Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 12

Camp-Fires of General Lee


THE surrender of Harper’s Ferry was not completed when a courier, his horse covered with foam, arrived from General Lee with orders for Stonewall Jackson to join him at once. Leaving A. P. Hill to receive the surrender and superintend the removal of the captured property, and directing McLaws and Walker to follow without a moment’s unnecessary delay, Jackson hurried to rejoin his chief. It was a time when no exertion could be spared, and the tired leader and equally tired men pushed forward all night with grim resolution, and reached Lee the next morning at Sharpsburg.

To understand the important events which immediately followed, it is necessary to go back a few days in the order of events; for the investment, assault and capture of Harper’s Ferry were simultaneous with momentous proceedings in other quarters.

It has already been shown that Lee never meditated a direct attack on Baltimore or Washington, but his manœuvres were made for the purpose of drawing McClellan away from those cities, with a view of falling upon them before “Little Mac” could return to their defence, or of compelling him to accept battle when removed from his base of supplies. General Lee left Frederick on the 10th, after Jackson had gone, and, moving by South Mountain, headed toward Boonsboro’. General Stuart with his cavalry was left east of the mountains to watch McClellan, who was known to be cautiously advancing. Word having reached Lee that the Federals were approaching from the direction of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, General Longstreet was sent to Hagerstown to keep an eye on their movements and to hold them in check, while D. H. Hill halted near Boonsboro’ with the purpose of shutting off the flight of the garrison at Harper’s Ferry through Pleasant Valley, and to render such support to the cavalry as might be needed.

General Lee was making some exceedingly close calculations and predicating enormous risks on their success. The first fact which he accepted as already demonstrated was that Harper’s Ferry would be compelled to capitulate on the 13th. McClellan was advancing so tardily that he would give Jackson time to return and rejoin Lee before the Federals could make an attack; but Harper’s Ferry was not captured until the 15th, and McClellan did not allow the grass to grow under his feet, though it must be admitted that it sprouted. So soon as it was known that General Lee had crossed into Maryland, General McClellan moved to Frederick City to meet him. He reached that point on the 12th, and drove out the cavalry left there by General Stuart to watch him.

The Federal army, it will be remembered, was composed of the remnants of the Army of Virginia and the Army of the Potomac, and it had bean placed in charge of McClellan in obedience to the demands of the country and of the army itself. Hooker commanded the First Corps (McDowell’s old corps); General Reno, the Ninth Corps, formerly of Burnside’s old force; and the Twelfth Corps, formerly commanded by Banks, was under General Mansfield. Besides these, Burnside’s corps was brought up from Fredericksburg and attached to McClellan’s forces. The effective strength of this army was eighty-seven thousand one hundred and sixty-four men of all arms.

On the march to Frederick City, General McClellan advanced by five parallel roads, with the purpose of covering Washington and Baltimore. The left flank rested on the Potomac, and the right on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

All this time, as will be remembered, General McClellan was in utter ignorance of Lee’s plan of campaign; hence the extreme caution with which he advanced. But at this juncture a most extraordinary piece of good-fortune befell the Union commander. When he reached Frederick, on the morning of the 13th, an officer picked up a piece of paper from a small table in the house which had served as the headquarters of General D. H. Hill. He observed the printed heading, “Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia,” and, naturally enough, unfolded and read the paper, whose great importance requires that it should be given in full:

September 9, 1862.

Special Orders No. 191.

The army will resume its march to-morrow, taking the Hagerstown road. General Jackson’s command will form the advance, and after passing Middleton, with such portion as he may select, will take the route toward Sharpsburg, cross the Potomac at the most convenient point, and by Friday night take possession of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, capture such of the enemy as may be at Martinsburg and intercept such as may attempt to escape from Harper’s Ferry.

General Longstreet’s command will pursue the same road as far as Boonsboro’, where it will halt with the reserve, supply and baggage trains of the army.

General McLaws, with his own division and that of General R. H. Anderson, will follow General Longstreet. On reaching Middleton he will take the route to Harper’s Ferry, and by Friday morning possess himself of the Maryland Heights and endeavor to capture the enemy at Harper’s Ferry and vicinity.

General Walker with his division, after accomplishing the object in which he is now engaged, will cross the Potomac at Cheek’s Ford and ascend its right bank to Lovettsville, take possession of Loudon Heights if practicable by Friday morning, Key’s Ford on his left, and the road between the end of the mountain and the Potomac on his right. He will, as far as practicable, co-operate with General McLaws and General Jackson in intercepting the retreat of the enemy.

General D. H. Hill’s division will form the rear-guard of the army, pursuing the road taken by the main body. The reserve, artillery, ordnance and supply trains, etc., will precede General Hill.

General Stuart will detach a squadron of cavalry to accompany the commands of Generals Longstreet, Jackson and McLaws, and with the main body of the cavalry will cover the route of the army and bring up all stragglers that may have been left behind.

The commands of Generals Jackson, McLaws and Walker, after accomplishing the objects for which they were detached, will join the main body of the army at Boonsboro’ or Hagerstown.

It is easy to imagine how the eye of McClellan kindled when this paper was placed in his hands and he read it through from beginning to end. It gave him the very knowledge for which he was seeking, and for which his government could have afforded to pay millions of dollars. There, on the white paper before him, was a full revelation of Lee’s plans, heretofore an impenetrable mystery to the Union commander, and the prosecution of which had thrown the North into consternation.

No doubt General Lee smiled in his dignified way when he sat down a few days before to examine the contents of General Pope’s despatch-book, but it is safe to conclude that McClellan smiled almost to his ears when he perused a copy of “Special Orders No. 191.”

