Sunday, November 18, 2012

Who Lost South Mountain: Lee or Stuart?

The turning point of the 1862 Maryland Campaign was September 13th. On this day, Lee knew McClellan held a copy of Special Orders #191. Lee also surmised McClellan would advance through the three gaps of South Mountain in pursuit of the Confederate army. Until Lee could reunite his widely dispersed army, protecting these passes was critical.

Battle of South Mountain
On the afternoon of September 13th, Stuart was tasked with slowing or repulsing any Union advance toward South Mountain. DH Hill, who was ordered by Lee "to dispose of my troops so as to prevent the escape of the Yankees from Harper's Ferry...and also to guard the pass in the Blue Ridge near Boonsborough", believed Stuart was competent enough to handle this assignment without infantry and thus kept his troops near Boonsboro rather than in the mountain’s gaps. However, an unforeseen cavalry engagement between Stuart and Pleasanton caused Stuart to revise his thinking and he "sent a dispatch to me [Hill] saying that he was followed by two brigades of Federal infantry, and asking me to send him a brigade to check the pursuit at South Mountain". Hill sent two brigades, Colquitt and Garland, and kept the remaining three brigades near Boonsboro, although a short time later another brigade was detached to Hamburg Pass Road. (1)
DH Hill
JEB Stuart

When Colquitt arrived he found Stuart being pushed down the west side of the mountain by Pleasanton. Near nightfall, and catching sight of the Confederate infantry, Pleasanton halted his advance. This pause caused Stuart to believe Colquitt could hold National Pike with no difficulty. Rather than conducting reconnaissance to confirm his assessment, Stuart rode off into the sunset to Boonsboro.

I am hesitant to use Longstreet to bolster my analysis but I think this lengthy quote is important and not necessarily Longstreet rewriting this portion of the war in his favor. Longstreet wrote "it seems that up to the night of the 13th most of the Confederates were looking with confidence to the surrender at Harper's Ferry on the 13th, to be promptly followed by a move farther west not thinking it possible that a great struggle at and along the range of the South Mountain was impending; that even on the 14th our cavalry leader thought to continue his retrograde that day. General Hill's attention was given more to his instructions to prevent the escape of fugitives from Harper's Ferry than to trouble along his front, as the instructions covered more especially that duty, while information from the cavalry gave no indication of serious trouble from the front. A little after dark of the 13th, General Lee received, through a scout, information of the advance of Union forces to the foot of South Mountain in solid ranks...General Lee still held to the thought that he had ample time...[and] he preferred to make the stand at Turner's Pass, and ordered the troops to march next warning was sent McLaws to prepare to defend his rear, either by the commanding general or by the chief of cavalry. The hallucination that McClellan was not capable of serious work seemed to pervade our army". (2)

Further evidence of this hallucination comes from Lee's own Official Report when he wrote the march of Jackson, McLaws, and Walker "began on the 10th, and at the same time the remainder of Longstreet's command, the division of D.H. Hill crossed the South Mountain and moved toward Boonsborough. General Stuart, with the cavalry, remained east of the mountains, to observe and retard his advance...[Longstreet arrived at Hagerstown] on the 11th, General Hill halting near Boonsborough to prevent the enemy at Harper's Ferry from escaping through Pleasant Valley, and at the same time support the cavalry. The advance of the Federal Army was so slow at the time we left Fredericktown as to justify the belief that the reduction of Harper's Ferry would be accomplished and our troops concentrated before they would be called upon to meet it. In that event, it had not been intended to oppose its passage through the South Mountains, as it was desired to engage it as far as possible from its base". (3)

