Every president faces a shift in Congress after two years, but this halftime show was especially dangerous
A freak accident involving his favorite horse left Robert E. Lee’s wrists so swollen in late August of 1862 that he couldn’t even sign the dispatches outlining his radical next plan of attack. “The present seems to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate Army to enter Maryland,” Lee informed President Jefferson Davis on September 3. Then on September 4: “I am more fully persuaded of the benefits that will result from an expedition into Maryland, and I shall proceed to make the movement at once, unless you should signify your disapprobation.”
Little could Davis know as he read those words that Lee had not bothered to wait for his approval. On September 4, the Rebel army was already crossing the Potomac.
Lee’s invasion of Maryland is probably best known for encompassing the bloodiest single-day battle in U.S. military history, at Antietam Creek. But it was also his most politically ambitious campaign, aimed at manipulating U.S. elections as well as international relations, even changing the very meaning of the conflict. To that extent, it succeeded. Politically, the Maryland campaign would redefine the war, though not as Confederate leaders had hoped.
Invading Maryland—and possibly, Lee hoped, Pennsylvania—meant abandoning what had hitherto been a defensive war for the South. It was a bold decision, though Lee could claim simple reasons for it.
Fresh off its victory at Second Manassas, Lee’s ragged Army of Northern Virginia needed food and other supplies now scarce in war-torn Northern Virginia. Maryland’s bounteous countryside offered desperately needed provisions.
But there was much more to Lee’s plan: He saw a critical opportunity in the approaching midterm elections. By claiming victory on Union soil, Lee hoped to undermine the Republican war effort by helping to send anti-war Democrats to Congress.
Two years earlier, on the eve of Southern secession, the presidential election had offered “no inkling to the dissent that would emerge only months later,” historian Jennifer Weber wrote in Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North. Northern voters had strongly supported pro-Union presidential candidates: Republican Abraham Lincoln, Democrat Stephen Douglas and, to a lesser extent, John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party. The candidate of the Southern Democrats, John C. Breckinridge, had fared poorly at the polls, losing even his home state of Kentucky.
But by September 1862, Northern solidarity was splintering. Recent military setbacks had depressed morale and inflamed dissent that Lee believed was ripe for exploitation. A successful invasion, he reasoned—when “it is in our power to inflict injury on our adversary”—would enable the Confederacy to “propose with propriety” that the United States recognize Southern independence.
Lincoln, presumably, would balk at such a proposal, turning the upcoming election into a referendum on continuing the war, with those opposed to it voting Democratic.
The war had divided the Democratic Party into those who supported quelling the rebellion by force, and those who favored peace negotiations. Virtually all Democrats, however, condemned aggressive Republican war policies such as the Confiscation Acts, which allowed the Union to seize any property, including slaves, used for “Insurrectionary Purposes,” and Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus between Philadelphia and Washington in 1861. The parties would battle that fall for control of state legislatures and governorships. But most alluring for Democrats was the possibility of seizing control of the U.S. House of Representatives—a prospect that both Democrats and Republicans believed possible in the summer of 1862.
The Republican Party hardly seemed invincible. Lincoln had won the presidency but his party owed its control of Congress to the departure of Southern Democrats. In existence for less than a decade, the party had been stitched together from old parties and state organizations, and if the Democrats suffered from internal divisions, so did the Republicans. Lincoln had been the candidate of moderates, but the party’s radicals and abolitionists were aggressive and powerful—preoccupying the president as much with Republican Party politics as with Democratic opposition.
While Lee was making up his mind to turn north, Northern Democrats were preparing an election platform to condemn Lincoln’s war as a failure. American and European observers alike would view a Democratic takeover of the House as a signal that Lincoln had lost public support for the war.
Such perceptions abroad would have potentially dire implications for the Union. The South’s victory at Second Manassas had fueled predictions in France and England of a Democratic victory, and political leaders in both countries were talking seriously of recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation. The Davis government was lobbying hard for foreign intervention, and news of Lee’s invasion would further encourage those discussions.
An invasion across the Potomac represented a substantial shift for Lee since the start of the war. In 1861, he had repeatedly advised Stonewall Jackson not to invade Maryland “unless compelled by the necessities of war.” But the Confederate Army’s spirits had skyrocketed in the wake of its victory at Second Manassas. Exhausted though his troops were, Lee wanted to seize the moment.
