Logistics and Lee's Antietam Campaign

by Major William T. Gillespie, Jr.

    Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee originally pursued a defensive strategy in the war against the Union. However, after the success of Lee's Richmond campaign in June and July 1862, which repelled a serious Union invasion, and with controversy mounting in the North over the course of the war, they felt the time had come to strike an offensive blow into Northern territory. Following the decisive Confederate victory at the battle of Second Manassas in Virginia at the end of August 1862, Davis and Lee found the perfect opportunity to make their plan a reality.

    While Lee had several objectives in striking the North, the Maryland campaign of September 1862 was primar-ily a rear battle operation, targeting Union logistics and the political and emotional will of the Northern people to continue the war. The historical lessons of the strategic and operational role played by logistics in Confederate planning and execution of the Maryland campaign of 4 to 20 September 1862 are still applicable today, especially with the increased terrain responsibility found in current Army rear-area operations doctrine.

Confederate Strategic Objectives

    From 4 to 7 September, a ragged group of nearly 55,000 men in gray from the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River at White's Ford near Leesburg, Virginia, just northwest of Washington, D.C. This was the Confederacy's first major attack on Union soil. Though thousands of Lee's men were shoeless, lacked ammunition and supplies, and were fatigued from marching and the recent fighting at Second Manassas, they felt invincible.

    While Maryland, a border state, remained in the Union, it was deeply divided; its people had strong ties to both sides. Davis and Lee hoped that, by moving Confederate forces into Maryland, both the undecided and suppressed Confederate supporters would rally to the Southern cause.

    Davis and General Braxton Bragg had the same plan for the liberation of Kentucky in the western theater. The two simultaneous offensives into Maryland and Kentucky also might influence the upcoming congressional elections in the North and help Democrats—many of whom favored peace—to outpoll the Republicans and demand an end to the war on terms favorable to the South. Aside from its possible effect on the elections, a Confederate victory on Northern soil might cause the war-weary people of the North to question the leadership of President Abraham Lincoln and force him to sue for peace.

    Davis and Lee hoped that a victory in the North finally would gain the Confederacy diplomatic recognition as an independent nation from European countries and possibly bring Britain and France to aid the South both logistically and financially. British and French recognition of the Confederacy also might induce them to intervene and mediate the conflict.

Lee's Campaign Objectives

    Lee thought he had 3 to 4 weeks after the battle of Second Manassas before General George McClellan's newly reorganized Army of the Potomac could resume offensive operations to pursue him. He also thought that McClellan would be slow and cautious in his pursuit. Lee figured that he probably would face the Army of the Potomac near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; if giving battle there did not look favorable for the Confederates, Lee easily could withdraw his army to Virginia, using the north-south barrier of South Mountain, Maryland, to protect his movement.

The Union's industrial base greatly exceeded the Confederacy's. Disrupting Union logistics and protecting and augmenting the South's resources were objectives of Lee's campaign. The photo above shows one of the South's major industrial sites, the Richmond, Virginia, Arsenal, after the end of the war.
The Union's industrial base greatly exceeded the Confederacy's. Disrupting Union logistics and protecting and augmenting the South's resources were objectives of Lee's campaign. The photo above shows one of the South's major industrial sites, the Richmond, Virginia, Arsenal, after the end of the war.

    Operationally, the Maryland campaign was, to a large degree, about logistics: protecting the South's and attacking the North's. In particular, the South needed to protect its breadbasket in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia. Supplies drawn from the Shenandoah Valley were so critical to Southern success that Davis believed that the loss of the Virginia Central Railroad and communication with the Shenandoah Valley would be more harmful to the Confederacy than withdrawal from the Virginia Peninsula (between the James and York Rivers, which leads to Richmond from the east) and evacuation of Norfolk.

