The American Civil War Overview
THE EASTERN THEATER: 2nd MANASSAS, ANTIETAM AND FREDERICKSBURG
On June 26, 1862, a "western" general, John Pope, received command of the newly created Federal Army of Virginia which was formed by the consolidation of the commands of McDowell, Banks, and Fremont (the Federal commands that Jackson had bested during his Shenandoah Valley Campaign). By July 12, this army had moved south to a point that threatened Richmond's access to the Shenandoah Valley. Although McClellan was still a potential threat to Richmond, Lee felt he had to deal with this new development and sent reinforcements to Jackson with orders to "suppress" Pope. By August 3, McClellan was ordered to evacuate the Peninsula, thus removing the dual threat to Lee and allowing him the opportunity to concentrate on Pope exclusively. The opposing armies maneuvered through mid-August, and by August 22 were facing each other across the Rappahannock River near Sulphur Springs, Virginia. Pope's lines were too strong for a frontal attack, so Lee directed forces around Pope's unsecured flanks to cut his supply lines. The first raid in Pope's rear, by Stuart's cavalry, failed in seriously damaging his supply line, but did net Pope's payroll of $350,000 and captured the headquarters' copy of all the week's dispatches. The second raid was carried out by Jackson's "foot cavalry" and this time was much more successful. Jackson neutralized Bristoe Station and Manassas Station and destroyed Federal supplies distributed over almost a square mile.
Despite these setbacks, Pope still believed he was in a position to destroy Lee. Lee had split his army and the Federals were in position between Lee's two wings with superior forces to destroy either one. Pope hurried his command to Manassas hoping to smash Jackson, only to discover that he had apparently vanished into thin air. Eventually Jackson was discovered at Sudley Mountain near the now year-old battlefield of First Manassas. Jackson grimly held his position against Pope's attacks through August 29. On August 30, Longstreet's wing of Lee's army arrived and turned the tide of battle. During the late afternoon, after Pope had committed his last reserves to the attack on Jackson, Longstreet launched a massive assault into the flank of the Federal army, routing it from the field. Pope had indeed been "suppressed" at Second Manassas, losing some 16,000 casualties, 30 artillery pieces, 20,000 small arms and mountains of other supplies. Pope was relieved of command on September 2. McClellan was placed in command of all the forces around Washington, D.C.
Although Lee had gained another victory, it was unclear as to the best way to press his advantage. His forces could not stay in this area of northern Virginia, but to fall back would be to negate the advantages of his recent victory. His decision, therefore, was to invade Maryland. He hoped to gain support from the local populace of the state, and he also saw an opportunity to sway foreign opinion if he could win another victory on Northern soil. Washington, D.C. itself Lee knew was too strong to attack, but he hoped to be able to capture the 12,000 man Federal garrison at Harper's Ferry during his advance. To do so, he would have to take the risk to divide his army in enemy territory, but he felt that the Army of the Potomac was still demoralized from its recent defeats and McClellan, if remaining true to form, would react with all the speed of a tortoise.
The Army of the Potomac however, was not demoralized; it was to the contrary, still full of fight. Maryland did not welcome the Confederates with open arms, as had been hoped, and worst of all, McClellan had come by a copy of Lee's entire plan of operations for the Maryland Campaign. With this information in front of him, even McClellan was capable of moving fairly quickly.
Lee learned that McClellan had come into possession of a copy of his orders from an informer. His Army of Northern Virginia was now split into five segments. Lee desperately needed time to concentrate these elements to defend himself from the attack he knew McClellan would be planning. It was a near-run thing, but D.H. Hill, with reinforcements from Longstreet, was able to hold McClellan's army at bay at Turner's Gap in South Mountain long enough for Lee to form a defensive position at Sharpsburg, Maryland, behind Antietam Creek on September 15, 1862. The 12,500 man garrison at Harper's Ferry surrendered that same day. On September 16, McClellan was facing, at most, some 18,000 Confederates in line of battle. If he had attacked that day, he almost certainly would have crushed this small force. However, he did not attack, but instead spent the day planning and investigating the terrain; all this time, more and more Confederate reinforcements were arriving.
On September 17, McClellan finally attacked. Though Confederate reinforcements, in the form of the divisions of McLaws, Anderson, and A.P. Hill would be arriving throughout the day, McClellan at no time faced odds worse than two to one in his favor. Believing faulty intelligence estimates of Lee's strength, McClellan was unwilling to fully commit his army to the attack for fear of a Confederate trap. The result was a bloody see-saw battle that saw Lee and his outnumbered Confederates put in one of their best tactical performances and fight McClellan's army to a draw.
Lee retreated the following night and despite repeated urgings, McClellan failed to press forward a pursuit of Lee's forces. Antietam went down in history as the bloodiest single day of the war, with over 23,000 total casualties. Although a tactical failure for McClellan, he could count it a strategic victory since the Confederates had to retreat. This gave Lincoln the opportunity to issue his Emancipation Proclamation on September 23, 1862.
Despite continuing urging from Lincoln, McClellan could not be induced to advance and during the period of October 10-12, Stuart's cavalry again rode completely around the Federal army and did over $250,000 in damages, causing the government much embarrassment. Lincoln had had enough -- he fired McClellan and replaced him with Ambrose E. Burnside.
Major General Burnside did not want command of the Army of the Potomac, feeling that he was not competent to hold such a responsibility. He was ultimately overruled and forced to accept the assignment. To Burnside's credit, he did not suffer from false modesty -- he was incompetent. Burnside's offensive began well enough, stealing a march on Lee and moving rapidly down the Rappahannock River, planning to cross over to Fredericksburg on December 19, 1862. The pontoon bridges he had ordered, unfortunately, failed to arrive on time. This gave Lee the opportunity to shift his forces to cover the crossing. Excellent defensive terrain overlooked Fredericksburg on the south bank and Lee proceeded to construct prepared positions for his troops. Burnside should have seen that it was now an obvious mistake to attempt to assault Lee's lines. He did so anyway. The results were as might be generally expected under these conditions. Federal troops were rapidly cut down before they even came near the Confederate positions. Luckily for the Federals, Lee did not have the strength to launch his own counterattack after the attack was repulsed. Union heavy artillery on the opposite bank of the river served to protect the retreat of the surviving Federals back across the Rappahannock. In late January, 1863, Lincoln replaced Burnside with "Fighting Joe" Hooker to the command of the Army of the Potomac.
This Page last updated 11/22/03
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CHAPTER VI, The Western Theater: Bragg's Kentucky Campaign