A LIFE OF GEN. ROBERT E. LEE.
BY JOHN ESTEN COOKE.
"Duty is the sublimest word in our language."
"Human virtue should be equal to human calamity." LEE. 1876
LEE INVADES MARYLAND.
III. Movements of the Two Armies
General Lee was already moving to the accomplishment of his designs, the
capture of Harper's Ferry, and an advance into the Cumberland Valley.
His plan to attain the first-mentioned object was simple, and promised to be successful. Jackson was to march around by way of "Williamsport and
Martinsburg," and thus approach from the south. A force was meanwhile to seize upon and occupy the Maryland Heights, a lofty spot of the mountain across the Potomac, north of the Ferry. In like manner, another body of troops was to cross the Potomac, east of the Blue Ridge, and occupy the
Loudon Heights, looking down upon
Harper's Ferry from the east. By this arrangement the retreat of the enemy would be completely cut off in every direction. Harper's Ferry must be captured, and, having effected that result, the whole Confederate force, detached for the purpose, was to follow the main body of this army in the direction of
Hagerstown, to take part in the proposed invasion of Pennsylvania.
This excellent plan failed, as will be seen, from no fault of the great soldier who devised it, but in consequence of unforeseen obstacles, and especially of one of those singular incidents which occasionally reverse the best-laid schemes and abruptly turn aside the currents of history.
Jackson and the commanders cooeperating with him moved on September 10th. General Lee then with his main body crossed the South Mountain, taking the direction of Hagerstown. Meanwhile, General McClellan had advanced cautiously and slowly, withheld by incessant dispatches from Washington, warning him not to move in such a manner as to expose that city to danger. Such danger existed only in the imaginations of the authorities, as the army in advancing extended its front from the Potomac to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. General McClellan, nevertheless, moved with very great precaution, feeling his way, step by step, like a man in the dark, when on reaching Frederick City, which the Confederates had just evacuated, good fortune suddenly came to his assistance. This good fortune was the discovery of a copy of General Lee's orders of march for the army, in which his whole plan was revealed. General McClellan had therein the unmistakable evidence of his opponent's intentions, and from that moment his advance was as rapid as before it had been deliberate.
The result of this fortunate discovery was speedily seen. General Lee, while moving steadily toward Hagerstown, was suddenly compelled to turn his attention to the mountain-passes in his rear. It had not been the intention of Lee to oppose the passage of the enemy through the South Mountain, as he desired to draw General McClellan as far as possible from his base, but the delay in the
fall of Harper's Ferry now made this necessary. It was essential to defend the mountain-defiles in order to insure the safety of the Confederate troops at Harper's Ferry; and Lee accordingly directed General D.H. Hill to oppose the passage of the enemy at Boonsboro Gap, and Longstreet was sent from Hagerstown to support him.
An obstinate struggle now ensued for the possession of the main South Mountain Gap, near Boonsboro, and the roar of Jackson's artillery from Harper's Ferry must have prompted the assailants to determined efforts to force the passage. The battle continued until night (September 14th), and resulted in heavy loss on both sides, the brave General Reno, of the United States army, among others, losing his life. Darkness put an end to the action, the Federal forces not having succeeded in passing the Gap; but, learning that a column of the enemy had crossed below and threatened him with an attack in flank, General Lee determined to retire in the direction of Sharpsburg, where Jackson and the forces cooeperating with him could join the main body of the army. This movement was effected without difficulty, and Lee notices the skill and efficiency of General Fitz Lee in covering the rear with his cavalry. The Federal army failed to press forward as rapidly as it is now obvious it should have done. The head of the column did not appear west of the mountain until eight o'clock in the morning (September 15th), and, nearly at the same moment ("the attack began at dawn; in about two hours the garrison surrendered," says General Lee), Harper's Ferry yielded to Jackson.
Fast-riding couriers brought the welcome intelligence of Jackson's success to General Lee, as the latter was approaching Sharpsburg, and official information speedily came that the result had been the capture of more than eleven thousand men, thirteen thousand small-arms, and seventy-three cannon. It was probably this large number of men and amount of military stores falling into the hands of the Confederates which afterward induced the opinion that Lee's sole design in invading Maryland had been the
reduction of Harper's Ferry.
General McClellan had thus failed, in spite of every effort which he had made, to relieve Harper's Ferry, and no other course remained now but to follow Lee and bring him to battle. The Federal army accordingly moved on the track of its adversary, and, on the afternoon of the same day (September 15th), found itself in sight of Lee's forces drawn up on the western side of Antietam Creek, near the village of Sharpsburg.
[Footnote 1: All along the march he had fired signal-guns to inform the officer in command at Harper's Ferry of his approach.]
At last the great opponents were in face of each other, and a battle, it was obvious, could not long be delayed.