Around midnight, Hill received a note from Lee. In effect, this note related that Lee did not believe that defense of the mountain was going to be a routine effort like Stuart reported it would be. In fact, according to Hill, Lee "was not satisfied with the condition of things on the turnpike or National road, and direct[ed] me to go in person to Turner's Gap the next morning and assist Stuart in its defense". The cause of Lee's growing apprehension was "that Harper's Ferry had not surrendered and that the enemy was advancing more rapidly that convenient from Fredericktown...[causing Lee] to return with Longstreet's command to the Blue Ridge to strengthen DH Hill's and Stuart's divisions engaged in holding the passes of the mountains". (4)
At the time, Lee’s army was extremely scattered due to the division from Special Orders #191, therefore, it was crucial that the South Mountain gaps be held.  If the gaps were lost then McClellan could easily defeat Lee’s divided army piece by piece. Most importantly, it was at this time that Lee lost the initiative in the Maryland Campaign. From this point on, Lee’s actions were simply a reaction to the Union offensive.
As Hill explains, "to gain sufficient time to reassemble his divisions behind South Mountain was now Lee's only chance to extricate his army from its perilous situation, for he declined to assent to Longstreet's suggestion to retire on Sharpsburg and await McClellan's attack there. Orders went out for vigorous defense on the morning of the fourteenth. He assigned to DH Hill with his single division the task of of delaying McClellan's main body by making as desperate as a fight as he could at Boonsboro Gap until Longstreet could spur his men across the thirteen miles of hot and dusty roads from Hagerstown to support him. Munford was directed with his two cavalry regiments to defend Crampton's Gap, five miles south of Boonsboro Gap, until he could be reinforced by infantry, and McLaws and Jackson were ordered to expedite their operations and join Lee at top speed. It will then be seen that unless McClellan's army could be delayed at the two menaced gaps until the twenty-six brigades assembled about Harpers Ferry could make their way back to Lee, McClellan's united onset would jeopard the Confederate army as it had not been jeopardized since Yorktown". (5)
South Mountain by Robert Knox Sneden
Hill reached Turner’s Gap by sunrise on September 14th. Hill found that Stuart had abandoned the gap and left no cavalry at all. Instead, Stuart was positioned at Crampton's Gap. As far as Hill was concerned, Lee's note showed that he expected Stuart to be at Turner's Gap with Hill. When Hill arrived and found Stuart gone, he was unhappy and later wrote that Stuart "was too gallant a soldier to leave his post when a battle was imminent, and doubtless he believed that there was but a small Federal force on the National road". (6)
Stuart's untimely departure had left Hill in a dire predicament but neither he nor Hill knew it, yet. Hill explained that after "following a careful examination of the rough and wooded ground...Hill made his way to the lookout posts on one of his peaks to determine, if possible, in what force the Federals were approaching. After Stuart's report on the night before that his horsemen were being followed, so far as he could discover, only by cavalry and two brigades of infantry, no one was expecting so soon the appearance of General McClellan's entire battle force. General Hill was, therefore, amazed on reaching the lookout station to see almost as far as his eye could reach the oncoming masses of blue". (7)
Again, it is worth mentioning that if McClellan's army poured through the gaps before Hill could stop him, Lee's divided army would have ceased to exist.
When Stuart found no Union activity at Crampton's Gap he ordered Munford to remain at the gap with cavalry until infantry arrived and sent Hampton to the Potomac to watch the road from Harpers Ferry to Frederick. Still believing there was only a small Federal force advancing, and that he had adequately covered the gaps, Stuart left South Mountain and joined McLaws at Maryland Heights. Hill states it best when he remarked "evidently Pleasanton's Federal Cavalry was improving when it could mask an infantry movement against so acute an observer as General Stuart". (8)
Further illustrating the latest reconnaissance blunder at Crampton's Gap is McLaws statement that he "heard cannonading in the direction of Crampton's Gap, but I felt no particular concern about it, as there were three brigades of infantry in the vicinity, besides the cavalry of Colonel Munford, and General Stuart, who was with me on the heights and had just come in from above, told me he did not believe there was more than a brigade of the enemy. I, however, sent my adjutant-general to General Cobb, also Major Grogin, of my staff, with directions to hold the gap if he lost his last man in doing it, and shortly afterword went down the mountain and started toward the gap. On my way, with General Stuart, I met my adjutant-general returning, who informed me that the enemy had forced the gap and that re-enforcements were needed". Hello Sixth Corps. (9)
