Joseph Harsh’s Bogus “Lee Tried to Escape Sharpsburg on Sept. 16” Thesis

I recently kicked over a small hornet’s nest on Facebook by stating during a debate on the history of the Battle of Antietam that the historian Joseph L. Harsh fabricated a scenario which imagines Robert E. Lee planning to escape from Sharpsburg on the morning of September 16, 1862.

Friends of the late Dr. Harsh, and there are many in the Antietam battlefield guide community, took exception to my characterization of the man’s argument about Lee, demanding that I prove the charge I leveled.

I take no pleasure in doing it. Tearing down another historian is not something I enjoy, but since I have been asked to prove my accusation I offer the following analysis.

On page 332 of his book, Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862, Joseph Harsh makes the following perfectly reasonable speculative statement (I have added italics throughout this post to emphasize certain key words/phrases):

“In his thinking, Lee probably inclined, as he usually did, to a turning movement that would carry him around the enemy’s right flank.”

For the next paragraph, Harsh openly speculates concerning Lee’s thinking about where he should take his army. He offers no sources while doing so because he is engaged in a thought-experiment, which is perfectly in order. Finally, however, Harsh arrives at this slightly more definitive phrase, as if he is warming to his subject and growing more convinced of his own argument: “It must have made most sense to Lee to march north to Hagerstown. Here he could pick up exactly where he had left off three days before the Federals had foiled his plans.”

Another two paragraphs of undocumented speculation follows this before at last Harsh comes to the “proof” for his thesis. He sets this up as follows:

“How far Lee advanced his strategy as he paced among the guns at dawn cannot be known; but either then or before nine o’clock that morning, he issued two orders that revealed the direction his thinking had taken. First, he ordered a cavalry reconnaissance in force “up the Potomac” on the Maryland side. This was not a scout for additional fords for an escape from Sharpsburg, but a quest for information on routes to the north and northwest. … Second, Lee ordered the wagons remaining with the army … to cross the Potomac and retire to Shepherdstown, where the reserve trains of the army and of D. H. Hill and Longstreet had already gathered. Had Lee been planning on the morning of the 16th merely to stand and offer battle at Sharpsburg, he would certainly have kept the nonreserve ordnance wagons to supply ammunition for the fighting, and he would have fed the men from the subsistence wagons before sending them off. … Stripping away all cumbersome vehicles was, however, a logical preliminary for a swift movement through a narrow opening to the freedom for maneuver that lay beyond.”

Let’s start with methodology. Harsh sets up his “escape north thesis” in paragraphs of speculation before offering evidence. In other words, he starts with an idea and tries to prove it. This is exactly the opposite of what academic historians, which Joseph Harsh was, are trained to do. We are trained to evaluate the evidence and then offer an interpretation, not to speculate first and offer proof later. Had Harsh attempted such a rookie move in a graduate level history seminar he would have been called onto the carpet for it and yet here he is doing it in a history published by a university press.  

Now let’s look at the “evidence.” The proof Harsh proposes for his scenario does not say what he says it does. Here is the full von Borcke quote:

“General Stuart started on the morning of the 16th, the day before the great battle, with a part of his cavalry, on a reconnaissance up the Potomac, leaving me with ten of our couriers at headquarters, with orders to receive and open all reports and despatches addressed to him, and to forward any important information to Generals Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet.” (Von Borcke, Memoirs, 226)

This is all von Borcke, Stuart’s chief of staff, wrote. He wrote nothing about Lee’s purpose for the operation. That information is supplied by William Blackford, whom Harsh mentions in his footnotes, but does not quote. Why does Harsh not quote Blackford? It is because Blackford’s recollection does not fit his “Lee trying to escape” thesis. Here is Blackford:

“As the great masses of the enemy came pouring through the passes of South Mountain and came in contact with our infantry occupying the line of hills along the creek they opened the engagement, gradually moving further and further to our left. General Stuart was actively engaged during the morning of the 16th in a reconnaissance to discover their movements in that direction. Seeing skirmishers enter a field further to the left than they had yet appeared, General Lee ordered Stuart to discover and unmask their intentions and if necessary for this purpose to attack them with his whole cavalry force. What General Lee wanted to know was whether at this particular point they were in force or whether it was only cavalry.” (Blackford, War Years, 147-148).

