On September 3, 1862, Lee wrote to President Davis: “The present seems the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate Army to enter Maryland … we cannot afford to be idle …” Lee understood that his army could not remain where it was. The northern Virginia countryside that had sustained his hungry men was nearly picked clean, and the planters needed a respite with the harvest approaching. But where to go? Pulling back south to the Rappahannock to shorten his supply lines surrendered in the hard-won initiative. He could not attack east towards Washington, despite the capital’s immediate fears, as it was too heavily fortified. If he shifted west into the Shenandoah valley for better foraging, he opened the way to Richmond once more.
Therefore, crossing the Potomac and invading the North seemed the most logical option for several reasons. The provisioning of his army from the untouched bounty of the Northern farms was one of them. There was the prospect as well of inciting the slave-state Maryland to rally to the Confederacy and throw off the Union’s “foreign yoke of oppression,” as Lee called it in a proclamation to the people of that loyal border state. Maryland could also provide a fresh harvest of new recruits eager to join the Rebel Army once it was in their midst.
But the main factor behind Lee’s bold decision to take his army across the Potomac was political. The sudden Confederate victories had raised the prospect of foreign intervention as never before. Rebel armies in the East and West were advancing, and the Union cause never seemed to be more in disarray and precarious. After learning of the Union shellacking at Second Bull Run, Great Britain’s Prime Minister Palmerston wondered if now was the time “…for us to consider whether England and France might address the contending parties and recommend an arrangement upon the basis of separation?” and, he thought, “… acknowledge the independence of the South as an established fact?” But the British were not ready just yet to formally recognize the Confederate States of America and enter into a military alliance, despite the need for blockaded Southern cotton to fuel their textile industry. For now, the cautious British government, not wishing to back a loser, opted to wait for one more decisive Southern victory akin to the American Colonials’ 1777 triumph at Saratoga, to move forward. If Lee could win a decisive battle on Northern soil, it may tip the balance and compel the Lincoln administration to sue for peace on Richmond’s (and London’s) terms, or face the prospect of a global war. Everything hinged on what happened on the battlefield in the coming weeks.
It was with these high hopes that Lee’s band of conquering Rebels waded the waste-deep waters of the Potomac while regimental bands played the state song “Maryland, My Maryland.” Lee had no delusions as to what he was asking of his army. For over two months they’d been fighting and marching non-stop in the Virginia heat, and even the hardiest of men were nearing exhaustion. In some units more men went barefoot than not, and due to a steady diet of green corn and apples when the commissary broke down, as often was the case, diarrhea was widespread. The men were filthy and their uniforms had been reduced to rags. One observer watching the Rebels as they crossed the river wrote: “They were the dirtiest men I ever saw. A most ragged, lean, hungry set of wolves … yet there was a dash about them that the Northern men lacked.”
Lee himself struck an odd image. The conquering general entered Maryland in a manner by which many of his men would leave it two weeks later, on an ambulance. Just before the crossing he’d been thrown from his horse, Traveler, and suffered severe sprains to both hands, requiring him to wear splints and thus was he unable to ride. Longstreet suffered a blister on his heel, had to don an embarrassing carpet slipper rather than riding boot for some time as well. It was a curious army no doubt.
Although morale was high (one Maryland woman observing them march by wrote “they are on the broad grin all the time”), a serious problem was hampering Lee’s plans. Straggling had become epidemic. Their feet blistered and sore, weak from illness or hunger, some with still-healing battle wounds, men fell behind in droves, prompting Lee to issue stern orders for provost marshals to sweep up any laggards and prod them forward by the flat of a sword if need be. Jackson ordered any flagrant deserters to be shot on sight. It was not cowardice that compelled the men to fall out of the ranks . . . many had stood bravely on the front lines through two months of hard campaigning and some of the biggest battles of the war. It was simple fatigue.
Some outfits, however, did refuse to cross the river, and not for physical but moral reasons. Many, especially from the Carolinas’ western counties where Unionist sentiment was still strong, had felt they joined up to defend their homes in the South, not invade the North. A good number of units opted to remain in Virginia on principle. By the time Lee was well into Maryland, because of straggling and refuseniks, he left behind a shadow army. Having fielded 90,000 men in mid-June, by early September, even with reinforcements to barely cover his Second Manassas losses, his army was reduced to less than half that number.
On September 6, the vanguard of The Army of Northern Virginia entered Frederick, western Maryland’s largest town, and called a much-needed halt for several days. It is worth noting the impression the Rebels made on the citizens suddenly playing host to an invading army of 40,000 men. With a few exceptions, feelings ranged from disdain to grudging admiration. But most seemed to express astonishment that this “famished Rebel horde” (as Whittier called them) were the same men that had consistently routed the Federals with their clean blue uniforms, crisp battle flags, martial bands and parades, and full bellies. One Marylander observed:
I have never seen a mass of such filthy strong-smelling men. Three in a room would make it unbearable, and when marching in column along the street the smell from them was most offensive. … They have no uniforms, but are all well-armed and equipped, and have become so inured to hardships that they care but little for any of the comforts of civilization. … They are the roughest looking set of creatures I ever saw.
Perhaps the most revealing description comes from a Frederick woman who wrote:
Their coming was unheralded by any pomp and pageant whatever…instead came three long dirty columns, that kept on in an unceasing flow. I could scarcely believe my eyes; was this body of men moving so smoothly along, with no order, their guns carried in every fashion, no two dressed alike, their officers hardly distinguishable from the privates — were these, I asked myself in amazement, were these dirty, lank, ugly specimens of humanity, with shocks of hair sticking through the holes in their hats, and the dust thick on their dirty faces, the men that … had driven back again and again our splendid legions …?
… And then, too, I wish you could see how they behaved — a crowd of boys on a holiday don't seem happier. … Oh! they are so dirty I don't think the Potomac River could wash them clean; and ragged!--there is not a scarecrow in the corn-fields that would not scorn to exchange clothes with them; and so tattered!--there isn't a decently dressed soldier in their whole army. I saw some strikingly handsome faces though; or, rather, they would have been so if they could have had a good scrubbing.
They were very polite, I must confess, and always asked for a drink of water, or anything else, and never think of coming inside of a door without an invitation. Many of them were bare-footed. Indeed I felt sorry for the poor, misguided wretches, for some were limping along so painfully, trying hard to keep with their comrades.
The joke was that had these men not been in an army but just on the streets of any populous city, they’d have been “run in” by the police as vagrants. Yet, they seemed to take pride in their roughness. These men, the core who remained and stood ready to fight, were, as one officer labeled them, “the flower of Lee’s army.”
No doubt the miserable and starved appearance of the Rebel conquerors in their midst cooled the ambitions of many a Southern sympathizing Maryland boy who may have otherwise been eager to join the cause . . . especially when contrasted to the polished and well-provisioned Federals they were used to seeing. But more central to the failure of the border state to rise in revolt as Lee and Davis had hoped was the fact that in the areas where the Rebels were moving, slavery was not so important to the day-to-day lives in the homesteader farmlands and small towns as it was in the tidewater plantation region further to the south and east around the Chesapeake. If anything, despite the occasional friendly face, there was more pro-Union sentiment in these parts. One Confederate officer went so far as to call Frederick “a damned Unionist hole.”
So, most Maryland residents remained quietly behind closed doors wishing the Rebels would move through and do as little damage as possible. Lee reluctantly concluded that, other than perhaps 200 new recruits, he would get little help from Maryland despite his proclamations of a common bond and strict orders to treat the citizenry with kid gloves, which his men by most accounts obeyed.
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: