Most of history turns on small events. We learn the big things, the dates and names that, as they say, “go down in history.” But it’s usually the small things that matter most and set the stage for those huge events.
A small thing set in motion one of the biggest events of the Civil War. We don’t know the name of the person involved in the small thing. We do know he was a Confederate courier because no one else would have been in possession of Lee’s orders to his widespread command. We also don’t know the name of the Union soldier who found the orders and took them to McClellan’s headquarters.
It was September of 1862, Lee was fresh off of his stunning victory at Second Bull Run and looking to capitalize. He decided to invade the north. Mid-term elections were coming up and one of the stories of this campaign is that Lee invaded to influence the election. If the Union public thought they weren’t safe, so the theory goes, they’d vote in a Congress that would sue for peace. There was also a component of convincing Maryland to join the Confederacy involved in the theory. While history indicates that Confederate President Jefferson Davis believed this was a possibility there’s very little evidence Lee actually had any of this in his plans. Lee’s goals were far more grounded in military necessity. Northern Virginia was ravaged after a hard year’s fighting and Lee needed to move the war away from his breadbasket and attempt to plunder the North. He would make the same move again the following summer.
This period of the war is generally known as the Confederate High Tide. At the same time Lee was moving into Maryland Braxton Bragg was moving through Kentucky and attempting to make up for the losses of Forts Henry and Donelson and Columbus. He believed that if he moved a powerful enough force in to Kentucky the poor, oppressed Kentuckians who were being ill-treated by the Union government would cast off their chains and join the Confederacy in droves.
Bragg’s maneuvers would have a powerful effect on the progress of the war in the west, but not exactly in the way he expected. In the fall of 1862 there were three main Union armies spread across the western theater. Don Carlos Buell was in Ohio with the Army of the Ohio, William Rosecrans was in Corinth with the Army of the Mississippi, and Grant was spread out in between covering supply lines with the Army of the Tennessee. Against these three forces the Confederates could deploy Bragg’s Army of Mississippi and Kirby Smith’s Army of East Tennessee (later combined in to the Army of Tennessee) along with the small Army of the West under General Van Dorn and a hodgepodge of troops under General Sterling Price that apparently warranted no official name.
In spite of it all the South held the advantage in the west. Bragg and Smith were outmaneuvering Buell in Tennessee and headed straight for the Ohio River with no real opposition. If Van Dorn and Price could pin Rosecrans in place Grant would be split between the two forces. If Bragg could get Kentucky to rise he could invade Ohio or take out Grant’s army. In short, Braxton Bragg held the initiative in the west just as Lee held the initiative in the east.
Of course there were a lot of ifs in that previous paragraph. The biggest if was out of the control of any of the field commanders.
England had an alliance with the Confederate States of America in everything but name. These were the days of the early Industrial Revolution in Great Britain and the hungry textile mills of the island nation were fed by King Cotton. It was one of those situations where moral stances are conveniently ignored in the name of, well, convenience.
England was not a fan of slavery. It was not legal and the British Navy regularly stopped slave ships. Still, England needed cotton and the Confederates knew it. Throughout the war the British outfitted blockade runners and commerce raiders for the South. The Brits also came close to building ironclad rams for the Confederate Navy, but eventually backed down. In 1872 an international tribunal ruled that the British were liable to the United States for the actions of British-built privateers in the amount of fifteen million dollars. A year later the British ambassador dropped off a check for the full amount with as little fanfare as possible.
Throughout 1861 and 1862 there was a real possibility the British would enter the war on the side of the Confederates, a development that would have radically shifted the balance of power. The Union needed a way to make sure that would never happen and knew the best option. They needed to make slavery an issue.
Slavery was the central conflict that brought about the Civil War but the Civil War wasn’t actually fought over slavery. At least not originally. There were decades of political conflicts, Bleeding Kansas, and any number of other slavery-related issues that factored in to Southern secession. The central reason for the South’s secession was slavery. It was right there in the Cornerstone Speech and prominently written into the Confederate Constitution and all of the Confederate states’ Constitutions. Lincoln’s aim at the outset of the war was to preserve the nation and he was pragmatic when it came to the institution of slavery. It’s possible that if the war had ended in ninety days as some thought with a Northern victory the South would have been re-admitted to the Union with the peculiar institution intact.
It was the British who moved slavery from the outside to the center of the issue. They were already acting against type in their desperation for cotton and uncomfortable with the idea. Making the end of slavery a matter of policy wouldn’t end the British involvement with the South but it would almost certainly keep British involvement from expanding.
In 1862 Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a strange document, as it didn’t actually immediately free any slaves. There were no slaves to be freed in the North and the Proclamation specifically excluded those areas controlled by the North where there were slaves for fear of setting off riots. The South, of course, wasn’t about to honor the document.
Still, it was the principle of the whole thing. Following the Proclamation the Union Army marched forward under the banner of freedom. If the British government tried to declare war on the Union in support of the Confederacy the PR would be a disaster.