Does this text make any reference to Lee seeking an open route north from Sharpsburg? Does any of Blackford’s or von Borcke’s information substantiate the definitive claim made by Harsh: “This was not a scout for additional fords for an escape from Sharpsburg, but a quest for information on routes to the north and northwest.”

It does not.

One cannot legitimately interpret anything written by either man in the terms offered by Joseph Harsh. There isn’t an iota of agreement between what Harsh says Lee wanted and what the sources say he wanted. Blackford’s statement, in fact, supports the notion that Lee intended to fight, not that he planned to evacuate his position, but Blackford didn’t support Harsh’s argument so he conveniently left it out.

What about the movement of Confederate wagons back to (West) Virginia? Surely that substantiates Harsh’s speculation presented as fact. Sadly, no, as not even the orders Lee gave have been found. What is the source for Harsh’s speculation? It is a report from a Union observation post stating “An immense train of the enemy’s wagons is moving on the road from Sharpsburg to Shepherdstown.” (Official Records, Vol 19, Part 1, 137).

What does this statement say that supports Harsh’s argument? If you answered nothing, you’re correct. It says nothing about Lee’s motives or plans or thoughts or whatever else Joseph Harsh decided to claim it says. Lee’s orders for the trains to move west across the river could just as easily be seen as an effort to keep the fords clear in the event his army needed to retreat from its position. We simply don’t know. We cannot know. To claim otherwise is intellectually dishonest.  

These two statements above are the sum total of the “evidence” that Harsh offers to substantiate his speculation about Lee’s possible northward escape.

If these leaps of interpretational excess aren’t enough, Harsh compounds his falsehood by later abandoning speculative language altogether. Compare his original conjecture: “In his thinking, Lee probably inclined, as he usually did, to a turning movement that would carry him around the enemy’s right flank;” with the definitive language he uses twelve pages later: “Lee had predicted that “there would not be much fighting” on the 16th. Implicitly, he believed McClellan would give him another twenty-four hours to escape from the box at Sharpsburg.” Consider also the unambiguous title of the chapter sub-section immediately following the aforementioned quote: “McClellan Shuts the Window.” (Harsh, Taken, 344)  

And there you have it – notions initially proposed by Harsh as conjecture neatly twisted into “facts” that are not facts at all.

There is no evidence – not a single shred – that even hints Lee sought to escape from Sharpsburg. Joseph Harsh fabricated the entire scenario and passed it off as reality. The historical community then accepted his bogus claims without question, forcing others to take his contrivance into account in their histories. An entire generation of historians, battlefield guides, and enthusiasts have had their understanding of Lee’s stand at Sharpsburg shaped by what amounts to a lie.

Good historians should never make declarative or definitive statements without having the evidence to back them up. If I am speculating in my writing, I make it clear so the reading audience does not confuse my opinions with what the sources tell us. I expect the same professional approach from other historians and give them my respect based upon the extent to which they adhere to the standards of conduct in our field. Joseph Harsh’s work in this case clearly fails this basic tenet of doing history and the fact that no one has called him out on it until now is shameful.

Chapter Six of The Guns of September Now Available

Chapter 6 introduces Col. Jacob Higgins and the men of the 125th PA Volunteers on their march to Frederick, MD. A very large regiment of green troops, Higgins’s men represent the nearly 20% of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac that moved northwest to meet Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia after it had crossed the Potomac River into Maryland. These Pennsylvania volunteers barely knew how to follow commands on the field, having only mustered in around mid-August. Higgins must get his men ready quickly if they are to stand any chance on the battlefield against Lee’s veterans.

