on the entry of our troops. They evidently regarded us as deliverers from oppression and have continued in every way to prove to us that the heart of Kentucky is with the South in this struggle.… If Bragg occupies Buell we can have nothing to oppose us but raw levies, and by the blessing of God will always dispose of them as we did on the memorable August 30.”
His purpose in seeming to threaten Cincinnati, he added, was “in order to give the people of Kentucky time to organize,” and by way of encouragement he broadcast assurances to the citizens in the form of proclamations:
Let no one make you believe we come as invaders, to coerce your will or to exercise control over your soil. Far from it.… We come to test the truth of what we believe to be a foul aspersion, that Kentuckians willingly join the attempt to subjugate us and to deprive us of our prosperity, our liberty, and our dearest rights.… Are we deceived? Can you treat us as enemies? Our hearts answer, “No!”
Bragg too was in Kentucky by now, and he too was issuing proclamations assuring the people that he had come, not to bind them, but to assist them in striking off their chains:
Kentuckians, I have entered your State with the Confederate Army of the West, and offer you an opportunity to free yourselves from the tyranny of a despotic ruler. We come not as conquerors or as despoilers, but to restore to you the liberties of which you have been deprived by a cruel and relentless foe. We come to guarantee to all the sanctity of their homes and altars, to punish with a rod of iron the despoilers of your peace, and to avenge the cowardly insults to your women.… Will you remain indifferent to our call, or will you rather vindicate the fair fame of your once free and envied State? We believe that you will, and that the memory of your gallant dead who fell at Shiloh, their faces turned homeward, will rouse you to a manly effort for yourselves and posterity.
Kentuckians, we have come with joyous hopes. Let us not depart in sorrow, as we shall if we find you wedded in your choice to your present lot. If you prefer Federal rule, show it by your frowns and we shall return whence we came. If you choose rather to come within the folds of our brotherhood, then cheer us with the smiles of your women and lend your willing hands to secure you in your heritage of liberty.
Dated September 14 at Glasgow, which he had reached the day before, the proclamation was issued during a two-day rest halt, the first he had made in the course of the more than one hundred and fifty miles his army had covered since leaving Chattanooga, seventeen days ago. Despite their exertions, the men were in excellent spirits. Marching over Walden’s Ridge, then up the lovely Sequatchie Valley to Pikeville, where they swung east across the Cumberland Plateau—thus passing around Buell’s left wing at Decherd—they enjoyed the scenery, the bracing air of the uplands, and the friendly offerings of buttermilk and fried chicken by country people all along the way.
Bragg was happy, too, and with cause. Strategically, as events disclosed, the movement had been as sound as it was rapid. He had predicted that Buell would “recede to Nashville before giving us battle,” and now his scouts reported that this was just what Buell was doing, as fast as he could: which meant that North Alabama and Chattanooga, along with much of Middle Tennessee, had already been relieved without the firing of a shot. To cap the climax, when he drew near Sparta on September 5, halfway across Tennessee, he received a dispatch from Kirby Smith reporting the destruction of Nelson’s army and urging him “to move into Kentucky and, effecting a junction with my command and holding Buell’s communications, to give battle to him with superior forces and with certainty of success.” Then and there, by way of celebration, Bragg issued a congratulatory address to his soldiers, informing them of Smith’s lopsided victory and Buell’s hasty withdrawal: “Comrades, our campaign opens most auspiciously and promises complete success.… The enemy is in full retreat, with consternation and demoralization devastating his ranks. To secure the full fruits of this condition we must press on vigorously and unceasingly.”
Press on they did, and vigorously, for Bragg had now decided on his goal. Finally abandoning any intention to launch an assault on Nashville, where Buell was concentrating his forces and improving the fortifications, he marched hard for Glasgow. Eight days later he arrived and, calling a halt, issued the proclamation announcing his “joyous hopes” that the people of Kentucky would assist him in “punish[ing] with a rod of iron the despoilers of your peace.” He was exactly where he wanted to be: squarely between Buell and Kirby Smith, whom he could summon to join him. Or if he chose, he could move on to the Bluegrass and the Ohio, combining there with Smith to capture Louisville or Cincinnati, both of which were nearer to him now than they were to Buell.
On the day Bragg issued his proclamation at Glasgow, where his four divisions were taking a hard-earned rest, Buell entered Bowling Green, thirty-five miles to the west. He had five divisions with him and three more back at Nashville under Thomas, who was serving as his second-in-command through the present crisis. His total strength, including a division just arrived from Grant, was 56,000: exactly twice Bragg’s, though Buell did not know this, having lately estimated it at 60,000, not including the troops with Kirby Smith.
The past two weeks had been for him in the nature of a nightmare. So much had happened so fast, and nearly all of it unpleasant. Having transferred his headquarters in rapid succession from Stevenson to Decherd to McMinnville, he shifted them once again to Murfreesboro on the day Bragg set out north from Chattanooga. He did this, he told Thomas, by way of preparation for the offensive: “Once concentrated, we may move against the enemy wherever he puts himself if we are strong enough.” This sentence, as a later observer remarked, had “an escape clause at both ends,” and Buell was not long in giving more weight to them than to the words that lay between. Two days later, while Bragg was passing around his left and Smith was wrecking Nelson up at Richmond, he notified Andrew Johnson, the military governor of Tennessee: “These facts make it plain that I should fall back on Nashville, and I am preparing to do so. I have resisted the reasons which lead to the necessity until it would be criminal to delay any longer.”
He arrived September 2 to find the capítol barricaded with cotton bales and bristling with cannon. Inside, Governor Johnson defied the rebels, declaring heatedly that he would defend the citadel with his heart’s blood and never be taken alive. Encouraged by this, as well as by the arrival of 10,000 men from Grant, Buell wired Halleck: “I believe Nashville can be held and Kentucky rescued. What I have will be sufficient here with the defenses that are being prepared, and I propose to move with the remainder of the army against the enemy in Kentucky.” Two nights ago, swamped by troubles resulting from Nelson’s and Pope’s simultaneous defeats, Old Brains had thrown up his hands and complained to McClellan that he was “utterly tired out.” By now, though, he had recovered enough to send a one-sentence reply to Buell’s wire. “Go where you please,” he told him, “provided you will find the enemy and fight him.”
Buell went nowhere until September 7. Warned then that Bragg was headed for Bowling Green, where a large supply of provisions had been stored for the campaign which had already gone up in smoke, he set out for that point with five of his eight divisions, leaving Thomas to hold Nashville with the others in case the gray invaders doubled back. A week later he got there, only to find that Bragg was at Glasgow, which not only placed him nearer Louisville than the Federals were, but also enabled him to call on Smith for reinforcements. In danger of being attacked (as he thought) by superior numbers, Buell wired for Thomas to hurry north with two divisions, explaining the grounds on which he thus was willing to risk the Tennessee capital: “If Bragg’s army is defeated Nashville is safe; if not, it is lost.” Another wire went to Halleck. He was “not insensible to the difficulty and embarrassment of the position,” Buell declared, and he further assured the harassed general in chief: “I arrived here today … and shall commence to move against Bragg’s force on the 16th.”
The day before the one on which Buell had said he would “commence to move,” Bragg himself was in motion with his whole army. He moved, however, not toward Buell’s main body at Bowling Green, but toward the Green River, twenty miles north, where a 4000-man Federal detachment held a fort on the south bank, opposite Munfordville, guarding the L & N railroad crossing at that point. His original intention had been to hold his ground at Glasgow, receiving attack if Buell turned east, or to lunge forward and strike his flank if he pushed on toward Louisville. What changed his mind was what he later called an “unauthorized and injudicious” action, precipitated two days before by Brigadier General James R. Chalmers.
Chalmers, whose infantry brigade was on outpost and reconnaissance duty at Cave City, ten miles northwest of Glasgow, had made contact on the 13th with one of Kirby Smith’s far-ranging cavalry regiments, the colonel of which had sent him word of what he called a rare opportunity. His troopers had cut the railroad north of Munfordville, isolating the south-bank garrison, but his request for its capitulation had been sharply refused. Would Chalmers move up and add the weight of his brigade to the demand? Chalmers would indeed. A youthful and ardent Mississippian, one of the authentic Shiloh heroes, he put his troops in motion at once, without bothering to notify Bragg at Glasgow. Arriving at daylight next morning, he launched an attack on the fort, then drew back and sent a note complimenting the bluecoats on their “gallant defense,” pointing out the hopelessness of their position, with Bragg’s whole army “a short distance in my rear,” and demanding an unconditional surrender “to avoid further bloodshed.” The reply, signed by Colonel J. T. Wilder, 17th Indiana Volunteers, was brief and to the point: “Thank you for your compliments. If you wish to avoid further bloodshed keep out of the range of my guns.”
Concluding from this that the Hoosier colonel had better be left alone, Chalmers gathered up his dead and wounded—which amounted to exactly four times as many as Wilder’s: 288, as compared to 72—and withdrew. Back at Cave City next morning he reported the affair to Bragg, expressing “fear that I may have incurred censure at headquarters by my action in this matter.” He was right. Bragg was furious that this first show of combat should be a blot on the record of a campaign which had already yielded such rich fruits without the firing of a shot. Accordingly, being as he said “unwilling to allow the impression of a disaster to rest on the minds of my men,” he prepared at once to erase it. All four divisions started that same day for Munfordville.
He was taking no chances. Hardee’s wing moved through Cave City that evening, making the direct approach, while Polk’s crossed the river a few miles above and circled around to the rear, occupying positions on the bluffs overlooking the fort on the opposite bank. By midafternoon, September 16, the investment was complete. After firing a few rounds to establish ranges, Bragg sent a note informing the Federal commander that he was surrounded by an overwhelming force and repeating the two-day-old demand for an unconditional surrender to avoid “the terrible consequences of an assault.” When Wilder asked for proof that such a host was really at hand, Bragg replied: “The only evidence I can give you of my ability to make good my assertion of the presence of a sufficient force to compel your surrender, beyond the statement that it now exceeds 20,000, will be the use of it.… You are allowed one hour in which to make known your decision.”
Wilder was in something of a quandary. A former Indiana industrialist, he had been thirteen months in service, but nothing so far in his experience had taught him how much credence to give the claims that accompanied such demands for capitulation. Finally he arrived at an unorthodox solution. Knowing that Simon Buckner commanded a division on this side of the river, and knowing moreover that Buckner was a man of honor, he went to him under a flag of truce and asked his advice—as one gentleman to another. If resistance was hopeless, he said, he did not want to sacrifice his men; but neither did he want to be stampeded into surrendering because of his lack of experience in such matters. What should he do? Buckner, taken aback, declined to advise him. Wars were not fought that way, he said. He offered, however, to conduct him on a tour of the position and let him see for himself the odds against him. The colonel took him up on that, despite the fact that it was now past midnight and the truce had expired two hours ago. After counting 46 guns in position on the south bank alone, Wilder was convinced. “I believe I’ll surrender,” he said sadly.
It was arranged without further delay; Bragg subsequently listed the capture of 4267 prisoners, 10 guns, 5000 rifles, “and a proportionate quantity of ammunition, horses, mules, and military stores.” While the bluecoats were being paroled—officers retaining their side arms and the men marching out, as Wilder proudly reported, “with all the honors of war, drums beating and colors flying”—Bragg wired the Adjutant General: “My junction with Kirby Smith is complete. Buell still at Bowling Green.”
He had cause for elation. Already astride the Green River, halfway across Kentucky, the western prong of his two-pronged offensive had scored a victory as rich in spoils as the one the eastern prong had scored against Nelson, eighteen days ago at Richmond. In an order issued at Munfordville that same morning, he congratulated his soldiers “on the crowning success of their extraordinary campaign which this day has witnessed,” and he told the Adjutant General: “My admiration of and love for my army cannot be expressed. To its patient toil and admirable discipline am I indebted for all the success which has attended this perilous undertaking.”
This last sounded more like McClellan than it did like Bragg, and less like Jackson than it did like either: the Jackson of the Valley, that is, whom Bragg had announced as his prototype. And now that he had begun to sound like Little Mac, the terrible-tempered Bragg began to imitate his manner. After telling his men, “A powerful foe is assembling in our front and we must prepare to strike him a sudden and decisive blow,” when Buell moved forward to Cave City, still waiting for Thomas to join him, Bragg left Polk’s wing north of the Green and maneuvered Buckner’s division across Buell’s front, attempting to provoke him into attacking the south-bank intrenchments much as Chalmers had done, to his sorrow, five days back. But when Buell refused to be provoked, Bragg pulled Hardee’s troops across the river and resumed his northward march, leaving Buell in his rear.
He had his reasons, and gave them later in his report: “With my effective force present, reduced … to half that of the enemy, I could not prudently afford to attack him there in his selected position. Should I pursue him farther toward Bowling Green he might fall back to that place and behind his fortifications. Reduced at the end of four days to three days’ rations, and in a hostile country, utterly destitute of supplies, a serious engagement brought on anywhere in that direction could not fail (whatever its results) to materially cripple me. The loss of a battle would be eminently disastrous.… We were therefore compelled to give up the object and seek for subsistence.”
So he said. But it seemed to others in his army that there was more to it than this; that the trouble, in fact, was personal; that it lay not within the situation which involved a shortage of rations and a surplus of bluecoats, but somewhere down deep inside Bragg himself. For all the audacity of his conception, for all his boldness through the preliminaries, once the critical instant was at hand he simply could not screw his nerves up to the sticking point. It was strange, this sudden abandonment of Stonewall as his model. It was as if a lesser poet should set out to imitate Shakespeare or Milton. With luck and skill, he might ape the manner, the superficial arrangement of words and even sentences; but the Shakespearian or Miltonic essence would be missing. And so it was with Bragg. He lacked the essence. Earlier he had said that the enemy was to be broken up and beaten in detail, Jackson-style, “by rapid movements and vigorous blows.” Now this precept was revised. As he left Munfordville he told a colonel on his staff: “This campaign must be won by marching, not fighting.”
When Thomas came up on the 20th, Buell pushed forward and found the rebels gone. Convinced that they were headed for Louisville, he followed at a respectful distance, fearing an ambush but hoping to strike their rear while they were engaged with the troops William Nelson was assembling for the defense of the city. To his surprise, however, less than twenty miles beyond the river Bragg swung east through Hodgenville, over Muldraugh’s Hill and across the Rolling Fork to Bardstown, leaving his opponent a clear path to Louisville. Gratefully Buell took it.
He was not the only one who was grateful. Nelson, his flesh wounds healing rapidly since the removal of the bullet from his thigh, had been preparing feverishly, and with a good deal of apprehension based on previous experience, to resist the assault he expected Bragg to launch at his second collection of recruits. When he learned that the gray column had turned off through Lincoln’s birthplace he drew his first easy breath since the early-morning knocking at his bedroom door, almost four weeks ago, first warned him that Kirby Smith’s invaders had come over Big Hill and were nearing Richmond. The arrival, September 24, of Buell’s advance division—12,000 veterans and half a dozen batteries of artillery—produced a surge of confidence within his shaggy breast. He wired department headquarters, Cincinnati: “Louisville is now safe. We can destroy Bragg with whatever force he may bring against us. God and liberty.”
As Pope’s frazzled army faded eastward up the pike toward Washington, and as Lee’s—no less frazzled, but considerably lighter-hearted—poked among the wreckage in search of hardtack, the problem for them both was: What next? For the former, the battered and misused conglomeration of troops now under McClellan, who had ridden out to meet them, the question was answered by necessity. They would defend their capital. But for the victors, confronted as usual with a variety of choices, the problem was more complex. Lee’s solution, reached before his men’s clothes were dry from the rain-lashed skirmish at Chantilly, resulted—two weeks later, and by coincidence on the same date as Wilder’s surrender to Bragg at Munfordville—in the bloodiest single day of the whole war.
The solution, arrived at by a narrowing of choices, was invasion. He could not attack the Washington defenses, manned as they were by McClellan’s army, already superior in numbers to his own and about to be strengthened, as he heard, by 60,000 replacements newly arrived in response to Lincoln’s July call for “300,000 more.” Nor could he keep his hungry soldiers in position where they were. The northern counties had been stripped of grain as if by locusts, and his wagon train was inadequate to import enough to feed the horses, let alone the troops. A third alternative would be to fall back into the Valley or south of the Rappahannock. But this not only would be to give up much that had been gained; it would permit a renewal of pressure on the Virginia Central—and eventually on Richmond. By elimination, then, the march would be northward, across the Potomac.
Not that there were no practical arguments against taking such a step. After much strenuous marching on meager rations, the men were bone-weary and Lee knew it. What was more, he wrote Davis on September 3, “The army is not properly equipped for an invasion of an enemy’s territory. 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.… What occasions me the most concern is the fear of getting out of ammunition.” Nevertheless, in Lee’s mind the advantages far outweighed the drawbacks. Two successful campaigns within two months, on Virginia soil and against superior numbers, had won for the Confederacy the admiration of the world. A third, launched beyond the Potomac in conjunction with Bragg’s two-pronged advance beyond the Cumberland, might win for her the foreign recognition which Davis had known from the start was the one best assurance that this second Revolution, like the first, would be successful. Besides, Maryland was a sister state, not enemy territory. Thousands of her sons were in the Virginia army, and it was believed that thousands more would join the colors once they were planted on her soil. In any event, invasion would draw off the northern armies and permit the Old Dominion farmers, now that the harvest was at hand, to gather their crops unmolested. The one thing Lee could not do was nothing; or as he put it, “We cannot afford to be idle, and though weaker than our opponents in men and military equipments, must endeavor to harass them if we cannot destroy them.” Next day, having convinced himself—and hoping, by the usual kid-gloves treatment, to have convinced the President—he wired Davis that he was “fully persuaded of the benefit that will result from an expedition into Maryland, and I shall proceed to make the movement at once, unless you should signify your disapprobation.”
Without waiting for a reply—indeed, without allowing time for one—he put the army in motion that same day for White’s Ferry, twenty miles south of Frederick, the immediate objective. Approaching the ford on September 6 and 7, the men removed their shoes, those who had them, rolled up their trouser legs, and splashed across the shallows into Maryland. One cavalryman considered it “a magnificent sight as the long column … stretched across this beautiful Potomac. The evening sun slanted upon its clear placid waters and burnished them with gold, while the arms of the soldiers glittered and blazed in its radiance.” There were for him, in the course of the war, “few moments … of excitement more intense, or exhilaration more delightful, than when we ascended the opposite bank to the familiar but now strangely thrilling music of Maryland, My Maryland.”
Not everyone was so impressed, however, with the beauty of the occasion. A boy who stood on that opposite bank and watched the vermin-infested scarecrows come thronging past him, hairy and sunbaked, with nothing bright about them but their weapons and their teeth, was impressed by them in much the same way as the Kentucky civilian, this same week, had been impressed by their western counterparts. They made him think of wolves. “They were the dirtiest men I ever saw,” he afterwards recalled, “a most ragged, lean, and hungry set of wolves.” Accustomed to the Federals he had seen marching in compact formations and neat blue uniforms, he added: “Yet there was a dash about them that the northern men lacked. They rode like circus riders. Many of them were from the far South and spoke a dialect I could scarcely understand. They were profane beyond belief and talked incessantly.”
Their individuality, which produced the cackling laughter, the endless chatter, and the circus-rider gyrations, was part of what made them “terrible in battle,” as the phrase went. But in the present instance it also produced hampering effects: one being that Lee had considerably fewer men in Maryland than he had counted on when he made his decision to move north. Hampton’s cavalry brigade, the reserve artillery, and three divisions of infantry under D. H. Hill, Major General Lafayette McLaws, and Brigadier General John G. Walker—20,000 troops in all—had been forwarded from Richmond and had joined the army on its march to the Potomac. After the deduction of his Manassas casualties, this should have given Lee a total strength of 66,000. The truth was, he had barely more than 50,000 men in Maryland; which meant that close to 15,000 were absent without leave. Some few held back because of conscientious objections to invasion, but most were stragglers, laggards broken down in body or skulkers broken down in spirit. They would be missed along the thin gray line of battle, invalids and cowards alike, though their defection gave the survivors an added sense of pride and resolution. “None but heroes are left,” one wrote home.
Hard-core veterans though they were, they were subject to various ills. Diarrhea was one, the result of subsisting on green corn; “the Confederate disease,” it was coming to be called, and the sufferers, trotting white-faced to catch up with the column, joked ruefully about it, offering to bet that they “could hit a dime at seven yards.” Another was sore feet; a fourth of the army limped shoeless on the stony Maryland roads. In addition to these ailments, mostly but by no means entirely confined to the ranks, a series of accidents had crippled the army’s three ranking generals, beginning with Lee himself. Clad in rubber overalls and a poncho, he had been standing beside his horse on the rainy last day of August when a sudden cry, “Yankee cavalry!” startled the animal. Lee reached for the bridle, tripped in his clumsy clothes, and caught himself on his hands as he fell forward, with the result that a small bone was broken in one and the other was badly sprained. Both were put in splints, and Lee, unable to handle a mount, entered Maryland riding in an ambulance. Longstreet too was somewhat incapacitated by a raw blister on his heel; he crossed the river wearing a carpet slipper on his injured foot. Marylanders thus were robbed of the chance to see these two at their robust and energetic best. The third high-ranking casualty was Jackson. Ox-eyed Little Sorrel having been missing for two weeks, the gift of a sinewy gray mare from a group of Confederate sympathizers was welcome on the day he crossed the Potomac. Next morning, however, when he mounted and gave her the reins she did not move. He touched her with his spur: whereupon she reared, lost her balance, and toppled backward. Stunned, Jackson lay in the dust for half an hour, fussed over by surgeons who feared for a spinal injury, then was transferred, like Lee, to an ambulance.
These were partial incapacitations. Two others involving men of rank were unfortunately total, at least for the time being. The charges against Bob Toombs had been dropped in time for him to share in the final hour of victory at Manassas, but no sooner was the battle won than his place in arrest was taken by a general whose services the army could less afford to lose. When Shanks Evans laid claim to some ambulances Hood’s Texans had captured, Hood, although outranked, refused to give them up. Evans referred the matter to the wing commander, who ruled in his favor, and when Hood still declined to yield, Longstreet ordered him back to Culpeper to await trial for insubordination. Lee intervened to the extent of allowing Hood to remain with his division, though not to exercise command.
By then the trouble between A. P. Hill and Jackson had come to a head, with the result that another of the army’s hardest fighters was in arrest. On the march to the Potomac, Little Powell’s division straggled badly. As far as Stonewall could see, Hill was doing little to correct this. What was more, he broke regulations by not calling resthalts at the specified times. Finally Jackson himself halted one brigade: whereupon the red-bearded general came storming back down the column, asking by whose orders the troops were being delayed. The brigadier indicated Stonewall, who sat his horse beside the road. Hill unbuckled his sword and held it out to Jackson. “If you are going to give the orders, you have no need of me,” he declared, trembling with rage. Stonewall did not take it. “Consider yourself under arrest for neglect of duty,” he said coldly. “You’re not fit to be a general,” Hill snapped, and turned away.
With his army thus short of equipment and presenting its worst appearance, himself and his two chief lieutenants distracted by injuries, and two of his best division commanders in arrest, Lee busied himself and his staff with the composition, in accordance with instructions received from Davis, of a proclamation addressed “To the People of Maryland”:
The people of the Confederate States … have seen with profound indignation their sister State deprived of every right and reduced to the condition of a conquered province.… [We] have long wished to aid you in throwing off this foreign yoke, to enable you again to enjoy the inalienable rights of freemen.… We know no enemies among you, and will protect all, of every opinion. It is for you to decide your destiny freely and without constraint … and while the Southern people will rejoice to welcome you to your natural position among them, they will only welcome you when you come of your own free will.
Having thus complied with the President’s recommendations, he made some of his own concerning another matter. The time had come, it seemed to him, in view of the present military situation, for the Confederacy to make a peace proposal to the North, based of course on permanent separation. “Such a proposition, coming from us at this time, could in no way be regarded as suing for peace,” he wrote Davis; “but, being made when it is in our power to inflict injury upon our adversary, would show conclusively to the world that our sole object is the establishment of our independence and the attainment of an honorable peace. The rejection of this offer would prove to the country that the responsibility of the continuance of the war does not rest upon us, but that the party in power in the United States elect to prosecute it for reasons of their own.” This he thought might have an effect upon the pending congressional elections in the North, enabling the voters “to determine … whether they will support those who favor a prolongation of the war, or those who wish to bring it to a termination, which can but be productive of good to both parties without affecting the honor of either.”
