THE BRINK OF DESTRUCTION
From the glorious moment of independence almost two hundred and fifty years ago to the present day, America has survived conflicts that threatened the very foundation of the nation itself. From the natal throes of the country's birth, to the burning of the capital in 1814, to the attacks on September 11, 2001, the country has survived all foreign assaults on its soil.
But the closest the United States has ever come to the brink of destruction was the schismatic fighting between its own states, the mighty conflict called the American Civil War, fought over slavery and states' rights.
Never in history has a few sentences mattered as much as the lines on a single piece of paper that a Union scout found in the darkest days of the war. Robert E. Lee's order of battle, Special Orders 191, was found on a deserted camp, which enabled Union General McClellan to defeat Lee, but if the scout had not found the orders, Lee would have continued unopposed into Pennsylvania.
If the orders had not been found, the Union would have been pushed to the brink of destruction and would have plummeted over.
The time is the late summer of 1862.
"Just yesterday, September the fourth, General Robert Lee invaded Maryland forty thousand strong," said the Secretary of the Interior, Caleb Smith. "Among his commanders are Stonewall Jackson and A. P. Hill, with powerful brigades under their control. We believe they are concentrating on capturing Harper's Ferry."
Lincoln buried his grizzled face in his hands, shaking his head side to side. There had been nothing but bad news so far at this Cabinet meeting.
"Who is defending Harper's Ferry?"
"Miles Dixon, but he is no match," Smith replied.
"In Tennessee, General Grant has finally
been stopped," reported the new Secretary of War, Edwin
Stanton. "After seizing almost one hundred thousand miles of Rebel territory."
"It seems unreasonable that a series of successes, extending through half a year, and clearing more than a hundred thousand square miles of country, should help us so little, while a single half-defeat should hurt so much," sighed Lincoln.
The half-defeat Lincoln was referring to was the week's worth of fighting outside Richmond two months earlier, when the genius Robert E. Lee had stopped General George McClellan from taking the Confederate capital. The battle had intrigued Europe, and France and England were thinking about officially recognizing the Confederacy as a separate state. After all, the Union blockade was depriving Europe of cotton.
Especially after the smashing defeat that Lee had delivered the Union at Manassas the previous week the Democrats were endlessly attacking Lincoln, calling for the end of the war.
"The Democrats have been active," said Stanton sardonically. "It seems that every day the Times or the Tribune calls for your resignation, Mr. President. According to them, the war is completely unwinnable, and we ought to end it on whatever terms possible."
"As I've said before,"
Lincoln replied with a sad smile. "I will not back down until my
term is up, or until I lose, or until I am conquered, or my country
"You said you had a proposition for the end of slavery?" Smith interjected.
"I do," Lincoln responded. "The freeing of the Negro slaves is a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued. Decisive and extensive measures must be adopted. The slaves are undoubtedly an element of strength to those who have their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us."
"I would agree," said William H. Seward, the Secretary of State, clasping his hands worriedly. "But expressing the desire to free the slaves could alienate some Northern citizens."
"If I could win this war without freeing the slaves, or by just freeing some, I would do it," said Lincoln. "But it is my personal wish that all men should be free."
Seward took this in and said "I would stall the proposition until you can give it to the country supported by military success. Otherwise, the world might view it as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help, our last shriek on the retreat."
"Now about the defense of Maryland," Stanton said. "We have moved Burnside's IX Corps up from North Carolina, and McClellan will be taking over the defense, I assume, even despite his actions at Manassas."
McClellan had refused to send aid to the Union Army under General Pope, as they were hated rivals and enemies.
"Unpardonable," spat Lincoln, his face contorting in rage. "He acted badly in this matter, but he has the army with him. We must use what tools we have. There is no man in the army who can lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he. If he can't fight himself, he excels in making others fight."
"Well, in any case," Smith said. "Let us hope that we can defend Maryland and defeat Lee before the elections, or the Democrats will take the congress."
Robert E. Lee most certainly knew that the elections were coming up, and that the Peace Democrats and the country in general were displeased with the way the war was going. The Confederacy, on the other hand, was ecstatic.
Right now Lee sat in the Union fortress of Harper's Ferry, captured that very day from the incompetent and cowardly Miles Dixon. Dixon had surrendered twelve thousand soldiers and mountains of equipment to the Army of Northern Virginia; for the first time in two months the Confederates were well-armed.
