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High-Water Mark: The 1862 Maryland Campaign in Strategic Perspective (Book Review)

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed Ted Alexander
By Timothy J. Reese
Baltimore, Butternut and Blue Press, 2004 By Mark Dunkelman

By fall 1862, Confederate morale was the highest it had been since the start of the war and Confederate armies were on the move on a front more than 1,000 miles wide. In the Western theater, Confederate incursions into Kentucky and northern Mississippi sought to checkmate the gains made by Union forces earlier that year.

Two Confederate armies under Generals Braxton Bragg and E. Kirby Smith marched into Kentucky in late August, and by September 4, 1862, Smith's column captured and occupied the state capital at Frankfort. Smith hoped to reach the banks of the Ohio River opposite Cincinnati by September 15. The commanders intended to draw Federal troops out of middle Tennessee, gain recruits and win a decisive victory on Kentucky soil that would secure the Bluegrass State for the Confederacy.

Meanwhile in north Mississippi, Generals Sterling Price and Earl Van Dorn moved to drive Union forces out of that part of the state and perhaps capture the rail center of Corinth. And in the Trans-Mississippi theater, a Confederate force prepared to invade Missouri.

Back east, General William Loring led a small Confederate army into the Kanawha Valley of western Virginia. His goal was to give the people of that region an opportunity to rise up and overthrow Unionist rule, gain recruits, disrupt the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and secure the salt mines of the region for the Confederacy. On September 13, 1862, Loring triumphantly entered Charleston, proclaiming his army as liberators.

The largest and most decisive of the Confederate invasions during this period was General Robert E. Lee's invasion of Maryland. On September 4, 1862, Lee's army of some 40,000 men crossed the Potomac River and marched north toward Frederick.

All of these sometimes loosely coordinated Confederate incursions had one thing in common: They were all repulsed in some of the bloodiest combat of the war in their respective theaters. For more than a century, the blood, glory and ink expended during and after the Battle of Gettysburg has lured historians into dubbing that great encounter in southern Pennsylvania as the turning point of the Civil War. Many modern historians of the conflict now view fall 1862 as the true High Tide of the Confederacy. Never again would the South have the military might to launch invasions on the wide front that it did in 1862. Not only did the Confederates lose on the battlefield during this period, but they lost any chance for foreign recognition or of bringing the Border States into the fold.

One of the first scholars to examine the causes of Confederate defeat was Bell I. Wiley. His small but seminal 1954 study The Road to Appomattox pinpointed the fall of 1862 as the zenith of Confederate military success and of high morale on the home front. James McPherson's 2002 book Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War expanded on Wiley's premise.

In his new book High-Water Mark: The 1862 Maryland Campaign in Strategic Perspective (Baltimore, Butternut and Blue Press, 2004, $15), author Timothy J. Reese continues the discussion of that bloody autumn by introducing a number of new angles to the debate. One of Reese's most tantalizing arguments is that British belligerence was a viable threat. By August 1862, just a few weeks before the Battle of Antietam, more than 18,000 British troops, including some of the crown's most elite fighting units, "were arrayed for war in Lower Canada," writes Reese. Did the U.S. government feel threatened by them? Perhaps.

A message from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to General Henry W. Halleck dated September 16, 1862, relayed the military necessity of protecting the du Pont powder mills in Delaware and at least hinted at the possible threat from Britain. With thousands of Redcoats to the north and more within easy sailing distance in the Caribbean, the author raises the specter of another British raid up the Chesapeake Bay similar to what occurred in 1814. Admittedly, Reese concedes, the possibility of such an event occurring is conjectural, avoiding the pitfalls of venturing deep into the murky waters of counterfactual history. Thus he concludes his chapter on the threat of British intervention: "Never again would the United States and Great Britain venture so close to the brink of war….The blue and the gray had narrowly sidestepped the blue and the red."

Reese includes a chapter on the "Lost Order." The study of Lee's Special Orders No. 191 has created a subculture almost akin to that surrounding the Kennedy assassination. Who lost the order, where was it found, who found it, what did General George B. McClellan and Lee know and when did they know it are questions that will be discussed over and over for many more years. Reese adds some spice to the discussion by challenging the traditional version of the story that has the orders being found on the Best farm south of Frederick, Md.

The most compelling part of Reese's study concerns the Battle of Crampton's Gap and its relative importance to the entire Maryland campaign. The author refutes the notion that McClellan had the "slows" before Antietam and presents a solid case that the general moved with alacrity in an attempt to destroy his Confederate opponent. The key to this argument is McClellan's order to VI Corps commander General William Franklin, telling him to take Crampton's Gap, lift the siege of Harpers Ferry and if needed aid the I and IX corps in destroying D.H. Hill and James Longstreet at Turner's and Fox's gaps. Franklin was then to advance to Sharpsburg and Williamsport in order to either "cut off the retreat of Hill and Longstreet toward the Potomac, or prevent the repassage of [Stonewall] Jackson."

Reese explains that McClellan gave Franklin flexibility, telling him: "You are fully authorized to change any of the details of this order as circumstances may change, provided the purpose is carried out: that purpose being to attack the enemy in detail and beat him." The VI Corps numbered nearly 13,000 men, augmented by General Darius Couch's 7,000-man division of the IV Corps. Thus Franklin had a task force of about 20,000 troops to operate semi-independently and whip the Rebels, who at many points would have been outnumbered 6-to-1 if forced to do battle.

But of course things did not work out that way. The author argues that Franklin, not McClellan, was the timid general and Franklin, who was first in his class at West Point and a superb engineer officer, was not up to the task of independent command. He froze up and allowed a thin gray line of Confederates to hold back the mighty VI Corps at Crampton's Gap. Reese writes, "Asking Franklin to fulfill all variable expectations was tantamount to ordering one of McClellan's more seasoned combat officers to take up Franklin's former engineering duties."

Accordingly, the author sees the Battle of Crampton's Gap and the resulting Union failure to follow through there as the key to the Maryland campaign and a major event of lost potential that could have ended the war in the fall of 1862. In the course of this narrative, the reader is offered a splendid tactical overview of that battle by a leading authority on the subject.

High-Water Mark is an important book for several reasons, not the least of which is its challenge to many of the traditional interpretations of the campaign. Whether one agrees with all of the author's points or not, this is a book that deserves to be read.



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