This was perhaps more opportune than he suspected, especially with regard to the effect it might have on foreign opinion, if Davis would act on the advice and Lee could give him time in which to do so. Napoleon III had been friendly all along; but now, stimulated by the offer of one hundred thousand bales of badly needed cotton, as well as by concern for the success of certain machinations already in progress south of the Texas border, he was downright eager. Across the English Channel, meanwhile, the news of Pope’s defeat and Lee’s entry into Maryland caused Lord Palmerston to write Earl Russell: “The Federals … got a very complete smashing.… Even Washington or Baltimore may fall into the hands of the Confederates. If this should happen, would it not be time for us to consider whether in such a state of things England and France might not address the contending parties and recommend an arrangement on the basis of separation?” The Foreign Minister replied: “I agree with you that the time is come for offering mediation to the United States Government, with a view to recognition of the independence of the Confederates. I agree further that, in case of failure, we ought ourselves to recognize the Southern States as an independent State.” Presently the Prime Minister wrote again: “It is evident that a great conflict is taking place to the northwest of Washington, and its issue may have a great effect on the state of affairs. If the Federals sustain a grave defeat, they may be at once ready for mediation, and the iron should be struck while it is hot. If, on the other hand, they should have the best of it, we may wait a while and see what may follow.”
What followed was in a large part up to Lee and his tatterdemalion army, and having given his attention to the question of peace, he turned his mind once more to thoughts of war—in particular to the problem of securing his lines of communication and supply. Once he moved westward, beyond the Catoctins and the trans-Potomac prolongation of the Blue Ridge, these would extend southward up the Shenandoah Valley, through Martinsburg and Winchester. He had expected the Federals to evacuate those places when they found him in their rear, and in the latter case they had done so; but the former still was occupied in strength, as was Harpers Ferry, sixteen miles away. Lee felt obliged to detach part of his army to reduce them before continuing his advance. When he broached this to Longstreet, however, Old Pete argued forcefully against such a division of strength in the enemy’s own back yard. Jackson, on the other hand—recovered by now from his fall the day before—was delighted at the prospect, remarking somewhat wistfully that of late he had been entirely too neglectful of his friends in the Valley. Lee thought so, too. Dividing the army had worked wonders against Pope; now he would attempt it against McClellan, whose return to command had been announced in the northern papers. Despite Longstreet’s objections, Lee began to work out a plan, not only for removing the threat to his supply line, but also for capturing the bluecoats who made it.
The result was Special Orders 191, which called for another of those ambitious simultaneous convergences by widely separated columns upon an assigned objective; in short, a maneuver not unlike the one that had failed, a year ago this week, against Cheat Mountain. In this case, however, since the capture of the Federals could be effected only by cutting off all their avenues of escape, the complication was unavoidable. The basis for it was geography. Low-lying Harpers Ferry, more trap than fortress, was dominated by heights that frowned down from three directions: Bolivar Heights to the west, Maryland Heights across the Potomac, and Loudoun Heights across the Shenandoah. With this in mind, Lee designed a convergence that would occupy all three. Jackson, who had been in command of the Ferry the year before and therefore knew it well, would be in general charge of the operation in its final stage. He would move with his three divisions through Boonsboro to the vicinity of Williamsport, where he would cross the Potomac and descend on Martinsburg, capturing the garrison there or driving it eastward to Harpers Ferry, where he would occupy Bolivar Heights. McLaws, with his own and Anderson’s divisions, would move southwest and take position on Maryland Heights. Walker would move south with his two-brigade division, cross the Potomac below Point of Rocks, and occupy Loudoun Heights. The result, with all those guns bearing down on the compact mass of bluecoats, should be something like shooting fish in a rain barrel. Longstreet meanwhile would move westward, beyond the mountains, and occupy Boonsboro with his other four divisions, supported by D. H. Hill. The order was dated September 9; all movements would begin the following morning, with the convergence scheduled for the 12th. After the capitulation, which was expected to be accomplished that same day, or the next day at the latest, Jackson, McLaws, and Walker would rejoin the main body at Boonsboro for a continuation of the campaign through Maryland and into Pennsylvania.
Distribution of the order, which was quite full and gave in detail the disposition of Lee’s whole army for the next four days, was to the commanders of the various columns as well as to the commanders of those divisions whose normal assignments were affected. Longstreet took one look at it and, realizing the danger if it should fall into unfriendly hands, committed it to memory; after which he tore it up and chewed the pieces into pulp. Jackson, too, hugged it close. Observing, however, that Harvey Hill, who had been attached to his wing for the river crossing, was now assigned to Longstreet, he decided that the best way to let his brother-in-law know that he was aware of the transfer would be to send him a copy of the order. With his usual regard for secrecy, Stonewall himself made the transcript in his spidery handwriting and dispatched it under seal. Hill studied it, then put it carefully away. When the copy arrived from Lee’s adjutant, one of Hill’s staff officers decided to keep it for a souvenir, but meanwhile used it as a wrapper for three cigars which he carried in his pocket.
Lee knew nothing of this duplication, nor of the menial use to which an important army order was being put. He was doing all he could, however, to make certain that nothing went astray in the intended convergence, as unfortunately had happened every time such a maneuver had been attempted in the past. One precaution he took was to have a personal interview with each of the generals in charge: with Longstreet, who would guard the trains while the others were gone, and with Jackson, McLaws, and Walker, who would be on their own throughout the expedition. In the latter’s case this was particularly apt; for Walker, a forty-year-old regular army Missourian, had just come up from the James with his small division—formerly a part of Holmes’, in which he had commanded a brigade during the Seven Days—and was therefore unfamiliar with what had since become the army’s operational procedure. Lee went over the plan with him, indicating details on the map with his crippled hands. When this was done, he spoke of what he intended to do once his forces were reunited north of the Potomac. If Walker, with his “Show Me” background, had been inclined to suspect that much of the recent praise for the Virginian’s audacity was overdone, that doubt was ended now. The sweep and daring of the prospect Lee exposed, speaking quietly here in the fly-buzzed stillness of his tent, widened Walker’s eyes and fairly took his breath away.
Sixty airline miles beyond Hagerstown lay Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where the Pennsylvania Railroad crossed the Susquehanna River. “That is the objective point of the campaign,” Lee explained. Destruction of the bridge there, supplementing the previous seizure of the B & O crossing at Harpers Ferry and the wrecking of the Monocacy aqueduct of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal—this last would be done by Walker, in accordance with instructions already given him, on the way to Point of Rocks—would isolate the Federal East from the Federal West, preventing the arrival of reinforcements for McClellan except by the slow and circuitous Great Lakes route. “After that,” Lee concluded, “I can turn my attention to Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington, as may seem best for our interests.” The war would be over—won.
Observing Walker’s astonishment, Lee said: “You doubtless regard it hazardous to leave McClellan practically on my line of communication, and to march into the heart of the enemy’s country?” When the Missourian said he did indeed, Lee asked him: “Are you acquainted with General McClellan?” Walker replied that he had seen little of him since the Mexican War. “He is an able general,” Lee said, “but a very cautious one. His enemies among his own people think him too much so. 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.”
This judgment contained several errors of degree as to the Federal potential, but in none of them was Lee more mistaken than in his estimate of the present condition of the Army of the Potomac, which in fact was less “chaotic” than his own, at least so far as its physical well-being was concerned. Nor was it “demoralized.” McClellan was back, along with regular rations, a sense of direction, and a general sweeping up of croakers such as had followed the previous Bull Run fiasco which had brought him on the scene the year before. All this had been the source of much rejoicing, but there were others, no less heartening for being negative. Pope and McDowell, whom the men considered the authors of their woe, were gone—the former to pack his bags for the long ride to Minnesota, the latter to await the outcome of a formal hearing he had demanded in order to clear himself of all the charges brought by rumor—and so was Banks, a sort of junior-grade villain in their eyes, to assume command of the Washington defenses after McClellan marched the field force out the National Road to challenge the invaders up in Maryland.
That too was heartening. After four solid weeks of retreating, some from the malarial bottoms of the Peninsula, some from the blasted fields that bordered the dusty rivers of northern Virginia, and some from both—followed always by eyes that watched from roadside windows, hostile and mocking—not only were they moving forward, against the enemy, but they were doing it through a region that was friendly. “Fine marching weather; a land flowing with milk and honey; a general tone of Union sentiment among the people, who, being little cursed by slavery, had not lost their loyalty; scenery, not grand but picturesque,” one young abolition-minded captain wrote, “all contributed to make the march delightful.” A Maine veteran recorded that, “like the Israelites of old, we looked upon the land and it was good.”
Best of all was Frederick, which they entered after the rebels had withdrawn beyond the Catoctins. “Hundreds of Union banners floated from the roofs and windows,” one bluecoat recalled, “and in many a threshold stood the ladies and children of the family, offering food and water to the passing troops, or with tiny flags waving a welcome to their deliverers.” Army rations went uneaten, “so sumptuous was the fare of cakes, pies, fruits, milk, dainty biscuit and loaves.” A Wisconsin diarist apparently spoke for the whole army in conferring the accolade: “Of all the memories of the war, none are more pleasant than those of our sojourn in the goodly city of Frederick.”
Presently it developed that there was more here for soldiers than an abundance of smiles and tasty food. For two of them, at any rate—three, in fact, if Private B. W. Mitchell and Sergeant J. M. Bloss, Company E, 27th Indiana, decided to share the third with a friend—there were cigars. Or so it seemed at the outset. Saturday morning, September 13, the Hoosier regiment was crossing an open field, a recent Confederate camp site near Frederick, when the men got orders to stack arms and take a break. Soon afterwards Mitchell and Bloss were lounging on the grass, taking it easy, when the former noticed a long thick envelope lying nearby. He picked it up and found the three cigars inside, wrapped in a sheet of official-looking paper. While Bloss was hunting for a match, Mitchell examined the document. “Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, Special Orders 191,” it was headed. At the bottom was written, “By command of General R. E. Lee: R. H. Chilton, Assistant Adjutant-General.” In between, eight paragraphs bristled with names and place-names: Jackson, Martinsburg, Harpers Ferry; Longstreet, Boonsboro; McLaws, Maryland Heights; Walker, Loudoun Heights. Mitchell showed it to Bloss, and together they took it to the company commander, who conducted them to regimental headquarters, where the colonel examined the handwritten sheet, along with the three cigars—as if they too might have some hidden significance—and left at once for division headquarters, taking all the evidence with him. Mitchell and Bloss returned to their company area and lay down again on the grass, perhaps by now regretting that they had not smoked the lost cigars before taking the rebel paper to the captain. As it turned out, they had sacrificed most of their rest-halt, too; for, according to Bloss, “In about three-quarters of an hour we noticed orderlies and staff officers flying in all directions.”
McClellan’s first considered reaction, after the leap his heart took at his first sight of the document which dispelled in a flash the fog of war and pinpointed the several components of Lee’s scattered army, was that it must be spurious, a rebel trick. It was just too good to be true. But a staff officer who had known Chilton before the war identified the writing as unquestionably his. This meant that the order was valid beyond doubt: which in turn meant that McClellan’s army, once it crossed the unoccupied Catoctins just ahead, would be closer to the two halves of Lee’s army than those halves were to each other. What was more, one of those halves was itself divided into unequal thirds, the segments disposed on naked hilltops on the opposite banks of un-fordable rivers. The thing to do, quite obviously, was to descend at once on Boonsboro, where the nearest half was concentrated, overwhelm it, and then turn on the other, destroying it segment by segment. The war would be over—won. At any rate that was how McClellan saw it. Standing there with the documentary thunderbolt in his hand, he said to one of his brigadiers: “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobby Lee I will be willing to go home.”
Partly his elation was a manic reaction to the depression he had been feeling throughout most of the eleven days since Halleck’s order, issued in confirmation of Lincoln’s verbal instructions, gave him “command of the fortifications of Washington and of all the troops for [its] defense.” This had not been supplemented or broadened since. What he did beyond its limitations he did on his own—including the march into Maryland to interpose his army between Lee’s and the capital whose defense was his responsibility. Consequently, as he said later, he felt that he was functioning “with a halter around my neck.… If the Army of the Potomac had been defeated and I had survived I would, no doubt, have been tried for assuming authority without orders.” What the Jacobins wanted, he knew, was his dismissal in disgrace, and he had long since given up the notion that the President would support him in every eventuality. In fact, knowing nothing of Lincoln’s defiance of a majority of the cabinet for his sake, he no longer trusted the President to stand for long between him and the political clamor for his removal; and he was right. Back at the White House, after telling Hay, “McClellan is working like a beaver. He seems to be aroused to doing something after the snubbing he got last week,” Lincoln added thoughtfully: “I am of the opinion that this public feeling against him will make it expedient to take important command from him … but he is too useful just now to sacrifice.”
All this while, moreover, Halleck had been giving distractive twitches to the telegraphic lines attached to the halter. Though Banks had three whole corps with which to man the capital fortifications—Heintzelman’s, Sigel’s, and Porter’s, which, together with the regular garrison, gave him a total defensive force of 72,500 men—the general in chief swung first one way, then another, alternately tugging or nudging, urging caution or headlong haste. Four days ago he had wired: “It may be the enemy’s object to draw off the mass of our forces, and then attempt to attack us from the Virginia side of the Potomac. Think of this.” Two days later he was calmer: “I think the main force of the enemy is in your front. More troops can be spared from here.” Today, however, his fears were back, full strength: “Until you know more certainly the enemy forces south of the Potomac you are wrong in thus uncovering the capital.” McClellan, his natural caution thus enlarged and played on—he estimated Lee’s army at 120,000 men, half again larger than his own—pushed gingerly northwestward up the National Road, which led from Washington to Frederick, forty miles, then on through Hagerstown and Wheeling, out to Ohio.
He averaged about six miles a day, despite the fact that he had reorganized his army into two-corps “wings” in order to march by parallel roads rather than in a single column, which would have left the tail near Washington while the head was approaching Frederick. The right wing, assigned to Burnside, included his own corps, still under Reno, and McDowell’s, now under Hooker, who had already won the nickname “Fighting Joe.” The center wing was Sumner’s and included his own and Banks’ old corps, now under the senior division commander, Brigadier General Alpheus Williams. The left wing, Franklin’s, included his own corps and the one division so far arrived from Keyes’, still down at Yorktown. Porter’s corps, which was released to McClellan on the 12th, the day his advance units reached Frederick, was the reserve. Including the troops arrived from West Virginia and thirty-five new regiments distributed throughout the army since its retreat from Manassas, McClellan had seventeen veteran divisions, with an average of eight brigades in each of his seven corps; or 88,000 men in all. Yet he believed himself outnumbered, and he could not forget that the army he faced—that scarecrow multitude of lean, vociferous, hairy men who reminded even noncombatants of wolves—had two great recent victories to its credit, while his own had just emerged from the confusion and shame of one of the worst drubbings any American army had ever suffered. Nor could he dismiss from his mind the thought of what another defeat would mean, both to himself and to his country. Despised by the leaders of the party in power, mistrusted by Lincoln, badgered by Halleck, he advanced with something of the manner of a man walking on slippery ice through a darkness filled with wolves.
It was at Frederick, that “goodly city,” that the gloom began to lift. “I can’t describe to you for want of time the enthusiastic reception we met with yesterday in Frederick,” he wrote his wife next morning. “I was nearly overwhelmed and pulled to pieces. I enclose with this a little flag that some enthusiastic lady thrust into or upon Dan’s bridle. As to flowers—they came in crowds! In truth, I was seldom more affected.… Men, women, and children crowded around us, weeping, shouting, and praying.” Then, near midday, his fears were abolished and his hopes were crowned. “Now I know what to do,” he exclaimed when he read Special Orders 191, and one of the first things he did was share his joy with Lincoln in a wire sent at noon. In his elation he had the sound of a man who could not stop talking:
“I have the whole rebel force in front of me, but am confident, and no time shall be lost. I have a difficult task to perform, but with God’s blessing will accomplish it. I think Lee has made a gross mistake, and that he will be severely punished for it. The army is in motion as rapidly as possible. I hope for a great success if the plans of the rebels remain unchanged. We have possession of Catoctin. I have all the plans of the rebels, and will catch them in their own trap if my men are equal to the emergency. I now feel that I can count on them as of old.… My respects to Mrs. Lincoln. Received most enthusiastically by the ladies. Will send you trophies.”
He said he would lose no time, and five days ago he had told Halleck, “As soon as I find out where to strike, I will be after them without an hour’s delay.” But that did not mean he would be precipitate. In fact, now that the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was at hand, its very magnitude made him determined not to muff it as a result of careless haste. Besides, despite its fullness in regard to the location of the Confederate detachments, the order gave him no information as to their various strengths. For all he knew, Longstreet and Hill had almost any conceivable number of men at Boonsboro, and the nature of the terrain between there and Frederick afforded them excellent positions from which to fight a delaying action while the other half of their army shook itself together and rejoined them—or, worse still, moved northward against his flank. He already had the Catoctins, as he said, but beyond them reared South Mountain, the lofty extension of the Blue Ridge. The National Road crossed this range at Turner’s Gap, with Boonsboro just beyond, while six miles south lay Crampton’s Gap, pierced by a road leading down to Harpers Ferry from Buckeystown, where Franklin’s left wing was posted, six miles south of Frederick. These roads and gaps gave McClellan the answer to his problem. He would force Turner’s Gap and descend on Boonsboro with his right and center wings, smashing Longstreet and Hill, while Franklin marched through Crampton’s Gap and down to Maryland Heights, where he would strike the rear of Anderson and McLaws, capturing or brushing their men off the mountaintop and thereby opening the back door for the escape of the 12,000 Federals cooped up in Harpers Ferry. That way, too, the flank of the main body would be protected against an attack from the south, in case resistance delayed the forcing of the upper gap.
By late afternoon his plans were complete, and at 6.20 he sent Franklin his instructions. After explaining the situation at some length, he told him: “You will move at daybreak in the morning.… Having gained the pass”—Crampton’s Gap—“your duty will be first to cut off, destroy, or capture McLaws’ command and relieve [Harpers Ferry].” After saying, “My general idea is to cut the enemy in two and beat him in detail,” he concluded: “I ask of you, at this important moment, all your intellect and the utmost activity that a general can exercise.” Intellect and activity were desirable; haste, apparently, was not. Just as he did not ask it of himself, so he did not ask it of Franklin. Lee’s disjointed army lay before him, and the best way to pick up the pieces—as he saw it—was deliberately, without fumbling. The army would get a good night’s sleep, then start out fresh and rested “at daybreak in the morning.”
And so it was. At sunrise, Franklin’s 18,000—who should indeed have been rested; they had seen no combat since the Seven Days, and not a great deal of it then except for the division that reinforced Porter at Gaines Mill—pushed westward out of Buckeystown, heading for the lower gap, a dozen miles away. The other two wings, 70,000 men under Sumner and Burnside, with Porter bringing up the rear, moved down the western slope of the Catoctins, then across the seven-mile-wide valley toward Turner’s Gap, a 400-foot notch in the 1300-foot wall of the mountain, where a fire fight was in progress. They moved in three heavy columns, along and on both sides of the National Road, and to one of the marchers, down in the valley, each of these columns resembled “a monstrous, crawling, blue-black snake, miles long, quilled with the silver slant of muskets at a ‘shoulder,’ its sluggish tail writhing slowly up over the distant eastern ridge, its bruised head weltering in the roar and smoke upon the crest above, where was being fought the battle of South Mountain.”
McClellan was there beside the pike, astride Dan Webster, the central figure in the vast tableau being staged in this natural amphitheater, and the men cheered themselves hoarse at the sight of him. It seemed to one Massachusetts veteran that “an intermission had been declared in order that a reception might be tendered to the general in chief. A great crowd continually surrounded him, and the most extravagant demonstrations were indulged in. Hundreds even hugged the horse’s legs and caressed his head and mane.” This was perhaps the Young Napoleon’s finest hour, aware as he was of all those thousands of pairs of worshipful eyes looking at him, watching for a gesture, and the New England soldier was pleased to note that McClellan did not fail to supply it: “While the troops were thus surging by, the general continually pointed with his finger to the gap in the mountain through which our path lay.”
Harvey Hill was watching him, too, or anyhow he was looking in that direction. Seeing from the notch of Turner’s Gap, which he had been ordered to hold with his five-brigade division, the serpentine approach of those four Union corps across the valley—twelve divisions with a total of thirty-two infantry brigades, not including one corps which was still beyond the Catoctins—he said later that “the Hebrew poet whose idea of the awe-inspiring is expressed by the phrase, ‘terrible as an army with banners,’ [doubtless] had his view from the top of a mountain.” He experienced mixed emotions at the sight. Although it was, as he observed, “a grand and glorious spectacle, and it was impossible to look at it without admiration,” he added that he had never “experienced a feeling of greaterloneliness. It seemed as though we were deserted by ‘all the world and the rest of mankind.’ ”
Despite the odds, all too apparent to anyone here on the mountaintop, he had one real advantage in addition to the highly defensible nature of the terrain, and this was that he could see the Federals but they could not see him. Consequently, McClellan knew little of Hill’s strength, or lack of it, and nothing at all of his loneliness. He thought that Longstreet, in accordance with Special Orders 191, was there too; whereas he was in fact at Hagerstown, a dozen miles away. Lee had sent him there from Boonsboro, three days ago, to head off a blue column erroneously reported to be advancing from Pennsylvania. After protesting against this further division of force—“General,” he said in a bantering tone which only partly covered his real concern, “I wish we could stand still and let the damned Yankees come to us”—Longstreet marched his three divisions northward through the heat and dust. As a result, while McClellan back in Frederick was saying that he intended “to cut the enemy in two,” Lee had already obliged him by cutting himself in five:
It was puzzling, this manifest lack of caution on McClellan’s part, until late that night a message from Stuart explained the Young Napoleon’s apparent change of character. A Maryland citizen of southern sympathies had happened to be at Federal headquarters when the lost order arrived, and he had ridden west at once, beyond the Union outposts, to give the news to Stuart, who passed it promptly on to Lee. So now Lee knew McClellan knew his precarious situation, and now that he knew he knew he moved to counteract the disadvantage as best he could. He sent for Longstreet and told him to march at daybreak in support of Hill, whose defense of Turner’s Gap would keep the Federal main body from circling around South Mountain to relieve the Harpers Ferry garrison by descending on McLaws. Longstreet protested. The march would have his men so blown that they would be in no shape for fighting when they got there, he said, and he urged instead that he and Hill unite at Sharpsburg, twelve miles south of Hagerstown and half that far from Boonsboro; there, near the Potomac, they could organize a position for defense while awaiting the arrival of the rest of the army, or else cross in safety to Virginia in case the troops from Harpers Ferry could not join them in time to meet McClellan’s attack. Lee overruled him, however, and Longstreet left to get some sleep. After sending word to McLaws of the danger to his rear and stressing “the necessity of expediting your operations as much as possible,” Lee received a note from Longstreet repeating his argument against opposing the Federals at South Mountain. Later the Georgian explained that he had not thought the note would alter Lee’s decision, but that the sending of it “relieved my mind and gave me some rest.” What effect it had on Lee’s rest he did not say. At any rate, he received no reply, and the march for Turner’s Gap began at dawn.
As usual, once he got them into motion, Longstreet’s veterans marched hard and fast, trailing a long dust cloud in the heat. Shortly after noon they came within earshot of the battle Hill was waging on the mountain. The pace quickened on the upgrade. About 3 o’clock, nearing the crest, Lee pulled off to the side of the road to watch the troops swing past him. Though his hands were still in splints, which made for awkward management of the reins, he was mounted; he could abide the ambulance no longer. Presently the Texas brigade approached. “Hood! Hood!” they yelled when they saw Lee by the roadside. For two weeks Hood had been in arrest, but now that they were going into battle they wanted him at their head. “Give us Hood!” they yelled. Lee raised his hat. “You shall have him, gentlemen,” he said.
When the tail of the column came abreast he beckoned to the tall young man with the tawny beard and told him: “General, here I am just on the eve of entering into battle, and with one of my best officers under arrest. If you will merely say that you regret this occurrence”—referring to the clash with Evans over the captured ambulances—“I will release you and restore you to the command of your division.” Hood shook his head regretfully and replied that he “could not consistently do so.” Lee urged him again, but Hood again declined. “Well,” Lee said at last, “I will suspend your arrest till the impending battle is decided.” Beaming, Hood saluted and rode off. Presently, from up ahead, loud shouts and cheers told Lee that the Texans had their commander back again.
It was well that they did, for they had need of every man they could muster, whatever his rank. Hill had been fighting his Thermopylae since early morning, and events had shown that the gap was by no means as defensible as it had seemed at first glance. High ridges dominated the notch from both sides, and there were other passes north and south, so that he had had to spread his small force thin in order to meet attacks against them all. Coming up just as Hill was about to be overwhelmed—one brigade had broken badly when its commander Brigadier General Samuel Garland was killed, and others were reduced to fighting Indian-style, scattered among the rocks and trees—Longstreet counterattacked on the left and right and managed to stabilize the situation until darkness ended the battle. McClellan had had about 30,000 men engaged, Lee about half that many. Losses were approximately 1800 killed and wounded on each side, with an additional 800 Confederates taken captive. Among the dead was Jesse Reno, shot from his saddle just after sundown while making a horseback inspection of his corps. Lieutenant Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes of the 23d Ohio, fifteen years away from the Presidency, was wounded. Sergeant William McKinley, another future President from that regiment, was unhurt; the bullet that would get him was almost forty years away.