    The challenge of feeding a large army, as well as the city of Richmond, was aggravated by the weaknesses of the Confederate commissary organization and by the tightening of the Union naval blockade of the Southern coasts. These problems meant that protection of the Virginia Central Railroad and the country north of Richmond, where Lee hoped to secure foodstuffs, became a very high priority.

    September and October were the key harvest months. Without Union armies to bother them, Virginia farmers could harvest their crops and feed Lee's army and Richmond during the coming winter. Supply needs made the protection of northern and western Virginia Lee's paramount goal. By moving his army into the rich countryside of western Maryland, Lee also would provide new food supplies for his hungry soldiers. The lands in the mountain valleys and near the Potomac River were fertile and perfect for supporting a large, foraging army.

    Lee's main objective in invading the North was Harrisburg, the capital city of Pennsylvania, and its key lines of communication (LOCs) and logistics stores: telegraph lines, critical railroad lines and bridges, and supply depots. Harrisburg was one of the largest Union supply depots and, like other Union depots and LOCs in the Union rear area, was weakly defended. Successfully raiding Harrisburg would give the South the psychological victory it needed to attain its strategic purpose.

    Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania was frightened when Lee's forces crossed the Potomac River into Maryland. Having little confidence in President Lincoln and General McClellan, he started to withdraw state materiel and supplies from southern Pennsylvania. While they moved to Harrisburg, Lee's forces also rendered other critical LOCs useless and emptied Union supply depots captured along the way.

    Frederick, Maryland's second largest city, held a strong position in state politics. Frederick's merchants had food supplies, clothes, and shoes that Lee's troops needed. However, because his mission was in part political—to encourage support for the Confederacy in Maryland and recruit sympathetic Marylanders to join his army—Lee bought all necessary supplies and ordered his troops to respect private property and avoid pillaging.

    The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal were critical Union LOCs for bringing agricultural products from Ohio and other Midwestern states to the East. Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), by which both the railroad and the canal passed, also was a large Union ordnance storage area and weapons foundry. Harper's Ferry therefore was a critical Confederate objective because its capture would allow Southern troops on the move to gain easy resupply from the Union stores there.

Lee thought that the capture of Harper's Ferry would be a quick and easy victory, requiring little more than a show of force to obtain the surrender of its Union garrison. Lee also planned for his army to remain in Maryland through the fall of 1862, so he needed to keep his own rudimentary LOCs open to bring forward additional supplies from the South. For this LOC, he intended to use a wagon route from Winchester, Virginia, that passed through the gap at Harper's Ferry, so he needed to hold Harper's Ferry. Lee also intended to destroy the Cumberland Valley railroad in Maryland and empty its Union depot.

Lee's Plans Thwarted

    Unfortunately for the South, Lee's plan fell apart from the beginning. Four unforeseen events led to its demise. First, General McClellan reorganized the Army of the Potomac in days, rather than weeks as Lee expected, and arrived in Frederick on 12 September.

    Second, Lee did not receive the reception in Maryland that he had anticipated. On 6 September, Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's advance guard of 5,000 ragged men marched down Market Street in Frederick and camped on the north side of town. The remainder of Lee's 40,000-man army soon followed. On his arrival in town, Lee drew up a "Proclamation to the People of Maryland" that invited them to side with the Confederates. It soon became obvious that the citizens of Frederick and most of western Maryland, though polite, had little sympathy for the Southern cause. Seeing ragged, underfed, and poorly supplied soldiers did not give Marylanders hope that the South could win the war. Lee had miscalculated western Maryland's support; Southern sympathizers were primarily in Baltimore, southern Maryland, near the capital city of Annapolis, and in eastern Maryland.

    The third event that disrupted Lee's plans was the resistance of the Union garrison at Harper's Ferry. Rather than fleeing, those soldiers were ordered to stand and fight until reinforcements could arrive. What Lee thought would be an easy victory turned into a 3-day siege (12 to 15 September), which delayed his schedule and tied down more troops than he expected.