So did some Southern newspaper editors, who were already clamoring for Confederate leaders to take the offensive. The Union would stop at nothing short of “the complete depopulation” of the Confederacy and its “re-settlement by Yankees,” the Richmond Times- Dispatch declared on August 29. “There is but one way of putting a stop to it, and that is by carrying the war into the enemy’s territory.”
The politically conflicted, partially slave state of Maryland seemed like an ideal strike zone. Rioters had clashed the previous year with Union soldiers in Baltimore, leaving a dozen local citizens dead and leading to numerous arrests. In September 1861, Lincoln had responded to reports of a secessionist plot by imprisoning members of the legislature. Though anti-Union activity in the state had subsided, many Southerners viewed Maryland as their sister state in bondage.
Soon after crossing the Potomac in 1862, Lee issued a proclamation “To The People of Maryland” that he hoped would woo locals into supporting the Rebel army. Though he did not “anticipate any general uprising on our behalf,” he did expect fresh recruits, aid in the form of supplies, and a generally sympathetic welcome. The South having seen “with every profound indignation their sister State deprived of every right and reduced to the condition of a conquered province,” Lee said in his Maryland proclamation, “our army has come to you, and is prepared to assist you with the power of its arms in regaining the rights of which you have been despoiled.”
Lee’s words met with a cool reception. Confederate sympathies had been strongest in the eastern parts of the state; Lee, however, had invaded the Unionist west, where the local citizenry of Frederick viewed with a mixture of fear and revulsion the columns of Lee’s shoeless, half-starved Rebels.
Still, Lee remained undaunted. Activity—both real and perceived—among Peace Democrats signaled the potential for pushing Northerners to the brink of war-weariness and defeating Lincoln’s party at the ballot box.
Republicans had nicknamed Peace Democrats “Copperheads,” after the deadly snake of the same name. To vilify Democrats as a collective enemy of state, Republicans overstated the Copperheads’ influence within their party and the extent of their war opposition—even likening it to treasonous support for the Confederacy itself, an extreme position few actually supported. More commonly, Copperheads denounced the Union war effort as unconstitutional, since the Constitution does not outright bar secession. They declared aggressive Republican war policies to be unconstitutional violations of civil liberties. A profoundly racist faction, the Copperheads also loathed abolitionists and accused Republicans, even in the early days of the war, of fighting to free the slaves.
Such hostility turned violent at times—as in April 1862, when a hostile crowd in Cincinnati attacked abolitionist orator Wendell Phillips with rocks and eggs when he tried to speak there. True reports as well as errant rumors spread of anti-government plots and the formation of militant Copperhead groups, particularly in border
and Midwestern states. In December 1861, Secretary of State William H. Seward informed former Democratic President Franklin Pierce, who had publicly denounced the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, that he had been accused of belonging to a clandestine society bent on overthrowing the government. Pierce angrily denied the accusation.
How much a political threat the Copperheads actually posed depends on who you ask, or read. In the mid-20th century, historians like Frank L. Klement largely dismissed the Copperheads’ role as overblown. But more recently, scholars like Weber have suggested the Copperheads were more numerous and menacing than earlier believed, pitting neighbors against one another and posing a legitimate problem for Lincoln and his party.
Focused primarily on preserving the Union, Lincoln had spent much of 1861 trying to placate border states and keep Democrats more or less at bay. Such concerns likewise contributed to Lincoln’s reluctance in 1862 to remove George McClellan, a Democrat, from command of the Army of the Potomac. While some Republicans viewed McClellan’s record of hesitation and inaction as an election-year liability, Democrats would have condemned his ouster as baldly partisan, to the detriment of Republicans that fall. Ultimately, Lincoln would wait until after the elections to get rid of McClellan.
Increasingly though, Lincoln was abandoning the politics of appeasement. Republican radicals and abolitionists were growing louder and more demanding, condemning the war effort as too “kid- gloved” and pressing Lincoln to make ending slavery a primary goal of the war. Gradually they succeeded, persuading Lincoln that slavery was not just a moral or political question, it was the enemy’s economic and military backbone. It had to be smashed.
In July 1862, after border state congressmen rejected Lincoln’s proposal of gradual emancipation with financial compensation, he stopped parrying with the anti-slavery Republican base and embraced it, along with the hope of turning the South’s enslaved black people against their masters. As prophesied by the Peace Democrats, Lincoln drafted an emancipation proclamation in midsummer—but Seward convinced Lincoln that he needed a strong military success to support it. The Battle of Antietam would give Lincoln just enough of a claim to such a victory.
