The Union Strikes Back
Sequel to Action Jackson 1862
By David Atwell
Thomas Jackson had done it again. The Union army was beaten fairly and squarely. Robert E. Lee’s strategy had once again been proven victorious by sending Jackson’s "Foot Cavalry" on a wide outflanking march, around John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia, and had, along with Longstreet’s attack, annihilated it more or less entirely. Even the Union Capital, Washington DC, came under threat from Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, not to mention its actual occupation after a five hour long battle.
It was in this light, then, that all Union forces, especially those of George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, reacted in trying to retake the Union capital from Rebel control. Nothing was certain and fear gripped the Union as to what was Lee’s next move. More to the point, deep down no Union general, nor soldier for that matter, thought that they could defeat Lee. And as a result the American Civil War could soon come to an end in favour of the Rebs.
Lincoln, though, having regained his composure, after fleeing Washington in rather indigent fashion, immediately sacked McClellan, as commanding general of the Army of the Potomac, and replaced him with Ambrose Burnside who was, at the time, consider a highly capable general and possibly just the man who could push Lee out of Washington and all the way back to Richmond. Given the fact that the Army of Northern Virginia was much weakened, by its assault upon the Union capital, this was seen as a distinct possibility.
Lee, meanwhile, was well aware of the dangers, especially in the light that his old warhorse, James Longstreet, had been wounded during the attack on Washington’s defences. Thankfully Longstreet’s wound was not life threatening, and he was able to convalesce in one of Washington’s many fine dwellings, though he was never far from Lee if required. Having said that, the Army of Northern Virginia was down to around 35 000 able soldiers at the beginning of September 1962. This alone made Lee think that the capture of Washington was not worth the price of victory.
Burnside quickly took to planing for the liberation of Washington DC. At first he reinforced the Union front lines, which now stretched across Maryland in an arch from east to west, to the north of the Potomac and Washington itself. It was McClellan’s last arrangement, which made much sense, as it ensured that Lee’s army was more or less bottled up in its bridgehead at Washington. McClellan, though, with only about 53 000 troops was in no position to threaten Lee, even if he wanted to, not to mention he had just been relived of command. Burnside, though, thanks to reinforcements rushing into Maryland, was soon able to increase his numbers to 100 000, in a matter of a week or two, by combining several nearby garrisons, like Baltimore, along with new recruits.
Now enjoying superior numbers, Burnside wasted little time in moving two veteran corps of the Peninsular Campaign to the south of the Potomac in the first stage of his plan. This move, by around 35 000 troops, would threaten Lee with encirclement, something which Lee feared from the beginning. This move, however, by the Union happened to run into a Confederate column of reinforcements lead by Magruder, who’s force had left Harrison’s Landing a week previously, with orders to reunite with the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia. Although Magruder’s command of 12 000 was greatly outnumbered, the two Union corps, under the overall command of General Sumner, did not push the issue fearing that a trap maybe in the offering, and withdrew from the field of battle. Magruder, for his part, then made an error by leaving behind a small division of 2 000 troops, to watch further Union movements, then marched to Washington with the rest of his command as ordered by Lee.
Even with the rebuff of Burnside’s initial steps, on 20 September, he decided that his plan would continue albeit modified. Consequently, when his main attack would take place, the following day, he would use the distraction thus caused for the two corps under Sumner’s command to try again in its efforts to encircle the Army of Northern Virginia. And if an extra 10 000 Rebels were about to be netted, in the process, then all the better as far as Burnside was concerned.
Lee, for his part, realised the danger of the situation, when Magruder arrived in the evening of 20 September. Not only was he annoyed at Magruder for not establishing a strong defensive position to the south of Washington, even if in defiance of his original orders, but Lee pretty much accepted that the 2 000 Confederate troops left behind were about to be overrun, which was an unacceptable loss to him.
Sure enough, as Lee had feared, Sumner’s troops simply steamrolled over the small Confederate division at dawn the next morning. At best they were able to dispatch a rider to inform Lee of what he already suspected. But if that was not bad enough, Lee’s other prediction came true, as at 9am the same morning, Burnside had arranged for a phalanx of 20 000 Union troops to attack the centre of Lee’s line. Although Longstreet was still supposed to be convalescing, after hearing the first cannons speak out, he was soon out of bed and limping towards the headquarters of I CSA Corps, and took control, even if General McLaws felt slightly annoyed at having been replaced as corps commander for the upcoming battle and his chance at glory. Lee however, even though he ordered Longstreet back to bed, which Longstreet refused to obey by the way, was nevertheless grateful that his old warhorse had taken command of his corps once more.