Capture of the Union arsenal and armory at Harper's Ferry was a significant component of Lee's strike into the North. In this photo, note the destroyed railroad bridge crossing the Potomac River into Harper's Ferry.
Capture of the Union arsenal and armory at Harper's Ferry was a significant component of Lee's strike into the North. In this photo, note the destroyed railroad bridge crossing the Potomac River into Harper's Ferry.

    Finally, an official copy of Lee's campaign order, Special Order 191—wrapped around three cigars—was found by Union soldiers at an abandoned Confederate campsite on 13 September. With this Confederate order in hand, McClellan knew Lee's plans and the division of his forces.

    Both the Union and Confederate Armies were able to consolidate their forces near Sharpsburg, Maryland, by the night of 16 September. Thus the stage was set for the 17 September battle that would become the bloodiest day of the Civil War—the Battle of Antietam. Union casualties were 12,400, and Confederate losses were 10,300—a total of 22,700 casualties in 1 day. The large casualties forced the Army of Northern Virginia to withdraw to Virginia; the Army of the Potomac rested in place. Most historians agree that McClellan missed an almost perfect opportunity to destroy Lee's force, but he refused to pursue and seek decisive engagement.

    The aftermath of the battle was tremendous. Both Union and Confederate soldiers lay intermingled in makeshift hospitals. Many would die of thirst, hunger, and their wounds before receiving treatment. Nurse Clara Barton was on hand to witness events and treat the wounded. Because of her Antietam experience, Barton would go on to improve combat medical organization and eventually found the American Red Cross.

Consequences of Confederate Failure

    While the fighting on 17 September was a tactical draw, the outcome was significant. For the Southern soldiers, their invasion of the North was at least a psychological victory. They also had seized Harper's Ferry and gathered important supplies. Union forces would not pursue the Confederates quickly and would not cross into Virginia again until November, giving farmers critical time to harvest Virginia's badly needed crops.

    However, the Confederates lost 13,000 men during the campaign, including 9 generals. The South could not sustain such large casualties. It would become harder for the South to replace large numbers of soldiers, especially experienced combat leaders. More importantly, the Maryland campaign did not achieve the strategic objectives of liberating Maryland, winning a major victory on Northern soil to force the North to sue for peace, and gaining European diplomatic recognition.

    But the Union success in turning back the Confederate invasion gave Lincoln the political opening he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Britain and France had both made slavery illegal years earlier, and the Emancipation Proclamation discouraged them from recognizing the Confederacy. That not only further eroded the importation of necessary supplies into the South but also directly undermined the South's labor force. Over 180,000 slaves were dedicated to Southern war production, but with the North offering freedom to the slaves of rebellious slaveowners, those slaves had a strong incentive to run away or sabotage Confederate war

    The Confederate Maryland campaign of 1862 offers an excellent case study of the importance of strategic and operational logistics and rear battle operations. Without the resources and means to get them there, the Southern soldiers suffered from poor operational and tactical logistics support. As the war progressed, the South's strategic logistics were becoming nonexistent because of the impact of prolonged war and more effective Union coastal blockades.

    While errors were made on both sides during the campaign, a great lesson learned was the importance of maintaining and protecting LOCs and logistics resupply areas. This lesson is still applicable today, especially with the increased terrain and security responsibilities created by rear-area operations doctrine. It was very difficult for both armies to have a large standing army ready for battle, along with the requirements to protect overextended LOCs and sustain combat service support functions. The Union could quickly recover from Lee's Northern raid, but the Confederate Army, ever more reliant on the supplies of its foe, was headed for inevitable defeat. Amazingly, to the South's credit, the war would drag on almost 3 more years.  ALOG

    Major William T. Gillespie, Jr., is the Executive Officer of the Division Support Command, 3d Infantry Division (Mechanized), at Fort Stewart, Georgia. He has B.S. and M.A. degrees from Towson University. He is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College and also earned a master of military art and science degree in history there.