The events of Lee’s two-pronged Maryland Campaign are well known. The Confederates enjoyed a sound victory at Harpers Ferry, Va., under Stonewall Jackson, but a copy of Lee’s battle strategy fell into the hands of George McClellan, who defeated Lee at South Mountain, Md., on September 14. Three days later, more than 23,000 men were killed, wounded or went missing in the cataclysmic Battle of Antietam. After repulsing McClellan’s attacks on his left, center and right, Lee remained in position for another day before withdrawing into Virginia. McClellan’s timid pursuit infuriated Lincoln, but the president’s hands were tied.
The Maryland Campaign provided neither side an unqualified triumph. Southern newspapers tried to capitalize on Harpers Ferry, but Lee’s retreat enabled Lincoln to use the invasion to his political advantage. On September 22, he issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, gambling that Antietam would prove enough of a bulwark against Democratic attacks over the slavery question that fall.
The proclamation was neither a significant departure nor a surprise decision by Lincoln, who had signed every anti-slavery act Congress had sent him. But its pre-election timing was as bold as Lee’s decision to invade had been. Democrats predictably seized upon it, exploiting all of the racist hatred and economic fears surrounding the issue. “Shall the Working Classes be Equalized with Negroes?” blared the New York Day Book, a Democratic newspaper. The proclamation was “a proposal for the butchery of women and children, for scenes of lust and rapine, and of arson and murder,” declared New York Democratic gubernatorial candidate Horatio Seymour, who would go on to win his election.
The proclamation would roil the North for months to come, but it rallied the anti-slavery Republican base—as well as abolitionists abroad, where the combined news of emancipation and Lee’s retreat put a stop to European plans to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy. Lincoln continued to vigorously press his advantage. Two days after releasing the proclamation, he suspended habeas corpus throughout the North and authorized military trials for anyone assisting the enemy. The orders disillusioned many War Democrats and poured kerosene on the fiery attacks by Peace Democrats—with the start of midterm elections just weeks away.
Much like the Battle of Antietam, the midterm elections offered no one a clear-cut victory. On the one hand, Democrats won the governorships of New York and New Jersey, legislative majorities in New Jersey, Indiana and Illinois, and gained 28 seats in the U.S. House. “That the election was a serious Administration reverse nobody ever doubted,” historian Allan Nevins wrote, calling the results “a vote of no confidence.” Under a parliamentary system, he noted, Lincoln’s administration would have been compelled to resign.
But historian James McPherson has argued that while the 1862 elections may have been something of a rebuke, they were hardly an overwhelming censure. The party of Lincoln had managed to hold on to all but two of 18 governorships, and to legislative majorities in all but three states. The Republicans gained seats in the Senate and kept a majority in the House “after experiencing the smallest net loss of House seats in twenty years—indeed the only time in those two decades that the party in power retained control of the House.”
Equally as interesting are the political what-ifs posed by the Maryland Campaign. As McPherson suggests, Democrats—especially Copperheads—might have fared much better at the polls if Lee had succeeded at Antietam, or even if he had not invaded at all. On the flip side, Republicans might have fared better if the elections had taken place earlier, in the two or three weeks of “post-Antietam euphoria.”
The election results may have disappointed Lincoln and his party, but they did little to check war policy. Lincoln finally removed McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac, replacing him with Ambrose Burnside on November 7; the House endorsed the Emancipation Proclamation in December and made the abolition of slavery a prerequisite of statehood for West Virginia. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln formally signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which also endorsed the enlistment and arming of black men as Union soldiers.
Lee had hoped his Maryland Campaign might hasten Confederate independence and the end of the war. He had sought to convince the country and the world that the South’s intention was an “honorable peace,” and paint the Lincoln administration as pursuing the war for self-serving reasons. Instead, the invasion empowered Lincoln to redefine the struggle as a defense of human freedom and obliteration of the South’s old order. As General Henry Halleck would famously tell Ulysses Grant in early 1863, “There is now no possible hope of reconciliation….There can be no peace but that which is forced by the sword. We must conquer the rebels or be conquered by them.”
Catherine Whittenburg has covered politics in Maryland, Florida and Washington, D.C. She now lives in her hometown of Williamsburg, Va.