SCHAEFFER: ANTIETAM – PART 1: National Crisis/Hobson's Choice

The morning of September 2, 1862 dawned gray and blustery over Washington D.C. The low mantel of dark clouds reflected the somber mood of the nation’s capital as the two men navigated streets turned to mud by the fierce thunderstorm that rolled through the previous evening. Had it really come to this? Did they really have to go to this man hat-in-hand?

With the catastrophe that had just befallen a newly-formed Union army a mere twenty miles west, President Abraham Lincoln and his Army General-In-Chief, Henry Halleck, suddenly found themselves burdened with steering the country through an existential crisis not seen since Washington’s tattered army was on the verge of disintegrating during its retreat across New Jersey in 1776. The summer that started off quite promising for the North had by late August turned to dismal failure.

On August 25, word of an impending battle came through the telegraph lines feeding updates from northern Virginia where Union Maj. Gen. John Pope’s 60,000-man aptly-named Army of Virginia was hunting down an elusive Confederate army of 50,000 men. Pope’s ominous message read: “His whole force, as far as can be ascertained, is massed in front of me.” Then on the 26th the telegraph lines went dead, leaving those in the capital to guess as to the outcome of the battle taking shape out there somewhere in the Virginia countryside. When on Saturday, August 30, communications did start to arrive again, along with the drifting smell of gunpowder, Pope’s initial dispatch reported that he’d driven the enemy from the field and inflicted heavy losses, igniting a brief round of celebrations in D.C. But by afternoon the rain rolled in and with it the first of many ambulances loaded with bleeding, broken, shrieking boys in blue that clogged the capital’s streets and offered up a far different story than Pope’s victorious declarations. Survivors relayed a tale of calamity played out on the very same battlefield at Manassas Junction along the Bull Run creek that just thirteen months before hosted the first Federal defeat and plunged the nation into a terrible Civil War. That war now seemed to be heading towards a momentous resolution as the summer of 1862 drew to a close . . . one that could lead to the secession of nearly one-third of the nation’s population (including over three million slaves) over a quarter of the land mass, and with it a tragic end to the Republic barely two generations old.

Eventually the defeated Army of Virginia made its dismal way through the lines and back behind the protective fortifications of Washington. “Well,” said a dejected Lincoln. “We’re whipped again.” The North had suffered its second significant defeat in as many months. The Battle of Second Manassas (Second Bull Run in the North) cost the Union 14,500 casualties — ten times the First Manassas butcher bill — compared to the Confederates’ 7,000. It also meant that the Rebels now controlled all of Virginia and were in a very real position to threaten the Federal capital. Already vital official documents were being packed up and shipped out of the city and evacuation plans for Congress and the president were in motion.

With his men in low spirits and an openly hostile officer corps, it was clear that Gen. Pope had to go. And yet Lincoln and Halleck knew there was only one man who could rescue their disorganized and demoralized army, and with it the country. And he was the last man either would have chosen to command the Union army, but for the fact that no others of his stature could be found. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton considered their choice the worst of the worst. But Lincoln, always the realist, offered to his friend John Hay, “We must use the tools we have.” And that was why he and Halleck were headed the few short blocks from the War Department to H Street to see Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan at his quarters. They needed him. And McClellan knew it.

Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can pre-order his book here:

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