Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 13

Camp-Fires of General Lee


MEANWHILE, stirring events were taking place six miles to the southward, at Crampton’s Gap. Franklin had reached there in the middle of the forenoon of the 14th, and immediately threw forward both of his divisions, Slocum on the right and Smith on the left. The pass was defended by a part of McLaws’s force, who himself was engaged in the investment of Harper’s Ferry. The Confederates were driven back from the base of the mountain, where they were sheltered by a stone wall, and forced up its precipitous sides. General Howell Cobb had been directed by McLaws to hold the pass if he had to lose every man while doing so, but he believed the attacking force was much less than it was. Such also was the opinion of General Stuart, who had been attentively watching the battle. It required three hours for the Federals to carry the pass, but they finally succeeded, capturing several hundred prisoners and stand of arms, including one piece of artillery.

When General McLaws learned that the Unionists had taken Crampton’s Pass, he saw he was placed in a dangerous situation. Harper’s Ferry had not yet fallen, and his retreat up Pleasant Valley was cut off. If he withdrew along the river-shore at the base of Maryland Heights, his force would be decimated by the fire of the garrison at Harper’s Ferry and Franklin would fall upon his rear. To attempt to retreat in any other direction would be equally certain to bring disaster. There seemed but the one thing to do—fight it out on that line if it took all the autumn. General McLaws, therefore, left only one regiment to hold Maryland Heights, while the major portion of his force took position in Pleasant Valley, less than two miles from Crampton’s Gap, from which Franklin’s soldiers were issuing into the valley. The bold front of the Confederates deceived Franklin, and, darkness coming on shortly after, no further demonstration was made that evening.

McLaws expected that as a matter of course he would be attacked early the next morning, but Franklin began cautiously manœuvring to obtain a position from which his artillery could command the Confederate line. McLaws was silently awaiting the attack, when news reached him that Harper’s Ferry had surrendered and he was ordered to withdraw to the south side of the Potomac, and to lose not an hour in hastening to the assistance of Lee. McLaws did his duty well. He crossed over to Harper’s Ferry early in the afternoon, and on the following morning went into camp at Halltown, where his men were given a little rest, which they sorely needed. The march was taken up again the next day, and just as the sun was rising on the 17th he joined Lee at Sharpsburg.

When the Confederates withdrew, on the morning of the 15th, McClellan pushed forward with all his army in pursuit; but he had not advanced far when the heads of his columns were checked at Antietam Creek, a small stream which, running toward the Potomac, empties into it six miles above Harper’s Ferry. On the hills west of this brook General Lee had turned at bay, and was waiting with his army to give the Federals battle. McClellan had interfered a great deal with the plans of the Confederate leader, although he had not been able to prevent his carrying out the main object of his campaign. The cowardice of the garrison at Harper’s Ferry and the resistance received at South Mountain had enabled Jackson not only to capture the former, but had given him the opportunity to rejoin his chief and afford his priceless assistance in the general engagement that was at hand.

But many things had gone amiss with Lee. The unexplainable occupancy of Harper’s Ferry by the Federals had caused him to modify his original plan far enough to lead him to turn aside and capture that point. Though this capture was unexpectedly easy, it necessarily occupied several days which were of the utmost account. Worst of all was the discovery of “Special Orders No. 191,” by which the whole minutiæ of the Confederate campaign was laid bare to General McClellan, who, as McCabe remarks, was given such an advantage that he ought to have destroyed the Confederate army.

The Confederate army well-nigh went to pieces from straggling; the enfeebled, the sick, the footsore, the barefooted and the lame dropped out of the ranks and were strung all along the weary march. So great, indeed, was this straggling that at one time General Lee lost heart and declared that his army was ruined. It had become imperatively necessary, therefore, that he should turn at bay and not only deliver battle, but allow many of the stragglers who were laboring painfully forward to join him. The army which had faced about on the west bank of Antietam Creek when the battle opened numbered less than forty thousand muskets.

The position chosen by Lee was admirable. At his back was the Potomac, which by a series of most extraordinary curves offered the best possible protection to his flanks. In the centre of the small peninsula was the little town of Sharpsburg, from which start four principal roads. The upper one runs almost due north, toward Hagerstown; the second follows a south-west course, toward Shepherdstown; the third runs south-east, to Rohrersville, and crosses Antietam Creek a short distance from Sharpsburg; away to the north-east stretches the fourth road, through Keedysville, on the Antietam, to Boonsboro’. Thus from Sharpsburg as a centre extended four great arms almost at right angles to one another. It was by the road to the north-east that the advance divisions of the Army of the Potomac debouched on the evening of September 15, in front of the Confederate position on the west side of Antietam Creek. General Lee had posted his men so as to guard two of the stone bridges across the creek, the other two which span the stream being so far removed that they were considered of no importance; besides, his lines would have been too attenuated had he attempted to guard those bridges. But above the upper bridge were a number of fords easily accessible. Instead of coming down to the edge of the stream to defend these, Lee drew his army back in the direction of the Potomac, so as to close the peninsula and rest the end of his line on that river.

On the evening of the 15th, when the Federal army emerged to view, Lee had not yet consolidated his forces, as we have stated; in fact, his halt had for one of its main purposes this very junction of his scattered soldiers, to save them from being destroyed by McClellan in detail. He had twenty thousand men with him when he turned at bay, and he had succeeded in posting only two brigades of Longstreet’s corps, under Hood, to the north of the town, where it confronted the advance of the Federals by the upper fords. The principal part of his force remained in front of the positions which McClellan began to take with his main army. Longstreet had deployed on the right of the Boonsboro’ road, and Hill on the left. The ground was elevated, and could not have been better chosen: the surface was so rough and uneven, as it sloped away to the creek, that it rendered manœuvring by an attacking force very difficult.

Strange fact that the centre of the Confederate line should have been marked by a church which seemed to shrink from the dreadful havoc that impended! That house of God, where the words of peace and good-will toward men had been so often proclaimed, was to tremble with the roar of cannon, and the ground was to run red with the blood of brothers arrayed against brothers. The structure, known as “Dunker Church,” stands just west of the Hagerstown turnpike, about equally distant from Sharpsburg, the Potomac and Antietam Creek. It is close to the intersection of a cross-road running north-east, and a dense wood skirts the road at that point. Farther on toward Hagerstown was an extensive clearing almost enclosed by woods; it sometimes bordered the road and at intervals drew away from it. It extended, also, a considerable distance to the east of the highway just above the church.

In the direction of the Antietam the ground was likewise difficult and rocky, and Lee had drawn up his army in such position that if McClellan threatened his extended left he could mass his troops at that point, so as to resist an attack, while, with the two bridges oil his right and the narrow neck of the peninsula on his left to defend, he was able, in case of reverse, to retreat over the Potomac by the Shepherdstown ford.

The Federal army began arriving on the banks of the Antietam toward the close of the 15th, and by dawn on the next morning all had reached the place, with the exception of the two divisions of the Sixth Corps and those of Morell and Couch, while more than one-third of Lee’s army was yet on the right bank of the Potomac. McClellan, therefore, still held the opportunity for an overwhelming assault, and a fog overhung the field of operations; so that his movements could have been screened from the Confederates. But the Federal commander was not that kind of a general: he did not propose to exhaust his men by hurrying them into position. He waited until the sun dissipated the mists, in order that he might see where they were going; this took until the middle of the day, and the most precious hours were irrecoverably lost to the Federal commander.

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