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Carrying the War to the Susquehanna

Excerpt from Lost Victories: The Military Genius of Stonewall Jackson, by Bevin Alexander, pages 78-80

On the morning of May 30, 1862, Stonewall Jackson’s advance troops were making much sound and fury around Harpers Ferry. But it was all a sham. Ever since the battle of Winchester, Jackson had been pressing his quartermasters to get into wagons the mountain of supplies and arms that had fallen to the Confederacy, since there was no railway between Winchester and Strasburg. Today the long wagon train, along with twenty-three hundred Federal prisoners, started south up the valley pike. Behind them most of the army was forming up and moving south as well, to spend the night at Winchester. Only the old reliable Stonewall Brigade remained around Harpers Ferry, veiling the retreat.

Jackson went to Harpers Ferry to watch an artillery duel and some lively skirmishing. It began to rain and Jackson got under a tree for shelter and fell asleep. When he awoke, his old friend and former congressman, Col. A.R. Boteler, was sketching the general. Jackson looked at the sketch, remarked how poorly he’d done in drawing at West Point, and said: “Colonel, I have some harder work than this for you to do.”

While Boteler listened, Jackson began: “I want you to go to Richmond for me. I must have reinforcements. You can explain to them down there what the situation is here. Get as many men as can be spared and I’d like you, if you please, to go as soon as you can.”

Jackson then disclosed his plan: if his command were raised to forty thousand men, he would cross into Maryland, “raise the siege of Richmond and transfer this campaign from the banks of the Potomac to those of the Susquehanna.”

Here, like the similar plan Jackson had proposed the previous October, was a strategic concept with war-winning possibilities. Even if Jackson retreated far up the valley, he could still rush back and strike behind Washington before any Northern army could stop him. Although there were more than sixty thousand Union troops arrayed against Jackson, they were scattered—Banks at Williamsport, Rufus Saxton at Harpers Ferry, McDowell between Fredericksburg and the [Shenandoah] valley, and Frémont approaching from the Alleghenies. They could not concentrate against him, for McDowell had to shield Washington and the other forces in the valley. Jackson could slip between them and burst across the Potomac.

Jackson’s greatest advantage, however, was that McClellan had isolated by far the largest Union army on the [ Virginia] peninsula [between the York and James rivers]. His was the only force that could defeat Jackson. Even if Lincoln ordered McClellan to move at once, it would take at least a week and probably much longer to assemble a superior army in Maryland. Only ten thousand men at a time could be carried by transports up Chesapeake Bay, necessitating numerous trips to and from Fort Monroe [on the tip of the peninsula].

In a week or two Jackson could transform the military situation—possibly cutting off Washington’s rail communications and food supply, seizing Baltimore and perhaps other cities, and spreading panic. If Washington were isolated, there would be intense pressure to evacuate the government for fear that its members would be captured. A government that could not secure the capital would raise grave doubts among the Northern people as to its capability and would indicate to Britain and France that it was on the verge of defeat. This might lead to their recognition of the Confederacy and a forced end of the war.

[President Jefferson Davis did not want to invade the North, and he rejected Jackson’s proposal on this occasion and once again after the Seven Days in summer 1862. Thus Jackson’s strategic strike was never carried out.]

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