Happy New Year! Chapter Five of The Guns of September Now Available

Happy 2021, everyone!

Today’s installment brings General McClellan back into the picture. Ride with him into Frederick, Maryland, on the morning of September 13, one day after his army has taken the city. Witness the cheering crowd welcome the general and then follow him to Ambrose Burnside’s headquarters on the east side of town.

With luck, the entire book will be out this year. I’ll keep everyone posted. Enjoy!

Merry Christmas! Chapter Four of The Guns of September Now Available

Greetings, All!

I’m a couple of weeks late posting this due to numerous obligations keeping me too busy before Christmas, but now that the holiday is behind us I finally found a moment to get it done.

Chapter four introduces Lucy Settle to the story. A women’s rights activist who lives in Middletown, Maryland, Settle finds herself caught away from home as the fight for Hagan’s Gap erupts atop Catoctin Mountain. She is a new type of character for this story, intended to capture a sense of the political ferment in American society prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. The movement to achieve voting rights for women began in the late 1840s under the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. What many people don’t know about Stanton and Anthony is that they also campaigned for the abolition of slavery, and when the war broke out they set-aside their political objectives to focus exclusively on supporting the war effort against the “slave power” of the South.

Settle acts as a kind of embodiment of the northern conscience in the story, bringing female balance to what is already an overwhelmingly male-dominated tale. I hope everyone enjoys her introduction.

With Christmas behind us I’ll wish everyone a Happy New Year! Thank you all from the bottom of my heart for the support. Let’s make 2021 a good one to remember.

Chapter Three of The Guns of September Now Available

Introducing Captain George Armstrong Custer. A member of General George B. McClellan’s headquarters staff, Custer has been attached to the Eighth Illinois Cavalry Regiment as an observer west of Frederick, Maryland. Join Custer in the fight for Hagan’s Gap against Jeb Stuart’s Rebel rearguard and scout the enemy’s line for an opening.

Comments and feedback are welcome.

Chapter One of The Guns of September Now Available

Due out in Spring 2021, The Guns of September: a Novel of McClellan’s Army in Maryland, 1862 tells the story of George B. McClellan and the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War campaign against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. It is the follow-up to Six Days in September: A Novel of Lee’s Army in Maryland, 1862 (Savas Beatie, 2017), which told the same story from the Confederate perspective and that of townspeople in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Chapter One, provided here for the first time, describes the situation as General McClellan knew it on Friday, September 12, 1862, before the discovery of a lost copy of Lee’s Special Orders No. 191. It sets the stage for the rest of the campaign to unfold over the next six days.

Enjoy and please leave comments to let me know what you think!

Summer Lecture Series Slides 08/19/20

Welcome! For those interested in virtually attending my Jacob Rohrbach Inn Summer Lecture Series presentation on August 19, 2020, here are images of the slides for reference in case they cannot clearly be seen during the Facebook Live presentation. Hope everyone finds them useful and enjoys the event.

Rossino Summer Lecture Series Presentation


An Update

Although COVID-19 has pretty much ruined this year for me and other writers who like to make public appearances, all is not lost!

There is a lot happening behind the scenes, so here is a quick update to fill everyone in.

First, publication of The Guns of September has been delayed yet again by the public health crisis. I had expected it to be out already, but now the new date is Spring 2021. Editing of the manuscript is 2/3 done and I think the book looks fantastic. I’m really looking forward to this one coming out and think readers will enjoy it. I’m working with Savas Beatie on potentially publishing a chapter here on this site, so stay tuned.

Next, I’m still out there in virtual land discussing Six Days in September. The Civil War Round Table Congress posted a presentation recently that we recorded in April 2020. In it I discuss the difference between writing small “h” history vs. big “H” history.

The former is novelized history that does not follow the convention of relying entirely on documents. The latter is standard history written according to the usual methodology. Is one better than the other? It depends on the proficiency of the writer and on what readers want. One thing I can assure you, however, is that books often published as “history” contain significant errors and even contrivances that render them as fictional as anything a novelist would write.

