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.

Author: Alex Rossino

Author and Historian

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

  1. Alex, in Lee’s letter book in the Virginia Historical Society there is a postwar letter from Lee to Mrs. Jackson which states that he and her husband on the 16th decided to give battle because he could not go back into Virginia “whipped”.

    This tells me that he was heading back to Virginia but only after he had fought one successful battle in Maryland.

    Until South Mountain Lee lost and retreated for the first time. McCllelan won and did not retreat for the first time.

    I do believe that Lee was going to retreat but not without a fight. He had failed in all of objectives in the Maryland Campaign by September 10.

    Mike Priest


    1. Hello Mike. Thanks for your comment. I agree with you. The evidence clearly shows that Lee intended to fight at Sharpsburg. That he did so and why he did so are different issues than the bogus escape north theory. I cover them in detail in Chapter 6 of my new book, Their Maryland, which is coming out in September. I prove using Lee’s own words that as of the date when he issued S.O. No. 191 Lee intended to fight in Maryland, not in Pennsylvania and draw the Army of the Potomac over South Mountain for a clash at Beaver Creek.

      McC’s receipt of S.O. No. 191 and the failure of HF to fall by the 14th forced Lee to defend the South Mountain gaps. This is something he had never intended to do. McC’s rapid advance from Frederick forced him to do it. Once McC forced Lee to defend his rear Lee initially tried to adhere to his Beaver Creek plan, even to the extent that in the afternoon on Sept. 14 he ordered Pendleton to establish the reserve artillery in that position. After the defeat at Turner’s Gap and especially Crampton’s Gap, Lee hesitated for a moment and ordered a retreat to Virginia. He then began to change his mind within hours after that decision. As he moved westward he found at Sharpsburg the same type of terrain he had intended to use at Beaver Creek. Word arrived from Jackson at 8:00 a.m. on Sept. 15 that HF would fall and Lee decided then to stand at Sharpsburg for good. Basically, he intended to execute his Beaver Creek plan at Sharpsburg.

      Why he decided to risk his army is also a matter of historical record. Quoting from Lee’s 1863 report: “The condition of Maryland (i.e., occupied by Federal troops and under martial law) encouraged the belief that the presence of our army … would induce the Washington Government to retain all its available force to provide against contingencies (i.e., popular rebellion) which its course toward the people of that State (i.e., military occupation) gave it reason to apprehend, it was [therefore] hoped that military success might afford us an opportunity to aid the citizens of Maryland in any efforts they might be disposed to make to recover their liberties.”

      Lee chose to fight at Sharpsburg in the hope that a victory would encourage the secession of Maryland from the union. This quote from Lee above matches another statement he made earlier in the campaign that made its way into the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sept. 12. That statement reads: “We extend the olive branch to them (i.e., Marylanders), and, should they accept it, we shall welcome and protect them, with the assurance that the next battle ground will be in Pennsylvania. But, should they not come forward, after having been amply assured that their property would be unmolested, and every guarantee given that the Southern army should remain on Maryland soil, for the maintenance of their sacred rights, then the battle-ground must hereafter be in Maryland.”

      Summing up, Lee intended to fight in Washington County and he set a trap for McClellan accordingly. Reading the lost orders led McClellan to advance more rapidly than Lee found convenient and so Lee had to fight at South Mountain. His reverse there then forced him to consider a new, alternate location in Washington County for the decisive clash he envisioned. Lee found that ground at Sharpsburg and called the rest of his army to him. After finding that the Army of the Potomac was not as demoralized as he had assumed, and facing reinforcements arriving for McClellan’s army, he wisely elected to retreat.


  2. Alex, Lee did not have an “army” at Sharpsburg. He had maybe 29000 men until the end of the day when part of Hill’s men arrived.

    He was not going north. His force was not large enough to do so. Mike

    Liked by 1 person

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