For Lee it was a night of anxiety. He had saved his trains and perhaps delayed a showdown by holding McClellan east of the mountain, but he had done this at a cost of nearly 3000 of his hard-core veterans. What was more, he knew he could do it no longer: Hill and Longstreet both reported that the gap could not be held past daylight, and defeat here on the mountain would mean annihilation. The only thing to do, Lee saw, was to adopt the plan Old Pete had favored so argumentatively the night before. Gone were his hopes for an invasion of Pennsylvania, the destruction of the Susquehanna bridge, the descent on Philadelphia, Baltimore, or the Union capital. Gone too was his hope of relieving Maryland of what he called her foreign yoke. Outnumbered worse than four to one, this half of the army—which in fact was barely more than a third: fourteen brigades out of the total forty—would have to retreat across the Potomac, and the other half would have to abandon its delayed convergence on Harpers Ferry. For Jackson and Walker this would not be difficult, but McLaws was already in the gravest danger. Soon after nightfall Lee sent him a message admitting defeat: “The day has gone against us and this army will go by Sharpsburg and cross the river. It is necessary for you to abandon your position tonight.” McLaws of course would not be able to do this over the Ferry bridge, which was held by the Federal garrison; he would have to cross the Potomac farther upstream. Lee urged him, however, to do this somewhere short of Shepherdstown, which was just in rear of Sharpsburg. He wanted that ford clear for his own command, which would be retreating with McClellan’s victorious army hard on its heels.
The evacuation began with Hill, followed by Longstreet; the cavalry brought up the rear. Obliged to abandon his dead and many of his wounded there on the mountain where they had fallen, Lee did not announce that he intended to withdraw across the Potomac, nor did he tell the others that he had instructed McLaws to abandon Maryland Heights. But news that arrived while the retreat was just getting under way confirmed the wisdom, indeed the necessity, of his decision. Cramp-ton’s Gap, six miles south, had been lost by the troopers sent to defend it: which not only meant that the Federals were pouring through, directly in rear of McLaws, but also that they were closer to Sharpsburg than Hill and Longstreet were. Unable to count any longer on McClellan’s accustomed caution and hesitation, Lee saw that the march would have to be hard and fast, encumbered though he was with all his trains, if he was to get there first. Whereupon, with the situation thus at its worst and his army in graver danger of piecemeal annihilation than ever, Lee displayed for the first time a side to his nature that would become more evident down the years. He was not only no less audacious in retreat than in advance, but he was also considerably more pugnacious, like an old gray wolf wanting nothing more than half a chance to turn on whoever or whatever tried to crowd him as he fell back. And presently he got it.
It came in the form of a message from Jackson, to whom Lee had been sending couriers with information of the latest developments. “Through God’s blessing,” Stonewall had written at 8.15 p.m. from Bolivar Heights, “the advance, which commenced this evening, has been successful thus far, and I look to Him for complete success tomorrow.… Your dispatch respecting the movements of the enemy and the importance of concentration has been received.” To Lee this represented a chance to retrieve the situation. By the shortest route, Harpers Ferry was only a dozen miles from Sharpsburg. If the place fell tomorrow, that would mean that a part at least of the besieging force could join him north of the Potomac tomorrow night; for when Jackson said that instructions had been “received,” he meant that they would be obeyed. McLaws, too, might give the Federals the slip and march northwest without crossing the river. Accordingly, while Hill and Longstreet pushed on westward unpursued, Lee sent couriers galloping southward through the darkness. Unless the Army of the Potomac got into position for an all-out attack on Sharpsburg tomorrow—which seemed doubtful, despite McClellan’s recent transformation; for one thing, there would be no more lost orders—the Army of Northern Virginia would not return to native ground without the shedding of a good deal more blood, Union and Confederate, than had been shed on South Mountain.
McLaws was a methodical man, not given to indulging what little imagination he had, and in this case—his present dangers being what they were, with McClellan’s left wing coming down on his rear through Crampton’s Gap—that was preferable. A forty-one-year-old Georgian, rather burly, with a bushy head of hair and a beard to match, he had been four months a major general, yet except for commanding two brigades under Magruder during the Seven Days had seen no previous service with Lee’s army. Now he had ten brigades, his own four and Anderson’s six, and he had been given the most critical assignment in the convergence on Harpers Ferry. Maryland Heights was the dominant one of the three. If the place was to be made untenable, it would be his guns that would do most to make it so.
His march from Frederick had been deliberate: so much so that he was a day late in approaching his objective, after which he spent another day brushing Federal detachments off the hilltop and a night cutting a road in order to manhandle his guns up the side of the mountain. At last, two days late, he got them into position on the morning of September 14 and opened wigwag communications with Jackson and Walker, across the way. Northward, up the long ridge of South Mountain, D. H. Hill’s daylong battle rumbled and muttered; but McLaws, having posted three brigades in that direction to protect his rear, kept his mind on the business of getting his high-perched guns laid in time to open a plunging fire on the Ferry whenever Stonewall, who was a day late and still completing his dispositions, gave the signal. During the afternoon a much nearer racket broke out northward, but whatever qualms McLaws felt at the evidence that his rear guard was under attack were eased by Stuart, who had ridden down from Turner’s Gap. The bluecoats in front of Crampton’s Gap did not amount to more than a brigade, he said, and McLaws turned back to his guns. Presently, though, as the noise swelled louder, he rode in that direction to see for himself—and arrived to find that he had a first-class panic on his hands. Right, left, and center, his troops had given way and were fleeing in disorder. That was no blue brigade pouring through the abandoned gap, they told him. It was McClellan’s entire left wing, a reinforced corps.
Fortunately they had given a good account of themselves before they broke: good enough, at any rate, to instill a measure of caution in their pursuers. McLaws had time to rally the fugitives and bring three more brigades down off the heights, forming a line across the valley less than two miles south of the lost gap. The day was far gone by then, the valley filled with shadows, and Franklin did not press the issue. McClellan had told him to “cut off, destroy, or capture McLaws’ command,” and apparently he figured that the seizure of Cramp-ton’s Gap had fulfilled the first of these alternatives. Also, now that he was in McLaws’ rear, he had the worry of knowing that the Confederate main body was in his. Anyhow he decided not to be hasty; he had his men bed down for the night in line of battle.
Next morning, as he was about to proceed with his advance, the rebels just ahead began to cheer. One curious bluecoat sprang up on a stone wall and called across to them:
“What the hell are you fellows cheering for?”
“Because Harpers Ferry is gone up, God damn you!”
“I thought that was it,” the Federal said, and he jumped back down again.
McLaws had stood fast and Jackson had kept the promise sent by courier to Lee twelve hours before. One hour of plunging fire from the surrounding heights smothered the batteries below. Soon afterwards the white flag went up. Except for two regiments of cavalry that had escaped under cover of darkness—across the Potomac, then northward up the same road old John Brown had come south on, three years ago next month—the whole garrison surrendered, including the men who had marched in from Martinsburg. “Our Heavenly Father blesses us exceedingly,” Jackson wrote his wife, enumerating his gains: 12,520 prisoners, 13,000 small arms, 73 cannon, and a goodly haul of quartermaster stores.
According to a northern reporter’s O-my-God lay-me-down reaction to his first sight of Stonewall and his men, they had great need of the latter—especially the general himself. “He was dressed in the coarsest kind of homespun, seedy and dirty at that; wore an old hat which any northern beggar would consider an insult to have offered him, and in general appearance was in no respect to be distinguished from the mongrel, bare-footed crew who follow his fortunes. I had heard much of the decayed appearance of the rebel soldiers, but such a looking crowd! Ireland in her worst straits could present no parallel, and yet they glory in their shame.” The captive Federals (except perhaps the Irish among them) could scarcely argue with this, but they drew a different conclusion. “Boys, he isn’t much for looks,” one declared, inspecting Jackson, “but if we’d had him we wouldn’t have been caught in this trap.”
Pleased as he was, the Valley commander took little time for gloating. “Ah,” he said to a jubilant companion as they stood looking at the booty, “this is all very well, Major, but we have yet much hard work before us.” Though he was unaware of the lost order—“I thought I knew McClellan,” he remarked, “but this movement of his puzzles me”—he was aware that Lee was being pressed, and he was eager to move to his support. Five of the six divisions started for Sharpsburg that afternoon and night. The sixth was A. P. Hill’s. Like Hood, once combat was at hand, he had burned to pass from the rear to the front of his division on the march to Harpers Ferry, but like Hood he would not compromise his honor with an expression of regret. He simply requested, through a member of the staff, to be released from arrest for the duration of the fighting, after which he would report himself in arrest again. Jackson not only assented; he gave him a prominent part in the operation, and afterwards left him in charge of the place while he himself rode off in the wake of a message he had sent Lee that morning soon after he saw the white flag go up:
Through God’s blessing, Harpers Ferry and its garrison are to be surrendered. As Hill’s troops have borne the heaviest part of the engagement, he will be left in command until the prisoners and public property shall be disposed of, unless you direct otherwise. The other forces can move off this evening so soon as they get their rations.
“That is indeed good news,” Lee said when it reached him at Sharpsburg about noon. “Let it be announced to the troops.”
McClellan’s soldiers were feeling good, and so was their commander. For the first time since Williamsburg, back in early May, they were following up a battle with an advance, and as they went forward, past clumps of fallen rebels, they began to observe that their opponents were by no means the supermen they had seemed at times; were in fact, as one New York volunteer recorded, “undersized men mostly … with sallow, hatchet faces, and clad in ‘butternut,’ a color running all the way from a deep, coffee brown up to the whitish brown of ordinary dust.” He even found himself feeling sorry for them. “As I looked down on the poor, pinched faces, worn with marching and scant fare, all enmity died out. There was no ‘secession’ in those rigid forms, nor in those fixed eyes staring blankly at the sky.”
They left them where they lay and pushed on down the western slope, following McClellan, whose enthusiasm not even the fall of Harpers Ferry could dampen. Though this deprived him of 12,000 reinforcements which he thought he needed badly, it also vindicated the judgment he had shown in vainly urging the general in chief to order the post evacuated before Jackson rimmed the heights with guns. Moreover, though Old Brains could take no credit for it, his blunder had resulted in the dispersion of Lee’s army, and this in turn had made possible yesterday’s victory at South Mountain, as well as the larger triumph which now seemed to be within McClellan’s grasp. Elated, he passed on this morning to Halleck “perfectly reliable [information] that the enemy is making for Shepherdstown in a perfect panic,” and that “Lee last night stated publicly that he must admit they had been shockingly whipped.” To old General Scott, in retirement at West Point, went a telegram announcing “a signal victory” and informing him that his fellow Virginian and former protégé had been soundly trounced: “R. E. Lee in command. The rebels routed, and retreating in disorder.” Both reactions were encouraging. “Bravo, my dear general! Twice more and it’s done,” Scott answered, while Lincoln himself replied to the earlier wire: “God bless you and all with you. Destroy the rebel army if possible.”
That was precisely what McClellan intended to do, if possible, and that afternoon, five miles southeast of Boonsboro—the scene of another triumphal entry and departure—he came upon a line of hills overlooking a shallow, mile-wide valley through which a rust-brown creek meandered south from its source in Pennsylvania; Antietam Creek, it was called. Beyond it, somewhat lower than the ridge on which he stood with his staff while his army filed in and spread out north and south along the line of hills outcropped with limestone, rose another ridge that masked the town of Sharpsburg, all but its spires and rooftops, and the Potomac, which followed a tortuous southward course, dividing Maryland and Virginia, another mile or so away. What interested him just now, though, was the ridge itself. There were Confederates on it, and Confederate guns, and one reason that they interested him was that they took him under fire. He sent his staff back out of range, dissolving the gaudy clot of horsemen who had drawn the fire in the first place, and went on with his study of the terrain.
A mile to the right of the point where the cluster of spires and gables showed above the ridge, and facing the road that led northward along it to Hagerstown, a squat, whitewashed building was set at the forward edge of a grove of trees wearing their full late-summer foliage; the autumnal equinox was still a week away. The sunlit brick structure, dazzling white against its leafy backdrop, was a church, but it was a Dunker church and therefore had no steeple; the Dunkers believed that steeples represented vanity, and they were as much opposed to vanity as they were to war, including the one that was about to move into their churchyard. On the near side of the road, somewhat farther to the right, was another grove of trees, parklike on the crown of the ridge, and between the two was a forty-acre field of dark green corn, man-tall and ripening for the harvest.
McClellan put his glasses back in their case and retired to do some thinking. Lee had chosen his army’s position with care, disposing it along the high ground overlooking the shallow valley so that its flanks were anchored at opposite ends of the four-mile bend of the Potomac. That was his strength; but McClellan thought it might also be his weakness. Once Lee was dislodged from that ridge, with only a single ford in his rear, he might be caught in the coils of the river and cut to pieces. The problem was how to dislodge him, strong as he was. McClellan estimated yesterday’s rebel casualties at 15,000 men, but that still left Lee with more than 100,000 according to McClellan, whose total strength—including Franklin, still hovering north of Harpers Ferry—was 87,164. Fortunately, however, there was no hurry; not just yet. The army was still filing in, hot and dusty from its march, and anyhow the day was already too far gone for an attack to succeed before darkness provided cover for a rebel getaway. He decided to work the thing out overnight. Meanwhile the troops could get a hot meal and a good night’s rest by way of preparation for whatever bloody work he designed for them to do tomorrow.
Tomorrow came, September 16, but such bloody work as it brought was done by long-range shells from batteries on those ridges east and west of the mile-wide valley with its lazy little copper-colored creek. Wanting another good look at the terrain before completing his attack plan, McClellan rose early and went to the observation post where his staff had set up headquarters. Off to the right of the Boonsboro road and half a mile north of the center of the position, it was an excellent location, just beyond reach of the rebel guns, and there was plenty of equipment there for studying the enemy dispositions, including high-power telescopes strapped to the heads of stakes driven solidly into the ground. Unfortunately, however, these could not penetrate the thick mist that overhung the field until midmorning. By then the sun had burned enough of it away for McClellan to see that the Confederates had made some changes, shifting guns at various points along their line. The time consumed in noting these was well spent, he felt, for he wanted to eliminate snags and thus leave as little to chance as he possibly could. When the blow fell he wanted it to be heavy. Noon came and went, and on both sides men lay drowsing under the press of heat while the cannoneers continued their intermittent argument, jarring the ground and disrupting an occasional card game. By 2 o’clock McClellan had his attack plan: not for today—today, like yesterday, was too far gone—but for tomorrow.
It was based essentially on the presence of three stone bridges that spanned the creek on the left, center, and right. The one on the left was closest to Sharpsburg and the enemy line; in fact it was barely more than its own length away from the latter, since the western ridge came down sharply here, overlooking the bridge and whoever tried to use it. The center bridge, crossed by the Boonsboro road a mile above the first, had some of the same drawbacks, being under observation from the ridge beyond, as well as some of its own growing out of the fact that it debouched onto an uphill plain that was swept by guns clustered thickly along the rebel center. The upper bridge, a mile and a half above the second, had none of these disadvantages, being well out of range of the batteries across the way. What was more, an upstream crossing would permit an unmolested march to a position astride the Hagerstown road, well north of Lee’s left flank, and a southward attack from that direction, if successful, would accomplish exactly what McClellan most desired. It would bowl the Confederates off their ridge and—in conjunction with attacks across the other two bridges, launched when the first was under way with all its attendant confusion—expose them to utter destruction.
In essence that was McClellan’s plan, the outgrowth of much poring over the landscape and the map, and now that it had been formulated, all that remained—short, that is, of the execution itself—was for him to assign the various corps their various tasks in the over-all scheme for accomplishing Lee’s downfall. Scrapping the previous organization into “wings,” he decided that Fighting Joe Hooker was the man to lead the attack down the Hagerstown road, supported by Brigadier General J. K. F. Mansfield, who had arrived from Washington the day before to take over Banks’ corps from Williams. Sumner, too, would come down from that direction, bringing a total of three corps, half of the whole army, to bear on Lee’s left flank. If that did not break him, Franklin too could be thrown in there—he had been summoned from Maryland Heights and was expected to arrive tomorrow morning—raising the preponderance to two thirds. Burnside, back in command of his own corps after the death of Reno, was given the job of forcing the lower bridge and launching the direct assault on Sharpsburg, after which he would seize the Shepherdstown ford and thus prevent the escape of even a remnant of the shattered rebel force. Porter, astride the Boonsboro road, in rear of the center bridge, would serve a double function. As the army reserve, his corps could be used to repulse any counterattack Lee might launch in desperation, or it could be committed to give added impetus at whatever point seemed most critical, once success was fully in sight. Or else he could force the middle bridge for an uphill charge that would pierce Lee’s center and chop him in two; whereupon Porter could wheel left or right to assist either Burnside or Hooker in wiping out whichever half of the rebel army survived the amputation.
The battle would open at daylight tomorrow, but McClellan—after taking his staff on a fast two-mile ride along his outpost line, drawing fire all the way from the guns across the creek, which permitted his own superior batteries, emplaced along the eastern ridge, to spot and pound them heavily—decided to use what was left of today in getting his men into position to launch the opening attack. Accordingly, about 4 o’clock that afternoon, Hooker’s corps began its upstream crossing, the general leading the way on a high-stepping big white charger. The crossing itself was well beyond range of the rebel guns, but the line of march led near the grove of trees northeast of the Dunker Church, with the result that as the flank of the column went past that point it struck sparks, like a file being raked across a grindstone. Hooker drew off; he wanted those woods, but not just yet; and made camp for the night in line of battle astride the Hagerstown road, less than a mile beyond the Confederate left-flank outposts. Poised to strike as soon as there was light enough for him to aim the blow, he was exactly where McClellan wanted him.
So were the others, or anyhow they soon would be. Mansfield was crossing now in the darkness, to be followed by Sumner; Franklin was on the way. Porter was bivouacked in an open field, protected by defilade, just across the Boonsboro road from army headquarters. Farthest south, Burnside had massed his troops in rear of the triple-arched stone bridge which after tomorrow would bear his name. The night was gloomy, with a slow drizzle of rain and occasional sputters of musketry when the outpost men got nervous. For security reasons, the high command had forbidden fires. This was not so bad in itself—for all its dampness, the night was fairly warm—except that it kept the soldiers from boiling water. All along that dark, four-mile arc of blue-clad men, many of whom were going to die tomorrow, those who could not sleep chewed unhappily on dry handfuls of ground coffee.
The sun had burned the mist away that morning, but it could not disperse the mental fog which hid from McClellan, whose eye was glued to a telescope even then across the way, the fact that Lee at the time had less than one fifth as many troops as his opponent gave him credit for. He had in fact, along and behind the Sharpsburg ridge, barely 18,000 soldiers under D. H. Hill and Longstreet—fewer than were in Sumner’s corps alone—until Jackson arrived at noon with three thin divisions, his own and Ewell’s, under Brigadier General J. R. Jones and Lawton, and Walker’s, which had crossed the Shenandoah to join him on the march from Harpers Ferry the night before. This brought the total to 26,000 and lowered the odds to three to one. McLaws and Anderson, still on the march, would not arrive before nightfall, and A. P. Hill was still at the Ferry; he might well not arrive at all. Even if he did, so heavy had the straggling been, together with the losses at South Mountain, Lee would not be able to count on putting more than 40,000 men into his line of battle, including the cavalry and artillery, and would still face odds worse than two to one.
Aware of this, Walker expected to find Lee anxious and careworn when he joined him on the outskirts of Sharpsburg, just after noon on the 16th. “Anxious enough, no doubt, he was,” Walker observed; “but there was nothing in his look or manner to indicate it. On the contrary, he was calm, dignified, and even cheerful. If he had had a well-equipped army of a hundred thousand veterans at his back, he could not have appeared more composed and confident.”
His confidence was doubly based: first, on the troops themselves, the hard-core men who had proved their battle prowess at Manassas and their hardiness by surviving the stony Maryland marches; and, second, on the advantages of the position he had established here on the ridge behind Antietam Creek. “We will make our stand on those hills,” he had said as he came within sight of them at dawn of the day before. Unwilling to end his ambitious invasion campaign with the repulse just suffered at South Mountain, he crossed the shallow valley and spread his army north and south along the low western ridge. Longstreet took the right, blocking the near approach, from Sharpsburg down to the heights overlooking the lower bridge; Hill the center, posting his men along a sunken lane that crooked across the northeast quadrant formed by the intersection of the Boonsboro and Hagerstown roads; and Hood the left, occupying the woods beyond the Dunker Church. Next day, when Jackson and Walker came up, Lee sent the former to take charge of the left, joining Hood with his two divisions, while Walker extended Longstreet’s right in order to guard the lower fords of the Antietam.
The long odds were somewhat offset by the fact that he would have the interior line, with a good road well below the crest for shifting troops to threatened points along the ridge. In addition, he had the advantage of knowing that McClellan could not swing around his flanks, securely anchored as they were near the Potomac in both directions. This last, however, was also the source of some concern. Just as the river afforded the enemy no room for maneuver in his rear, so too it would afford him none in case his army was flung back off the ridge, and what was more there was only a single ford, a mile below the former site of the Shepherdstown bridge, which had been destroyed. He did not expect to be dislodged, but he did take the precaution of covering the ford, from the Virginia side, with such guns as could be spared from the reserve under Brigadier General W. N. Pendleton, his chief of artillery. That completed his preparations. Until McLaws and Anderson came up. Jackson’s, Hill’s, and Longstreet’s 26,000 were all the troops he would have for opposing the blue host whose officers were examining his dispositions from the higher ground across the valley and whose superior guns had already begun the pounding that would make this field “artillery hell” for Confederate cannoneers. “Put them all in, every gun you have, long range and short range,” Longstreet said to his battery commanders, but Lee had already cautioned them not to waste their limited ammunition in duels with the heavier Federal pieces. Save it for the infantry, he told them.
Hooker’s upstream crossing, and the resultant brush with the Texans in the woods beyond the Dunker Church, gave Lee fair warning that tomorrow’s first blow would be aimed at Jackson and Hood. This was not without its comforting aspect, for the men who stood in its path not only were the ones who had held the unfinished railroad against repeated assaults by Pope, but were also the ones who had led the charge that wrecked him; perhaps they would serve Hooker the same way. However, the odds were even longer now, and as night came down Lee’s apprehension increased. He had heard nothing from McLaws and Anderson, without whom he had no reserves with which to plug a break in his line or follow up a Federal repulse. Improvising as best he could, he ordered Stuart out beyond the left, hoping that he would find a position there from which to harass the flank of the attacking column or possibly launch a distracting counterstroke. He also sent a courier to A. P. Hill, seventeen miles away at Harpers Ferry, urging him to join the army with all possible speed. Whether this would get him there in time for a share in tomorrow’s battle was highly doubtful, but at least Lee knew that Hill would make the effort.
As Lee was about to retire for the night, conscious that he had drawn his final card in the high-stakes game of showdown he was about to play with McClellan, Hood came to report that his men were near exhaustion, having received only half a ration of beef in the past three days. He requested that they be withdrawn from the line to get some rest and fry some dough and bacon. Distressed though Lee was to hear that his shock brigades were enfeebled, he was obliged to admit that he had no others to put in their place. He told him to see Jackson, and while Lee turned in, the rain murmurous on the canvas, Hood left to do just that.
He found him asleep under a large tree whose exposed roots made a pillow for his head. Hood nudged him awake, and when Stonewall sat up, blinking, told him what he wanted. Jackson had already rearranged his line, shifting troops around to the north and west to meet the attack he knew would come at dawn against those two stretches of woodland and the cornfield in between, but he agreed to spread them thinner in order to give Hood’s hungry soldiers a chance to cook their rations, provided they were kept close at hand, ready to come running when he called. Hood agreed, and about midnight his two brigades filed southward to kindle their cookfires in the Dunker churchyard.
Presently a great stillness settled down, broken from time to time by picket firing, the individual shots coming sharp as handclaps through the mist and drizzle. All along the Sharpsburg ridge, while their opposite numbers munched ground coffee in the encircling darkness, men who could not sleep took out their pipes and smoked and thought about tomorrow.
