Remembering terrible days ...

... at South Mountain, Antietam

Antietam : A Remembrance

September 16, 2001|By Robert M. Duff | Robert M. Duff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The tired summer grass and leaves were lightly coated with dust from the road. First Sgt. John M. Bloss ordered his line of skirmishers to take a break in a clover field about two miles south of Frederick. These skirmishers were the vanguard of the main force, members of Company F of the 27th Indiana Volunteers, 12th Corps. Up since before dawn, they had been selected because they were familiar with this area.

They had crossed the Monocacy River at a shallow point, stepped over the rails of the Frederick spur of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and stopped about 100 yards east of Georgetown Pike. It was 9 a.m. Sept. 13, 1862, and already too warm for comfort. They stacked arms and spread out in the shade near a rail fence. Down the slope they could see the road to Frederick.

They drank from their canteens and watched the artillery smoke rising west of Frederick and engaged in small talk. The group was spread out in the grass; Bloss, in charge of the Company F skirmishers, Cpl. Barton Warren Mitchell and Pvt. David Bur Vance.

Their blue wool uniforms were dusty and looked as though they'd been slept in, which they had. The insects hummed as the soldiers mopped their brows. They could see signs of a previous encampment. The word was that Gen. Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had camped here a few days earlier.

As they talked, Bloss noticed an envelope in the grass. He retrieved it and examined it. The group looked at it in silence. This moment was profound beyond their understanding.

War going badly for North

In September 1862 the war was going poorly for the North. France and Britain were ambivalent in their support. Either nation's aid could swing the tide of victory, and victory would decide the emotionally charged issue of slavery.

The Union's Maj. Gen. John Pope had suffered a humiliating defeat with heavy losses at the Second Battle of Bull Run the previous month, and his troops had scattered back to the entrenchments at Washington.

Pope was relieved of command and reassigned to the Department of the Northwest.

President Abraham Lincoln, alarmed by Union failures in Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Peninsular Campaign against Richmond, Va., appointed Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck as his top military adviser, and ordered McClellan to withdraw from Virginia and report to Washington, where he resumed command of the Army of the Potomac.

McClellan's men rallied to his cocky leadership. He was said to be arrogant, conceited and critical of his peers and superiors. But the summer and winter of 1861-1862 passed with no Union move against rebel forces in Virginia. It's reported that a frustrated Lincoln suggested to Halleck that he should ask McClellan that if he wasn't going to use the army, could Lincoln borrow it?

After the Second Battle of Bull Run, Lee astonished the Union by invading Maryland with about 50,000 troops in September 1862.

The presence of Confederate forces under Lee was regarded as an unacceptable threat to lightly defended Washington, Baltimore and even Philadelphia. McClellan's 90,000-man Army of the Potomac encampment spread from Rockville north to Brookeville. Lee's unexpected invasion spurred McClellan to move west against him.

McClellan had hired Allan Pinkerton, a Chicago detective, to provide military intelligence though Pinkerton had no familiarity with military matters. He grossly overestimated Southern forces, thus providing McClellan with a seemingly valid reason for his reluctance to engage the rebels. Pinkerton and other sources gave McClellan the impression that he faced a Confederate force of close to 120,000 men. McClellan was understandably loath to attack a force twice the size of his own.

McClellan's caution

Lee was aware of McClellan's westward movement. He believed that McClellan would move cautiously, which he did. McClellan divided his army into three wings to take advantage of marching on parallel routes, one on the National Road and a wing on either side.

In one of his most daring military decisions, Lee abandoned his plan to march through Maryland to Wheeling, W.Va., and destroy the railroad bridge there to cut off supplies to the Union from the west. He intended then to march east toward the Baltimore-Washington area.

With news of McClellan's movement west, Lee surprised all by dividing his force into four elements with 26 of his 40 brigades marching to capture Union-held Harper's Ferry, W.Va.

After accomplishing their objectives at Harper's Ferry, and a similar mission to Martinsburg, W.Va., all units would reunite at Boonsboro or Hagerstown. This plan, bold, daring and unexpected by the Union, was described in Lee's Special Order No. 191 to all his unit commanders. A copy of this order was in an unmarked envelope that Bloss had found in the grass in the former Confederate camp.

Bloss opened the envelope, and three cigars slid out. While his companions sniffed the cigars and started looking for a match, Bloss saw a paper in the envelope and took it out.

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