As history would clearly demonstrate, though, Burnside made a massive mistake. Thinking that his phalanx would roll over the defending Confederates, due to a mix of a heavy artillery bombardment combined with a solid mass of men, did not take into account two things. The first was the formidable defences which, ironically, had been built by Union forces to ward off any attacker. And the second was those defences were manned by veteran soldiers, under the command of James Longstreet, who was arguably the best defensive general on either side.
Yet, in spite of all this, 20 000 Union troops marched into the breach of Hell itself in a desperate attempt to evict the Confederate interlopers from their nation’s capital city. Needless to say, it did not work. Instead, after an hour or so of fighting, over 10 000 of these brave men had become casualties. Undeterred Burnside was determined to continue the attack. As a result the 10 000 man reserve force, slotted to enter the fray if and when a breach was achieved, were also sent into the vortex. It mattered little as this further force was likewise smashed as where the earlier assaults. In the end, soldiers, regardless of rank, simply disobeyed orders to continue the attack and it had come to a halt by early afternoon.
The Union survivors did whatever they could in order to return to the relative safety of their own lines. Some where shot down by Confederates, in some parts of the line, whilst others made it back in one piece as the Confederate troops, like members of the Irish Brigade, refused to fire upon these poor wretched souls. Lee, when he came to inspect the carnage close up, stated in a surreal fashion: "It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we would become too fond of it". Confederate Colonel Gordon, however, was more to the point: "It wasn’t war, it was simply murder".
The Race to Hancock
Even though the Army of Northern Virginia had achieved another great victory, it was nevertheless facing strategic annihilation. On 22 September, although the battlefield was intensely quiet after the previous day’s carnage, Lee ordered Jeb Stuart to send a cavalry force to the south to reconnoitre the Union positions located there. Not travelling more than ten odd miles, Stuart returned to inform Lee that the Union had established strong defences that would take several hours to defeat. It seemed that, even though Burnside had lost 20 000 troops in one day, to the cost of fewer than 1 000 Confederates, Burnside had at least trapped the Army of Northern Virginia. It was merely a matter of time, or so it seemed, before total defeat. Lee, however, thought otherwise.
Lee now decided to break out of Washington, but not to the south. Instead he would attack to the west through the Union defences just north of the Potomac and the Chesapeake-Ohio Canal. Considering Longstreet was still not fully healthy, regardless of his activity in repelling Burnside’s Folly, Jackson, considered the better offensive commander anyway, was given orders to attack the next morning on 23 September followed by a full evacuation of Washington as soon as possible. This was quickly achieved as the Army of the Potomac was caught unawares by Jackson’s break out attempt, not to mention it had been severely weakened by the slaughter of two days earlier, and that Burnside had been sacked on the evening of 22 September by Lincoln. Ironically, Lincoln turned back to McClellan, after the Burnside’s Folly disaster, as he believed he had no other choice at the time in question.
McClellan, for his part, did not overly want to return to active duty on the night of 22 September. Furthermore, he had not even arrived at the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac when Jackson conducted his attack. Consequently no one quite knew what to do, save for the local Union commander on the spot who, although put up a brave defence, was nevertheless overrun for his efforts. Lee had thus gained his break out and, before McClellan could order a general assault upon Washington, the Army of Northern Virginia had escaped and was on the run in a westerly direction as per Lee’s plan.
Unfortunately for Lee, not everything would work his way, fore mistakenly a copy of his plan had been left behind which was soon discovered by some Union soldiers. These plans were immediately sent to army headquarters. McClellan, hence, now had the opportunity to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia in his hands. Lee’s plan, for the evacuation of Maryland, became infamously known as Special Orders No 191:
The citizens of Fredericktown being unwilling while overrun by members of this army, to open their stores, in order to give them confidence, and to secure to officers and men purchasing supplies for benefit of this command, all officers and men of this army are strictly prohibited from visiting Fredericktown except on business, in which cases they will bear evidence of this in writing from division commanders. The provost-marshal in Fredericktown will see that his guard rigidly enforces this order.
Major Taylor will proceed to Sharpsburg, Maryland, and arrange for transportation of the sick and those unable to walk to Winchester, securing the transportation of the country for this purpose. The route between this and Culpepper Court-House east of the mountains being unsafe, will no longer be traveled. Those on the way to this army already across the river will move up promptly; all others will proceed to Winchester collectively and under command of officers, at which point, being the general depot of this army, its movements will be known and instructions given by commanding officer regulating further movements.