It came in gray, with a pearly mist that shrouded the fields and woodlands, and it came with a crash of musketry, backed by the deeper roar of cannonfire that mounted in volume and intensity until it was continuous, jarring the earth beneath the feet of the attackers and defenders. Hooker bore down, his three divisions in line abreast, driving the rebel pickets southward onto the high ground where the road, flanked by what now was called the East Wood and the West Wood, ran past the squat white block of the Dunker Church. That was his immediate objective, barely a thousand yards away, though he was already taking heavy losses. Noting the glint of bayonets and the boil of smoke from the forty-acre cornfield, he called a halt while six of his batteries came up and began to flail the standing grain with shell and canister, their three dozen fieldpieces joined presently by heavier long-range guns pouring in a crossfire from the ridge beyond the creek. Haversacks and splintered muskets began to leap up through the dust and smoke, along with the broad-leafed stalks of corn and the dismembered heads and limbs of men. Hooker said later that “every stalk in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife.”
Yet when he got his batteries quieted and started his soldiers forward again, the fire seemed no less heavy. Entering the woods on the left and right, and approaching the shattered cornfield in the center, they ran into blinding sheets of flame and the air was quivering with bullets. “Men, I cannot say fell; they were knocked out of ranks by the dozen,” one survivor wrote. Still they came on, their battle flags swooping and fluttering, falling and then caught up again. The red flags of the Confederates staggered backward, and still the bluecoats came on, driving them through the blasted corn and through the early morning woods, until at last they broke and fled, their ranks too thin to rally. The Dunker Church lay dead ahead. But just as the Federals saw it within their reach, a butternut column emerged from the woods beyond it and bore down on them, yelling. At point-blank range, the rebels pulled up short, delivered a volley which one receiver said “was like a scythe running through our line,” and then came on again, the sunlight glinting and snapping on their bayonets.
It was Hood; Jackson had called for him while his men were preparing their first hot meal in days, and perhaps that had something to do with the violence of their assault. Leaving the half-cooked food in their skillets, they formed ranks and charged the bluecoats who were responsible. Their attack was necessarily unsupported, for Jackson’s and Ewell’s divisions were shattered. J. R. Jones had been stunned by a shell that exploded directly above his head, and Starke, who resumed command, received three wounds, all mortal, within minutes; command of the Stonewall Division passed to a colonel. Lawton was down, badly wounded, and in his three brigades only two of the fifteen regimental commanders were still on their feet. But Hood took no account of this, nor did his men. Intent on vengeance, they struck the Federals north of the Dunker Church and drove them back through the cornfield, whooping and jeering, calling for them to stand and fight. They did so at the far edge of the field, forming behind their guns, and there the two lines engaged. With only 2400 men in his two brigades, Hood knew that he would not be able to hold on long in the face of those guns, but he was determined to do what he could. When a staff officer arrived to inquire after the situation, Hood said grimly: “Tell General Jackson unless I get reinforcements I must be forced back, but I am going on while I can.”
His chances of going on just now were better than he knew; for though the uproar had not slacked perceptibly, Hooker had already shot his bolt. Assailed in front by the demoniacal Texans, on the right by Early’s brigade moving east from its position in support of Stuart, whose guns had been tearing the flank of the blue column all along, and on the left by two brigades from D. H. Hill, he was forced back to the line from which he had launched his dawn assault, two hours ago. With 2500 of his men shot down and at least that many more in headlong flight, he was through and he knew it. As he retreated through the shambles of the cornfield, he sent word to Mansfield that he was to bring up his corps and try his hand at completing the destruction so expensively begun.
Mansfield was altogether willing. So far in the war, though he had been in charge of the bloodless occupation of Suffolk, the only real action he had seen was with the coastal batteries that took the Merrimac under fire at Hampton Roads. Now he had two divisions of Valley and Manassas veterans, most of them unborn at the time of his West Point graduation forty years before. He liked them and they liked him, even on short aquaintance. “A calm and dignified old gentleman,” one called him, while another noted with approval that he had “a proud, martial air and was full of military ardor.” This last perhaps was a result of his habit of removing his hat as he rode among them, letting his long white hair and beard stream in the wind. As a performance it was effective, and he did it again this morning, evoking cheers from his troops as they moved forward in response to Hooker’s call.
“That’s right, boys—cheer!” he cried. “We’re going to whip them today!” Doubling the column, he kept waving his hat and repeating his words to regiment after regiment: “Boys, we’re going to lick them today!”
They almost did, but not while he was with them. As they approached the East Wood, deploying for action, Hooker rode up on his white horse. “The enemy are breaking through my lines!” he shouted above the roar of guns. “You must hold this wood!” Taken aback, Mansfield watched him gallop off; he had thought Hooker was driving the graybacks handsomely and that his own corps had been summoned to complete the victory. By now his lead regiments had reached a rail fence at the near edge of a field just short of the woods, and he saw to his horror that they had spread along it and were shooting at figures that moved in the shadows of the trees. “You are firing at our own men!” he cried. As soon as he got them stopped he leaped his horse over the fence, intending to ride ahead and see for himself. “Those are rebels, General!” a soldier yelled. Mansfield pulled up, leaning forward to peer into the shadows. “Yes—you’re right,” he said, and as he spoke his words were confirmed by a volley that came crashing out of the woods, crippling his horse. He dismounted and walked back to the fence, but as he tried to climb over it, moving with the terrific deliberation of an old man among young ones, a bullet struck him in the stomach. He went down, groaning. Three veterans, who saw in the wounded general a one-way ticket out of chaos, took him up and lugged him back to an aid station, where a flustered surgeon half-strangled him with a jolt of whiskey, and presently he died.
Williams resumed command of the corps and sent both divisions forward, swinging one to the right so that its advance swept through the cornfield. Hood’s survivors were knocked back, yielding ground and losing a stand of colors for the first time in their brief, furious history. On the bluecoats came, a Massachusetts colonel waving the captured Texas flag. They followed the route Hooker’s men had taken an hour ago—and, like them, were stopped within reach of the Dunker Church by a two-brigade counterstroke. Jackson had called for reinforcements at the height of the first attack, and Lee had sent Walker’s division from the right flank to the left, taking a chance that the Federals would not storm the lower Antietam crossings. These two North Carolina brigades arrived too late to contest the first penetration, but they got there in time to meet the second at its climax. Like Hooker’s, Mansfield’s men were stopped. However, they did not fall back. They stayed where they were, and Williams sent word to headquarters that if he could be reinforced he would have the battle won.
Reinforcements were already on the way—three divisions of them under Sumner, whose corps was the largest in the army—but they came by a different route: not down the Hagerstown road or parallel to it, but in at an angle through the lower fringes of the East Wood, which had been cleared of all but dead or dying rebels. So far, the close-up fighting had been left to troops formerly under Pope; now McClellan’s own were coming in, led by the man who had saved the day at Fair Oaks. Dragoon-style, Sumner rode at the head of his lead division, leaving the others to come along behind. As he emerged from the woods he saw to his right the wreckage of the cornfield and up ahead the Dunker Church, dazzling white through rifts in the smoke boiling up from the line which Mansfield’s men were struggling to hold against Walker’s counterstroke. As Sumner saw it, the thing to do was get there fast, before that line gave way. With what his corps historian later called “ill-regulated ardor,” he kept the lead division in march formation, three brigades close-packed in as many files, moving southwest across the open stretch of ground between the East Wood and the church. It was then that he was struck, two thirds of the way back down the column and squarely on the flank, with results that were sudden and altogether murderous. Too tightly wedged to maneuver as a unit, or even dodge as individuals, men fell in windrows, the long files writhing like wounded snakes. More than two thousand of them were shot down within a quarter of an hour. “My God, we must get out of this!” Sumner cried. His soldiers thought so, too, scrambling frantically for the rear as the graybacks charged.
It was McLaws. When his and Anderson’s divisions finally reached Sharpsburg about 7 o’clock that morning—incredibly, they had been delayed at the outset because the paroled Federals, impatient to get home from Harpers Ferry, had clogged the bridge leading northward across the Potomac to the foot of Maryland Heights—more time was lost in a search for Lee, who was away from headquarters inspecting his right and center while Hooker was hammering at his left. When they found him, nearly an hour later, he sent Anderson to reinforce Hill, and McLaws to reinforce Jackson, who by then was receiving the full force of Mansfield’s attack. This too had been stopped by the time McLaws got there, but just as he came over the ridge he saw Sumner’s lead division emerge from the East Wood, driving straight for the Dunker Church with its flank exposed. He struck it, wrecked it, and took up the pursuit with his four brigades, joined on the left by Walker and Early, who threw Williams into retreat as well. Hooker by now was one of the nearly 7000 casualties the Federals had suffered at this end of the field; he rode northward out of the fight, dripping blood from a wounded foot, and his men followed, along with Mansfield’s and Sumner’s, to reform beyond the line of guns from which they had taken off at dawn. In rapid sequence, two whole corps and part of a third—six divisions containing 31,000 men—had been shattered and repulsed.
Jackson’s losses had been comparable—probably in excess of 5000, which represented a larger percentage of casualties than he had inflicted—but he was strangely elated. Looking out over the shambles of the cornfield, which had just changed hands for the fourth time that morning and which by now was so thickly carpeted with dead men that one witness claimed you could walk in any direction across it and never touch the ground, his pale blue eyes had a fervent light to them. “God has been very kind to us this day,” he said. For the first time since daylight glimmered across the eastern ridge his lines were free of pressure, and so was he himself. Sitting his horse in the yard of the Dunker Church, he ate a peach while his medical director submitted a preliminary casualty report. Stonewall made no comment, except to remark between bites that it was heavy, but when the surgeon expressed the fear that the survivors were too badly shaken to withstand another assault he shook his head, apparently unconcerned, and pointed in the direction of the bluecoats, huddled behind their line of guns a mile to the north. “Dr McGuire, they have done their worst,” he said.
He was right, so far as concerned the left; the Federals there had done their worst and best. But Sharpsburg was, in effect, three battles piled one on top of another, and just as the first had ended with the repulse of Sumner’s lead division, so did the second open with the repulse of the other two. Recovering his balance in the midst of disaster, the old man rode back through the woods in search of the rest of his corps, which was missing. One division he found had failed to cross the creek on schedule, while the other had lost contact and veered south, coming upon an eroded country lane from which a zigzag line of graybacks loosed a close-up volley that shattered the lead brigade and sent the others scrambling back. The third division, coming up at last, received the same reception and gave ground, but presently rallied and formed a line on which the second rallied, too. And thus, no sooner was Jackson’s battle over, than Hill’s got under way.
Here along the center the Confederates occupied what amounted to an intrenched position, the only one on the field. For the lane was not only worn below the level of the ground, affording them a considerable measure of protection, but it also ran between snake-rail fences, and they had dismantled the outer fence to make a substantial breastworks of the rails. What was more, the crest of the ridge was just over a hundred yards forward and uphill, so that the bluecoats could not see what they had to face until they were practically upon it, within easy musket range and outlined target-sharp against the eastern sky. This was unnerving, to say the least, and to make matters worse—psychologically, at any rate—the rebels jeered and hooted at the dark-clothed attackers coming over the rise, silhouetted against the glare of sunlight. “Go away, you black devils! Go home!” they yelled as they loosed their volleys. They felt confident and secure, and so did Hill: for a time at least. But as the Federals continued to press their attack with increasing persistency and numbers—Sumner had more than 12,000 men in his remaining two divisions, while Hill himself had less than 7,000, even after Anderson’s arrival—the issue began to grow doubtful. Then presently, as a result of two unforeseen mishaps, it grew worse than doubtful. It grew impossible.
The first of these was that Anderson was severely wounded and carried from the field, command of his division passing to the senior brigadier, long-haired Roger Pryor, who by now had proved that his reluctance to fire the first shot at Fort Sumter had not proceeded from a lack of nerve, but whose talents were still primarily oratorical. From that time on, the division no longer functioned as a unit, and in fact went out of existence except as a loose collection of regiments and companies, each one fighting on its own as it saw fit. Which perhaps was just as well, in the end; for that was what happened to Hill’s division, too, though its commander emerged unscathed from the experience of having three horses shot from under him in rapid succession.
This second disintegration was a result of the second mishap, which occurred when the brigade on the left, receiving the order to “refuse” its threatened flank, misunderstood the command and pulled out altogether; whereupon the opposing Federals hurried forward, occupied the abandoned portion of the line, and began to lay down an enfilading fire which gave the sunken road the name it bore thereafter: Bloody Lane. What had been a sheltered position, one from which to hoot at charging Yankees and shoot them down when they were so unmissably close that their faces filled the gunsight, became a trap. Quite suddenly, as if they had tumbled headlong by the hundreds out of the sky, dead men filled whole stretches of the road to overflowing. Horrified, unit by unit from left to right, the survivors broke for the rear, and now it was the Yankees doing the hooting and the shooting.
Faced with the abrupt disintegration of the isolated center, the exploitation of which would mean the end of Lee’s army, Hill did what he could to rally the fugitives streaming back across the ridge, and though few of them had a mind for anything but their present dash for safety, he managed to scrape together a straggler line along the outskirts of Sharpsburg. While these men were delivering a sporadic fire against the bluecoats, who were massing along the sunken road, apparently preparing to continue their advance, Hill sent an urgent call for guns and reinforcements. There were none of the latter to send him; the right had been stripped and the left had been fought to exhaustion. But Longstreet had seen the trouble and was already sending every cannon he could lay hands on. He had not wanted to fight this battle in the first place—or for that matter, the odds being what they were, any battle in which there was so little to gain and so very much to lose—but now that it was unavoidably under way, he gave it everything he had. Limping about in carpet slippers and gesturing with an unlighted cigar, he ordered gun crew after gun crew to put their pieces in action along the ridge where Hill was forming his thin new line. As fast as these guns came into the open, the powerful Union batteries took them under fire from across the way, exploding caissons and mangling cannoneers. Observing one section of guns whose fire was weak because there were too few survivors to serve them properly, Old Pete dismounted his staff and improvised two high-ranking gun crews, himself holding their horses and correcting the ranges while they fired.
Hill meanwhile had been watching the bluecoats down in the sunken road. He believed they were about to attack him. Such an attack would surely be successful, weak as he was, and the only way he knew to delay it was to attack them first. However, when he called along his line for volunteers, there was no answer until presently one man said he would go if Hill would lead. Quickly taking him up on that, Hill seized a rifle and started forward with a shout, joined by about two hundred others who were persuaded by his example. The attack was brief; in fact, it was repulsed almost as soon as it began; but Hill believed it served its purpose. Here opposite the denuded Confederate center, the Federals stayed where they were for the rest of the day. According to Hill, this was either because he had frightened them into immobility or else it was an outright miracle.
It was neither, unless it was something of both. What it really was was Sumner—and McClellan. Franklin had come up by now, and though he had left one division on Maryland Heights, he still brought more than 8000 soldiers onto the field. One brigade had shared in the fight on the right, and now he wanted to use the other five in an assault on the gray line beyond the sunken road. But Sumner stopped him. The old man’s corps had lost 5100 men today, more than Hooker’s and Mansfield’s combined; apparently he had seen enough of killing north of the Dunker Church and here in front of Bloody Lane. The thirty-nine-year-old Franklin tried to argue, but Sumner, who not only outranked him but was also nearly twice his age, kept insisting that the army was on the verge of disintegration and that another repulse would mean catastrophe. Presently a courier arrived from McClellan, bringing a suggestion that the attack be pressed by both commands if possible. Sumner—to whom, except for his long, pointed nose, old age had given the glaring look of a death’s head—turned on him and cried hotly: “Go back, young man, and tell General McClellan I have no command! Tell him my command, Banks’ command, and Hooker’s command are all cut up and demoralized. Tell him General Franklin has the only organized command on this part of the field!”
When McClellan received this message he came down off the hill and crossed the creek to see for himself the situation in the center. Sumner and Franklin presented their arguments, and now that he had a close-up view of the carnage, McClellan sided with the senior. He told them both to hold what had been won; then he rode back across the creek. It was now about 2 o’clock, and the second battle, which like the first had lasted about four hours, was over. The third was about to begin.
In a broader sense, it had already been going on for as long as the other two combined. That is, the opponents had been exchanging shots across the lower reaches of the creek since dawn. But, so far, all that had come of this was the maiming of a few hundred soldiers, most of them in blue. Despite McClellan’s repeated orders—including one sent at 9 o’clock, directing that the crossing be effected “at all hazards”—not a man out of the nearly 14,000 enrolled in Burnside’s four divisions had reached the west bank of the Antietam by the time the sun swung past the overhead. “McClellan appears to think I am not trying my best to carry this bridge,” the ruff-whiskered general said testily to a staff colonel his friend the army commander sent to prod him. “You are the third or fourth one who has been to me this morning with similar orders.”
As he spoke he sat his horse beside a battery on a hilltop, looking down at the narrow, triple-arched stone span below. He watched it with a fascination amounting to downright prescience, as if he knew already that it was to bear his name and be in fact his chief monument, no matter what ornate shafts of marble or bronze a grateful nation might raise elsewhere in his honor. So complete was his absorption by the bridge itself, he apparently never considered testing the depth of the water that flowed sluggishly beneath it. If he had, he would have discovered that the little copper-colored stream, less than fifty feet in width, could have been waded at almost any point without wetting the armpits of the shortest man in his corps. However, except for sending one division downstream in search of a local guide to point out a ford that was rumored to exist in that direction, he remained intent on effecting a dry-shod crossing.
Admittedly this was no easy matter. The road came up from the southeast, paralleling the creek for a couple of hundred yards, and then turned sharply west across the bridge, where it swung north again to curve around the heights on the opposite bank. Just now those heights were occupied by rebels—many of them highly skilled as marksmen, though at that range skill was practically superfluous—which meant that whoever exposed himself along that road, in the shadow of those heights, was likely to catch a faceful of bullets. Nevertheless, this was the only route Burnside could see, and he kept sending men along it, regiment by regiment, intermittently all morning, with predictable results.
Observing from across the way the ease with which this lower threat was being contested, Lee all this time had been stripping his right of troops in order to strengthen his hard-pressed left and center. By noon he was down to an irreducible skeleton force; so that presently, when he learned that Hill had lost the sunken road and was calling in desperation for reinforcements, he had none to send him. Like Hill in this extremity, knowing that he probably could not withstand an assault, he decided that his only recourse was to deliver one—preferably on the left, which had been free of heavy pressure for two hours. Accordingly, he sent word for Jackson to attack the Federal right, if possible, swinging it back against the river. Stonewall was delighted at the prospect, and set out at once to reconnoiter the ground in that direction. “We’ll drive McClellan into the Potomac,” he said fervently. Back at Sharpsburg, meanwhile, Lee was doing what little he could to make this possible. When the captain of a shattered Virginia battery reported with his few surviving men, he instructed him to join Jackson for the proposed diversion. One of the smoke-grimed cannoneers spoke up: “General, are you going to send us in again?” Lee saw then that it was Robert. “Yes, my son,” he told him. “You all must do what you can to help drive these people back.” The battery left, heading northward; but no such attack was delivered. Reconnoitering, Stonewall found the Union flank securely anchored to the east bank of the river and well protected by massed artillery. He had to abandon his hopes for a counterstroke. “It is a great pity,” he said regretfully. “We should have driven McClellan into the Potomac.”
By the time Lee learned that the proposed attack could not be delivered, that no diversion to relieve the pressure against the sagging center would be made, the urgent need for it had passed. Hill’s thin line—along which, in accordance with his instructions now that his feeble two-hundred-man charge had been repulsed, the colorbearers flourished their tattered battle flags, hiding his weakness behind gestures of defiance—went unchallenged by the bluecoats massed along the sunken road. But Lee was not allowed even a breathing space in which to enjoy the relaxation of tension. Catastrophe, it seemed, was still with him; had in fact merely withdrawn in order to loom up elsewhere. Immediately on the heels of the news that the Federal advance had stalled in front of the center, word came from the right that the contingency most feared had come to pass. Burnside was across the bridge at last.
Robert Toombs was in command there, holding the heights with three slim Georgia regiments against four Federal divisions. Lately, just as previously he had wearied of his cabinet post, he had been feeling disenchanted with the military life. Exasperated, now as then, by the obtuseness of those around him, he had decided to resign his commission, but not before he had distinguished himself in some great battle. “The day after such an event,” he wrote his wife, “I will retire if I live through it.” Such an event was now at hand, and he had been in his glory all that morning, successfully challenging with 550 men the advance of more than twenty times their number. At 1 o’clock, after seven hours of fitful and ineffectual probing, Burnside at last sent two regiments pounding straight downhill for the bridge, avoiding the suicidal two-hundred-yard gauntlet-run along the creek bank. They got across in a rush, joined presently by others, until the west-bank strength had increased to a full division at that point. Meanwhile the downstream division had finally located the ford and splashed across it, the men scarcely wetting their legs above the knees. About to be swamped from the front and flank, Toombs reported the double crossing and received permission to avoid capture by withdrawing from the heights. He did so in good order, proud of himself and his weary handful of fellow Georgians, whom he put in line along the rearward ridge. There on the outskirts of Sharpsburg with the rest of Longstreet’s troops—not over 2500 in all, so ruthlessly had Lee thinned their ranks in his need for reinforcements on the left and center—they prepared to resist the advance of Burnside’s four divisions.
What came just then, however, was a lull. After forming ranks for a forward push, the commander of the lead blue division found that his men had burnt up most of their ammunition banging away all morning at the snipers on the heights. Informed of this, Burnside decided to replace them with another division instead of taking time to bring up cartridges. This too took time though. It was nearly 3 o’clock before the new division started forward. Off to the left, after crossing the ford and floundering in the bottoms, the other division at last recovered its sense of direction and joined the attack. Few though the rebels seemed to be, they were laying down a mass of fire out of all proportion to their numbers. A New York soldier, whose regiment was pinned down by what he termed “the hiss of bullets and the hurtle of grapeshot,” later recalled that “there burst forth from it the most vehement, terrible swearing I have ever heard.” When the order came to rise and charge, he observed another phenomenon: “The mental strain was so great that I saw at that moment the singular effect mentioned, I think, in the life of Goethe on a similar occasion—the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red.”
Across this reddened landscape they came charging, presenting a two-division front that overlapped the Confederate flank and piled up against the center. Down at his headquarters, beyond the town (the lull had been welcome, but he could only use it to rest his men, not to bring up others; he had no others, and would have none until—and if—A. P. Hill arrived from Harpers Ferry) Lee heard the uproar drawing nearer across the eastern hills, and presently the evidences of Federal success were visual as well. The Sharpsburg streets were crowded with fugitives, their demoralization increased by shells that burst against the walls and roofs of houses, startling flocks of pigeons into bewildered flight, round and round in the smoke. Blue flags began to appear at various points along the ridge above. The men who bore them had advanced almost a mile beyond the bridge; another mile would put them astride the Shepherdstown road, which led west to the only crossing of the Potomac.
Observing a column moving up from the southeast along the ridge line, Lee called to an artillery lieutenant on the way to the front with a section of guns: “What troops are those?” The lieutenant offered him his telescope. “Can’t use it,” Lee said, holding up a bandaged hand. The lieutenant trained and focused the telescope. “They are flying the United States flag,” he reported. Lee pointed to the right, where another distant column was approaching from the southwest, nearly perpendicular to the first, and repeated the question. The lieutenant swung the glass in that direction, peered intently, and announced: “They are flying the Virginia and Confederate flags.” Lee suppressed his elation, although the words fulfilled his one hope for deliverance from defeat. “It is A. P. Hill from Harpers Ferry,” he said calmly.
It was indeed. Receiving Lee’s summons at 6.30 that morning, Little Powell had left one brigade to complete the work at the Ferry, and put the other five on the road within the hour. Seventeen roundabout miles away, the crash and rumble of gunfire spurred him on—particularly when he drew near enough for the sound to be intensified by the clatter of musketry. Forgotten were Stonewall’s march regulations, which called for periodic rest-halts; Hill’s main concern was to get to Sharpsburg fast, however bedraggled, not to get there after sundown with a column that arrived well-closed and too late for a share in the fighting. Jacket off because of the heat, he rode in his bright red battle shirt alongside the panting troops, prodding laggards with the point of his saber. Beyond this, he had no dealings with stragglers, but left them winded by the roadside, depending on them to catch up in time if they could. Not many could, apparently; for he began the march with about 5000 men, and ended it with barely 3000. But with these, as was his custom, he struck hard.
In his path, here on the Federal left, was an outsized Connecticut regiment, 900-strong. That was a good many more soldiers than Hill had in any one of his brigades, but they were grass green, three weeks in service, and already considerably shaken by what they had seen of their first battle. To add to their confusion, a large proportion of the rebels bearing down on them wore new blue uniforms captured at Harpers Ferry. The first thing they received by way of positive identification was a close-up volley that dropped about four hundred of them and broke and scattered the rest. A Rhode Island outfit, coming up just then, was likewise confused, as were two Ohio regiments which arrived to find bluecoats fleeing from bluecoats and held their fire until they too were knocked sprawling. With that, the Union left gave way in a backward surge, pursued by Hill, whose men came after it, screaming their rebel yell. The panic spread northward to the outskirts of Sharpsburg, where several blue companies, meeting little resistance, had already entered the eastern streets of the town; Burnside’s whole line came unpinned, and presently the retreat was general. Toombs’ Georgians, along with the rest of Longstreet’s men, took up the pursuit and chased the Northerners back onto the heights they had spent the morning trying to seize.
