The American Civil War: Robert Lee’s Ongoing Aspirations


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

After the Battle of Second Manassas, John Pope was removed from the command in Virginia. Following his removal, George B. McClellan came back to head the Army. Read on to know how McClellan managed to inspire the army again and set up another confrontation with Lee.

Map showing confederate states.
McClellan replaced John Pope as a Commander in Virginia after the Battle of Second Manassas. Besides being a brilliant officer, he had a good bonding with his troops.
(Image: Golbez/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

Lincoln wanted another commander to take John Pope’s place after the Battle of Second Manassas, and he reluctantly turned to George B. McClellan. In spite of having a disliking for McClellan, the reason Lincoln chose him was because there was no one else available with any experience commanding an army. Moreover, McClellan had more than once shown his genius, and shared a wonderful bond with his soldiers. McClellan did just what Lincoln had hoped he would do. He inspired the army again, which set up another confrontation between Lee and McClellan.

Lee’s Continuous Momentum

Lee continued the momentum generated by his victories at the Seven Days and Second Manassas by carrying the war across the Potomac frontier. Lee lost very little time after Second Manassas in preparing for a movement into Maryland. He wanted to maintain the initiative as he was never comfortable being in the position of merely reacting to what his opponent was doing. He wanted to be the one who dictated, and the way to do that was to continue his momentum, to carry the war into the enemy’s territory and not simply sit and await McClellan’s next move.

Lee’s Further Aspirations

There was a huge logistical component to what Lee wanted to accomplish. Northern and north central Virginia had been ravaged because of the presence of the armies maneuvering back and forth across their territory. Even if an army merely camped for one day in the vicinity of a farmer’s land, it was catastrophic for that farmer. The fences and the livestock disappeared, the well ran dry, and the crops got trampled or taken away.

Lee wanted to pull the war out of that part of Virginia and give the farmers, whose crops had not been ruined, a chance to get the fall crops in, which would then be used by the armies.

Lee thought of going north of the Potomac to live off the land there, gather food and fodder from the Maryland countryside, and eventually move into Pennsylvania, into the Cumberland Valley. So there was a two-sided potential advantage logistically: to give a respite to northern Virginia and take supplies from Maryland and Pennsylvania.

He also thought he could harass the Federals from a position west of Washington. He also hoped that by remaining in north long enough, he could have some influence on voting in the elections that November. He even expected to have Marylanders flock to his army. The Confederates really believed that Maryland was held in the Union at the point of bayonets and that the presence of a Confederate army would make a huge difference. However, western Maryland was strongly Unionist.

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Lee’s Actual Goal

Lee hoped to stay north long enough to prevent the Federals from mounting another campaign before winter, and thus keeping Virginia safe from another campaign till the following spring. He knew that if he did well in Maryland or Pennsylvania, the European powers would take note of that, working to the Confederacy’s advantage in the diplomatic sphere. However, his main goals were to maintain the strategic initiative and take care of the serious logistical problems that were facing the Confederacy in Virginia.

On fourth September, the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River at White’s Ferry, White’s Ford. They went into Maryland and made their way to Frederick, where Lee decided on his plan for the campaign. He needed a supply line going back into Virginia. He needed ordnance, medicine, and other supplies that he didn’t get from the Marylanders. He decided that the obvious line would run through the Shenandoah Valley and then on into Maryland.

Harper’s Ferry

Map by Hal Jespersen, explaining the campaign of Maryland.
Harper’s Ferry was a critical point which was in Union hands. Lee couldn’t allow it to remain in Union hands.
(Image: Hal Jespersen at en.wikipedia/Public domain)

Harper’s Ferry was a critical point which was in Union hands. Lee couldn’t allow it to remain in Union hands because it would be a sort of dagger in his back while he campaigned in Maryland. There were 12,000 Federals at Harper’s Ferry. So while at Frederick, Lee decided to divide his army yet again.

He planned to send one against Harper’s Ferry under the overall command of Stonewall Jackson. The other two he planned to move deeper into Maryland toward Hagerstown, moving across the South Mountain range.

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Special Orders 191

The plan Lee had made was called Special Orders 191. He put it into operation, and all the Confederates marched away from Frederick in different directions. But the campaign quickly began to unravel after that. Part of the problem was that Lee’s army suffered enormously from straggling and desertion. While about 55,000 Confederates had crossed the Potomac at White’s Ford, by Lee’s own estimate, a third to a half of his army fell out of the ranks in the course of the campaigning in Maryland.

Part of those men didn’t want to fight outside Confederate soil. Many of them didn’t have adequate shoes, hadn’t been eating well, and had been living on terrible diet of green corn. Chronic diarrhea was rampant in the army. The dehydration that came with that was striking down many men. Many just physically couldn’t keep up, while others were reluctant to go across the river. The Seven Days and Second Manassas had been incredibly bloody, and some just simply deserted. So a huge part of Lee’s army just dropped out of the ranks as the army moved into Maryland.

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Lee’s Leaked Blueprint

Lee also noted that McClellan was pursuing more quickly than he had expected. One reason Lee had been willing to divide his army into so many pieces was because he had thought McClellan would move slowly, but McClellan was moving more quickly than anticipated. This was because, through an incredible series of lucky circumstances, McClellan had come into possession of Lee’s blueprint for the whole invasion, the Special Orders 191.

After the Confederates had marched out of Frederick, the Union army had come in behind them, and some Federal soldiers saw some papers wrapped around three cigars, which turned out to be copies of Special Orders 191—an extra set that had been dropped. These papers made their way up to the Union high command, and George B. McClellan held Lee’s blueprint for the entire campaign.

McClellan’s Strategy

McClellan moved a little faster than he would have otherwise, but he didn’t move fast. He let the rest of September 13, when he had got the papers, go by. But, on September 14, he pressed against the part of Lee’s army that had moved toward Hagerstown, and there was fighting in the gaps of the South Mountain range at Fox’s Gap, Turner’s Gap, and Crampton’s Gap.

McClellan’s troops pushed the Confederates out of those gaps and found themselves on the western side of the South Mountain range, same as the Confederate army. Lee was in a very delicate position, expecting Harper’s Ferry to fall quickly. It still hadn’t fallen on the fourteenth. Lee had thought of abandoning his campaign and retreating from Maryland, when he received word on the fifteenth that Harper’s Ferry had fallen, and he decided instead to concentrate his army on some high ground near Sharpsburg, Maryland, to bring Stonewall Jackson’s troops up from Harper’s Ferry and make a stand.

Common Questions about Robert Lee’s Aspirations in the American Civil War

Q: What role did George McClellan play in the Civil War?

After John Pope was removed from the command in Virginia, Lincoln had to induct George McClellan as the commander to take Pope’s place. McClellan was back in command of all the troops in Washington, the Army of the Potomac and Pope’s Army of Virginia.

Q: What was Special Order 191?

Special Order 191 was the invasion plan strategized by Confederate leader Robert E. Lee during the Maryland campaign. He planned it while he was in Frederick, wherein he decided to divide his army yet again.

Q: Why was Special Order 191 important?

Special Order 191 had valuable information regarding Lee’s strategy during the Maryland campaign. This information helped McClellan pursue Lee and fight Lee’s army in the gaps of the South Mountain range, pushing the Confederates out of those gaps.

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