The army will resume its march tomorrow, taking the Hagerstown road. General Jackson's command will form the advance, and, after passing Middletown, with such portion as he may select, take the route toward Harper’s Ferry, cross the Potomac at the most convenient point, and by Friday morning take possession of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, capture such of them as may be at Martinsburg, and intercept such as may attempt to escape from that place.
General Magruder’s command will pursue the same road as far as Boonsborough, where it will halt, with reserve, supply, and baggage trains of the army.
General McLaws, with his own division and that of General R. H. Anderson, will follow General Longstreet. On reaching Middletown will take the route to Harpers Ferry, and by Friday morning possess himself of the Maryland Heights and endeavor to ensure that any pursuing forces are repulsed.
General J. E. Johnston, with his command, after accomplishing the object in which he is now engaged, will cross the Potomac at Cheek's Ford, ascend its right bank to Lovettsville, take possession of Loudoun Heights, if practicable, by Friday morning, Key's Ford on his left, and the road between the end of the mountain and the Potomac on his right. He will, as far as practicable, cooperate with General McLaws and Jackson, and occupy Harper’s Ferry.
General D. H. Hill's division will form the rear guard of the army, pursuing the road taken by the main body. The reserve artillery, ordnance, and supply trains, &c., will precede General Hill.
General Stuart will detach a squadron of cavalry to accompany the commands of Generals Longstreet, Jackson, and McLaws, and, with the main body of the cavalry, will cover the route of the army, bringing up all stragglers that may have been left behind.
The commands of Generals Jackson, McLaws, and Walker, after accomplishing the objects for which they have been detached, will join the main body of the army at Winchester.
Each regiment on the march will habitually carry its axes in the regimental ordnance—wagons, for use of the men at their encampments, to procure wood &c.
By command of General R. E. Lee
R.H. Chilton, Assistant Adjutant General
Essentially Lee’s plan, although party based upon deception, required the capture of Harper’s Ferry in order to get the Army of Northern Virginia into the relatively safe region of the Shenandoah Valley. Here Lee believed that his army would be out of danger. However, if something went wrong, the fate of the Army of Northern Virginia could easily end in disaster.
As luck would have it, though, disaster did almost take place for Lee, until it was discovered, to the senior Confederate commander’s complete horror, that a copy of Special Orders No 191 had been left behind. Furthermore McClellan, now in possession of the means of Lee’s defeat, immediately set off in pursuit. Lee, however, now aware of the huge mistake, reacted accordingly, and his well made plans, detailed in the lost special orders, were forthwith rescinded.
In their place, Lee issued orders to all his commanders, most notably to Jackson at Harpers Ferry who had been held up by the very stubborn defence offered by the Union garrison there of 20 000 troops under the command of General George Thomas, to immediately withdraw to the north-west and away from their current positions. They were to move at best speed in order to place as much distance as they could between themselves and the Union Army of the Potomac, which had just managed to gain the passes crossing South Mountain. At some point, though, to the north-west of Sharpsburg, Lee planed to then form up on favourable ground and offer battle to McClellan.
Battle of Hancock
As the Army of Northern Virginia began its hasty withdrawal, with the Army of the Potomac hot on its heals, the Confederate marching order was reasonably well organised. In front Stuart’s cavalry advanced, scouting ahead, ensuring that the road was clear. Next came Magruder’s small command, effectively a new separate corps comprised of hastily assembled troops numbering no more than 10 000, which had only just come together a few weeks before. It was a testament to the Army of Northern Virginia’s organisational skills, not to mention Magruder’s somewhat overlooked abilities as a general, that he had managed to, not only organise this small corps in a matter of weeks, but that it was marching in a somewhat organised fashion under such dramatic conditions.
When the Army of Northern Virginia came upon Hagerstown, Magruder suggested to Lee that they make a stand, but Longstreet was immediately against it. Jackson was not too keen on the idea either, although thought having Antietam Creek as a natural barrier, between them and the pursing Army of the Potomac, could be used with great advantage. Lee, though, agreed with Longstreet. He believed that they would have to keep marching westward, and then make a stand, where his concern about his flanks were satisfied.
It was a very prudent decision by Lee as McClellan’s force grew in strength by the hour. The biggest addition would be that of the majority of the Harper’s Ferry garrison including its commander General George Thomas. Redesignated as US V Corps, the extra 15 000 troops ensured that McClellan outnumbered Lee’s 45 000 troops by two to one. Although Lee was not aware of the exact figure, he knew well enough that McClellan had a major advantage in numbers. Consequently the battlefield, which Lee was to choose, had to be able to counter this clear advantage. Yet this did not happen until the Army of Northern Virginia came upon the township of Hancock.
