After a long wait, my new book is out. Supply chain delays, printer delays, etc. held it up for an extra month, but it finally got here. The wait was worth it, too! A colorized version of Alfred Waud’s sketch adorns the cover and the moon really pops out. Savas Beatie did a fantastic job with the design.
Readers – if you’d like to buy a copy, please email me at arossino at hotmail dot com or comment on this post. The cost for a signed copy is $30 plus shipping.
The recent news about Gen. Mark Milley contacting Chinese officials behind the back of then-President Trump reminds me of an even more scandalous incident that occurred soon after the end of the 1862 Maryland Campaign. In late September, a comment made by Major John J. Key, an officer attached to the staff of general-in-chief Henry Halleck and brother of Major General George McClellan’s closest advisor, Colonel Thomas M. Key, came to the attention of President Abraham Lincoln.
In response to the question asked by Major Levi C. Turner why the Rebel army was not “bagged” by McClellan at Antietam, Major Key is alleged to have said in response, “That is not the game; the object is that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery.” Lincoln called Key and Turner to the White House and after questioning them he immediately had Key removed from the U.S. Army when the major did not deny the content of the comment.
An alternate version of this story appeared in the New York Times a few days later that has long fascinated me because of the differences from the notes that Lincoln took of the incident. Here is the text of that report, with bold print emphasis of my own added to it.
Major Key, who is brother to Col. Key, of Gen. McClellan’s staff, was attached to Gen. Halleck’s staff on Gen. McClellan’s recommendation. Some few days after the battle of Antietam, an officer asked Major Key … what was “the reason of our army’s neglecting the military axiom which says that a beaten, crippled, or retreating enemy is always to be pursued?” To this Major Key responded, that “the immediate destruction of the rebel army was not the programme.”
It would be better, he said, to let the war linger on indecisively, and with advantages to both sides, until the end of Mr. Lincoln’s term, when it “could be settled on a compromise which would save slavery.”
The officer to whom these remarks were made paid no particular attention to them, such utterances being unfortunately too familiar in certain circles of the army; but in the course of a casual conversation with a member of the Cabinet—Secretary Chase, it is said—he mentioned “the programme” as one of interest, considering the authority on which it had been put forth. The matter, with commendable promptness, was immediately laid by the cabinet officer before the president, who instantly caused the officer who had repeated Major Key’s conversation to be sent for.
Astonished at the serious turn things were taking, the officer (i.e., Maj. Turner) appeared; and, on being cross-examined, though reluctant to injure Major Key, was obliged to give the whole conversation, the substance of which was then reduced to writing by Mr. Hay, the president’s private secretary.
Major Key was then sent for, and appeared before the president in company with the officer to whom he had first spoken. The minutes of the alleged conversation were then read to him, and he was asked had he been guilty of imputing any such motives to Gen. McClellan. To this Major Key responded, stating that he had undoubtedly used the language alleged—after which he commenced launching out into a general vindication of the sacredness of slavery and the justifiability of the policy of inaction, or any other policy, which had for its object to preserve it.
“Stop, sir,” interrupted Mr. Lincoln, “I have not sent for you to discuss with you the abstract question of slavery, its sacredness or the reverse. But I am clearly of opinion that no officer can wear shoulder straps under my commission, who does not believe in the policy of winning decisive victories wherever they are to be had. You may go, sir; you shall hear from me.”
Thus terminated this extraordinary interview. Notification of the case was immediately sent to Gen. Halleck, and next morning the order appeared, giving Major Key permanent leave of absence from duty, and allowing him his whole time in which to consider the futility of “programmes” and the uncertainty of the favor of princes.
This account of the incident makes it sound far more serious than the account preserved by Lincoln. It adds the detail that McClellan supposedly recommended Major Key to Halleck’s staff. If true, does this mean that McClellan, perhaps at the prompting of Colonel Key, intended to plant a mole in Halleck’s office to keep him abreast of events on the inside of the administration while he was in the field?
Add to this the detail that the armies were to maintain a stalemate until late 1864 in order to have Lincoln either beaten at the polls or forced by Northern war-weariness to sue for peace. Two years is a long time to wait, however, leading me to wonder about the veracity of the statement.
Even more interesting is the question if Key was “guilty of imputing any such motives to Gen. McClellan.” From the response recorded it appears he was not, but the possibility that Lincoln asked the question may indicate a suspicion that McClellan was up to no good behind his back. That Lincoln asked the question of Key also may be implied a comment recorded in the diary of John Hay, the president’s secretary, concerning McClellan’s inactivity after the Battle of Antietam.
“The general’s inexplicable slowness had at last excited the President’s distrust. He began to think, before the end of October, that McClellan had no real desire to beat the enemy. He set in his own mind the limit of his forbearance. He adopted for his guidance a test which he communicated to no one until long afterwards, on which he determined to base his final judgment of McClellan. If he should permit Lee to cross the Blue Ridge and place himself between Richmond and the Army of the Potomac he would remove him from command. These are the President’s own words taken down at the time they were uttered.”
All of this sounds like Lincoln began to wonder if “the programme” revealed by Key was not an actual conspiracy of which McClellan was part. Exploring the question of a treasonous movement among the upper echelons of the Army of the Potomac’s officer corps is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say the subject is fascinating fuel for speculation. It also serves as a reminder that claims of disloyalty among senior U.S. Army officers is nothing new in American politics. People raised questions about the loyalty of George McClellan during the Civil War, too, and that whiff of treason continues to haunt his name to this day.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.