Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 08/June/McClellan and Lee at Sharpsburg
McClellan and Lee at Sharpsburg (Antietam).—A Review of Mr. Curtis' Article in the North American Review.
By General D. H. Maury.
[The following article was sent by General Maury to the North American Review, but was respectfully declined. The editor seems to act on the principle that historic accuracy is a matter of small importance where only "Rebels" are concerned, and that he is under no obligation to correct misstatements made concerning them. We cheerfully give place to the article, in the hope that some of our friends on the other side will now see its force, and that future generations will be more ready to do us justice.]
The April number of the North American Review contains an interesting article on McClellan's last great service to his country, in which I heartily concur, so far as the writer's high estimate of the capacity, conduct and character of General McClellan goes. A long and intimate association with him enables me to appreciate his remarkable professional accomplishments, and to respect and admire the excellence and purity of his personal character. No good man can see much of him without feeling affection for him and absolute confidence in him.
Of all the commanders of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan alone inspired his troops with enthusiastic love for him; and this was never so manifested as in the campaign so ably discussed by Mr. Curtis—a campaign in which McClellan evinced the very highest capacities of a general—by which he saved the Federal cause—and on the achievement of which he was deposed from the command of his great and devoted army, and retired forever from the service of the government he had saved.
I cordially concur in the conviction generally held by the Southern people, that his removal at that time greatly protracted the war. It is difficult to explain the capricious policy of the men then at the head of the Government.
But it is evident there was little in common between them and McClellan. He was born and bred amongst people of the highest culture and refinement, and the personal traits of his immediate superiors were offensive to him, while the frequent interference with his plans, which their crude and timid counsels forced upon him, must have filled him with chagrin and disgust.
Mr. Curtis shows the moving causes of his extraordinary deposition. They lay in the best traits of his character. He was too able and too honest to be the facile tool of any man or government. He was so high and noble a gentleman that those who ruled this country then could not appreciate him. Unable to understand him or to control him to do that which his convictions forbade, they mistrusted and feared and hated and deposed him.
The clearness with which McClellan divined Lee's movements after the defeat of Pope—the celerity and masterly skill with which he restored discipline and confidence to Pope's routed army, and so moved its corps as to concentrate upon Lee while near half his army was a days' march from the field of battle—must ever rank him high as a general.
It is true he did enjoy the rare privilege of having before him Lee's orders for the movements of his army, which were so explicit that McClellan was enabled to direct the movements of his own with absolute confidence and accuracy.
In summing up the results of the battle of Antietam or Sharpsburg, Mr. Curtis has had but little regard to historic accuracy, and it is surprising that a writer so intelligent and industrious as he should not have availed himself of the abundant authentic documents accessible to all historians of these times.
The official statements of the Confederate and Federal Governments, and of General Lee and General McClellan, all contradict every paragraph of Mr. Curtis' summary, which is to this effect:
1st. "On the 17th, the battle of Antietam ended in the defeat the Confederates."
2d. "On the night of the 18th, the Confederate army recrossed the Potomac into Virginia, leaving 2,700 of their dead unburied on the field."
3d. "Thirteen guns (13), thirty-nine (39) colors, fifteen thousand stands of small arms, and more than 6,000 prisoners, were captured by the Federals in the battles of South mountain, Crampton's gap and Antietam—without losing a gun or a color!"
4th. "The aggregate of the Federal killed, wounded and missing in the battle of Antietam was 12,469."
5th. "The total number of the Federal forces was 87,164."
6th. The enemy had about 10,000 more."
A careful investigation of each of the above paragraphs will convict it of error:
1st. How could the battle have ended in the defeat of the Confederates, when Lee's army still held the ground for which it had fought? The field of battle from which McClellan tells us 87,164 men of his army had been driven in a condition so disordered and demoralized that he did not dare to venture them again in action, though all day, up to the 19th, Lee held the field and dared him to try to take it.
2d. Lee crossed the Potomac on the morning of the 19th—not as Mr. Curtis puts it, "the night of the 18th." So great a number of unburied dead as 2,700 is inconsistent with the facts that during the 17th and 18th the Confederate army buried many of its dead, which, added to 2,700, would have swelled our casualties to such a number as would have included nearly all of the men in Lee's army. Northern accounts at the time put the unburied dead at 2,000. The most authentic estimates of all of Lee's casualties on the field of Sharpsburg will not exceed 8,000.
Paragraph number. 3 is utterly refuted by such authority as Mr. Curtis cannot refuse to accept.
Mr. Greeley, of the Tribune, thus growls over the conclusion of those defeats of Lee: "He leaves us the debris of his late camps, two disabled pieces of artillery, a few hundred of his stragglers, perhaps 2,000 of his wounded, and as many of his unburied dead—not a sound field piece, caisson, ambulance or wagon, not a tent, box of stores or pound of ammunition. He takes with him the supplies gathered in Maryland, and the rich spoils of Harper's Ferry!"
To this testimony we will add General Lee's own congratulatory order, which tells the whole story grandly, and stands for all time unquestioned and unquestionable:
Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia,
October 2d, 1862.
