South Mountain by Rick Reeve

South Mountain by Rick Reeve
South Mountain by Rick Reeve depicting the wounding of General Garland

Monday, November 1, 2010

Confederate High Tide?

Well, I'm sure you have read the blog description and noticed that I consider the Battle of South Mountain and, if you wanna look at the bigger picture, the campaigns in the Fall of 1862 as the Confederacy's high tide. Here's why:

The Battle of South Mountain itself can be considered the event that drastically altered Robert E. Lee's plans that fall. His whole intention is to push forward into Pennsylvania and draw out the Army of the Potomac into the open and effectively destroy it. But in order to continue into Pennsylvania, Lee first had to deal with the garrison at Harper's Ferry. Lee had believed that crossing into Maryland would force the Union high command to evacuate Harper's Ferry, but has we know, the garrison does not evacauate and Lee is forced to divide his army to deal with this threat on his line of supply and communication.

As we know, "Stonewall" Jackson takes command the Confederate forces sent to capture Harper's Ferry, James Longstreet's command (along with General Lee) marches to Hagerstown, and the division of Daniel Harvey Hill is left as the rear guard to cover the mountain gaps in South Mountain. Surprisingly, George McClellan moves his army with uncharacteristic speed and just a couple days after Lee has divided his army and left Frederick, Union troops have occupied the city and are advancing towards South Mountain pushing back the confederate cavalry screens. By the evening of the 13th, the Union 9th Corps is encamped in the Middletown, Maryland.

The gaps of South Mountain are important because as long as Union forces are on the eastern side of the mountain, Lee's Confederates have freedom to roam the countryside and time to regroup once Harper's Ferry falls. Once the Union army is on the western side, the Confederates are in deep trouble and even bigger trouble if they are still divided. Thats is why on the 14th, D.H. Hill's division and Longstreet's command fight tooth and nail to hold the gaps. The Confederates would hold the two northern gaps ,Turner's and Fox's, at the end of the day due to their savage defense.

Crampton's Gap, the southern gap near Burkittsville, Maryland, is the one gap that the Confederates would not hold at the end of the day and it was the most important gap. As long as the gap was secured by Confederate troops, Lafeyette Mclaws' division on Maryland Heights was safe and able to help complete the capture of Harper's Ferry. With the fall of Crampton's gap, Mclaw's division was trapped on Maryland Heights. Upon hearing word that Crampton's Gap had fallen, Lee even goes as far as ordering a general retreat back into Virginia by all Confederate forces in Maryland has quickly as possible. If General Franklin had moved his 6th Corps with speed through Crampton's gap and into Pleasent Valley, McLaws would possible have been destroyed and he would have had the inside track to the vital river crossings that Lee would need to get back into Virginia. Only a message from Jackson saying the Harper's Ferry would fall on the 15th kept Lee in Maryland.

Now looking at the bigger picture, the Fall of 1862 was the Confederate high tide both militarily and politically. Militarily because every major Confederate force was on the offensive: Lee invades Maryland, Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith invade Kentucky, Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price are on the offensive to recapture the vital rail hub of Corinth, Mississippi. So from a military standpoint, and the only time in the entire war, the Confederate military was purely on the offensive and if any of these offensive would prove successful, the war might be ended especially if Lee is successful in Maryland. Politically, the Confederacy was as close to a diplomatic end to the war as ever. With Confederate Armed Forces on the offensive, the Confederacy had a bargaining chip on the table if any of their armies could win a major victory on northern soil or recapture lands that had been lost to Union forces. It was also as close to foreign recognition that the Confederacy would get in the war. European leaders, primarily Britain and France, had seen the Confederacy defeat Union forces everywhere on the map and even carry the war North.

With the defeats of Bragg and Smith in Kentucky, Van Dorn and Price at Corinth, and Lee in Maryland, the Confederacy took a severe morale blow and any hope of a victory in the war was destroyed. In the following year, the Confederacy would see an invasion of Pennsylvania that would end in defeat and the fall of Vicksburg that pretty much sealed the victory for the North. So in 1862, in the most important campaign by any Confederate army, Lee's invasion of Maryland and the Battle of South Mountain are, in my opinion, the Confederate high tide. Now what say you?

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