What Lincoln needed was a victory. Any victory would suffice. He just needed a high point so he could release his statement from a position of strength. A little thing made that possible.
McClellan had in his hands Lee’s marching orders for his army. The Army of Northern Virginia was split into three columns that were busy snaking their way into Maryland. The Army of the Potomac was concentrated and in perfect position to take advantage of the Napoleonic central position.
There was another little thing getting in the way. His name was George B. McClellan. Numbers, position, and information were all on his side in spades but McClellan didn’t move.
Lee figured out his orders were compromised and did move. He gathered his forces together at Sharpsburg and prepared to meet McClellan.
Even with the quick move to change his fortunes Lee entered the battle of Antietam outnumbered two-to-one. McClellan, however, did not deploy all of his forces and the ones he did were used clumsily.
Joe Hooker struck Lee’s left flank and battered the Confederates. Other forces repeatedly assaulted the Confederate center at the strong defensive position known as the Sunken Road. Sheer weight of numbers eventually caused a break in the line that was never exploited.
In the afternoon Ambrose Burnside attempted to cross Antietam Creek well to the south of the main battle. A small Confederate holding force kept him in place as his troops repeatedly attempted to cross a single bridge that went down in history as Burnside’s Bridge. By the time the Confederates ran out of ammo and Burnside finally figured out that there was a ford just a little downstream it was too late for him to have any impact on the battle.
After Antietam McClellan refused to follow up and engage Lee. Lincoln eventually put Burnside in command of the Army of the Potomac and he would be in charge at Fredericksburg a few months after Antietam. Burnside would continue to show he was an inflexible, unimaginative commander and waste troops for two days in an ineffective assault against the heavily defended stone wall at the top of Marye’s Heights. However his excellent facial hair would eventually give us the term sideburn, so he did have that going for him.
McClellan didn’t exactly win the Battle of Antietam, but he did something nearly as important. He managed to not lose. Admittedly with the balance of forces and tactical situation it was nearly impossible for him not to lose, but considering how good Union generals were at plucking defeat from the clutching jaws of victory at that point in the war McClellan deserves a minimal amound of praise for his good fortune.
Lee’s undersize army could no longer stay in Maryland after the Battle of Antietam. He was forced to withdraw to Virginia and only made it because McClellan refused to do what victorious generals are supposed to do. Had McClellan pinned Lee to the Rappahannock and defeated the Army of Northern Virginia in detail the Civil War might have ended two years earlier.
Still, even if Antietam was a tactical draw and a personal defeat for McClellan it was a strategic victory for the North in more ways than one. Lee was no longer a menace to the North and his withdrawal gave Lincoln all the pretext he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The call to preserve the Union was now the battle cry of freedom and England had been kept out of the war without firing a single shot.
Antietam had repercussions out west, too. Bragg found out that Kentucky really wasn’t interested in being “liberated” by the South. Don Carlos Buell was breathing down his neck with an army bolstered by reinforcements from Grant. More troops were being gathered at Louisville and Columbus. In early September Rosecrans had defeated Price at the Battle of Iuka.
In short, nothing worked right for Bragg during the late summer and early fall of 1862. The Confederate High Tide receded and Bragg found himself fighting a delaying action against an emboldened Rosecrans in command of the newly constituted Army of the Cumberland. With Bragg distracted in Tennessee and most of the opposition in Mississippi quashed Grant was free to open operations against Vicksburg.
His only opposition was John A. McClernand. Unfortunately McClernand was a Union general. There was a garrison force at Vicksburg under John C. Pemberton. There were cavalry raids from Nathan Bedford Forrest and Van Dorn.
The Confederates lacked the manpower to counter Grant in the field and McClernand did more to screw up the Vicksburg campaign than any Confederate general could have. The debacle finally got Halleck on Grant’s side. That was to be an important alliance going forward.
Out east there was more stupidity and cases of the Union shooting itself in the foot. Fightin’ Joe Hooker was about to get his chance to face the wrath of Lee at Chancellorsville.
One of the interesting things about the Civil War was the naming conventions. The Union tended to name things after rivers and the Confederacy tended to name things after geographic features. This is how you could have the Army of the Tennessee deployed against the Army of Tennessee. The only way to avoid confusion is to understand the naming conventions. Of course this didn’t always work, as John Pope was commander of the short-lived Union Army of Virginia.
This is also why battles tend to have several names. The Union called the battles of Bull Run after the tributary of the same name that wound through the battlefield. The Confederacy referred to the same battles as First and Second Manassas after Manassas Junction. Similarly the topic of today’s post was called Antietam in the North for Antietam Creek while in the South the battle was called Sharpsburg. This, too, is not a hard and fast rule of nomenclature. Fredericksburg and Gettysburg only have one name for example.
When I was in juco this little fact taught me about what can happen when you contradict a professor. I was taking an American history course with a teacher I really liked. He claimed that Burnside’s attempted bridge crossing occurred at a different battle. Fredericksburg, I think. I raised my hand, said that it was Antietam. The prof got mad at me. I was a little surprised.