General Orders No. 116. In reviewing the achievements of the army during the present campaign, the Commanding-General cannot withhold the expression of his admiration of the indomitable courage it has displayed in battle and its cheerful endurance of privation and hardship on the march.
Since your great victories around Richmond, you have defeated the enemy at Cedar mountain, expelled him from the Rappahannock, and after a conflict of three days utterly repulsed him on the plains of Manassas and forced him to take shelter within the fortification around his capital.
Without halting for repose you crossed the Potomac, stormed the heights of Harper's Ferry, made prisoners of more than 11,000 men, and captured upwards of seventy pieces of artillery, all their small arms and other munitions of war.
While one corps of the army was thus engaged, the other insured its success by arresting at Boonsboro' the combined armies of the enemy advancing under their favorite General to the relief of their comrades.
On the field of Sharpsburg, with less than one-third his numbers, you resisted from daylight until dark the whole army of the enemy, and repulsed every attack along his entire front of more than four miles in extent.
The whole of the following day you stood prepared to resume the conflict on the same ground, and retired next morning without molestation across the Potomac.
Two attempts subsequently made by the enemy to follow you across the river have resulted in his complete discomfiture and being driven back with loss.
Achievements such as these demanded much valor and patriotism. History records few examples of greater fortitude and endurance than this army has exhibited; and I am commissioned by the President to thank you in the name of the Confederate States for the undying fame you have won for their arms. Much as you have done, much more remains to be accomplished. The enemy again threatens us with invasion, and to your tried valor and patriotism the country looks with confidence for deliverance and safety.
Your past exploits give assurance that this confidence is not misplaced.
R. E. Lee, General-Commanding.
Paragraph 4 is correct as far as it goes; but General McClellan tells us he lost in killed, wounded and missing in the battles of South mountain, Crampton's gap and Antietam near 15,000 men.
Paragraph 5 mistakes the total number of troops engaged by McClellan for the total strength of his army present with him.
McClellan states that he had 87,164 men actually in battle at Antietam—and we know he had one corps which did not fire a shot.
Paragraph 6 is very wide of the mark indeed, and we will sum up from the best evidence attainable the whole forces of Lee's army engaged on the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th of September, 1862, and we challenge Mr. Curtis to disprove the accuracy of this statement:
On the 14th, D. H. Hill, with less than 10,000 men, held's army in check all day.
On the 15th, Stonewall Jackson, with 9,793 Confederates, captured over 11,000 Federals, more than 70 cannon, several thousand horses, and all of their small arms, colors and equipments!
On the 15th, Lee took position at Sharpsburg, with 17,460 infantry and several thousand cavalry and artillery, while McClellan's army confronted him on the line of the Antietam.
On the 16th, about 3 P. M., McClellan assaulted Lee with the three corps of Hooker, Mansfield and Sumner, which were so severely punished, that McClellan tells us that "about the middle of the afternoon he went in person to the scene and found the aspect of affairs anything but promising"; in fact, they were driven from the field by Lee in utter confusion.
On the 17th, the attack was renewed by McClellan with a fresh corps. During the day Stonewall Jackson came to Lee—his force was 9,793 infantry, which brought Lee's whole army up to 27,253 infantry, and less than 8,000 cavalry and artillery—and this was all he had to fight with during all those days of Antietam, or Sharpsburg, as we call it. And with these, we learn from McClellan himself, Lee drove from the field, demoralized, 87,164 men—four-fifths of McClellan's whole army!
We will now sum up McClellan's losses during the five days, from the 14th to the 19th, inclusive:
McClellan reports his losses, from the 14th to the 17th,
15th, Jackson captured,
19th, A. P. Hill reports a rear-guard affair on the Potomac, in which the enemy lost,
Making the total Federal loss,
Or 1,000 more than all the infantry with which Lee fought Antietam!
It is injudicious at this late day to reiterate such crude statements of numbers as those I have been discussing. The Southern Historical Society, at Richmond, and the Archive Bureau, in Washington, have co-operated to secure for the use of those who write history all of the authentic documents in existence which bear upon the late conflict between the States. From these all questions of relative forces and losses can be accurately, and it is not wise to omit to consult them before making historical publications.
There has been so much disposition during the war, and since, to overestimate the strength of the Confederate armies, that I again call attention to the official statements of the United States War Department relating thereto. They are very conclusive. When we remember that the white population of the Confederate States was only about 5,000,000, and of the United States 16,000,000, the War Department reports show the men enrolled in Federal armies, 2,600,000; men enrolled in Confederate armies, 600,000; white men from South in Federal armies (principally from Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia), 400,000; in 1863, when our armies were greatest, their strength did not much exceed 200,000; Federal prisoners held by us, 270,000; Confederate prisoners lost by us, 220,000; Federal prisoners who died in our prisons, 22,576; Confederate prisoners who died in Northern prisons, 26,436. These figures are of unquestionable authority, and should always be regarded conclusive in considering questions which arise about relative forces, treatment of prisoners, &c.
After the generation of non-combatants, who harked us on to war against each other, while they traded in our blood, shall have passed away, these figures, with all they prove, will fix in history the conduct of the armies of the Southern Confederacy, and the character of the Southern people.
Dabney H. Maury.