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.
VI. Lee and McClellan--their Merits in the Maryland Campaign
General Lee and his adversary had displayed conspicuous merit in the campaign thus terminated, and we shall pause for a moment to glance back upon this great passage at arms.
To give precedence to General McClellan, he had assembled an army, after the defeat at Manassas, with a promptness for which only his own great personal popularity can adequately account, had advanced to check Lee, and had fully succeeded in doing so; and had thus not only protected the fertile territory of Pennsylvania from invasion, but had struck a death-blow for the time to any designs General Lee might have had to advance on the Federal capital. If the situation of affairs at that moment be attentively considered, the extreme importance of these results will not fail to appear. It may perhaps be said with justice, that General McClellan had saved the Federal cause from decisive defeat. There was no army to protect Washington but the body of troops under his command; these were largely raw levies, which defeat would have broken to pieces, and thus the way would have been open for Lee's march upon Washington or toward Philadelphia--a movement whose probable result would have been a treaty of peace and the independence of the Southern Confederacy. All these hopes were reversed by McClellan's rapid march and prompt attack. In the hours of a single autumn day, on the banks of the Antietam, the triumphant advance of the Confederates was checked and defeated. And, if the further fact be considered that the adversary thus checkmated was Lee, the military ability of General McClellan must be conceded. It is the fashion, it would appear, in some quarters, to deny him this quality. History will decide.
The merit of Lee was equally conspicuous, and his partial failure in the campaign was due to circumstances over which he had no control. His plan, as was always the case with him, was deep-laid, and every contingency had been provided for. He was disappointed in his aim by three causes which he could not foresee. One was the great diminution of his force, owing to the rapidity of his march, and the incessant fighting; another, the failure in obtaining recruits in Maryland; and a third, the discovery by General McClellan of the "lost dispatch," as it is called, which revealed Lee's whole plan to his adversary. In consequence of the "finding" of the order of march, McClellan advanced with such rapidity that the laggards of the Southern army on the hills north of Leesburg had no opportunity of joining the main body. The gaps in the ranks of the army thus made were not filled up by Maryland recruits; Lee fell back, and his adversary followed, no longer fearful of advancing too quickly; Jackson had no time after reducing
Harper's Ferry to rejoin Lee at
Hagerstown; thus concentration of his troops, and a battle somewhere near
Sharpsburg, were rendered a necessity with General Lee.
In this tissue of adverse events, the discovery of the order of march by General McClellan occupies a very prominent place. This incident resembles what the French call a fatality. Who was to blame for the circumstance still remains a mystery; but it may be said with entire certainty that the brave officer upon whom it was charged was entirely guiltless of all fault in the matter.
[Footnote: The officer here referred to is General D.H. Hill. General McClellan said in his testimony afterward, before the congressional committee: "When at Frederick, we found the original order issued to D.H. Hill," etc. The inference was thus a natural one that General Hill was to blame, but that officer has proved clearly that he had nothing to do with the affair. He received but one copy of the order, which was handed to him by General Jackson in person, and, knowing its great importance, he placed it in his pocket-book, and still retains it in his possession. This fact is conclusive, since General Hill could not have "lost" what he continues to hold in his hands. This mystery will be cleared up at some time, probably; at present, but one thing is certain, that General Hill was in no manner to blame. The present writer desires to make this statement as explicit as possible, as, in other accounts of these transactions, he was led by General McClellan's language to attribute blame to General Hill where he deserved none.]
Whatever may have been the secret history of the "lost dispatch," however, it certainly fell into General McClellan's hands, and largely directed the subsequent movements of the opposing armies.
From what is here written, it will be seen that Lee was not justly chargeable with the result of the Maryland campaign. He had provided for every thing as far as lay in his power. Had he not been disappointed in events to be fairly anticipated, it seemed his force would have received large accessions, his rear would have closed up, and the advance into Pennsylvania would have taken place. Instead of this, he was forced to retire and fight a pitched battle at Sharpsburg; and this action certainly exhibited on Lee's part military ability of the highest order. The force opposed to him had been at least double that of his own army, and the Federal troops had fought with a gallantry unsurpassed in any other engagement of the war. That their assault on Lee failed, was due to the fighting qualities of his troops and his own generalship. His army had been manoeuvred with a rapidity and precision which must have excited even the admiration of the distinguished soldier opposed to him. He had promptly concentrated his forces opposite every threatened point in turn, and if he had not been able to carry out the axiom of Napoleon, that a commander should always be superior to the enemy at the point of contact, he had at least done all that was possible to effect that end, and had so far succeeded as to have repulsed if not routed his adversary. This is the main feature to be noticed in Lee's handling of his troops at Sharpsburg. An unwary or inactive commander would have there suffered decisive defeat, for the Confederate left wing numbered, throughout the early part of the battle, scarcely more than four thousand men, while the column directed against it amounted first to eighteen thousand, and in all to forty thousand men. To meet the impact of this heavy mass, not only desperate fighting, but rapid and skilful manoeuvring, was necessary. The record we have presented will enable the reader to form his own opinion whether Lee was equal to this emergency involving the fate of his army.
Military critics, examining this great battle with fair and candid eyes, will not fail, we think, to discern the truth. That the Southern army, of less than forty thousand men, repulsed more than eighty thousand in the battle of Sharpsburg, was due to the hard fighting of the smaller force, and the skill with which its commander manoeuvred it.