Monday, September 17, 2012

The Military Geography which Led to General Lee's First Invasion of the North


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Stephen's Sears Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam does a great job explaining how military geography influenced Confederate General Robert Lee to invade the Union in 1862.  This invasion led to his first setback, the Battle of Antietam (Battle of Sharpsburg to Southerns) on September 17, 1862 and gave Union President Abraham Lincoln the strategic victory he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

In late August 1862, General Lee defeated the Northern commander of the Army of the Potomac, General John Pope, at the Battle of Second Bull Run (Second Manassas) outside the town of Manassass, Virginia. General Pope's defeat forced the Union army back to Washington, DC while the Confederates held northern Virginia.  Three factors weighed heavily in Lee's mind: the fall harvest, Union congressional elections in November, and the need for another major victory to get the United Kingdom and France to recognize the Confederate States of America.

Lee had five choices on what to do

Stay put:  Lee could have held his ground and kept the Union army in check with the threat of attack while digging in and therefore forcing another disaster Union assault.  However, to do this would require the Southern Army of Northern Virginia to feed off the all ready strained farmlands of the region.  This would prevent a successful harvest and deny Southern civilians much needed food.

March east and attack Washington, DC:  Lee could have moved his forces east to capture the Union capital and give the Confederacy a political victory which would guarantee international recognition.  However, Lee knew the ring of forts around Washington had the best heavy weapons of the time and that any assault would have most likely end in failure.  A significant failure would invite an Union drive to capture the southern capital of Richmond, Virginia before the winter.  Instead of winning the war, an attack to the east could have lost it.

March south and defend Richmond:  Lee could have instead marched south to defend the capital of Richmond while resupplying and boosting the army with new volunteers.  However, this would abandon hard fought ground north of Fredricksburg, Virginia and therefore cripple morale.

March west into the Shenandoah Valley.  In between the Appalachian Mountains in western Virginia is the Shenandoah Valley.  The valley was a key breadbasket for much of the South.  Lee could have feed his troops here, captured Union strongholds in future West Virginia, and opened up a new front and then possibly link up with troops fighting to capture pro-Union Kentucky.  However, Lee feared taxing the farms' harvest with his army's presence and realized he would be out of range of Richmond-based supplies.  Finally, this would as well allow Union forces to recapture northern Virginia and harm morale.

March north into Union states and seek to destroy the Northern Army:  This is what Lee did.  Lee sought a victory which would destroy the Union's army fighting ability for the rest of the year, cost the Republican Party the congressional elections, allow Southern farmers to have a successful harvest, and gain international recognition for the Confederacy.  Instead, Lee caused the bloodiest single-day battle in American history with 23,000 casualties on both sides. 

1 comment:

Andrew Lynch said...


The other matter to consider is that around the same time, the Confederates were preparing an invasion of Kentucky in the west. Geographically speaking, Kentucky is much more important than Maryland as it provided the CSA with the Ohio River as a natural boundary between the nations. Maryland, even if it tried to join the CSA, would never have been allowed to leave the union in a post-war split because it was home of the U.S. capital. The option I would recommend to Lee would be to leave Longstreet's Corps in a defensive position while sending Jackson's Corps west. Sending Lee to command the overall force would have been even better. A smaller force in Northern Virginia under Longstreet would have retained the gains of the late summer while placing a smaller strain on the limited supplies of the region than the whole Army of Northern Virginia.

Some would argue that this move would be pretty risky, indeed it is risky. However, it is the EXACT move that happened one year later - and it resulted in the largest battle (and the CSA's greatest victory) in the west: Chickamauga. The difference being that by the fall of 1963, the war had turned, Jackson was dead, and the best the CSA could do was to send Longstreet's Corps to a front that could not be saved in the long run. Lee himself, however, pleaded with the Confederate government to remain in Virginia. In the end, it would be Grant who came east and the war for the CSA was lost. The Confederate battleplan in September, 1862 should have been Kentucky. Lincoln was no military genius, but he could look at a map and say: "I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky."