The Maryland Campaign: Background

This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series The Maryland Campaign

The Maryland Campaign:


General Robert E. Lee’s Maryland Campaign can be considered the concluding part of a logically connected, three-campaign, summer offensive against Federal forces in the Eastern Theater.

It began when Maj. Gen. George McClellan landed his Army of the Potomac on the tip of the Peninsula and proceeded up the Peninsula, fighting a series of battles that culminated in the Battle of Malvern Hill.

When McClellan was stopped and Lee deemed the Confederate capital of Richmond safe from further Union advances, he withdrew his army and moved to Northern Virginia. Here he fought a series of engagements that culminated in the Battle of Second Manassas or Second Bull Run. He handily defeated Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia.

Map of the Maryland CampaignWith the removal of Pope and the consolidation of his troops with McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, Lee decided to carry the fight into Maryland. Up until now Maryland had remained in the Union but Lee felt that the state might join the Confederacy with the arrival of the Army of Northern Virginia on its soil.

Click Map to enlarge.

However, he chose to invade that part of Maryland that was firmly Unionist, western Maryland. While the eastern part of Maryland, including Baltimore, was a slave-holding area, the western part of the state was primarily populated by yeoman farmers who held few slaves.

Lee saw this as an opportunity to supply his army in areas as-yet untouched by the war. Many of the primary provisioning areas of Virginia, such as the Shenandoah Valley, had already seen hard fighting.

Lee also saw this as an opportunity to take the fighting out of his beloved Virginia, which so far had seen the majority of the battles in the Eastern Theater since the beginning of the war. There had been serious fighting in the Shenandoah Valley, on the Peninsula, in western Virginia and finally, in northern Virginia. It was time to take the fight into the North.

Lee’s goal was to march into the states of Maryland and Pennsylvania, and cut off the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line that supplied Washington, D.C. His movements would threaten Washington and Baltimore, so as to “annoy and harass the enemy.”

Northern morale would suffer from his invasion and he knew the Confederacy did not have to win the war by defeating the North militarily; it merely needed to make the Northern populace and government unwilling to continue the fight.

With the 1862 election only two months away, Lee saw an invasion of Maryland as a blow to the Lincoln administration. It could tip the electoral balance to the Democratic Party and force the Union government to negotiate with the Confederacy.  He told Confederate President Jefferson Davis in a letter of September 3rd that the enemy was “much weakened and demoralized.”

With the relief of Pope, Lincoln was forced to turn to the general who had mended his broken army before, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. On General Robert E. LeeSeptember 2, 1862, Lincoln named McClellan to command “the fortifications of Washington, and all the troops for the defense of the capital.” The appointment was controversial in the Cabinet, a majority of whom signed a petition declaring to the president “our deliberate opinion that, at this time, it is not safe to entrust to Major General McClellan the command of any Army of the United States.”

The president admitted that it was like “curing the bite with the hair of the dog.” But Lincoln told his secretary, John Hay, “We must use what tools we have. There is no man in the Army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he. If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.”

McClellan’s Army of the Potomac included a total of 6 corps with 84,000 men. The corps were commanded by Maj. Gens. Joseph HookerEdwin V. SumnerFitz John Porter,  William B. FranklinAmbrose E. Burnside and Joseph K. Mansfield. It is worth noting that all but Sumner were West Point graduates while he had joined the army before the military academy had existed.

The Army of the Potomac had a total of 18 infantry divisions and one cavalry division. During the march north into Maryland, McClellan streamlined the command structure of the army by forming three “wings”. The left “wing” was commanded by Franklin with a total of three divisions. The center “wing” was commanded by Sumner with the II and XII Corps, a total of five divisions. The right “wing” was commanded Burnside with the IX and I Corps, a total of seven divisions.

This command structure was used to facilitate the movement of the large Union Army in pursuit of Lee. The army reverted to the corps structure before the Battle of Antietam.

General George McClellanBy comparison, the Army of Northern Virginia numbered 55,000 effectives. Lee had divided it into two infantry and one cavalry corps. The First Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet with a total of five divisions and one independent brigade. The Second Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, also with a total of five divisions.

The Cavalry Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. The reserve artillery was under the command of Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton. Jackson’s Second Corps was organized to include artillery within its formations while the First Corps grouped its artillery at the corps level.

Two days after the Battle of Chantilly, Lee began to move his army in preparation for a move into Maryland. The pivotal Maryland Campaign had begun.



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