General Robert E. Lee was in a position of great strength. He had been at the brink of surrender, but he drove back two superior armies and now he was ready to launch a full-scale invasion of the North. Following the Northern Virginia Campaign, he took his army and shifted from Chantilly to Leesburg, Virginia. True, the Army of Northern Virginia had suffered manpower losses during the summer campaigns, but nevertheless Lee decided to invade Maryland.
On September 4, 1862, the advance units of Lee’s army had crossed the Potomac into Maryland. Lee’s 55,000 men – reinforced by the divisions of D. H. Hill, Lafayette McLaws, and John Walker, who had been defending Richmond – was soon all in Maryland.
Lee’s army was organized into two large corps, one commanded by Stonewall Jackson, and the other by James Longstreet. The First Corps under Longstreet contained the divisions of L. McLaws, R. H. Anderson, D. R. Jones, J. B. Hood, and a brigade under Nathan “Shanks” Evans. The Second Corps under Jackson consisted of the divisions of A. R. Lawton, A. P. Hill, J. R. Jones, and D. H. Hill.
Meanwhile, back at Washington, a demoralized and defeated Army of Virginia was slowly making its way back to the capital. The weather was very poor, and the battle of Chantilly was all that had stood in the way of a complete Union rout. These troops were disgusted with their arrogant commander, John Pope, and they were not, in any means, ready – they were demoralized and fatigued – for yet another battle with Lee’s invincible army, this time on their own soil. But then one thing changed it all.
As the troops were marching back up the road to Washington, Generals Pope and McDowell leading, a figure on a horse came riding down the road toward them. Instantly, a cheer was started by the lead division under Hatch, and it soon spread to the rest of the army. Stragglers and people dozing by the side of the road instantly got up and joined in the cheer. The morale of the army was suddenly boosted. No longer were they dragging their feet – knapsacks and caps were in the air, and suddenly there were no more stragglers. General McClellan had arrived.
McClellan, the army’s beloved leader who had been relieved in the wake of the Northern Virginia campaign, notified Pope that he was assuming command of the army. That act alone caused great rejoicing among the troops. At Washington, McClellan made major organization changes, combining the Army of Virginia and the Army of the Potomac. Fighting Joe Hooker was placed in command of the I Corps, Bull Sumner was retained in command of the II Corps, Fitz-John Porter (who had been relieved by Pope) was restored to command of the V Corps, William B. Franklin was placed in command of the VI Corps, and the IV Corps was left down at the Virginia peninsula to keep things in hand there. McClellan was using his best skill he had: organization. If nothing else, his one talent was raising the morale of troops, making them proud of themselves.
Now, back to Lee. His troops arrived in Frederick, Maryland and expected citizens to rush to them. They wanted not to be seen as invaders, but liberators. Riots in Baltimore and other cities proved that there was certain Southern sympathy in the border state. If Lee could convince Maryland to join the south, then Washington, D. C. would be surrounded by enemy territory, and he would gain foreign recognition from countries like England and France. But when his troops arrived in Frederick, only a handful of people came to them, offering them some things like water and food. And balls held by Jeb Stuart attracted some people, but not many. This was the start of Lee’s troubles. For he had not known that while eastern Maryland had Southern sympathizers, western Maryland was pro-Union.
Try as they could, Lee’s men could not gain significant recognition from the nearby citizens, and decided that staying at Frederick was useless. And Lee had another problem.
He had thought it obvious that when he crossed the river into Maryland, the Union garrisons at Winchester, Martinsburg, and Harper’s Ferry would immediately surrender or retreat to the west or south. The reason for this thinking was that when Lee crossed into Maryland, he was directly between the relatively small Union garrisons to the west and the Army of the Potomac to the east. But the garrisons stayed put. Also part of Lee’s assumption – when the garrison was evacuated from Harper’s Ferry and Winchester, he would have a perfect supply line running from his army down through Harper’s Ferry and to the Shenandoah Valley, the Breadbasket of the Confederacy.