Consider for example the long-held argument that Robert E. Lee issued his order in the early morning for James Longstreet to attack the Union army outside of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. For decades this claim has been repeated despite the evidence showing that Lee never issued the order early in the day and that he never expected Longstreet to start his attack until the afternoon. In other words, the “history” everyone has been reading for decades is flat-out fiction.

In my presentation I ask readers to consider what they think history is and suggest its claims to the truth are not as reliable as one might think. Reading with a critical eye is more important now than ever. If as a reader you cannot go back to a source for the idea or argument being promoted then you are reading someone else’s later claim and not what the evidence actually says. Go back to the sources is the lesson!

Finally, I’ve completed a book of essays examining certain issues of importance to the history of the Confederate campaign in Maryland in September 1862. Here is a mock up of the cover.

Their maryland

The book is not a comprehensive history of the campaign. It contains chapters that focus on specific subjects and analyze what the available evidence tells us. I wrote the book after doing years of research on the subject for Six Days in September. Readers will thus have an ability to go back see where I may have gotten an idea for certain scenes in the book. Other readers interested strictly in the history can read it from that perspective. I make an effort to clear up some common misconceptions and to correct the historical record, which has over the years taken on a life of its own as writers pile layer upon layer of interpretation onto the story of the events. Eventually what the sources themselves say is what we need to go on. I try to take us back to that foundation.

Good luck to every one in these crazy times. Stay safe and be well.





Delays, delays, etc.

I’m beginning to think WordPress hates me. For the second time now I’ve been prevented from posting because I’ve become caught up in some kind of virtual doom loop that looks like my page but isn’t. Ugh!

There is plenty of news to share and you’ll be happy to know that none of it is Coronavirus related!

First, concerning The Guns of September, we have a tentative publication date of summer 2020. Ted and the good folks at Savas Beatie have all of the materials for the book, including maps, back cover blurbs, etc. so barring the end of western civilization I’m hopeful we’ll see the book out in a few months’ time.

In the meantime, the delay of Guns provided me with sufficient time to finish the historical essay volume I mentioned in my last post. I’m still calling it Their Maryland: Rebel Dreams, Aspirations, and Failure in September 1862.

The manuscript currently stands at 92,000 words or thereabouts, which is precisely what I had targeted. Here are the tentative chapter titles:


Chapter One

Rebel Revolutionary: Did Robert E. Lee Intend to Foment Rebellion in Maryland in September 1862?

Chapter Two

High Hopes: The Army of Northern Virginia Crosses the Potomac to Liberate Maryland, September 4-7, 1862

Chapter Three

Four Days on the Monocacy: Confederate Encampments Near Frederick City in September 1862 and the Implications for the Lost Orders Debate

Chapter Four

The Rocks of Reality: Maryland Civilians and Confederate Failure in the State

Chapter Five

Rebels Photographed in Frederick, Maryland: The Case for September 1862

Chapter Six

We Will Make Our Stand: A Critical Re-Assessment of Robert E. Lee’s Defensive Strategy at Antietam on September 15-16, 1862

Chapter Seven

A Very Personal Fight: Robert E. Lee at Sharpsburg, September 17, 1862


Ted and Savas Beatie have the manuscript for this volume, too, so we’ll be working it the second half of the year.

Lastly, I’ve managed to revise several sections of Six Days in September and run through the text to catch typos. These plagued the original publication due to a real shortage of time available to go back through the manuscript. Now I believe I’ve caught them all and changed a bit of the text, too. I’ll be giving a couple of chapters the once over this weekend to be sure before sending the manuscript off to SB. That’ll make three manuscripts from yours, truly in Ted’s inbox. He’ll have his hands full with them, I’m sure. 🙂

Once all of these are out I’m not certain what comes next. Frankly, having researched and written two books and one long essay in three years has left me a tad exhausted. Maybe a pina colada on a beach somewhere is in order! Well, a virtual beach, at least since I can’t travel.