And now in the sunset, here on the right, as previously on the left and along the center, the conflict ended; except that this time it was for good. Twilight came down and the landscape was dotted with burning haystacks, set afire by bursting shells. For a time the cries of wounded men of both armies came from these; they had crawled up into the hay for shelter, but now, bled too weak to crawl back out again, were roasted. Lee’s line was intact along the Sharpsburg ridge. McClellan had failed to break it; or, breaking it, had failed in all three cases, left and center and right, to supply the extra push that would keep it broken.
There were those in the Federal ranks who had been urging him to do just that all afternoon. Nor did he lack the means. The greater part of four divisions—two under Franklin, two under Porter: no less than 20,000 men, a solid fourth of his effective force—had stood idle while the battle raged through climax after climax, each of which offered McClellan the chance to wreck his adversary. But he could not dismiss the notion that somewhere behind that opposite ridge, or off beyond the flanks, Lee was massing enormous reserves for a knockout blow. The very thinness of the gray line, which was advanced as an argument for assaulting it, seemed to him to prove that the balance of those more than 100,000 rebels were being withheld for some such purpose, and when it came he wanted to have something with which to meet it.
“At this critical juncture,” he afterwards reported, “I should have had a narrow view of the condition of the country had I been willing to hazard another battle with less than an absolute assurance of success. At that moment—Virginia lost, Washington menaced, Maryland invaded—the national cause could afford no risks of defeat. Lee’s army might then have marched as it pleased on Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, or New York … and nowhere east of the Alleghenies was there another organized force able to arrest its march.”
It never occurred to him, apparently, to look at the reverse of the coin: to consider that Lee’s army, like his own, was the only organized force that blocked the path to its capital. But it did occur to Sykes, who appealed to him, late in the day and in the presence of Porter, to be allowed to strike at the rebel center with his regulars. Part of one of his brigades had been up close to the western ridge, serving as a link between Sumner’s left and Burnside’s right, and its officers had seen that D. H. Hill was about to buckle—indeed, had buckled already, if someone would only take advantage of the fact. Let him launch an attack against that point, Sykes said, supported by Porter’s other division and one from Franklin, and he would cut Lee’s line in two, thereby exposing the severed halves to destruction.
At first McClellan seemed about to approve; but in the moment of hesitation he looked at Porter, and Porter slowly shook his head. “Remember, General,” one witness later quoted him as saying, “I command the last reserve of the last army of the republic.” That cinched it. The attack was not made. Porter and Franklin, who between them lost only 548 of today’s more than 12,000 casualties, remained in reserve.
As night came down, the two armies disengaged, and when the torches of the haystack pyres went out, darkness filled the valley of the Antietam, broken only by the lanterns of the medics combing the woods and cornfields for the injured who were near enough to be brought within the lines. Lee remained at his headquarters, west of Sharpsburg, greeting his generals as they rode up. Jackson, the two Hills, McLaws and Walker, Hood and Early, all had heavy losses to report. The gray commander spoke with each, but he seemed unshaken by the fact that more than a fourth of his army lay dead or wounded on the field. Nor did he mention the word that was in all their minds: retreat. “Where is Longstreet?” he asked, after he had talked with all the others. Presently Old Pete arrived, still limping in carpet slippers and still chewing on the unlighted cigar; he had stopped in the town to help some ladies whose house was on fire. Lee stepped forward to greet him. “Ah,” he said, placing his crippled hands on the burly Georgian’s shoulders. “Here is Longstreet. Here is my old warhorse.”
This last report was as gloomy as the others. The army was bled white and near exhaustion, with all its divisions on the firing line. Aside from a trickle of stragglers coming in, Lee’s only reserve, and in fact the only reserve in all northern Virginia, was the one brigade A. P. Hill had left to complete the salvage work at Harpers Ferry. All the generals here informally assembled were agreed that another day like today would drive the surviving remnant headlong into the Potomac. All, that is, but Lee. When he had heard his lieutenants out, he told them to return to their men, make such tactical readjustments as would strengthen their defenses, and see that rations were cooked and distributed along the present line of battle. If McClellan wanted another fight, he would give him one tomorrow.
McClellan, it seemed, wanted no such thing. Despite an early morning telegram to Halleck: “The battle will probably be renewed today. Send all the troops you can by the most expeditious route,” and a letter in which he told his wife: “[Yesterday’s battle] was a success, but whether a decided victory depends on what occurs today,” he soon took stock and found the portents far from favorable. Reno and Mansfield were dead, along with eight other general officers; Hooker was out of action, wounded; Sumner was despondent; Burnside was even doubtful whether his troops could hold the little they had gained the day before. After what he called “a careful and anxious survey of the condition of my command, and my knowledge of the enemy’s force and position,” McClellan decided to wait for reinforcements, including two divisions on the way from Maryland Heights and Frederick. As a result, the armies lay face to face all day, like sated lions, and between them, there on the slopes of Sharpsburg ridge and in the valley of the Antietam, the dead began to fester in the heat and the cries of the wounded faded to a mewling.
There were a great many of both, the effluvium of this bloodiest day of the war. Nearly 11,000 Confederates and more than 12,000 Federals had fallen along that ridge and in that valley, including a total on both sides of about 5000 dead. Losses at South Mountain raised these doleful numbers to 13,609 and 14,756 respectively, the latter being increased to 27,276 by the surrender of the Harpers Ferry garrison. Lee had suffered only half as many casualties as he had inflicted in the course of the campaign; but even this was more than he could afford. “Where is your division?” someone asked Hood at the close of the battle, and Hood replied, “Dead on the field.” After entering the fight with 854 men, the Texas brigade came out with less than three hundred, and these figures were approximated in other veteran units, particularly in Jackson’s command. The troops Lee lost were the best he had—the best he could ever hope to have in the long war that lay ahead, now that his try for an early ending by invasion had been turned back.
Orders for the retirement were issued that afternoon, and at nightfall, in accordance with those orders, fires were kindled along the ridge to curtain the retreat across the Potomac. Longstreet went first, forming in support of Pendleton’s guns on the opposite bank. Two brigades of cavalry followed, then moved upstream, prepared to recross and harry the enemy flank in case the withdrawal was contested. Walker’s division was the last to cross. At sunup, as Walker followed the tail of his column into the waist-deep water of the ford, he saw Lee sitting his gray horse in midstream. Apparently he had been there all night. When Walker reported all of his troops safely across the river except some wagonloads of wounded and a battery of artillery, which were close at hand, Lee showed for the first time the strain he had been under. “Thank God,” he said.
That was in fact the general reaction, though in most cases it was expressed with considerably less reverence. Crossing northward two weeks ago, the bands had played “My Maryland” and the men had gaily swelled the chorus; but now, as one of the round-trip marchers remarked, “all was quiet on that point. Occasionally some fellow would strike up that tune, and you would then hear the echo, ‘Damn my Maryland.’ ” Another recorded his belief that “the confounded Yankees” could shoot straighter on their home ground. Nor was this aversion restricted to the ranks. “I have heard but one feeling expressed about [Maryland],” one brigadier informed his wife, “and that is a regret at our having gone there.” A youthful major on Lee’s own staff wrote home to his sister: “Don’t let any of your friends sing ‘My Maryland’—not ‘My Western Maryland’ anyhow.”
Presently there was apparent cause for greater regret than ever. Leaving Pendleton with forty-four guns and two slim brigades of infantry to discourage pursuit by holding the Shepherdstown ford, Lee moved the rest of his army into bivouac on the hills back from the river, then lay down under an apple tree to get some badly needed sleep himself. Not long after midnight he woke to find Pendleton bending over him. The former Episcopal rector was shaken and bewildered, and as he spoke Lee found out why. McClellan had brought up his heavy guns for counterbattery work, Pendleton explained, and then at the height of the bombardment had suddenly thrown Porter’s corps across the Potomac, driving off the six hundred rear-guard infantry and the startled cannoneers. All the guns of the Confederate reserve artillery had been captured.
“All?” Lee said, brought upright.
“Yes, General, I fear all.”
Unwilling to attempt a counterattack in the dark with his weary troops, Lee decided to wait for daylight. But when Jackson heard the news he was too upset to wait for anything. He had A. P. Hill’s men turn out at once and put them in motion for the ford, arriving soon after sunrise to find that things were by no means as bad as the artillery chief had reported. A subordinate had brought off all but four of the guns, and only a portion of Porter’s two divisions had crossed the river. “With the blessing of Providence,” Stonewall informed Lee, “they will soon be driven back.” They were. Hill launched another of his savage attacks: one of those in which, as he reported, “each man felt that the fate of the army was centered in himself.” Something over 250 Federals were shot or drowned in their rush to regain the Maryland bank, and when it was over, all who remained in Virginia were captives. Hill drew back to rejoin the main body, unpursued.
What at first had been taken for a disaster turned out in the end to be a tonic—a sort of upbeat coda, after the crash and thunder of what had gone before. The army moved on to Martinsburg, where by September 22 enough stragglers had returned to bring its infantry strength to 36,418. A week later, with all ten divisions—or at any rate what was left of them—resting between Mill Creek and Lick River, Lee wrote Davis: “History records but few examples of a greater amount of labor and fighting than has been done by this army during the present campaign.… There is nothing to report, but I desire to keep you always advised of the condition of the army, its proceedings, and prospects.”
He had occupied his present position near Winchester, he told the President, “in order to be prepared for any flank movement the enemy might attempt.” It soon developed, however, that he had no grounds for worry on that score. McClellan was not contemplating a flank movement. In point of fact, despite renewed pressure from Washington, McClellan was not contemplating any immediate movement at all. After completing the grisly and unaccustomed work of cleaning up the battlefield, he reoccupied Harpers Ferry with Sumner’s corps and spread the others along the north bank of the Potomac, guarding the fords. The main problem just now, as he saw it, was the old one he had always been so good at: reorganizing, drilling, and resupplying his 93,149 effectives. Lee’s strength—precisely tabulated at 97,445—forbade an advance, even if the Federal army had been in any condition to make one, which McClellan did not believe to be the case.
As he went about the familiar task of preparing his men for what lay ahead, he looked back with increasing pride on what had gone before. Originally he had been guarded in his pronouncements as to the outcome of the battle on the 17th. “The general result was in our favor,” he wrote his wife next morning; “that is to say, we gained a great deal of ground and held it.” But now that he had had time to consider the overall picture, he said, “I feel that I have done all that can be asked in twice saving the country.” He felt, too, “that this last short campaign is a sufficient legacy for our child, so far as honor is concerned.” And he added, rather wistfully: “Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly and that it is a masterpiece of art.”
For Lincoln it was something less, and also something more. The battle had been fought on a Wednesday. At noon Monday, September 22, he assembled at the White House all the members of his cabinet, and after reading them an excerpt from a collection of humorous sketches by Artemus Ward, got down to the business at hand. “When the rebel army was at Frederick,” he told them, “I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a proclamation of emancipation, such as I thought most likely to be useful. I said nothing to anyone; but I made the promise to myself and”—hesitating slightly—“to my Maker. The rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfill that promise.” And with that he began to read from a manuscript which was the second draft of the document he had laid aside, two months ago today, on Seward’s advice that to have issued it then would have been to give it the sound of “our last shriek on the retreat” down the Peninsula. Second Bull Run had been even worse, particularly from this point of view. But now had come Antietam, and though it was scarcely a “masterpiece,” or even a clear-cut victory, Lincoln thought it would serve as the occasion for his purpose.
It was highly characteristic, and even fitting, that he opened this solemn conclave with a reading of the slapstick monologue, “High Handed Outrage at Utica,” not only because he himself enjoyed it, along with most of his ministers—all except Stanton, who sat glumly through the dialect performance, and Chase, who maintained his reputation for never laughing at anything at all—but also because it was in line with the delaying tactics and the attitude he had adopted toward the question during these past two months. With the first draft of the proclamation tucked away in his desk, only awaiting a favorable turn of military events to launch it upon an unsuspecting world, he had seemed to talk against such a measure to the very people who came urging its promulgation. Presumably he did this in order to judge their reaction, as well as to prevent a diminution of the thunderclap effect which he foresaw. At any rate, he had not even hesitated to use sarcasm, particularly against the most earnest of these callers.
One day, for example, a Quaker woman came to request an audience, and Lincoln said curtly: “I will hear the Friend.” She told him she had been sent by the Lord to inform him that he was the minister appointed to do the work of abolishing slavery. Then she fell silent. “Has the Friend finished?” Lincoln asked. She said she had, and he replied: “I have neither the time nor disposition to enter into discussion with the Friend, and end this occasion by suggesting for her consideration the question whether, if it be true that the Lord has appointed me to do the work she has indicated, it is not probable he would have communicated knowledge of the fact to me as well as to her?”
Similarly, on the day before the Battle of South Mountain, when a delegation of Chicago ministers called to urge presidential action on the matter, he inquired: “What good would a proclamation of emancipation from me do, especially as we are now situated? I do not want to issue a document that the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope’s bull against the comet. Would my word free the slaves, when I cannot even enforce the Constitution in the rebel states? Is there a single court or magistrate or individual that would be influenced by it there?… I will mention another thing, though it meet only your scorn and contempt. There are fifty thousand bayonets in the Union armies from the border slave states. It would be a serious matter if, in consequence of a proclamation such as you desire, they should go over to the rebels.” In parting, however, he dropped a hint. “Do not misunderstand me because I have mentioned these objections. They indicate the difficulties that have thus far prevented action in some such way as you desire. I have not decided against a proclamation of liberty to the slaves, but hold the matter under advisement.… I can assure you that the subject is on my mind, by day and night, more than any other. Whatever shall appear to be God’s will, I will do.”
Sadly the Illinois ministers filed out; but one, encouraged by the closing words, remained behind to register a plea in that direction. “What you have said to us, Mr President, compels me to say to you in reply, that it is a message to you from our Divine Master, through me, commanding you, sir, to open the doors of bondage that the slaves may go free.” Lincoln gave him a long look, not unlike the one he had given the Quaker woman. “That may be, sir,” he admitted, “for I have studied this question by night and by day, for weeks and for months. But if it is, as you say, a message from your Divine Master, is it not odd that the only channel he could send it by was the roundabout route by way of that awful wicked city of Chicago?”
These remarks were in any case supplementary to those he had made already in reply to Horace Greeley, who published in the August 20 Tribune an open letter to the President, titled “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” in which he charged at some length that Lincoln had been “strangely and disastrously remiss in the discharge of your official and imperative duty.” The first such duty, as Greeley saw it, was to announce to the army, the nation, and the world that this war was primarily a struggle to put an end to slavery. Lincoln, having heard that the New Yorker was preparing to attack him, had asked a mutual friend, “What is he wrathy about? Why does he not come down here and have a talk with me?” The friend replied that Greeley had said he would not allow the President of the United States to act as advisory editor of the Tribune. “I have no such desire,” Lincoln said. “I certainly have enough on my hands to satisfy any man’s ambition.” But now that the journalist had aired his grievance publicly, Lincoln answered two days later with a public letter of his own, headed “Executive Mansion” and addressed to Greeley:
As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing,” as you say, I have not meant to leave anyone in doubt.
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored, the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors, and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.
And having thus to some extent forestalled his anticipated critics—particularly the conservatives, whose arguments he advanced as his own while pointing out the expediency of acting counter to them—he read to the cabinet this latest draft of what he called a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Two opening paragraphs emphasized that the paper was being issued by him as Commander in Chief, upon military necessity; that reunion, not abolition, was still the primary object of the war; that compensated emancipation was still his goal for loyal owners, and that voluntary colonization of freedmen, “upon this continent or elsewhere,” would still be encouraged. In the third paragraph he got down to the core of the edict, declaring “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” He closed, after quoting from congressional measures prohibiting the return of fugitive slaves to disloyal masters, with the promise that, on restoration of the Union, he would recommend that loyal citizens of all areas “be compensated for all losses by acts of the United States, including the loss of slaves.”
In this form, after adopting some minor emendations suggested by Seward and Chase, Lincoln gave the document to the world next morning. Return to the Union within one hundred days, he was telling the rebels, and you can keep your slaves—or anyhow be compensated for them, when and if (as I propose) the law takes them away. Otherwise, if you lose the war, you lose your human property as well. It was in essence counterrevolutionary, a military edict prompted by expediency. Whoever attacked him for it, whatever the point of contention, would have to attack him on his own ground.
This the South was quick to do. Recalling his inaugural statement, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so,” southern spokesmen cried that Lincoln at last had dropped the mask. They quoted with outright horror a passage from the very core of the proclamation which seemed to them to incite the slaves to riot and massacre: “The Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof … will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” What was this, they asked, if not an invitation to the Negroes to murder them in their beds? Bestial, they called Lincoln, for here he had touched the quick of their deepest fear, and the Richmond Examiner charged that the proclamation was “an act of malice towards the master, rather than one of mercy to the slave.” Abroad, the LondonSpectatorreinforced this view of the author’s cynicism: “The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.” Jefferson Davis, while he deplored that such a paper could be issued by the head of a government of which he himself had once been part, declared that it would inspire the South to new determination; for “a restitution of the Union has been rendered forever impossible by the adoption of a measure which … neither admits of retraction nor can coexist with union.”
In the North, too, there were critics, some of whom protested that the proclamation went too far, while others claimed that it did not go far enough. Some, in fact, maintained that it went nowhere, since it proclaimed freedom only for those unfortunates now firmly under Confederate control. One such critic was the New York World, whose editor pointed out that “the President has purposely made the proclamation inoperative in all places where we have gained a military footing which makes the slaves accessible. He has proclaimed emancipation only where he has notoriously no power to execute it.” Not only were the loyal or semiloyal slave states of Delaware and Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri omitted from the terms to be applied, but so was the whole rebel state of Tennessee, as well as those parts of Virginia and Louisiana under Federal occupation. This was a matter of considerable alarm to the abolitionists. For if emancipation was not to be extended to those regions a hundred days from now, they asked, when would it ever be extended to them? What manner of document was this anyhow?
Yet these objections were raised only by those who read it critically. Most people did not read it so. They took it for more than it was, or anyhow for more than it said; the container was greater than the thing contained, and Lincoln became at once what he would remain for them, “the man who freed the slaves.” He would go down to posterity, not primarily as the Preserver of the Republic—which he was—but as the Great Emancipator, which he was not. “A poor document, but a mighty act,” the governor of Massachusetts privately called the proclamation, and Lincoln himself said of it in a letter to Vice-President Hamlin, six days later: “The time for its effect southward has not come; but northward the effect should be instantaneous.” Whatever truth there was in Davis’ claim that it would further unite the South in opposition, Lincoln knew that it had already done much to heal the split in his own party; which was not the least of his reasons for having released it.
Seward understood such things. Asked by a friend why the cabinet had done “so useless and mischievous a thing as to issue the proclamation,” he told a story. Up in New York State, he said, when the news came that the Revolutionary War had been won and American independence at last established, an old patriot could not rest until he had put up a liberty pole. When his neighbors asked him why he had gone to so much trouble—wasn’t he just as free without it?—the patriot replied, “What is liberty without a pole?” So it was with the present case, Seward remarked between puffs on his cigar: “What is war without a proclamation?”
Something more it had done, or was doing, which was also included in Lincoln’s calculations. Abroad, as at home, a bedrock impact had been felt. In London, like the pro-Confederate Spectator, the Times might call the proclamation “A very sad document,” which the South would “answer with a hiss of scorn”; a distinguished Member of Parliament might refer to it as “a hideous outburst of weak yet demoniacal spite” and “the most unparalleled last card ever played by a reckless gambler”; Earl Russell himself might point out to his colleagues that it was “of a very strange nature” and contained “no declaration of a principle adverse to slavery.” Yet behind these organs of opinion, below these men of influence, stood the people. In their minds, now that Lincoln had spoken out—regardless of what he actually said or left unsaid—support for the South was support for slavery, and they would not have it so. From this point on, the editors might favor and the heads of state might ponder ways and means of extending recognition to the Confederacy, but to do this they would have to run counter to the feelings and demands of the mass of their subscribers and electors. Not even the nearly half-million textile workers already idle as a result of the first pinch of the cotton famine were willing to have the blockade broken on such terms. And the same was true in France. With this one blow—though few could see it yet: least of all the leader most concerned—Lincoln had shattered the main pillar of what had been the southern President’s chief hope from the start. Europe would not be coming into this war.
Another change the document had wrought, though this one was uncalculated, occurring within the man himself. Sixteen years ago, back in Illinois, when an election opponent charged that he was an infidel, Lincoln refuted it with an open letter to the voters; but this was mainly a denial that he was a “scoffer,” and not even then did he make any claim to being truly religious. Herndon, who saw him almost daily through that period, as well as before and after, later declared that he had never heard his partner mention the name of Jesus “but to confute the idea that he was the Christ.” The fact remains that in a time when even professional soldiers called upon God in their battle reports, Lincoln seemed not to be a praying man and he never joined a church. Concerned as he had always been with logic, he had not yet reached a stage of being able to believe in what he could not comprehend. But now, in this second autumn of the war, a change began to show. In late September, when an elderly Quaker woman came to the White House to thank him for having issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln replied in a tone quite different from the one with which he had addressed her fellow Quaker the month before.
“I am glad of this interview,” he told her, “and glad to know that I have your sympathy and prayers. We are indeed going through a great trial—a fiery trial. In the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, as I am, and as we all are, to work out his great purposes, I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to his will; and that it might be so, I have sought his aid. But if, after endeavoring to do my best in the light which he affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, he wills it otherwise. If I had had my way, this war would never have been commenced. If I had been allowed my way, this war would have been ended before this. But we find it still continues, and we must believe that he permits it for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe that he who made the world still governs it.”
This was a theme that would bear developing. In the proclamation itself he had omitted any reference to the Deity, and it was at the suggestion of Chase that he invoked, in the body of a later draft, “the gracious favor of Almighty God.” But now, out of the midnight trials of his spirit, out of his concern for a race in bondage, out of his knowledge of the death of men in battle, something new had come to birth in Lincoln, and through him into the war. After this, as Davis said, there could be no turning back; Lincoln had sounded forth a trumpet that would never call retreat. And having sounded it, he turned in these final days of September to the inscrutable theme he had touched when he thanked the second Quaker woman for her prayers. His secretary found on the presidential desk a sheet of paper containing a single paragraph, a “Meditation on the Divine Will,” which Lincoln had written with no thought of publication. Hay copied and preserved it:
The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party; and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect his purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power on the minds of the now contestants, he could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun, he could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.
Whatever else it was or might become, whatever reactions it produced within the minds and hearts of men—including Lincoln’s—the proclamation was first of all a military measure; which meant that, so far, its force was merely potential. Its application dependent on the armies of the Union, its effect would be in direct ratio to their success, 1) in driving back the Confederate invaders, and 2) in resuming the southward movement whose flow had been reversed, east and west, by the advances of Lee and Bragg into Maryland and Kentucky. The nearer of these two penetrating spearheads had been encysted and repelled by McClellan, and for this Lincoln was grateful, though he would have preferred something more in the way of pursuit than an ineffectual bloodying of the waters at Shepherdstown ford. Even this, however, was better than what he saw when he looked westward in the direction of his native state. The other spearhead was not only still deeply embedded in the vitals of Kentucky, but to Lincoln’s acute distress it seemed likely to remain so. After winning by default the race for Louisville, Buell appeared to be concerned only with taking time to catch his breath; with the result that, near the end of September, Lincoln’s thin-stretched patience snapped. He ordered Buell’s removal from command.
His distress no doubt would have been less acute if he had known that, with or without pressure from Buell, Bragg was already considering a withdrawal. At the outset the North Carolinian had announced that he would make the “Abolition demagogues and demons … taste the bitters of invasion,” but now he found his own teeth set on edge. From Bardstown, which he had reached three days before, he reported to Richmond on September 25 that his troops were resting from “the long, arduous, and exhausting march” over Muldraugh’s Hill. “It is a source of deep regret that this move was necessary,” he declared, “as it has enabled Buell to reach Louisville, where a very large force is now concentrated.” Then he got down to the bedrock cause of his discontent: “I regret to say we are sadly disappointed at the want of action by our friends in Kentucky. We have so far received no accession to this army. General Smith has secured about a brigade—not half our losses by casualties of different kinds. We have 15,000 stand of arms and no one to use them. Unless a change occurs soon we must abandon the garden spot of Kentucky to its cupidity. The love of ease and fear of pecuniary loss are the fruitful sources of this evil.”
