Book Review: Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862

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by Joseph L. Harsh

Kent, Oh.: Kent State University Press, 1999. Pp. xvii, 649. Illus, maps, notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN:0-87-338-631-0

This book is the sequel to Harsh’s provocative Confederate Tide Rising, published in 1998. The results here are equally provocative, and worthy of careful scrutiny. Harsh begins with an examination of Lee’s thought process in his deciding to undertake the Maryland Campaign in the aftermath of his victory in August 1862 at Second Bull Run. Harsh suggests that Lee undertook the campaign as part of a concerted strategic offensive by the major Confederate armies, an overall strategy in which Lee played a critical role formulating. Lee’s thinking here was also influenced by more well known factors such as the attempt to gain foreign recognition, his estimate of the state of the Union forces, especially those cowering in the defenses of Washington, D.C., after the Second Bull Run disaster and the window of opportunity offered by the absence of the Army of the Potomac, still in transit from the Peninsula back to the environs of Washington.

Harsh then goes into tremendous detail as to why the wheels eventually came off the campaign in the nearly two weeks before Antietam. He begins with an extended examination of how large Lee’s army actually was when it crossed the Potomac on September 5, 1862. He estimates that Lee may have had as many as 75,000 men at the time. Incessant straggling served to reduce his numbers considerably within the short space of two weeks. Harsh then examines how the Union decision to maintain garrisons at Martinsburg and especially Harper’s Ferry, as well as the delays involved in Jackson’s expedition to capture Harper’s Ferry, completely threw Lee’s timetable off. Finally, Harsh gives a great deal of credit to George B. McClellan’s generalship. Here, Harsh provocatively challenges the importance of the so-called “Lost Order,” which gave McClellan the dispositions of the Army of Northern Virginia. Harsh suggests that many of the measures McClellan undertook against Lee had already been put into motion well before Special Order No. 191 was brought to his headquarters. All the order did was to confirm to McClellan that he was doing the right thing.

Somewhat less compelling is Harsh’s discussion of Lee’s decision to fight in the hills near Sharpsburg. Although Harsh is as understanding as possible of Lee’s thinking for continuing the campaign, one cannot avoid the conclusion that Lee had made a serious mistake. Here again, Harsh contends that Lee wanted to slip away north to Hagerstown to continue to maneuver against the Union forces in Maryland, but McClellan skillfully deprived Lee of this option. Harsh’s discussion of the Confederate high command and their post-mortems on the campaign is somewhat conventional in outlook.

The writing throughout the book is concise and the book makes for an easy read. Harsh’s research is excellent and he goes into several memoranda between Lee and Davis in considerable detail. The maps are quite good in following the overall campaign, but are less useful in following the battle of Antietam.

Taken all together, this book is a terrific edition to the literature on the 1862 campaign in the Civil War. Although some of his final conclusions are somewhat on the mundane side, the process by which he arrives at them is decidedly not. This book is a must for anyone interested in the eastern campaigns of the Civil War      

Reviewer: R.L. DiNardo, USMC C&SC   


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