Lee’s Beaver Creek Plan

Here is my article on Lee’s strategy during the 1862 Maryland Campaign that appeared in the June 2022 issue of North & South magazine. N&S recently went to an all digital format due to supply chain difficulties, so I’m not certain as many people as hoped will have a chance to read the issue. I am therefore making the article available here for those who come by to visit and want to download a copy.

There are a couple of minor errors in the article that I never had the chance to correct before it went to print. N&S will be noting these corrections in its next issue.

Corrections:

– The date of Lee’s comments to Edward C. Gordon is February 1868, not April 1868. The erroneous date appears twice.

– The proper date in caption of the image on p. 27 should be September 12-13, 1862, not September 27. This latter date is for the issue of Harper’s Weekly the image appeared in, not the date of it’s sketching.

Enjoy!

AR

Lee’s Beaver Creek Plan, North & South, June 2022, Series II, Vol. 3, No. 1

What I’ve Been Up To

Hello, everyone. My apologies for the time away. I’ve been so busy with other aspects of life that it’s been a while since my last post.

A lot of things are happening in the background, however, so here’s an update.

  1. Lee’s Beaver Creek Plan. Appearing in the next issue of North & South Magazine (should be in May 2022), this article provides evidence that General Robert E. Lee’s plan for the Maryland Campaign after the fall of Harpers Ferry involved re-assembling his army in Washington County, Maryland, for a final, war-winning clash with the Federal Army of the Potomac at a place called Beaver Creek. Located about 4 miles south of Funkstown, and about 5 miles north of Boonsboro, the heights behind Beaver Creek would have provided Lee’s army with a formidable defensive position. Lee hoped to whip his adversary at that place so that the enemy could not reinforce himself or retreat to the fortifications around Washington, DC, providing a war-ending victory.

    A combination of events, including the loss of Special Orders No. 191 and the failure of Harpers Ferry to surrender as early as Lee had anticipated, forced the Confederate general to defend the passes over South Mountain at a disadvantage, resulting in a defeat that sent his army reeling back toward Virginia. That is until Maj. Gen. Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson confirmed the impending fall of Harpers Ferry and Lee found terrain comparable to the Beaver Creek heights behind Antietam Creek, which prompted him to take position and fight the battle of Sharpsburg/Antietam on September 16-17, 1862.

  2. Lee’s Moment of Hesitation: Confederate Defeat at South Mountain. Accepted for publication in 2023 by the newly-created Antietam Institute in Sharpsburg, Maryland, this essay documents how Lee did not return to South Mountain at daybreak on the morning of September 14, 1862, as Lee and his lieutenant, Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, claimed. Instead, Lee hesitated on the morning of the fight at South Mountain, probably hoping to pull back Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill from the mountain to Beaver Creek, and in the hope that news from Jackson would soon arrive, allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to re-assemble in the vicinity of Hagerstown, Maryland, for a fight with the Army of the Potomac. Evidence cited in the essay proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Lee did not get Longstreet on the road until after 9:00 a.m. when gunfire broke out at Hill’s positions at Turner’s and Fox’s Gaps. As a consequence of this late departure, Lee forced Longstreet’s men to practically run 13-16 miles from the vicinity of Hagerstown to South Mountain, a strenuous march that cost Longstreet roughly 50% of his combat strength. This loss helped the Federals turn both of Hill’s flanks atop the mountain and forced the Rebels to retreat toward Sharpsburg. Lee and Longstreet then lied about their early morning march both during and after the war, probably in an effort to save face for their error.

  3. Special Orders No. 191: The Importance of Their Loss to Confederate Operations in Maryland. Under consideration by America’s Civil War magazine, this article argues that evaluating the true importance of the loss of Special Orders No. 191 to the outcome of the Maryland Campaign must take into consideration the impact of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s sudden advance on September 13, 1862, had on the operations of the Confederate army. In the article I document 3 knock-on effects that ruined Confederate chances to win a victory in Maryland during that campaign.

    First, how McClellan’s advance ruined Lee’s plan for a fight at Beaver Creek by forcing him to fight at a disadvantage atop South Mountain.

    Second, that the defensive position Lee took at Sharpsburg was unfavorable to his army compared to the defensive position Lee had wanted to take at Beaver Creek. This change of position forced by McClellan gave the Federals much more favorable ground on which to fight than they would have had if Lee had been able to execute his original plan.

    Third, that the emergency created by McClellan forced the Rebel army to come back together very rapidly using forced marches. This strain on Lee’s men, who were already exhausted by a long summer of fighting and marching, led many to fall out of the ranks (i.e., straggle), reducing Confederate combat strength at precisely the time when Lee needed it the most. This then increased McClellan’s odds of winning the victory the Union cause needed so desperately in September 1862.

  4. The Tale Untwisted. We’re close! Copyediting and formatting of the manuscript is complete. Once the final galleys get to me I’ll finish the index and it’ll be off to the printer. The last I heard Savas Beatie is hoping to have the book published in July 2022. Only paperback copies will be printed in the first run due to supply chain problems securing cloth binding for hardback copies.

  5. The Guns of September. Still laid out by COVID-19, Guns remains dormant. The last information I received is that we’ll return to editing the remaining 2/3 of the manuscript in autumn 2022 with publication anticipated in 2023.

    That’s about it for the time being. Thanks again to all of you for the support. I truly appreciate it. AR

Signed copies of Their Maryland are available

Books arrived on Friday, just in time for happy hour

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.

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.

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.