"I plan to tear up the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, then move on to Harrisburg and seize the Susquehanna River," said Lee to his officers in a fruity, jubilant voice with just a hint of a southern accent. "Then I can move on to Philadelphia, Trenton, Baltimore, or Washington, or wherever I feel it fit to lead my soldiers next." He had used to live across the river from Washington D.C.; he had never owned a slave, but fought for the South out of a desire to protect his own lands. After he had left to defend Richmond, the Union had demolished his beautiful mansion on the banks of the Potomac and had built a cemetery for the dead confederates in its place. It was named Arlington, and it still stands today.
"A few day's rest will be of great service to our men." Lee continued, speaking to Stonewall Jackson and another General, John Walker. "I hope to get shoes and clothing for the most needy. But the best of it will be that the short delay will enable us to get up our stragglers."
Jackson nodded as he sipped his lemon juice, holding his right index finger up in the air to 'balance his blood flow.' He was a strange fellow, and being wounded several times did not help him.
"Indeed that will be well," Jackson replied, his large beard waggling. "About ten thousand deserters and stragglers have been following the army. Perhaps the battle will be on a Sunday, I have always wanted to die on a Sunday."
Lee smiled warmly at his
friend and general, whom the soldiers loved in spite of the fact
that he was slightly "cracked."
"Pope has resigned in disgrace, so McClellan will be in charge of the Army of the Potomac defending Washington." Lee said softly, fingering the hilt of his sword.
"Are you acquainted with General McClellan?" General Walker asked.
Lee thought a moment, and said "He is an able general but a very cautious one...I knew him from the old army...his army is in a very demoralized and chaotic condition, and will not be prepared for offensive operations—or he will not think it so—for three or four weeks. Before that time I hope to be on the Susquehanna."
"Especially we must defeat this McClellan before the elections, so that the Democrats will win," Jackson nodded. "The two most evil in the minds of the Democrats are the Devil and Abraham Lincoln."
Chilton," Lee said with a friendly air to his secretary. "I
am going to dictate the orders of battle to you, so that you may pass
them among the generals."
Chilton, a small bespectacled gentleman, opened up a pad of paper and wrote on the top: Special Orders 191.
The orders were passed around the Army of Northern Virginia, and Lee waited at Harper's Ferry for a while, letting the stragglers catch up. Under McClellan's nose, Lee moved quickly up north, and invaded Pennsylvania fifty-five thousand strong.
On the first
of October Lee reached the town of Carlisle, deep in Pennsylvania.
Sending Stonewall Jackson twenty miles northeast to Harrisburg, the
capital of Pennsylvania, he had the city torched and all the bridges
seized. There was an outcry from civilians and politicians alike,
begging Lincoln to stop the invading force from the sack and rape of
the farmlands of the Union.
For the sake of his career and for the people he represented, Lincoln wired McClellan the single following sentence: "Destroy the rebel army."
It would be easier said than done. Lee had moved his army to a crossroads town, a hub of trade for Maryland and Pennsylvania, a little village called Gettysburg. Digging in on Cemetery Ridge to the southwest of the town, Lee prepared for the battle of a lifetime.
Against Lee was McClellan's Army of the Potomac, eighty thousand men in eight corps. McClellan was a poor fighter, nervous and cautious, but he inspired great valor in his men wherever he fought.
At the north, McClellan would attack Confederate General Longstreet on Culp's Hill, and when Lee moved troops up to that sector, the Yankees would assault through the Peach Orchard and Wheatfield against Stonewall Jackson, and the Union Cavalry would exploit the gap. It was a risky plan, and it left the Union flanks without cavalry.
And so on the morning of October 8th, 1862, the Battle of
Joseph Hooker and Ambrose Burnside, of the I and IX Corps respectively, lead their assault on Culp's Hill, at the extreme right of the rebel line, the north part of the Cemetery Ridge. On the extreme right of the line was the 3rd US Division preparing to attack the heavily-fortified springs and glades of Culp's Hill.
Down the slopes from Gettysburg, the 9th New York Regiment looked out across the field for a moment. Culp's Hill rose in a mass, a grassy hill overlooking the forest-bound meadow. The day was springing bright, and up on the hill, behind stakes and fortifications, were Georgia's sons, rifles out, and prepared to defend their new Confederacy.