In saying this he took his cue from Smith, who—though privately he admitted, “I can understand their fears and hesitancy; they have so much to lose”—had written him from Lexington the week before: “The Kentuckians are slow and backward in rallying to our standard. Their hearts are evidently with us, but their blue-grass and fat cattle are against us.” The day after Bragg reached Bardstown—with Buell still moving northward, more or less across his flank and rear—Smith told him that he regarded “the defeat of Buell before he effects a junction with the force at Louisville as a military necessity, for Buell’s army has always been the great bugbear to these people, and until [it is] defeated we cannot hope for much addition to our ranks.” In other words, before the citizens would risk their lives and property in open support of the Confederates, they wanted to be assured that they would stay there. But to Bragg it seemed that this was putting the cart before the horse. He later explained his reluctance in a letter to his wife: “Why should I stay with my handful of brave Southern men to fight for cowards who skulked about in the dark to say to us, ‘We are with you. Only whip these fellows out of our country and let us see you can protect us, and we will join you’?”
And so for a time the two Confederate commanders, both flushed with recent victories, remained precisely where they were, Smith at Lexington and Bragg at Bardstown, fifty airline miles apart, gathering supplies and issuing recruiting appeals which largely went unanswered. The former kept urging the latter to pounce on Buell, claiming that he could whip him unassisted, while he himself continued to load his wagons and round up herds of cattle. Bragg was unwilling to move on Louisville alone, and yet he was also unwilling to ask Smith to abandon the heart of the Bluegrass region by moving westward to join him. Between the two, they had arrived at a sort of impasse of indecision, behind which both were intent on the fruitful harvest they were gleaning against the day when they would retrace their steps across the barrens. What had been announced as a full-scale offensive, designed to establish and maintain the northern boundary of the Confederacy along the Ohio River, had degenerated into a giant raid.
This did not mean that Bragg abandoned all his hopes. Unwilling though he was to risk a pitched battle while Buell hugged the Louisville intrenchments, he thought there still might be a bloodless way to encourage prospective bluegrass volunteers by replacing the Unionist state government, which had fled its capital, with one that was friendly to the South. Moreover, he had the means at hand. In November of the previous year, an irregular convention had met at Russellville to declare the independence of Kentucky, establish a provisional government, and petition the Confederacy for admission. All this it did, and was accepted; Kentucky had representatives in the Confederate Congress and a star in the Confederate flag. Presently, however, when Albert Sidney Johnston’s long line came unhinged at Donelson, the men who followed that star were in exile—including Provisional Governor George W. Johnson, who fell at Shiloh and was succeeded by the lieutenant governor, Richard Hawes. Hawes was now on his way north from Chattanooga, and it was Bragg’s intention to inaugurate him at Frankfort. With a pro-Confederate occupying the governor’s chair in the capítol, supported by a de jacto government of Confederate sympathies, the entire political outlook would be changed; or so Bragg thought. At any rate, he considered it so thoroughly worth the effort that he decided to see it done himself, lending his personal dignity to the occasion.
Accordingly, leaving Polk in charge of the army around Bardstown, he set out for Lexington on September 28 to confer with Smith before proceeding to Frankfort. Joined by Hawes and his party two days later at Danville, he wrote Polk: “The country and the people grow better as we get into the one and arouse the other.” October 1, he reached Lexington, where he arranged for Smith to move his whole army up to Frankfort for the inaugural ceremonies, two or three days later. By now, however, though he still expected much from the current political maneuver, his reaction to what he had seen during his ride through the Bluegrass was mixed. “Enthusiasm is unbounded, but recruiting at a discount,” he wired Polk. “Even the women are giving reasons why individuals cannot go.”
Bragg was not the only army commander displaying symptoms of discouragement at this stage of the far-flung campaign. A Cincinnati journalist, watching Buell ride north through Elizabethtown at the head of his retrograding column on September 24, was unfavorably impressed: “His dress was that of a brigadier instead of a major general. He wore a shabby straw hat, dusty coat, and had neither belt, sash or sword about him.… Though accompanied by his staff, he was not engaged in conversation with any of them, but rode silently and slowly along, noticing nothing that transpired around him.… Buell is, certainly, the most reserved, distant and unsociable of all the generals in the army. He never has a word of cheer for his men or his officers, and in turn his subordinates care little for him save to obey his orders, as machinery works in response to the bidding of the mechanic.” The reporter believed that this lack of cheer and sociability on the part of the commander was the cause of the army’s present gloom. McClellan, for example, had “an unaccountable something, that keeps this machinery constantly oiled and easy-running; but Buell’s unsympathetic nature makes it ‘squeak’ like the drag wheels of a wagon.”
More than the past was fretting Buell; more, even, than the present. After the lost opportunities down along the Tennessee River, after the long hot weary trudge back north to the Ohio, he was confronted with the prospect of having to fight two opponents who, inured by and rested from their recent victories, could now combine to move against him. Nor was this all. Near the end of his 250-mile withdrawal—aware that his superiors were hostile, ready to let fall the Damoclean sword of dismissal, and that his subordinates were edgy, ready to leap at his own and each other’s throats—he was also suffering forebodings: forebodings which were presently borne out all too abruptly. Passing through Elizabethtown, he reached Louisville next day. Within another three days he had his whole army there. On the day after that, September 29, in the midst of a general reorganization, he was struck two knee-buckling blows, both of which fell before he had even had time to digest his breakfast.
The first was that, in a time when aggressiveness was at a considerable premium, he lost William Nelson, the most aggressive of his several major generals. He lost him because the Indiana brigadier Jefferson Davis, home from the Transmississippi on a sick leave, had come down to Louisville to assist Nelson in preparing to hold the city against Smith. Nelson was overbearing, Davis touchy; the result was a personality clash, at the climax of which the former ordered the latter out of his department. Davis went, but presently he returned, bringing the governor of Indiana with him. This was Oliver P. Morton, who also had a bone to pick with Nelson over his alleged mishandling of Hoosier volunteers during the fiasco staged at Richmond a month ago tomorrow. They accosted him in the lobby of the Galt House, Buell’s Louisville headquarters, just after early breakfast. In the flare-up that ensued, Davis demanded satisfaction for last week’s rudeness, and when Nelson called him an “insolent puppy,” flipped a wadded calling-card in his face; whereupon Nelson laid the back of a ham-sized hand across his jaw. Davis fell back, and the burly Kentuckian turned on Morton, asking if he too had come there to insult him. Morton said he had not. Nelson started up the staircase, heading for Buell’s room on the second floor. “Did you hear that damned insolent scoundrel insult me, sir?” he demanded of an acquaintance coming down. “I suppose he don’t know me, sir. I’ll teach him a lesson, sir.” He went on up the stairs, then down the hall, and just as he reached the door of Buell’s room he heard someone behind him call his name. Turning, he saw Davis standing at the head of the stairs with a pistol in his hand.
Davis had not come armed to the encounter, but after staggering back from the slap he had gone around the lobby asking bystanders for a weapon. At last he came to a certain Captain Gibson. “I always carry the article,” Gibson said, producing a pistol from under his coat. Davis took it, and as he started up the stairs Gibson called after him, “It’s a tranter trigger. Work light.” So when Nelson turned from Buell’s door and started toward him, Davis knew what to do. “Not another step farther!” he cried; and then, at a range of about eight feet, shot the big man in the chest. Nelson stopped, turned back toward Buell’s door, but fell before he got there. “Send for a clergyman; I wish to be baptized,” he told the men who came running at the sound of the shot. Gathering around him, they managed to lift the 300-pound giant onto a bed in a nearby room. “I have been basely murdered,” he said. Half an hour later he was dead.
Buell had Davis placed in arrest, intending to try him for murder, but before he could appoint a court or even prepare to conduct an investigation—indeed, before Nelson’s blood had time to dry on the rug outside his door—he found that he no longer had any authority in the matter. The second blow had landed. Halleck’s order for Buell’s removal, issued at Lincoln’s insistence, was delivered by special courier that morning. The courier, a colonel aide of Halleck’s, acting under instructions similar to the ones given in Frémont’s case the year before—that is, the order was not to be delivered if Buell had fought or was about to fight a battle—had left Washington on the 24th, before Lincoln or Halleck knew the outcome of the race for Louisville. Three days later, learning that Buell had reached the Ohio ahead of Bragg, Halleck wired the colonel: “Await further orders before acting.” But it was too late. At noon of the 29th the reply came back: “The dispatches are delivered. I think it is fortunate that I obeyed instructions. Much dissatisfaction with General Buell.” On its heels came a wire from Buell himself: “I have received your orders … and in further obedience … I shall repair to Indianapolis.”
The government thus was put in the position of having sacked the man who, in some quarters at least, was being hailed as the savior of Louisville and his home state of Ohio. The reaction was prompt. Three congressmen and a senator from the region wired that the double catastrophe of Nelson’s death and Buell’s supersession had produced “great regret and something of dismay.… In our judgment the removal of General Buell will do great injury to the service in Kentucky.” However, the courier had carried not one message, but three: a brief note informing Buell that he was relieved, a War Department order appointing George Thomas to succeed him, and a letter warning the new commander that the general-in-chief expected “energetic operations.” Thomas answered without delay: “General Buell’s preparations have been completed to move against the enemy, and I therefore respectfully ask that he may be retained in command. My position is very embarrassing.” Halleck replied: “You may consider the order as suspended until I can lay your dispatch before the Government and get instructions.” This was a way out, and Lincoln took it; the order changing commanders was suspended, “by order of the President.” Whatever doubt there was that Buell would be willing to turn the other cheek and expose himself to another buffeting was removed by the acknowledgment he sent the following day: “Out of sense of public duty I shall continue to discharge the duties of my command to the best of my ability until otherwise ordered.”
That was the last day of September. By then he had completed the reorganization, incorporating the green men with the seasoned men—seasoned, that is, by marching, if not by fighting; his army still had never fought a battle on its own—for a total of better than 75,000 effectives. This was half again more than were with Bragg and Smith, he knew, but he was also aware that, except for the few recruits they had managed to attract in the Bluegrass, their troops were veterans to a man, whereas no less than a third of his own had barely progressed beyond the manual of arms. Whatever qualms proceeded from this, on the first day of October he moved out. Too busy to concern himself with Nelson’s slayer or spare the officers for a court to try him, he recommended that Halleck appoint a commission to look into the case. But nothing came of this, not even the filing of charges. Later that month a Louisville grand jury indicted Davis for manslaughter, but nothing came of this either; he was admitted to bail and released. Presently he was back on duty, having acquired a reputation as a man whom it was advisable not to provoke.
Buell had ten divisions, nine of them distributed equally among three corps led by major generals, with Thomas as second in command of the whole. The march was southeast, out of Louisville toward Bardstown, and the army made it in three columns, a corps in each, commanded (left to right) by Alexander McCook, T. L. Crittenden, and Charles Gilbert. Bragg was in that direction, Smith at Frankfort. Buell figured his chances were good if he could keep them divided and thus encounter them one at a time; less good—in fact, not good at all—if he had to face them both at once. So he feinted toward the latter place with a division detached from McCook, supported by the large 15,000-man tenth division, composed almost entirely of recruits under Brigadier General Ebenezer Dumont. That way, Buell would not only cover Louisville; but also, by confusing his opponents as to his true objective, he might keep them from combining against him in the battle he was seeking at last. After four months of building and repairing roads and railroads, tediously advancing and hastily backtracking, enduring constant prodding from above, he was about to fight.
Down in Mississippi all this while, Van Dorn and Price had been pursuing separate courses, neither of which had produced anything substantial even in the way of a diversion. Not only were they independent of each other; Van Dorn was also independent of Bragg, and now that he (and Isaac Brown) had accomplished the salvation of Vicksburg, the diminutive Mississippian had larger things in mind than keeping Grant amused along the lower Tennessee border while Bragg got all the glory in Kentucky. After the loss of the Arkansas and Breckinridge’s repulse at Baton Rouge, Van Dorn had abandoned his “Ho! for New Orleans” notion and shifted his gaze upriver, reverting to his earlier slogan: “St Louis, then huzza!” His plan was to swing through West Tennessee, skirting Memphis to pounce on Paducah, from which point he would move “wherever circumstances might dictate.” So when Price, mindful of Bragg’s instructions to harry the Federals in North Mississippi, called on his former chief for aid, Van Dorn replied that he would rather have Price join him. Price declined. Nettled, Van Dorn invoked his seniority and appealed directly to the Secretary of War: “I ought to have command of the movements of Price, that there may be concert of action.… Bragg is out of reach; I refer to you.” Davis himself wired back: “Your rank makes you the commander, and such I supposed were the instructions of General Bragg.”
Van Dorn had what he wanted. But Price had already moved on his own, striking for Iuka, twenty-odd miles down the Memphis & Charleston Railroad from Corinth, the fortified eastern anchor of Grant’s contracted line. September 14, as Price’s nearly 15,000 troops approached, the badly outnumbered Union garrison retreated in haste, leaving a quantity of confiscated cotton and army stores behind. Price burned the one and appropriated the other. It was now his intention to march on Middle Tennessee, to which Bragg informed him the Federals were retiring; but finding that this was not entirely the case—that Grant, though he had sent three of his five left-flank divisions to Buell, still had the other two near Iuka under Rosecrans—he hesitated to leave such a substantial force in his rear. While he was pondering this dilemma and distributing the captured stores, the problem was solved by the arrival of a courier from Van Dorn’s headquarters at Holly Springs, sixty miles west of Corinth, informing Price that the President had authorized his fellow Mississippian to order a junction of the two armies, under his command, for whatever “concert of action” he had in mind.
The Missourian’s intention was to stay in Iuka until he heard from Van Dorn just what it was he wanted him to do; then he would move out, more or less at his leisure, in whatever direction Van Dorn advised in order to combine the two commands for a resumption of the offensive. However, this was overlooking Grant’s plans in the matter—and Grant intended not only to interrupt Price’s leisure, but also to destroy him. In fact, he said later, “It looked to me that, if Price would remain in Iuka until we could get there, his annihilation was inevitable.”
By “we” he meant himself and Rosecrans, whose two divisions contained about 9000 effectives, and he also meant Ord, who would advance from Corinth with another two divisions, leaving a strong garrison to man the fortifications in case Van Dorn pushed east from Holly Springs for an assault while he was gone. Price had 15,000 men; Rosecrans and Ord had 17,000 between them. This in itself was by no means enough of a preponderance to assure the annihilation Grant expected, but he had designed a tactical convergence to accomplish that result. Ord would swing north and descend on Iuka from that direction, while Rosecrans came up from the south. Once Price had his attention thoroughly fixed on the former, the latter would fall on his rear; so that the rebels, demoralized and cut off from all avenues of escape, would have to choose between death and capitulation. Advised of the plan, both of Grant’s subordinate commanders were as optimistic as their chief, though Rosecrans warned: “Price is an old woodpecker,” meaning that he would be hard to take by surprise.
Accordingly, on September 17 (while Lee, with his back to the Potomac, was defending Sharpsburg against McClellan, and Wilder, with his back to the Green, was surrendering Munfordville to Bragg) Ord moved twelve miles down the Memphis & Charleston to Burnsville, where Grant established headquarters, having instructed Rosecrans to concentrate at Jacinto, eight miles south. From these two points, the four divisions were to push on to within striking distance of Iuka the following day in order to deliver their sequential north-south attacks soon after dawn of the 19th. But that was not to be. Rosecrans reported that one of his divisions had been so badly delayed that he could not be in position before midafternoon of the appointed day. Ord moved up on schedule, however, establishing contact with the Confederate cavalry outposts, and Grant used the waiting time to engage in a bit of psychological warfare.
Last night he had received from the telegraph superintendent at Cairo a dispatch concerning the Battle of Antietam. According to this gentleman, the news was very good indeed: “Both sides engaged until 4 p.m. at which time Hooker gained position, flanked rebels, and threw them into disorder. Longstreet and his entire division prisoners. General Hill killed. Entire rebel army of Virginia destroyed, Burnside having reoccupied Harpers Ferry and cut off retreat.… Latest advices say entire rebel army must be captured or killed, as Potomac is rising and our forces pressing the enemy continually.” Grant sent the message forward to Ord, who passed it on to the Confederates this morning under a flag of truce. “I think this battle decides the war finally,” he explained in a covering note, “and that upon being satisfied of its truth General Price or whoever commands here will avoid useless bloodshed and lay down his arms. There is not the slightest doubt of the truth of the dispatch in my hand.” The reply was prompt. Formally employing the third person, Price said flatly that he did not believe the report was true, but “that if the facts were as stated in those dispatches they would only move him and his soldiers to greater exertions in behalf of their country, and that neither he nor they will ever lay down their arms—as humanely suggested by General Ord—until the independence of the Confederate States shall have been acknowledged by the United States.”
Psychological warfare having failed to produce the desired result, Grant told Ord to go ahead with the opening phase, diverting Price’s attention northward, though he warned: “[Rosecrans] is behind where we expected. Do not be too rapid in your advance … unless it should be found that the enemy are evacuating.” Ord moved forward, encountering light resistance, but since there still was no word that the southward escape route was blocked, Grant told him to halt within four miles of the town “and there await sounds of an engagement between Rosecrans and the enemy before engaging the latter.” Ord did so, and the afternoon wore on. About 6 o’clock he received a message written two hours before by the commander of his lead division: “For the last twenty minutes there has been a dense smoke arising from the direction of Iuka. I conclude that the enemy are evacuating and destroying the stores.” Ord pushed forward tentatively, but still hearing no sound of conflict from the south, halted his troops in line of battle, and there they remained through twilight into darkness, a northwest wind blowing hard against their backs. His total loss for the day, in both divisions, was 1 man wounded.
The smoke had been beyond, not in the town, and it came from Price’s guns, not his stores. Just as Grant had intended, the “old woodpecker” had concentrated northward against Ord; but about 2 o’clock, learning that another Union column was approaching from the south, he shifted one brigade in that direction and presently followed it with another. Soon afterwards, since Ord seemed disinclined to press the issue, he called for a third. Before it got there, the fight with Rosecrans had begun. Seeing the lead blue division waver, Price ordered a charge that drove the Federals back on their supports and captured nine of their guns. Upwind, Ord heard nothing. Grant, in fact, did not suspect that his other column was at hand until next morning, when he received a note Rosecrans had written the night before. Headed “Two miles south of Iuka,” it reported that he had “met the enemy in force just above this point.… The ground is horrid, unknown to us, and no room for development.… Push on into them until we can have time to do something.” The convergence, though delayed, had worked exactly as Grant planned it; but instead of producing a victory, as expected, had resulted in a repulse which, though it cost him nine guns and nearly 800 soldiers, gained him nothing.
An ill wind had blown no good, but now at least he knew he had both of his columns in position north and south of the town, ready to put the squeeze on Price, who was boxed in. Or so Grant thought when he told Ord at 8.35 that morning, “Get your troops up and attack as soon as possible.” Ord did so, banging away with his guns as he advanced, and so did Rosecrans: only to find that they were converging on emptiness. Price—whose wagons had been packed for the move before the Federals appeared—had evacuated Iuka during the night, taking a southeast road which Rosecrans left unguarded. At Grant’s insistence, the latter took up the pursuit, hoping at least to recapture the stores being hauled away, but abandoned it when he ran into an ambush eight miles out. All Grant’s strategic pains had netted him was an empty town and the task of burying the dead of both armies. Rosecrans had lost 790 men, Price 535, and the latter had gotten away with all his spoils.
Ord meanwhile was hurrying back west by rail, in case Van Dorn had left Holly Springs and crossed the Hatchie River for a leap at Corinth. The prospect of this held no dismay for Rosecrans. In fact, he welcomed it. Whatever blunders he had committed against Price, he looked forward to a contest with Van Dorn. They had been classmates, West Point ’56; he had finished fourth from the top, the Southerner fourth from the bottom, and Rosecrans was eager to extend this proof of his superiority beyond the academic. Back at Jacinto that night, he wired Grant: “If you can let me know that there is a good opportunity to cross the railroad and march on Holly Springs to cut off the forces of Buck Van Dorn I will be in readiness to take everything. If we could get them across the Hatchie they would be clean up the spout.”
He was about to be accommodated in his desire for a bloody reunion east of the Hatchie, although not in the manner he imagined, since it would involve a change of roles. Instead of the hunter, he would be the hunted.
Van Dorn had set aside the elaborate scheme for a march on Paducah, which would expose both of his flanks to attack by superior numbers, and had decided to precede it with a much simpler, though in its way no less daring, operation. He was planning a direct assault on Corinth. That place, he saw now, was the linchpin of the Federal defenses in North Mississippi. Once it was cracked and unseated, he could move at will on Memphis or he could revert to his earlier plan for a march on St Louis, gobbling up blue detachments as he went. “We may take them in detail if they are not wary,” he explained in a dispatch that reached Price the day before the Battle of Iuka; “but once combined we will make a successful campaign, clear out West Tennessee, and then——”
His new plan, outlined in this and other messages written after Price’s hairbreadth escape from Iuka with the aid of a friendly wind, was for their two commands to unite at Ripley, just west of the Hatchie, then move north, up that bank of the river, as if against Bolivar. However, this would only be a feint, serving to immobilize Grant’s reserve force under Hurlbut at that point. When they reached the Memphis & Charleston at Pocahontas, they would turn sharp right and drive for Corinth, twenty miles away, blocking the path of reinforcements from the northwest and striking before Rosecrans had time to bring in troops from the east for its defense. Combined, Van Dorn and Price had 22,000 men, while in Corinth, the former explained, there were no more than 15,000, the rest—about 8000—being posted out toward Burnsville and Jacinto, guarding against attack from that direction. These odds, he said, gave him “a reasonable hope of success” in driving the defenders from their guns and intrenchments and capturing the lot, together with the supplies being collected for an advance.
Price, who had been associated with the Mississippian in a similar venture against Curtis seven months before in the wilds of Arkansas—with results barely short of disastrous—was not so sure; but at any rate, after eight weeks of being hamstrung by conflicting orders and exposed to ridicule, he was glad to be doing something. Back in his home state, the 290-pound Missourian had been nicknamed “Old Skedad” by Unionist editors, one of whom remarked that “as a racer he has seen few equals for his weight.” To cap the climax, rumors had been spread that he was a West Pointer. After these and other such vexations (although the educational slander was promptly refuted by a friendly correspondent who assured the public that Price “owes his success to practical good sense and hard fighting. He never attended a military school in his life”) he was glad of a chance to move against the enemy, even though Van Dorn himself, sanguine as he was by nature, characterized their “hope of success” as no more than “reasonable.”
Accordingly, both commands reached Ripley on September 28: Van Dorn’s one division under Mansfield Lovell—who, like his chief, was out to redeem misfortune, New Orleans bulking even larger in this respect than Elkhorn Tavern—and Price’s two under Brigadier Generals Dabney Maury and Louis Hébert. Lovell began the northward march that afternoon, followed by Maury and Hébert the next morning. They had fifty miles to go, thirty up to Pocahontas, then twenty down to Corinth, all along a single narrow road through densely wooded country, bone-dry after the summer-long drouth. The final lap would be the hardest, not only because it called for speed and accurate timing to achieve concerted action and surprise, but also because, after they crossed the Hatchie, there would be no water until they reached Corinth, where they would have to fight for it and win or else go thirsty. Nevertheless, according to Van Dorn, “the troops were in fine spirits, and the whole Army of West Tennessee”—so he called it, anticipating the movement which would follow victory—“seemed eager to emulate the armies of the Potomac and of Kentucky.” Like their leaders, the soldiers were out to undo past reverses. Van Dorn himself reported: “No army ever marched to battle with prouder steps, more hopeful countenances, or with more courage.”
October 1 the van approached Pocahontas and, ending the feint at Bolivar, swung east. Encountering cavalry here and infantry the following day at Chewalla, ten miles short of Corinth, Van Dorn knew that whatever the element of secrecy could accomplish was behind him. From here on in, Rosecrans was forewarned. The Confederates pressed on, skirmishing as they advanced, and next morning, October 3, two miles short of their objective, came upon a heavy line of Federal infantry occupying the intrenchments Beauregard—and, incidentally, Van Dorn himself—had dug along the crescent ridge to hold off Halleck, back in May. Unlike Halleck, the Mississippian put his troops into assault formation and sent them forward without delay: Lovell on the right, astride the Memphis & Charleston, and Maury and Hébert beyond him, reaching over to the Mobile & Ohio, so that as they moved east and south the three divisions would converge on the crossing. Whooping, the graybacks started up the ridge after the bluecoats firing down at them from the crest, and that was the beginning of what turned out to be a two-day battle which was one of the most violent of the war.