The possession of this document was of the greatest value to General McClellan. It furnished him with an accurate description of General Lee’s designs, showed him the disposition of his forces, and gave him an advantage over the Southern army which the reader will readily appreciate, and which should have resulted the destruction of the Army of Northern Virginia. In short, that army was by the discovery of this order placed at the mercy of General McClellan.*

The Union leader saw the inestimable value of the hours, and instantly set to work to use to the utmost the knowledge which had come to him in such an extraordinary manner. Naturally, he decided to take advantage of the division of Lee’s army by securing the passes of South Mountain, occupying Pleasant Valley, beating the Confederate army in detail and rescuing Colonel Miles at Harper’s Ferry from Stonewall Jackson, who was on the point of griping the garrison by the throat. McClellan advanced swiftly, and on the afternoon of the 13th was in front of the passes of South Mountain. At that very hour McLaws and Anderson were placing their forces in position at Harper’s Ferry.

After leaving the Potomac, beginning at the northern shore of that river and extending through Pennsylvania, the great range of the Blue Ridge is called the South Mountain. Two miles farther westward is the range known as Maryland Heights. The country lying between these two ranges is named Pleasant Valley, and is from two to three miles in width; it is very rugged, and almost Alpine in its character. There are two roads leading from Frederick City to the western part of the State—the main, or Hagerstown, road, which passes the South Mountain at Turner’s Gap, near the village of Boonsboro’; and another, which passes the mountain at Crampton’s Gap, about five or six miles farther to the south. These passes are very strong, and are impregnable against direct attack if properly defended. They may be turned, however, by mountain-roads leading to positions commanding them, high upon the sides of the mountain.**

The Confederate cavalry in front of the passes of South Mountain exerted themselves to check McClellan, but he drove them back without difficulty. He then determined to throw his centre and right against the pass leading to Boonsboro’, while Franklin’s corps was to force the passage of Crampton’s Gap, assail McLaws in the rear, drive him away and rescue the garrison at Harper’s Ferry.

On the afternoon of the 13th, shortly after McClellan’s arrival at South Mountain, Lee learned of his presence there; he saw at once that the Union commander, by some means unknown to him, had penetrated his designs. General D. H. Hill was ordered to occupy Turner’s Gap and prevent McClellan from forcing his way through. Lee was still ignorant of what was going on at Harper’s Ferry, though confident it would fall that day, which was the date fixed for its capture. He had counted on being joined by Jackson and his forces before McClellan could strike him, and but for the discovery of the orders sent to D. H. Hill the junction would have been effected as originally intended. This hope was frustrated, and it now became necessary to hold McClellan east of the mountains until the fall of Harper’s Ferry, and until Jackson could reunite with the main body of the Confederate army.

General D. H. Hill understood the danger that threatened the army. He sent back the brigades of Garland and Colquitt, and shortly after moved his whole division to the Gap. McClellan, as usual, was tardy in his movements. Had he displayed the vim and dash of Jackson, he would have possessed himself of the passes before the Confederates had time to take such precautions. At the time the Federals appeared in front the Confederates numbered scarcely two thousand, but they made such a bold stand that McClellan hesitated until General Hill had placed his whole division in position. But this division was only five thousand strong, and could not hold the entire line against such an attack as the Federals were capable of making. Hill could occupy the pass itself, but could not defend the two mountain roads by either of which the position might be turned.

Early in the forenoon Reno opened a sharp artillery-fire on the Confederate right, forgetting the high precipitous peak which overlooked and commanded the ridge to the right of the pass. Garland’s brigade at first checked the Federal advance, but, their commanding officer being killed, his men were demoralized and driven back, and Reno established himself on the first ridge on the mountain-side. A vigorous continuance of the charge, and the Federals would have gained the road; but they had suffered severely, General Reno himself being killed. General Hill ordered up Anderson’s brigade to replace that of Garland. They were directed to hold the road, and Colonel Rosser, with his cavalry regiment dismounted as sharpshooters, and a battery of artillery were ordered to hold a mountain-path farther to the right. Colquitt’s brigade and two batteries were sent to the support of Anderson, and several guns were placed in position to command the approach to the precipitous peak, which the Federals might have seized long before.

The vital importance of this peak was so clear to all that the Unionists determined to secure possession of it. When Hooker arrived with his corps, in the middle of the afternoon, he was ordered to carry the position, and he made the attempt with great spirit and bravery. The ground is very difficult, but the Federals ran nimbly forward, leaping over the obstructions like so many deer. The Confederate artillery did little damage, owing to the precipitous character of the ground, but the riflemen, behind trees, rocks and everything that would afford shelter, poured a murderous fire into their assailants. They fought bravely, however, and before it was dark had carried the crest.

Longstreet’s main column had reached the pass about the middle of the afternoon, and his troops were stationed on both sides of the turnpike, near the centre of Hill’s line. They were speedily engaged, and, though just in from a severe march, they fought with great spirit and repulsed the Federal attack on the centre; but when darkness ended the conflict, the advantage was on the side of the Union forces. Though they had lost many men, including General Reno, the Confederate loss was still greater. They had repulsed every attempt against their centre, but on the left the peak held by Rodes’s brigade had been carried, and the whole Confederate line was commanded by the guns of the Federals. Their position was no longer tenable, and Lee decided to retire from South Mountain and take position at Sharpsburg.

Lee had heard from Jackson that Harper’s Ferry was certain to be captured the next day, and there was no special reason, therefore, for holding the mountain any longer. When stationed at Sharpsburg, he would be on the flank of any Federal force moving through Pleasant Valley upon the Confederates on Maryland Heights. Furthermore, he would hold the fords of the Potomac, thus preserving his line of retreat to Virginia should he meet with a reverse.


* McCabe’s Life and Campaigns of General Lee.

* McCabe.

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