But that was not so. First, even if the garrisons were evacuated, he’d have to get his whole force across South Mountain, a massive ridge next to Frederick. But now, he had those two garrisons at Martinsburg and Harper’s Ferry to deal with. So he gave very detailed orders to Jackson and Longstreet, as well as his division commanders. Jackson would take three divisions and march his men west of Harper’s Ferry, cross the Potomac, double back east, plow through Martinsburg, and strike Harper’s Ferry from the West Virginia side. Lafayette McLaws with two divisions (his own and Richard Anderson’s) would take the direct route to Maryland Heights, north of Harper’s Ferry and above the Potomac, and close in on the Maryland side. John G. Walker’s division would cross the Potomac east of Harper’s ferry and take possession of Loudon Heights, on the Virginia side. Finally, Longstreet would take three divisions and lead a supply expedition to Boonsboro, which was later extended to Hagerstown. In three days, the army would be reunited in the vicinity of Hagerstown, ready to move on to Pennsylvania.
So, let’s summarize what has happened so far. Lee has driven back two Union armies which both outnumbered him, launched an invasion of the north, and now was splitting his army into FOUR parts in enemy territory. Nothing would stop Lee. Any other general (well, except for maybe Jackson) would have waved such an idea away – this would sound like craziness. Splitting an army into four parts in enemy territory? That’s unheard of! But Lee had all the time in the world to execute his plan, because he had just received news – who had become commander of the Army of the Potomac? Why, none other than George McClellan, the slowest of the slow.
Now, the Army of the Potomac was not idle during Lee’s planning and his occupation of Frederick. It had been on the move. Although moving very slowly, it was moving. It winded its way up the paths, up National Road, until they got to Frederick. Along the way, many friendly citizens stood outside their homes, offering pies and cakes and cool water for the soldiers. One soldier said that he hardly needed the regular army rations one day, with all the good food provided by the citizens.
Literally, when the last of Lee’s rear guard withdrew from Frederick, the advance guard from McClellan’s army arrived there. And this time, the citizens rushed out with joy. There was a Union banner at every window, and the townspeople all were welcoming the troops. And when McClellan arrived, there were so many people crowded around him, cheering, touching his horse and all, that he could not move.
And there, a golden opportunity came into McClellan’s hands. As an Indiana regiment laid down to rest in a field (which was yesterday the camp of a Rebel regiment), Corporal Barton W. Mitchell and Sergeant John M. Bloss of the XII Corps came across an envelope with three cigars, wrapped in a piece of paper. Mitchell was curious, so he picked it up and took the cigars (which were a big find any day). But then his curiosity got the better of him again, and he looked at the paper. As he read, he didn’t really understand everything, but he did realize that it had names like McLaws, Longstreet, Jackson, Lee, Hill, and others – names which every soldier in the army knew. The paper started out with “Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia,” and it was dated September 9. It was titled “Special Orders No. 191.” At the bottom, it was signed “R. H. Chilton, Assist. Adj.-Gen.,” and was addressed to “D. H. Hill, Commanding Division.” At any rate, they decided that the paper was too important for them to hang on to, so they sent it to to company commander Peter Copp, who went to regimental headquarters and gave it to Colonel Silas Colgrove, who sent it straight to corps headquarters. Finally, Alpheus Williams turned the paper over to McClellan.
McClellan’s luck had not been going well. Ever since he had been called up from West Virginia to command the Army of the Potomac, his reputation was diminishing. But now he had in his hands nothing less than Lee’s official orders. McClellan now knew everything D. H. Hill was supposed to know, and every other division commander, for that case. This paper told what every single last division in Lee’s army was up to – the entire plans of the Confederate army in detail. McClellan was cautious, though, and let his staff examine the paper. But one of his officers said that he had known Colonel Chilton, Lee’s assistant adjutant general, and it was definitely his handwriting.
So now he had it. The complete orders of the Confederate GHQ in detail. It was as if he was actually one of Lee’s commanders. And this was not a good time for Lee to lose his battle plans – his troops were all over the map, divided. Jackson’s three divisions, along with McLaws’s two and Walker’s division, were back in Harper’s Ferry, Longstreet with 2 divisions was in Hagerstown, and D. H. Hill was the only general who stood in the way of McClellan completely and utterly destroying Lee’s army. This was an incredible stroke of luck. We’ll see how he handled it.