The reason it stretched to two days, despite its having been designed as a slashing attack that would crumple in a matter of hours whatever stood in its path, was that Rosecrans was not only braced for the shock but actually outnumbered his assailants. For the wrong reasons, he had done the right things; and what was more he had done them mostly on his own. Grant, following the post-Donelson pattern—the Shiloh pattern, too, for that matter—had gone off to St Louis to confer with Curtis about the possibility of bringing reinforcements across the river from Helena, and, failing in this, had not returned to his headquarters at Jackson, Tennessee, until Van Dorn and Price had already begun their northward march out of Ripley. Supposing—as Van Dorn intended for him to suppose—that the rebels were moving against Hurlbut at Bolivar, Rosecrans reacted in a fashion which his opponent had not foreseen. That is, he called in his troops from Burnsville and Jacinto, two full divisions of them, and prepared to go to Hurlbut’s assistance; so that when the Confederates swung east at Pocahontas, ending their feint and driving hard in his direction, the Corinth commander was ready for them. Instead of catching 15,000 Federals unaware, Van Dorn and his 22,000 were moving against an army which had not only been consolidated, but also in fact outnumbered his own by more than a thousand men.
As if this was not advantage enough, Rosecrans had his four divisions posted behind a formidable double line of intrenchments. Three were thrust forward along the northward ridge, where Beauregard had done their digging for them, and one was held in reserve to man the works recently constructed along the northern and western perimeter of the town itself. Van Dorn and Price struck hard. Advancing with thirsty desperation, the Confederates threw the defenders off the outer ridge soon after midday, taking several pieces of artillery in the process. But the Federals were stubborn. Yielding each to only the heaviest pressure, they took up four separate positions between the two fortified lines. The sun was near the land line and the attackers were near exhaustion by the time they came within musket range of the gun-bristled outskirts of Corinth. Regretfully, while his men dispersed to draw water from the captured Union wells, Van Dorn deferred the coup de grâce—or anyhow what he conceived as such—till morning.
Losses on both sides had been heavy. Rosecrans (though he was later to claim, like Van Dorn, that another hour of daylight would have meant victory on the first day of battle) was thankful for the respite. That morning, with the graybacks bearing down on him, he had complained to Grant at Jackson: “Our men did not act or fight well.” Now, though, he felt better. “If they fight us tomorrow,” he wired Grant half an hour before midnight, “I think we shall whip them.” Then, bethinking himself of the unpredictable nature of his classmate Buck Van Dorn, he added: “If they go to attack you we shall advance upon them.”
Van Dorn, however, was through with trickery, double envelopments and the like—at least for the present. His blood was up; it was Rosecrans he was after, and he was after him in the harshest, most straightforward way imaginable. Today he would depend not on deception to complete the destruction begun the day before, but on the rapid point-blank fire of his guns and the naked valor of his infantry. Before dawn, October 4, his artillery opened on the Federal inner line, which was prompt in reply. “It was grand,” one Union brigadier declared. “The different calibers, metals, shapes, and distances of the guns caused the sounds to resemble the chimes of old Rome when all her bells rang out.” This continued until after sunrise, when a long lull succeeded the uproar, punctuated by sharpshooters banging away at whatever showed a head. Rosecrans was curious but cautious, wondering what was afoot out there beyond the screen of trees. “Feel them,” he told one regimental commander, “but don’t get into their fingers.” “I’ll feel them!” the colonel said, and led a sally. Entering the woods, the regiment was received with a crash of musketry and fell back, badly cut up, its colonel having been shot through the neck and captured. All that Rosecrans learned from this was that Van Dorn was still there, in strength.
Shortly after 10 o’clock he received even more emphatic proof that this was the case; for at that hour Van Dorn launched his all-or-nothing assault. Price’s two divisions began it, surging forward in echelon, to be met with a blast of cannonfire. The left elements suffered a sudden and bloody repulse, but three regiments in the center achieved a breakthrough when the Union cannoneers fell back from their guns in a panic that spread to the supporting infantry. Yelling men in butternut burst into the streets of Corinth, driving snipers out of houses by firing through the windows, swept past Rosecrans’ deserted headquarters and on to the depot beyond the railroad crossing. At that point, however, finding their advance unsupported and the Federals standing firm, they turned and fought their way back out again. On the far right, pinned down by heavy fire from a ridge to its immediate front, Lovell’s division gained no ground at all. The day was hot, 94° in the shade; panting and thirsty, the attackers hugged what cover they could find. From time to time they would rise and charge, urged on by their officers, but after the original short-lived penetration they had no luck at all. The bluecoats stood firm. “Our lines melted under their fire like snow in thaw,” one Confederate afterwards recalled. Perhaps the hardest fighting of the day occurred in front of Battery Robinette, just north of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, a three-gun redan protected by a five-foot ditch which overflowed with dead and dying Texans and Arkansans within two hours. By then it was noon and Van Dorn knew his long-shot gamble had failed. “Exhausted from loss of sleep, wearied from hard marching and fighting, companies and regiments without officers,” he later reported, “our troops—let no one censure them—gave way. The day was lost.”
How lost it was he would not know until he counted the casualties he had suffered, and weighed them against the number he had inflicted: 4233 Confederates, as compared to 2520 Federals, with well over one third of the former listed as “missing.” Price wept as he watched his thinned ranks withdraw, the men’s faces sullen with the knowledge that hard fighting had won them nothing more than the right to stitch the name of another defeat on their battle flags. By 1 o’clock they were in full retreat—unpursued. Instead of pressing their rear, Rosecrans was riding along his battered line to deny in person a rumor that he had been slain. “Old Rosy,” his men called him, a red-faced man in his middle forties, with the profile of a Roman orator. At Battery Robinette he drew rein, dismounted, bared his head, and told his soldiers, most of whom were Ohioans like himself: “I stand in the presence of brave men, and I take my hat off to you.” Van Dorn meanwhile had stopped for the night at Chewalla, from which he had launched his first attack the day before. Next morning, finding the Hatchie crossing blocked by 8000 fresh troops sent down from Bolivar, he fought a holding action in which about 600 men fell on each side, then turned back south and crossed by a road leading west out of Corinth, which Rosecrans—as at Iuka—had left open. Stung into vigor, Old Rosy at last took up the pursuit, complaining bitterly when Grant called him off. Van Dorn returned to Holly Springs by way of Ripley, accompanied by Price.
The brief, vicious campaign was over. What had been intended as a third prong in the South’s late-summer early-fall offensive had snapped off short as soon as it was launched. Including the holding action on the Hatchie, it had gained the Confederacy nothing except the infliction of just over 3000 casualties on the Federals in North Mississippi, and for this Van Dorn had paid with nearly 5000 of his own. A cry went up that the nation could no longer afford to pay in blood for the failure of his thick-skulled fights and harebrained maneuvers. Nor were the protests limited in reference to his military judgment. The man himself was under fire. “He is regarded as the source of all our woes,” a senator from his native state complained, “and disaster, it is prophesied, will attend us so long as he is connected with this army. The atmosphere is dense with horrid narratives of his negligence, whoring, and drunkenness, for the truth of which I cannot vouch; but it is so fastened in the public belief that an acquittal by a court-martial of angels would not relieve him of the charge.” These and other allegations—specifically, that he had been drunk on duty at Corinth, that he had neglected his wounded on the retreat, and that he had failed to provide himself with a map of the country—resulted in a court of inquiry, called for by the accused himself. The court, by a unanimous decision, cleared him of all blame, adding that the charges “are not only not proved, but they are disproved.”
Thus were Van Dorn’s critics officially answered and rebuked. However, the best answer, although unofficial, had already been made for him on the field of battle itself, shortly after his departure. Near Battery Robinette, having bared his head “in the presence of brave men,” Rosecrans came upon an Arkansas lieutenant, shot through the foot and propped against a tree. He offered him a drink of water. “Thank you, General; one of your men just gave me some,” the Confederate replied. When the Federal commander, glancing around at the heaped and scattered corpses in their butternut rags, remarked that there had been “pretty hot fighting here,” the rebel Westerner agreed. “Yes, General, you licked us good,” he said. “But we gave you the best we had in the ranch.”
The best they had was not enough; but even if it had served the Mississippi general’s purpose, it would have been of small help to Bragg, three hundred airline miles northeastward in Kentucky. At the same hour of the same day that Van Dorn broke off the fight at Corinth and retreated—1 p.m. October 4—the boom of Union guns lobbing shells into the outskirts of Frankfort disrupted the inaugural ceremonies and ended in midsentence the address being delivered by Confederate Governor Hawes, who had been sworn in at high noon and whose de facto tenure of office thus was brief.
Despite a shortage of cavalry for outpost work and scouting—Forrest had been sent back to Middle Tennessee to raise another new brigade, and John Morgan was off chasing his Federal namesake across the barrens—Bragg was not entirely surprised at this development. Nor was he in any sense dismayed. In fact, having been forewarned, he had expressed the hope that Buell would attempt just such a maneuver. Informed two days before, October 2, that a blue column was moving east from Louisville toward Shelbyville and Frankfort, he passed the word along to Polk, whom he had left in command of the four divisions around Bardstown while he himself joined Kirby Smith to attend the inauguration at the capital. “It may be a reconnaissance,” he added, “but should it be a real attack we have them.… With Smith in front and our gallant army on the flank I see no hope for Buell if he is rash enough to come out. I only fear it is not true.… Hold yourself informed by scouts toward Shelbyville, and if you discover a heavy force that has moved on Frankfort strike without further orders.” A few hours later, more positive evidence was at hand, and Bragg followed this first message with a second: “The enemy is certainly advancing on Frankfort. Put your whole available force in motion … and strike him in flank and rear. If we can combine our movements he is certainly lost.”
Couriers taking these messages to Bardstown—Pennsylvania’s Stephen Foster’s Old Kentucky Home—passed en route a courier bringing a dispatch Polk had written that same morning. He too was being advanced on, he declared: not by a single Federal column, but by three, all moving southeast out of Louisville on as many different roads. His original instructions, in the event that he was menaced by a superior force, had been to fall back eastward. Accordingly, he told Bragg, “I shall keep the enemy well under observation, and my action shall be governed by the circumstances which shall be developed. If an opportunity presents itself I will strike. If it shall be clearly inexpedient to do that I will, according to your suggestion, fall back on Harrodsburg and Danville on the roads indicated by you, with a view to a concentration [of both armies].” Pointedly, he observed in closing: “It seems to me we are too much scattered.”
Next morning, October 3, having received Bragg’s two messages of the day before, instructing him to strike the flank and rear of the column moving against Frankfort, he replied: “The last twenty-four hours have developed a condition of things on my front and left flank which I shadowed forth in my last note to you, which makes compliance with this order not only eminently inexpedient but impractical. I have called a conference of wing and division commanders to whom I have submitted the matter, and find that they unanimously indorse my views of what is demanded. I shall therefore pursue a different course, assured that when facts are submitted to you you will justify my decision.” Reverting to his original instructions to fall back eastward, he added: “The head of my column will move this evening.”
Bragg concurred: at least for the time being. Receiving Polk’s dispatch at Frankfort during the early hours of inauguration day, he replied: “Concentrate your force in front of Harrodsburg.… Smith’s whole force is concentrating here and we will strike the enemy just as soon as we can concentrate.” Mindful of the effect the retrograde movement might have on the troops, he admonished the bishop-general: “Keep the men in heart by assuring them it is not a retreat, but a concentration for a fight. We can and must defeat them.” Near midday he followed this with further assurance: “We shall put our governor in power soon and then I propose to seek the enemy.” Just then, however, the ceremony was interrupted by the boom of guns. The enemy, it appeared, had sought him. So Bragg tacked a postscript on the message: “1.30 p.m. Enemy in heavy force advancing on us; only 12 miles out. Shall destroy bridges and retire on Harrodsburg for concentration and then strike. Reach that point as soon as possible.”
Throughout the greater part of this exchange, despite the sudden and apparently unpremeditated changes of decision and direction—which came full circle and brought him back to the start before the finish—Bragg had given an effective imitation of a man who not only knew where he was going, but also knew what he was going to do when he got there; “concentrate” and “strike” were the predominant verbs, especially the former. But the truth was, he was badly confused, whether he knew it or not. Buell’s feint toward Frankfort, led by Brigadier General Joshua Sill’s division and supported by the oversized division of green men under Dumont, succeeded admirably: Bragg, being directly confronted, considered this the major Federal effort and, discounting Polk’s specific warning to the contrary, underrated the strength of the three-corps column moving down toward Bardstown.
Not that Buell himself had no problems. Though his army was large—55,000 soldiers in one column, 22,000 in the other; the former alone was larger than Bragg’s and Smith’s, even if they had been combined, which they had not—size also had its drawbacks, particularly on the march, as he was rapidly finding out. Besides, at least one third of this 77,000-man collection were recruits, so-called Squirrel Hunters, rallied to the call of startled governors who had suddenly found the war approaching their Ohio River doorsteps. A gloomy-minded general, and Buell was certainly that, would be inclined to suppose that such troops had established their all-time pattern of behavior at the Battle of Richmond, five short weeks ago: in which case, panic being highly contagious in combat, they were likely to prove more of a liability than an asset. Nor was this inexperience limited to the ranks. The corps commanders themselves, raised to their present positions during the hasty reorganization at Louisville the week before, were doubtful quantities at best, untested by the pressure of command responsibility in battle. Crittenden had dignity, but according to a correspondent who knew and respected him, his talents were mainly those of a country lawyer. In his favor was a fervid devotion to the Union, no doubt intensified by the fact that his brother had chosen the opposite side. McCook, on the other hand, was “an overgrown schoolboy” according to the same reporter. Barely thirty-one, he had a rollicking manner and was something of a wag, and as such he irritated more often than he cheered. By all odds, however, the strangest of the three, at least in the method by which he had arrived at his present eminence, was Gilbert. A regular army captain of infantry, he had happened to be in Louisville when Bragg started north, and the department commander at Cincinnati, alarmed and badly in need of professional help, issued the order: “Captain C. C. Gilbert, First Infantry, U.S. Army, is hereby appointed a major general of volunteers, subject to the approval of the President of the United States.” Lincoln in time appointed him a brigadier, subject to confirmation by Congress—which decided after some debate that he was only a captain after all. For the present, though, he was apparently a bona fide major general, and as such he received the corps command to which his rank entitled him.
These, then, were the troops with which Buell was expected to fling Bragg’s and Smith’s veterans out of Kentucky, and these were the ranking officers on whom he depended for execution of his orders. In partial compensation, there was Thomas; but Old Pap, as he was coming to be called, had never been one to offer unsolicited advice. Officially designated as second in command of the whole army, for the present he was riding with Crittenden’s column as a sort of super corps commander. This arrangement not only placed Buell’s most competent subordinate in a superfluous position and beyond his immediate reach, but what was more it led in time to trouble.
The Confederates having evacuated Bardstown on the 4th, the Federals entered or by-passed the place that evening and slogged on down the dusty roads toward Mackville, Springfield, and Lebanon, encountering only rebel horsemen who faded back whenever contact was established. This was satisfactory, but there was a disturbing lack of coördination between the three columns with which Buell was groping for Bragg as if with widespread fingers. On the left, McCook wrote Thomas, who was with Crittenden on the right, twenty miles away: “Please keep me advised of your movements, so that I can coöperate. I am in blissful ignorance.” Another lack was more immediately painful, at least to the marchers themselves. One Illinois volunteer later recalled that after the summer-long drouth, which had stretched into fall, creeks and even rivers were “either totally dry or shrunken into little, heated, tired-looking threads of water, brackish and disagreeable to taste and smell.” Brackish or not, water was much on the men’s minds, as well as on the minds of their commanders. Pushing on through Springfield, Buell ordered a concentration near Perryville on the 7th. There was water there—in Doctor’s Creek, a tributary of Chaplin River, which in turn was a tributary of the Salt. There were also rebels there, or so he heard, in strength. After four hard months of marching hundreds of miles, sneered and sniped at by the authorities much of the time, the Army of the Ohio was about to come to grips with the gray-clad authors of its woes.
They did come to grips that evening, or nearly to grips—part of them at any rate. McCook, coming down through Mackville, was delayed by a bad road and went into camp eight miles short of his objective. Crittenden, coming up from Lebanon, was delayed by a detour Thomas authorized him to make in search of water; he too had to stop for the night, ten miles short of the designated point of concentration. Only Gilbert’s central column, trudging east from Springfield by the direct route, reached the field on schedule. His troops marched in near sundown, tired and thirsty, but found Doctor’s Creek defended by snipers on a ridge across the way. Sorely in need of the water standing in pools along the creek bed, the bluecoats launched a vigorous downhill attack. Repulsed, they fell back toward the sunset, re-formed, and tried again, this time by the light of a full moon rising beyond the ridge where enemy riflemen lay concealed to catch them in their sights. Again they were repulsed. Exhausted by these added exertions, and thirstier than ever, they made a dry camp in the woods, tantalized by the thought of water gleaming silver in the moonlight just ahead.
It was an inauspicious beginning. What was more, Buell himself was indisposed, having been lamed and badly shaken up as a result of being thrown by a fractious horse that afternoon. But he was not discouraged. He had suffered and sweltered too much and too long, all through the long summer into fall, to be anything but relieved by the thought that he had Bragg’s whole army at last within reach of the widespread fingers now being clenched into a fist. The feint at Frankfort having served its purpose, Sill was on the way south to rejoin McCook, who himself had only a short way left to come. Off to the southwest, Crittenden too was within easy marching distance. To make certain that his army was concentrated without further delay, Buell had his chief of staff send a message to Thomas, urging him to be on the road by 3 a.m. Bragg had been brought to bay at Perryville, he told him, adding: “We expect to attack and carry the place tomorrow.”
Buell’s estimate of the enemy situation, particularly in regard to the strength of the force which had denied his men a drink from Doctor’s Creek, was considerably mistaken. Bragg’s whole army was not there on the opposite ridge; only a part of it was—so far only half, in fact—which in turn was the result of a mistake in the opposite direction. Still confused by the feint at Frankfort, Bragg assumed that only a part of Buell’s army was approaching Perryville. And thus was achieved a curious balance of error: Buell thought he was facing Bragg’s whole army, whereas it was only a part, and Bragg thought he was facing only a part of Buell’s army, whereas it was (or soon would be) the whole. This compound misconception not only accounted for much of the confusion that ensued, but it was also the result of much confusion in the immediate past.
At Harrodsburg that morning Bragg had issued a confidential circular, calling for a concentration of both armies near Versailles, south of Frankfort, west of Lexington, and east of the Kentucky River. Polk was to move his two divisions there at once, joining Kirby Smith, while Hardee followed, delaying the enemy column as he fell back. It was all quite carefully worked out; each commander was told just what to do. But no sooner was it completed than Bragg received a dispatch Polk had written late the night before, reporting that he had told Hardee “to ascertain, if possible, the strength of the enemy which may be covered by his advance. I cannot think it large.” Polk meant by this that he did not think the Federal covering force, or advance guard, was large; but Bragg took him to mean the main body. Accordingly, he decided to have Hardee give the enemy column a rap that would slow it down and afford him the leisure he needed to cross the Salt and Kentucky Rivers and effect the concentration. Polk was instructed to have one of his divisions continue its march to join Smith beyond the river, but to return to Perryville with the other in order to reinforce Hardee for this purpose. “Give the enemy battle immediately,” Bragg wrote. “Rout him, and then move to our support at Versailles.”
This was written at sundown, just as the Federals began their fight for the water west of Perryville. A copy of it reached Hardee, together with the confidential circular, just after the second repulse. The Tactics author read them both, and while he approved of the circular, finding it militarily sound, he was horrified by the instructions given Polk to divide his wing and precipitate a battle in which Bragg would employ only three of the four divisions of one of the armies moving toward a proper concentration. So horrified was Hardee, in fact, by this violation of the principles he had outlined in his book on infantry tactics, that he retired at once to his tent and wrote the commanding general a personal letter of advice:
Permit me, from the friendly relations so long existing between us, to write you plainly. Do not scatter your forces. There is one rule in our profession which should never be forgotten; it is to throw the masses of your troops on the fractions of the enemy. The movement last proposed will divide your army and each may be defeated, whereas by keeping them united success is certain. If it be your policy to strike the enemy at Versailles, take your whole force with you and make the blow effective; if, on the contrary, you should decide to strike the army in front of me, first let that be done with a force which will make success certain. Strike with your whole strength first to the right then to the left. I could not sleep quietly tonight without giving expression to these views. Whatever you decide to do will meet my hearty co-operation.
He signed it, “Your sincere friend,” then added a postscript: “If you wish my opinion, it is that in view of the position of your depots you ought to strike this force first,” and gave it to an officer courier for immediate delivery.
Three hours would suffice to bring an answer, but there was none: except that Polk arrived in the night with one division, which in itself was a sort of negative answer, and assumed command by virtue of his rank. The Confederate over-all strength was 16,000 men. What the Federal strength was, neither Polk nor Hardee knew, though they suspected that it was considerably larger than their own. At earliest dawn, while they were discussing whether to attack as Bragg had ordered, Buell solved the problem for them by attacking first.
Once more it was a dash for water, and this time it succeeded. Where other units had failed the night before, Brigadier General Philip H. Sheridan, commanding a division under Gilbert, went forward with one of his brigades in the gray twilight before sunrise, October 8, and seized not only a stretch of the creek itself, with several of its precious pools of water, but also the dominant heights beyond, throwing the rebel snipers back and posting his own men along the ridge to prevent their return. A thirty-one-year-old bandy-legged Ohioan with heavy, crescent-shaped eyebrows, cropped hair, and a head as round as a pot, he looked more like a Mongolian than like the Irishman he was. Less than ten years out of West Point, he had received his star two weeks ago and had been a division commander just nine days, previous to which time he had been a commissary captain under Halleck for six months until by a fluke he secured a promotion to colonel and command of a Michigan cavalry regiment which he led with such dash, in pursuit of Beauregard after the Corinth evacuation, that in late July five of his superiors, including Rosecrans, recommended his promotion with the indorsement: “He is worth his weight in gold.”
Now in Kentucky, having received his star, he was out to prove the validity of their claim, as well as his right to further advancement. Other inducements there were, too. The son of immigrant parents—born in County Cavan, some said, or en route in mid-Atlantic, according to others, though Sheridan himself denied this: not only because he was strenuously American and preferred to think of himself as having sprung from native soil, but also because he learned in time that no person who drew his first breath outside its limits could ever become President of the United States—he had an intense dislike of Southerners, particularly those with aristocratic pretensions, and had suffered a year’s suspension from the Academy for threatening with a bayonet a Virginia upperclassman whose tone he found offensive on the drill field. He was a man in a hurry. In addition to other provocations, real or imaginary, he felt that the South owed him repayment, preferably in blood, for the year he had lost; and this morning he began to collect in earnest. However, the fury of his attack across Doctor’s Creek was apparently about as alarming to his own corps commander as it had been to the Confederates. Gilbert kept wigwagging messages forward, imploring the young enthusiast not to bring on a general engagement contrary to Buell’s wishes. Sheridan, who was up where he could see what was going on, later wrote that he “replied to each message that I was not bringing on an engagement, but that the enemy evidently intended to do so, and that I believed I should shortly be attacked.”
Attacked as he predicted, he brought up his other brigades and held his ground; after which a long lull ensued. Gilbert, taking heart at this, sent the other two divisions forward to take position along the ridge and astride the Springfield road, which crossed it on the way to Perryville, just under two miles ahead. This done, he went to report his success to army headquarters, three miles back down the road. He got there about 12.30 to find that McCook had just arrived. Much to Buell’s relief, his two divisions were filing in on the Mackville road to take position on Gilbert’s left, separated from it by a quarter-mile-wide valley cradling a bend of Doctor’s Creek. Within another half hour, more good news was received: Crittenden too was at hand, entering by the Lebanon road and preparing to move northward up the ridge beyond the creek, taking position on Gilbert’s right and thus extending the line of battle.
During these early afternoon hours everything was falling into place, as if the pieces of an enormous jigsaw puzzle had suddenly interlocked of their own accord: a common enough phenomenon, but one that never failed to exhilarate and amaze. Except for Sill’s division, which was on the way from Frankfort, and the green division under Dumont, which was continuing the feint, Buell at last had all his troops collected. Eight divisions, with an over-all strength of 55,000 men, were posted along a six-mile front. His latest information was that Hardee was definitely at Perryville with two divisions. What else might be there he did not know, but for the present all was suspiciously quiet in that direction. At any rate, the Federal fist was clenched and ready to strike.
This time, though, it was Buell’s turn to be beaten to the punch—with results a good deal more costly than the loss of a few spare pools of brackish water. What would be lost now was blood.
