Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia,
Camp on the Opequon, near Smoketown, September 21, 1862
Mr. President: As stated to you yesterday, the march of the army toward Williamsport was arrested. General Jackson’s corps was turned back toward Shepherdstown, to rectify occurrences in that quarter. Only one or two brigades of the enemy’s infantry with cavalry had crossed the river, none of whom had entered Shepherdstown. They displayed a large force of artillery on the opposite bank. General A. P. Hill’s division pushed forward, and soon drove them across the river, when this army resumed its march. Only four pieces of artillery fell into the hands of the enemy, which they had carried across the river before they were attacked by A. P. Hill.
I regret also to report that on the night of the 14th instant, when I determined to withdraw from the gap in front of Boonsborough to Sharpsburg, a portion of General Longstreet’s wagon-train was lost. When his division was ordered back from Hagerstown to the support of D. H. Hill, his train was directed to proceed toward Williamsport, with a view to its safety, and, if necessary, to its crossing the river. Unfortunately, that night the enemy’s cavalry at Harper’s Ferry evaded our forces, crossed the Potomac into Maryland, passed up through Sharpsburg, where they encountered our pickets, and intercepted on their line of retreat to Pennsylvania General Longstreet’s train on the Hagerstown road. The guard was in the extreme rear of the train, that being the only direction from which an attack was apprehended. The enemy captured and destroyed 45 wagons, loaded chiefly with ammunition and subsistence.
The army is resting to-day on the Opequon, below Martinsburg. Its present efficiency is greatly paralyzed by the loss to its ranks of the numerous stragglers. I have taken every means in my power from the beginning to correct this evil, which has increased instead of diminished. A great many men belonging to the army never entered Maryland at all; many returned after getting there, while others who crossed the river kept aloof. The stream has not lessened since crossing the Potomac, though the cavalry has been constantly employed in endeavoring to arrest it. As illustrative of the fact, I inclose a report just received from General J. R. Jones, who was sent to Winchester to arrest stragglers at that point while the army was at Sharpsburg. It occasions me the greatest concern in the future operations of the army, for it is still my desire to threaten a passage into Maryland, to occupy the enemy on this frontier, and, if my purpose cannot be accomplished, to draw them into the Valley, where I can attack them to advantage. Some immediate legislation, in my opinion, is required, and the most summary punishment should be authorized. It ought to be construed into desertion in face of the enemy, and thus brought under the Rules and Articles of War. To give you an idea of its extent in some brigades, I will mention that, on the morning after the battle of the 17th, General Evans reported to me on the field, where he was holding the front position, that he had but 120 of his brigade present, and that the next brigade to his, that of General Garnett, consisted of but 100 men. General Pendleton reported that the brigades of Generals Lawton and Armistead, left to guard the ford at Shepherdstown, together contained but 600 men. This is a woeful condition of affairs, and I am pained to state it, but you ought not to be ignorant of the fact, in order, if possible, that you may apply the proper remedy. It is true that the army has had hard work to perform, long and laborious marches, and large odds to encounter in every conflict, but not greater than were endured by our revolutionary fathers, or than what an army must encounter to be victorious. There are brilliant examples of endurance and valor on the part of those who have had to bear the brunt in the battle and the labor in the field in consequence of this desertion of their comrades. I hope by a few days’ rest, if it is possible to give it, and the regular issue of rations, to restore the efficiency of the army for the work before it. The enemy I know has suffered on his side, especially his infantry, as they have been driven in all encounters. His artillery is numerous and powerful, and his re-enforcements arrive daily. I shall endeavor at least to detain him on this frontier and to give him sufficient employment. If re-enforcements, clothing, and shoes could be forwarded to the army, it would be of the greatest benefit.
I have not heard of General Loring for some time, nor do I know whether he is employed in the Valley of the Kanawha or where. From such information as I get, I believe the enemy has pretty much withdrawn from Western Virginia.
I am, with the highest respect, your obedient servant,
R E Lee
Source: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 1, pp. 142-143
Transcribed by Colin Woodward, 2016 September 16