So, what exactly was Stuart thinking throughout the 13th? His actions are strange and the explanation for these actions is even more bizarre. Stuart's Official Report raises more questions than provides answers.
  • For example, in regards to the initial skirmishing with Pleasanton, Stuart wrote "the enemy was held in check until he had marched up to the attack two brigades of infantry, which was the only force we were YET (emphasis added) able to discover, so well did he keep his troops concealed". Stuart reported the Union infantry to Hill but forgot to add the YET part leading Hill to believe that all that was in front of him were two brigades. Quite a difference between two infantry brigades and an entire army. Why did Stuart think only a small Federal force was on the road rather than the entire Union army? What type of reconnaissance did he conduct to arrive at that conclusion? (10)
  • Stuart states he then "withdrew...given Hill ample time to occupy that [Turner/Fox] gap with his troops, and still believing that the capture of Harper's Ferry had been effected" Stuart sent Hampton to reinforce Munford at Crampton's Gap while he remained at Boonsboro. Why did Stuart think Harpers Ferry had surrendered? Did he believed it had happened only because according to SO#191 it was supposed to have had happened by then? Did someone send him a report stating it had surrendered? (11)
  • During the night Stuart determined that cavalry operations could not be conducted in the Boonsboro area and spirited off to Crampton's Gap which he "had reason to believe was as much threatened as any other..[because] it was believed that the enemy's efforts would be against McLaws, probably by the route of Crampton's Gap". Again, why did Stuart think this? What made him think Crampton's Gap would be the Union route of attack instead of Turner/Fox Gaps? He had engaged with Union forces at those gaps whereas at Crampton's Gap he wrote he found no enemy. (12)
  • Finding no enemy at Crampton's Gap, Stuart relocated to Maryland Heights with McLaws where he learned Harpers Ferry had not surrendered. Rather than return to any of the gaps, Stuart remained with McLaws offering him advice on the road network. In the meantime, Munford was battling the 6th Corps at Crampton's Gap. Stuart, finally, returned to the area only after the Confederates had been overwhelmed and pushed down the west side of the mountain. Stuart almost seems boastful when he wrote "I rode at full speed to reach that point, and met General Cobb's command just after dark, retreating in disorder down Pleasant Valley. He represented the enemy as only 200 yards behind, and in overwhelming force. I immediately halted his command, and disposed men upon each side of the road to meet the enemy...the enemy not advancing, I sent out parties to reconnoiter, who found no enemy within a mile". This is the same general who found nothing to cause concern the past two days. (13)
So, I conclude "Who Lost South Mountain: Lee or Stuart?", by putting forth the answer that they both lost it, Lee strategically and Stuart tactically. Special Orders #191 was a very risky gamble and Lee lost the bet. McClellan forced Lee to change his plans causing Lee to lose the strategic initiative. Instead of continuing on into Pennsylvania, Lee now had to prepare for a battle at South Mountain to hold McClellan back while Lee tried to hurriedly reunite his army. He was aware McClellan had a copy of the orders and thus McClellan could correctly surmise Lee's army was yet divided. Lee thought he had enough time to capture Harpers Ferry AND reunite his army before McClellan could push through the South Mountain gaps.
Lee's primary objective of holding back the Union, particularly at Turner/Fox Gaps, fell to Stuart and Hill and in this task Stuart failed miserably. Stuart knew an enemy advance through the gaps was imminent and even notified Hill as much allowing Hill the opportunity to position Colquitt and Garland. Instead of remaining in his assigned position, Stuart withdrew his cavalry and wandered off to Crampton's Gap and then Maryland Heights. Had he performed his scouting duties in a competent fashion, then Hill would have been alerted to the extreme danger he was facing and Stuart would have been present to aid in the fight on the 14th. Furthermore, Lee may have had the chance to get Longstreet's men to Hill quicker had Stuart informed him of Hill's precarious situation sooner. Stuart had the chance to redeem himself at Crampton's Gap but there too, his powers of observation were sorely lacking and Munford paid for Stuart's dereliction.
In a perfect Confederate world, McClellan would have never found the orders and advanced through the mountain gaps. But he did, and he did. As a result, Lee never had a chance at winning South Mountain even had Stuart performed his duties. 

1.Official Reports Vol 19 pg 1019.  Battles & Leaders (North to Antietam) pg 560.
2. James Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox pg 219-220.
3. OR Vol 19 pg 145.
4. B&L pg 560
5. DH Hill, Bethel to Sharpsburg pg 350-351.
6. B&L pg 561.
7. Bethel to Sharpsburg pg 363.
8. Bethel to Sharpsburg pg 361.
9. OR Vol 19 pg 854.
10. OR Vol 19 pg 817.
11. OR Vol 19 pg 817.
12. OR Vol 19 pg 817.
13. OR Vol pg 819.

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