Bragg had waited at Harrodsburg through the early morning hours, cocking an ear to catch the steady roar of guns ten miles southwest, which would signify that the attack he had ordered was under way; but, hearing nothing, had ridden down to Perryville to see for himself the reason for delay. Arriving about 10 o’clock, he found Polk reconnoitering the high ground near the confluence of Doctor’s Creek and Chaplin River. The three divisions were in line: from right to left, Buckner, Patton Anderson, and Cheatham, the latter posted near the town itself, while Wheeler’s cavalry was off to the south, making a show of strength in that direction. Except for the occasional pop of an outpost rifle, a heavy silence overhung the field. Confronted by Bragg, who wanted to know why his orders to “give the enemy battle immediately” had not been carried out, Polk explained that he was convinced that most of Buell’s entire army was gathering in his front. What was more, the Yankees had struck first. Consequently, he had called another council of war, and “in view of the great disparity of our forces,” he and Hardee had decided “to adopt the defensive-offensive, to await the movements of the enemy, and to be guided by events as they were developed.” In short, he “did not regard [last night’s] letter of instructions as a peremptory order to attack at all hazards, but that … I should carry the instructions into execution as judiciously and promptly as a willing mind and sound discretion would allow.”
So he said, then and later. However, he added that he had observed signs of activity here on the Federal left and had decided to switch Cheatham’s division to this flank in order to guard against being overlapped in this direction. If Bragg approved, he would convert this into an offensive as soon as the men were in position. Bragg did approve, emphatically, and Polk began to make his dispositions accordingly, massing Cheatham’s and Buckner’s divisions under cover of the woods beyond the confluence of the creek and river. They would be supported by two brigades from Anderson, whose remaining two brigades would make a simultaneous holding attack to the south and west, thereby discouraging any weakening of the enemy right to bolster the left when it was assailed. By 1 o’clock, apparently without Federal detection of what was going on behind the screen of trees, the butternut troops were in assault formation, supported rank on rank by heavy concentrations of artillery. Soon afterward, Polk passed the word for both divisions to move forward.
The attack could scarcely have come at a more propitious time: propitious for the Confederates, that is. The bluecoats Polk had spotted late that morning on the Federal left were members of McCook’s advance elements, reconnoitering for occupation of the position by his two divisions shortly after noon. While they were filing in, McCook himself rode back to report to Buell at army headquarters, having explained to the commander of his lead division, Brigadier General J. S. Jackson, that he was to form a line of battle along the near bank of Chaplin River. Jackson was glad to hear this, for his men were thirsty after their dusty march. So was his senior brigade commander, Brigadier General William Terrill, whom he told to advance his skirmishers to the river bank as soon as he had his troops in attack formation. “I’ll do it, and that’s my water,” Terrill said. He was a Union-loyal Virginian. In fact, he was the former cadet Sheridan had lunged at with a bayonet, ten years ago at the Academy. Since then, they had shaken hands and agreed to forget their grievance. Sheridan was thankful ever afterwards that they had staged this reconciliation; for Terrill was dead within an hour of his arrival on the field.
Cheatham and Buckner struck with tremendous force and all the added impact of surprise, emerging suddenly from the drowsy-looking woods in a roaring charge. Terrill’s men were mostly green, and being taken thus while they were advancing toward their baptism of fire, they heard in the rebel yell the fulfillment of their dry-mouthed apprehensions. Jackson, who was with them when the blow fell, was killed by one of the first volleys. They wavered, then broke completely when a bullet cut down Terrill. Behind them, the other deploying brigades were also taken unawares. Some of the men fled at once under the shock. Others stood and fought, sometimes hand to hand. Steadily, though, they were thrown back, the massed Confederate batteries knocking down the stone walls and fences behind which the retreating Federals had sought refuge. A mile or more they were driven, losing fifteen guns in the process. By the time McCook returned from the rear he found his two divisions near demoralization and utter ruin staring him in the face. In this extremity he called across the way for help from Gilbert.
That general also had his hands full, however. Or anyhow he thought so. He had repulsed Anderson’s attack down the south bank of the creek, but he did not know how soon another would be launched or in what strength. Sheridan, from his advanced position on the left, could look across the intervening valley and see the graybacks sweeping westward, driving McCook’s troops before them. All he could do for the present was turn his guns in that direction, heaving shells into the flank of the gray columns as they crossed his line of fire. This threw them into considerable confusion and encouraged Gilbert to detach first one brigade, then another, to go to McCook’s assistance. When they had left, he counterattacked with his right-flank brigade and drove Anderson back on Perryville, capturing a fifteen-wagon ammunition train. But this was late in the day. Having advanced so far, the brigade commander put his batteries in position west of the town and, firing his shells across the rooftops, engaged some rebel guns on the opposite side until darkness put an end to the duel and relieved the terror of the civilians, who had crouched in their cellars and heard the projectiles arching overhead with a flutter as of wings.
Such was Gilbert’s contribution, and such was the contribution of his 20,000 men, who faced barely 2500 Confederates while McCook and his 12,500 were being mauled by nearly equal numbers, just beyond easy musket range on the left. Crittenden, on the right with 22,500 men, contributed even less; in fact he contributed nothing at all, being bluffed into immobility by Joe Wheeler’s 1200 horsemen and two guns. Thus it was that 16,000 rebels could successfully challenge 55,000 bluecoats, not more than half of whom were seriously engaged. In partial extenuation, because of unusual atmospheric and topographical factors reminiscent of Grant’s experience with the ill wind at Iuka, the clatter of musketry did not carry far today; so that in this respect the six-mile-long scene of action (or nonaction) was compartmented, each sector being sealed off from the others as if by soundproof walls. One Union staff officer, riding the field, later made the incredible statement that “at one bound my horse carried me from stillness into the uproar of battle.” Partially, too, this explained the lack of over-all control which should have remedied the drawback of temporary deafness. Buell, nursing yesterday’s bruises back at headquarters, not only did not know what had hit him today; it was after 4 o’clock before he even knew he had been struck.
By that time the battle was more than two hours old, and the Confederates too had been thrown into considerable confusion. This was accomplished partly by Sheridan’s gunners, bowling shells across the narrow valley to crush the flank of the advancing files, toppling men like tenpins—including Pat Cleburne, who had recovered from the face wound he had suffered at Richmond in time to receive a leg wound here when his horse was shot from under him by one of the fast-firing guns across the way—and partly by the disorganization incident to the rapid advance itself. Units had intermingled, not only gray and gray, but also blue and gray, as some stood fast and others retreated. On both sides there was much anguished crying of “Friends! You are firing into friends!” However, this too was not without its advantages to the attackers: particularly in one instance. When the commander of one of the brigades Gilbert had sent to reinforce McCook approached an imposing-looking officer to ask for instructions as to the posting of his troops—“I have come to your assistance with my brigade!” the Federal shouted above the uproar—the gentleman calmly sitting his horse in the midst of carnage turned out to be Polk, who was wearing a dark-gray uniform. Polk asked the designation of the newly arrived command, and upon being told raised his eyebrows in surprise. For all his churchly faith in miracles, he could scarcely believe his ears. “There must be some mistake about this,” he said. “You are my prisoner.”
Fighting without its commander, the brigade gave an excellent account of itself. Joined presently by the other brigade sent over from the center, it did much to stiffen the resistance being offered by the remnants of McCook’s two divisions. Sundown came before the rebels could complete the rout begun four hours ago, and now in the dusk it was Polk’s turn to play a befuddled role in another comic incident of confused identity. He saw in the fading light a body of men whom he took to be Confederates firing obliquely into the flank of one of his engaged brigades. “Dear me,” he said to himself. “This is very sad and must be stopped.” None of his staff being with him at the time, he rode over to attend to the matter in person. When he came up to the erring commander and demanded in angry tones what he meant by shooting his own friends, the colonel replied with surprise:
“I don’t think there can be any mistake about it. I am sure they are the enemy.”
“Enemy!” Polk exclaimed, taken aback by this apparent insubordination. “Why, I have only just left them myself. Cease firing, sir! What is your name, sir?”
“Colonel Shryock, of the 87th Indiana,” the Federal said. “And pray, sir, who are you?”
The bishop-general, learning thus for the first time that the man was a Yankee and that he was in rear of a whole regiment of Yankees, determined to brazen out the situation by taking further advantage of the fact that his dark-gray blouse looked blue-black in the twilight. He rode closer and shook his fist in the colonel’s face, shouting angrily: “I’ll soon show you who I am, sir! Cease firing, sir, at once!” Then he turned his horse and, calling in an authoritative manner for the bluecoats to cease firing, slowly rode back toward his own lines. He was afraid to ride fast, he later explained, because haste might give his identity away; yet “at the same time I experienced a disagreeable sensation, like screwing up my back, and calculated how many bullets would be between my shoulders every moment.”
Screened at last by a small copse, he put the spurs to his horse and galloped back to the proper side of the irregular firing line. But the fighting was practically over by now. Two of his brigades had been withdrawn to meet Gilbert’s threat to the left rear, ending all chance for a farther advance, even if Bragg had been willing to risk a night engagement. Presently even the guns east and west of Perryville ceased their high-angle quarrel across the rooftops.… Buell had fought his first battle, and fought it badly, having been assaulted and outdone by an army less than a third the size of his own. More than 7600 men had fallen: 4211 Federals, 3396 Confederates. The former had had 845 killed, 2851 wounded, and 515 captured or missing, while the latter had lost 510, 2635, and 251 in those same categories. Buell consoled himself for this disparity by predicting that the conflict would “stand conspicuous for its severity in the history of the rebellion.” Bragg agreed, later reporting that “for the time engaged, it was the severest and most desperately contested engagement within my knowledge.”
The moon being only just past the full, the night was nearly as bright as day, and there were those in the Union army who were in favor of launching an immediate full-scale counterattack. Buell himself had tried to get such a movement under way on the right as soon as he discovered he had a battle on his hands; but the messenger, who set out at 4.15 with a verbal order for Thomas to have Crittenden move forward, got lost in the tricky bottoms of Doctor’s Creek and did not find him till past sunset. Thomas, who was convinced that the rebels were in heavy strength to his front, sent back word that it was too late for an attack today, but that he would “advance in the morning with the first sound of action on the left.” Dissatisfied with this dependence on his shattered left, which he knew was in no condition for more fighting, Buell replied that Thomas was to tell Crittenden “to press his command forward as much as possible [tonight] and be prepared to attack at daylight in the morning.” The Virginian then rode back to army headquarters, where Buell repeated these instructions after midnight. Thomas passed them along to Crittenden at 1.30: “Have your different divisions ready to attack at daylight. Issue orders at once.” Crittenden replied: “I am all ready. My post will be to the rear of the center of the line.”
Morning came, October 9, but with it there came to headquarters no sound of conflict on the right. Buell waited, then waited some more. At 8 o’clock, three hours past dawn, he had his chief of staff send Crittenden the message: “Have you commenced the advance? What delays your attack?” Crittenden replied that he had received no orders to attack; he had been told, rather, to have his troops “ready to attack,” and that was precisely what he had done. If they wanted him to go forward, let them say so. Exasperated, Buell told him to get moving, and he did. But Bragg was gone.
The Confederates had pulled out after midnight. Convinced at last that he had most of Buell’s army to his front, and moreover having accomplished what he had intended when he told Polk to “rout him” and thus gain time for a concentration to the east, Bragg ordered a prompt junction with Kirby Smith, whom he instructed to move forward from Versailles to Harrodsburg for that purpose. Two miles short of the latter place, having crossed the Salt and burned the bridges behind him, Polk halted and formed a line of battle in the rain, the long drouth apparently having been broken by the booming of heavy guns the day before. Receiving word from Wheeler, who had charge of the rear-guard cavalry, that the Federals had not ventured beyond Perryville today, Polk rode with Chaplain C. T. Quintard—afterwards a bishop like himself—to an Episcopal church in Harrodsburg, where the Tennessee chaplain donned his surplice and stole and entered the sanctuary. While Polk knelt at the altar, Quintard read the litany and pronounced the benediction, accompanied by the murmur of rain against the stained-glass windows. Overcome by emotion as he contrasted the peace of the present interlude with what he had seen yesterday in one of the great battles of that fratricidal war, the gray-clad bishop bowed his head and wept.
Kirby Smith arrived next morning, several hours before Buell at last came up. Bragg now had all his available troops consolidated, and that night the two armies lay face to face outside the town, each waiting to see what the other was going to do. “Fifty thousand effectives” was Buell’s estimate of the Confederate strength, and though he himself had sixty thousand—including Sill, who had promised to join him “without fail tomorrow, I think”—he could not forget that Bragg, with less than a third his present number of men, had wrecked one wing of the Federal army when it had been nearly as large as it was now. So Buell did nothing, waiting for Bragg to show his hand. And Bragg did nothing either.
“For God’s sake, General,” Smith exclaimed, “let us fight Buell here.”
“I will do it, sir,” Bragg replied.
But he did not. Whatever it was that had come over him three weeks ago at Munfordville, when he stood aside while Buell passed around his flank and on to Louisville, came over him again. What was more, disheartening news from North Mississippi informed him that Van Dorn and Price had failed at Corinth, just as Lee had failed in Maryland; Bragg’s was the only one of the three intended invasion barbs still stuck in the enemy’s hide. Besides, unable to see that he had much to gain from a victory—whereas a defeat might cost him not only the bountiful supply of goods and foodstuffs he had collected, but also his army—he had already decided to withdraw. As he put it in the letter to his wife, “With the whole southwest thus in the enemy’s possession, my crime would have been unpardonable had I kept my noble little army to be ice-bound in a northern clime, without tents or shoes, and obliged to forage daily for bread, etc.”
Evincing what one observer called “a perplexity and vacillation which had now become simply appalling to Smith, to Hardee, and to Polk,” Bragg ordered a retreat toward Bryantsville that night. At dawn, when Buell found the southern army gone again, he could scarcely believe that it was not maneuvering for a better position in which to fight the battle which he, and indeed practically everyone else in both armies except Bragg, believed was about to be fought. He followed warily through Harrodsburg, waiting for Bragg to make a stand or else come flailing back at him, guns booming. Beyond Dick’s (or Dix) River, the Confederates again formed line of battle near Camp Dick Robinson, but Buell once more found the position too strong for him to risk attacking it. For a full day Bragg stayed there; then on the following day, October 13, when Buell sidled around toward the south, threatening his line of retreat, he got under way in earnest for Cumberland Gap. As long ago as September 29, anticipating withdrawal from Kentucky ten days before the Battle of Perryville, he had ordered 100,000 rations collected there, as well as another 200,000 at London, half way between the present position of his army and the gap.
The retreat—though Bragg did not call it that; he called it a withdrawal, the successful completion of a giant raid—was in two columns, Polk and Hardee marching by way of Lancaster and Crab Orchard, Kirby Smith by way of Big Hill, accompanying the heavy-laden trains. It was, as a later observer remarked, “a dismal but picturesque affair.” Cavalry fanned out front and rear and flankwards to protect the enormous droves of hogs, sheep, and beef cattle, herded by cowboys recruited from Texas regiments. Conspicuous among the motley aggregation of vehicles in the creaking train, which included carriages, omnibuses, and stagecoaches pressed into service to remove the mountain of supplies, were the 400 bright new wagons, each with “US” stenciled on its canvas, which had been captured nearby from Nelson in late August. Approaching Big Hill from the opposite direction, Smith was feeling none of the elation he had experienced then, with victory still before him, not behind. “My command from loss of sleep for five nights, is completely exhausted,” he reported during the early morning hours of October 14. “The straggling has been unusually great. The rear of the column will not reach here before daybreak. I have no hope of saving the whole of my train, as I shall be obliged to double teams in going up Big Hill, and will necessarily be delayed there two or three days.”
His near-despair was based on an overrating of Buell, who he thought would press him hard, and an underrating of his own troops, particularly those in the rear guard under Wheeler. These horsemen fought no less than twenty-six separate engagements during the first five days and nights of the march—one for each year of their youthful colonel’s life—beating off Federal attempts to hack at the long, slow-moving line of wagons. By dawn of the second day, however, Smith’s gloom had deepened. Still at Big Hill, he notified Bragg: “I have little hope of saving any of the train, and fear much of the artillery will be lost.” But here again he was unduly pessimistic. While Stevenson’s division held a line beyond range of the hill, Heth’s men lined the difficult slope from foot to summit and, as one of them later wrote, when “starved and tired mules faltered and fell, seized the wagons and lifted them by sheer force over the worst places.” All day, all night, until noon of the following day, October 16, “the trains, in one unbroken stream, continued to pour over Big Hill, and then the troops followed.” Smith felt considerably better now, having broken into the clear. Even the fact that this was hostile country had its advantages, since it encouraged stragglers to keep up. Beyond Mount Vernon next day at Big Rockcastle River, he appealed to Polk, who had already crossed: “Cannot we unite and end this disastrous retreat by a glorious victory?”
But even if Bragg had been willing—which he was not—it was too late. Hearing from Nashville this same day that a Confederate force was “rapidly concentrating” against that place, Buell broke contact just beyond London, abandoned the pursuit, and turned west. “I have no apprehension,” the Nashville commander had assured him; but Buell more than made up for this lack. He was apprehensive not only for the safety of the Tennessee capital but also for the safety of his army, which by now had entered the barrens. He wired Halleck: “The enemy has been driven into the heart of this desert and must go on, for he cannot exist in it. For the same reason we cannot pursue in it with any hope of overtaking him, for while he is moving back on his supplies and as he goes consuming what the country affords we must bring ours forward.… I deem it useless and inexpedient to continue the pursuit, but propose to direct the main force under my command rapidly upon Nashville, which General Negley reported to me as already being invested by a considerable force and toward which I have no doubt Bragg will move the main part of his army.”
In thus abandoning the pursuit, which in the end might have taken him into East Tennessee—the one region Lincoln most wanted “delivered”—Buell knew that he was fanning the wrath of his superiors, who had removed him from command once already and had restored him only under political pressure after his successor had declined the post. Anticipating what would follow, he told Halleck: “While I shall proceed with these dispositions, deeming them to be proper for the public interest, it is but meet that I should say that the present time is perhaps as convenient as any for making any change that may be thought proper in the command of this army.” And having thus invited his dismissal, he said of the army he had led: “It has not accomplished all that I had hoped or all that faction might demand; yet, composed as it is, one half of perfectly new troops, it has defeated a powerful and thoroughly disciplined army in one battle and has driven it away baffled and dispirited at least, and as much demoralized as an army can be under such discipline as Bragg maintains over all troops that he commands.”
Bragg would have appreciated the closing compliment, dealing as it did with the quality on which he placed the strongest emphasis, but just now he was satisfied with being allowed to continue his withdrawal unmolested. He pressed on through Barbourville, leaving Kirby Smith to bring up the rear. That general, much disgusted, formally resumed command of the Department of East Tennessee on October 20, as soon as he reached Flat Lick, Kentucky. Approaching Cumberland Gap two days later, he was astounded and enraged to receive from Bragg, already in Knoxville, orders for him to leave 3000 men at that strategic point and prepare the remainder for another joint incursion—this time into Middle Tennessee. His troops were “worn down,” he replied, “much in want of shoes, clothing, and blankets,” and reduced by straggling to about 6000 effectives. “Having resumed the command of my department,” he added pointedly, “I am directly responsible to the Government for the condition and safety of my army.” It was in effect a bill of divorcement. He wanted no more joint campaigns, not with Bragg at any rate, and doubtless he was relieved to find the North Carolinian gone from Knoxville when he himself arrived October 24, so weary and discouraged that he slipped into town under cover of darkness in order to avoid a public reception planned in his honor. The main thing he wanted now was rest, which he hoped would enable him to forget the final lap of his seventy-day round-trip journey through Central Kentucky.
No such rousing welcome had been planned for Bragg, whose problem on his return was the avoidance, not of praise, but of blame amounting to downright condemnation. Though he had never courted or apparently even desired popularity, much preferring to be respected for the sternness of his discipline rather than admired for the warmth of his nature—of which, in truth, he had little—this opprobrium, heaped on the shoulders of the man who had conceived and led the most successful offensive so far launched by a Confederate commander outside the strict national limits, seemed to him as unfair as it was unrealistic. Where Lee had failed, for example, he (Bragg) had succeeded, not only with a smaller army against longer odds, but with far fewer casualties and far greater material results; yet Lee was praised and he was blamed. In his final report of the campaign, submitted some months later, though he avoided comparisons, he attempted to refute his critics point by point. Whatever there was of failure, or shortcoming, he assigned to the backwardness of the expected Kentucky volunteers, who by their lack of native patriotism—so he called or thought of it—had forced him to travel the long road back to Tennessee with 20,000 unused muskets in his wagons. Nor was he reticent in summing up his gains:
Though compelled to yield to largely superior numbers and fortuitous circumstances a portion of the valuable territory from which we had driven the enemy, the fruits of the campaign were very large and have had a most important bearing upon our subsequent military operations here and elsewhere. With a force enabling us at no time to put more than 40,000 men of all arms and in all places in battle, we had redeemed North Alabama and Middle Tennessee and recovered possession of Cumberland Gap, the gateway to the heart of the Confederacy. We had killed, wounded, and captured no less than 25,000 of the enemy; taken over 30 pieces of artillery, 17,000 small-arms, some 2,000,000 cartridges for the same; destroyed some hundreds of wagons and brought off several hundreds more with their teams and harness complete; replaced our jaded horses by a fine mount; lived two months upon supplies wrested from the enemy’s possession; secured material to clothe the army, and finally secured subsistence from the redeemed country to support not only the army but also a large force of the Confederacy to the present time.
Though some of this was actually understated, it made no real impression on his critics. They were not so much concerned with what he had done, which admittedly was considerable, as they were with what he had not done. In fact, their complaints in this respect were so immediately vociferous that on October 23, the day after he reached Knoxville, Bragg was summoned to Richmond by a wire from the Adjutant General, who informed him: “The President desires … that you will lose no time in coming here.” Amid rumors that he was about to be relieved, he caught an eastbound train the following morning, thus avoiding a meeting with Kirby Smith, who arrived that night.
Whatever weight Davis and Cooper might attach to Bragg’s claims in determining whether to sustain or fire him, Lincoln and Halleck apparently were inclined not only to accept them at face value, but also to deduct them from what little credit his opponent had left in their direction. Receiving Buell’s dispatch of October 17, wherein he announced that he was abandoning the pursuit to return to Nashville, the general-in-chief replied next morning: “The great object to be attained is to drive the enemy from Kentucky and East Tennessee. If we cannot do it now we need never to hope for it.” This was followed by another wire, in which Halleck brought Lincoln’s logic to bear by indirect quotation, reinforcing the protest he had made the day before: “The capture of East Tennessee should be the main object of your campaign. You say it is the heart of the enemy’s resources; make it the heart of yours. Your army can live there if the enemy’s can.… I am directed by the President to say to you that your army must enter East Tennessee this fall, and that it ought to move there while the roads are passable.… He does not understand why we cannot march as the enemy marches, live as he lives, and fight as he fights, unless we admit the inferiority of our troops and of our generals.”
Logic was a knife that could cut both ways, however, and prewar service in the Adjutant General’s office had made Buell familiar with its use. He replied October 20 with a long, closely reasoned exegesis on the difficulties of what was being required of him. But that was not what Lincoln and Halleck wanted to hear. Besides, as an indication of his progress, the sequential headings on his telegrams—Mount Vernon, Crab Orchard, Danville—spoke a clearer language than their contents. Despite his former suggestion that “the present time is perhaps as convenient as any for making any change that may be thought proper,” Buell’s military life line was running out much faster than he thought. Previously, after being relieved, he had been restored to command partly as a result of political pressure in his favor; but such pressure as was being exerted now was in the opposite direction. His old enemy Governor Morton, for example, was wiring Lincoln: “The butchery of our troops at Perryville was terrible.… Nothing but success, speedy and decided, will save our cause from utter destruction. In the Northwest distrust and despair are seizing upon the hearts of the people.” Armed with this, and presently reinforced by similar expressons of displeasure from Yates of Illinois and Tod of Ohio, Halleck told Buell on October 22: “It is the wish of the Government that your army proceed to and occupy East Tennessee with all possible dispatch. It leaves to you the selection of the roads upon which to move to that object.… Neither the Government nor the country can endure these repeated delays. Both require a prompt and immediate movement toward the accomplishment of the great object in view—the holding of East Tennessee.”
Buell now had his orders, the first specific ones he had received. But before he could put them into execution (and on the same day Bragg left Knoxville, bound for Richmond) the following was delivered:
Washington, October 24
Maj. Gen. D. C. Buell, Commanding, c.:
General: The President directs that on the presentation of this order you will turn over your command to Maj. Gen. W. S. Rosecrans, and repair to Indianapolis, Ind., reporting from that place to the Adjutant General of the Army for further orders.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
H. W. HALLECK