Day One - 7 October 1862
Although Hancock, in early October 1862, was not a major town in any fashion, it did nevertheless have railroads, the Potomac, the Cheasapeake-Ohio Canal, not to mention several roads, all either going through or around it. It was also well located, geographically speaking, so that the Army of Northern Virginia could enter the relative safety of the Shenandoah Valley from the north, thus keeping any pursuer honest in their attempts to attack the rear of Lee’s army. But the most important aspect was the local terrain. Although the ridge line, which the town was located on, was an impressive looking location to deploy an army, the ridge line to the west of Hancock was even better.
As a consequence, even though Lee first thought about establishing his line
on the town of Hancock itself, he selected the better ground to the west of the
town. Thus Lee established his initial position on Blue Hill. Here Longstreet’s
corps made its line southward down to the banks of the Potomac River and then
northward to Kirk Woods through until Longstreet finally anchored his right on
Little Tonoloway Creek. Immediately north of this location (in other words
across the creek) Jackson started his line. This continued north towards
Wardfordsburg where Magruder’s Corps took over the line until where it ended at
Big Tonoloway Creek. Across Big Tonoloway Creek, Stuart’s cavalry was deployed
to cover the open flank, even though it was well protected thanks to Big
Both sides then awaited the dawn, knowing that the battle which could decide the outcome of the War, was about to begin.
Day Two 8 October 1862
McClellan wasted little time in planning the forthcoming battle. It was a
somewhat complicated plan, but simple enough nevertheless. Basically it would
involve an attack on three fronts albeit taking place at slightly different
times in an effort to confuse the enemy, forcing Lee to send reinforcements to
his flanks, then assaulting the centre which would, presumably, be weakened.
Day Three 9 October 1862
The third day of battle would start with only a few minor engagements. The
most notable of these commenced at around 8am when US XII Corps once again
attacked Wardfordsburg, but the attack was rebuffed as it was the pervious day.
Similarly Pleasonton’s US Cavalry engaged Stuart’s Confederate Cavalry, but
again nothing was decisive, with the cavalry clash considered a draw.
Consequentially, at dawn on the fourth day, Lee began his withdrawal.
Contrary to concerns amongst the Confederate senior commanders, about a sudden
Union attack, McClellan offered no major threat and the Army of Northern
Virginia was able to slip away without any challenge. The battle was over.
Essentially it was a draw, even though it was Lee who had to withdraw and
surrender the contest of the battlefield to the Army of the Potomac. McClellan
immediately claimed it as a victory. But that did not matter to Lincoln who,
furious that Lee was able to escape instead of being annihilated, fired
McClellan for good. McClellan would never be given a third chance and was
replaced by General Joseph Hooker.
Hooker would be a mixed bag for Union fortunes. With his appointment as GOC of the Army of the Potomac, his energy and reforms quickly raised the morale and hopes of this unfortunate army. Realising several mistakes of the past had to be corrected, Hooker immediately instituted a professional military intelligence department, which soon proved to be a great improvement over previous arrangements. He also introduced standardised bugle calls, divisional and corps insignia, not to mention better administration for the army as a whole.
Yet, even with all these improvements, when Hooker took to the battlefield in 1863, some six months after the Battle of Hancock, Hooker would prove to be no better a combat general than those which he had replaced. Once again the Army of the Potomac would be defeated and pursued back north, although Hooker did manage not to have it suffer anything akin to what it had previously experienced whilst also being able to claim the death of Stonewall Jackson. Still, that did not stop Lincoln from sacking Hooker, not long afterwards, when Lee invaded Maryland once more in June of 1863, and replaced him with General George Meade. And as the Battle of Gettysburg demonstrated, Lincoln finally got the general he wanted: even if allowing for the fourth day of battle at Gettysburg...
Engle, S. D. The American Civil War: The war in the west 1861-63, London, 2001.
Gallagher, G. W. The American Civil War: The war in the east 1861-63, Oxford, 2001.
Konstam, A. Seven Days Battles 1862, Oxford, 2004.
Stevens, N. S. Antietam 1862, Oxford, 1994.
Ward, G. C. Burns, R. & Burns, K. The Civil War, London, 1991.
AH.Com (http://www.alternatehistory.com) especially the thread started by Jason Sleeman, as well as Kurt Steiner, Justin Green, Hyperion, & the other’s who contributed to that thread.
Military History Online, (http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/)