The New York and Connecticut soldiers charged forward, the Battle Hymn of the Republic on their lips, and met the Confederates up on the rocky hill, behind logs and planks of wood hastily constructed to defend the position.
The bodies of the blue-clad Union soldiers piled up deep in the ravines and gullies, and thousands of Yankees battered for hours against the Confederate fortifications. The Georgians, Virginians, Mississippians and Floridians took heavy casualties as well, and by noon the rebels had lost a lot of ground on the northern ridges. On Cemetery Hill, the mortars and shot were tearing up the graveyards, throwing skeletons onto the piles of recently-dead Confederates.
"Sir, General Lee!" the messenger cried. "General Longstreet pleads that you send reserves into his sector! The Yankees are gaining ground at Culp's Hill!"
"No," Lee said softly, staring out at the Union forces massing to the southwest in the Peach Orchard. "I will leave everything as it is."
Lee refused to shift his forces, so that when the II, VI, and XII Union Corps attacked from the Peach Orchard into the Wheatfield and the Round Tops, Stonewall Jackson was ready.
Entrenched in the wheat and by the farmhouses of the Pennsylvania farmers were the two divisions of Jackson and Ewell, Louisiana and Virginia men armed well for the first time in two months with guns taken from Harper's Ferry. As the blue-clothed Union troops emerged from the woods with their bayonets out before them, the Confederates opened fire.
The fighting soon wore down the stalks of wheat, slicing them so fine that not even an army with knives could have done better. Both sides threw themselves to the ground, lying flat to avoid the murderous fire. The carnage was incredible on both sides, cannons roared and splattered their exploding shot into the enemy lines, and the Union advanced slightly over small distances, their offensives stopped by the swelling crescendos of rebel fire, bullets smacking through their lines and dropping hundreds of New Englanders to the ground. A New Jersey regiment charged the rebels, even penetrating through their line, but Jackson pushed company after company of rebels into the breach, slaughtering the New Jersey division.
The harvest of blood ran down into Gettysburg creek, and the corpses piled three deep in the wheatfields.
Around three in the afternoon, Jeb Stuart noted to General Lee, "The Union right flank is uncovered, they are decimated from the battles all day."
"Ride to General Hill," Lee replied, looking out across the farmland toward where the smoke was rising from the wheatfields. "Tell him to send his division down round top into the Union flank."
A.P. Hill received the message, and from the craggy, rocky boulders of the Devil's Den, his six thousand poured across the wheatfield toward the XII Union Corps. Many of them were wearing blue uniforms captured from Harper's Ferry; the Union was thrown into a state of confusion. Screaming the Rebel Yell, the Alabama and North Carolina soldiers charged with bayonet and sword into the Yankees, who fell back with barely a fight. The entire Union right flank routed, and Jackson sliced with his Corps across the fields, leaving a trail of Northern bodies behind.
At half past four, General Longstreet joined the counterattack, thrusting down Culp's Hill and rolling the Union flanks back through Gettysburg and putting two more Union Corps to rout. All that was left of the Union Army was McClellan's V Corps, his personal favorite.
From a place high on Seminary Ridge, McClellan watched his army disintegrate, and the thousands of rebels converging on his final position. Steadied by Brigadier General George Sykes, McClellan held back counterattack after counterattack. The ridge's sweet earth bore on its soil hundreds of Confederate bodies as the Union made its last stand on Seminary Ridge.
America as we
know it was on the brink of destruction as the sun set when McClellan
rode out from behind the lines, to the fore of the surrounded Corps,
crying, "Stand fast, men! I will lead you!"
Through the smoke of the rifles, a minie ball whizzed through the darkened air and smashed into McClellan's head. He fell from his horse bodily, joining the ranks of the fallen. The word of his death spread through the dismayed Corps, and within ten minutes, the final regiments broke and fled. It was every man for himself as the Army of the Potomac routed, fleeing in all directions away from Lee's powerful Confederate force.
There was confused fighting all that night, but one thing was certain as the sun rose the next day. The Army of the Potomac had entirely ceased to exist as a fighting force.
"My God! What will the country say?" Lincoln exclaimed upon hearing the news of the disastrous battle.
The country had quite a lot to say. The Democrats relentlessly attacked Lincoln, and even the Republicans had to admit that there would be an "Armistice by '63." The New York Times ran an editorial by Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, the commander of the 20th Massachusetts Regiment, which had suffered seventy-five percent casualties at Gettysburg, saying that the Army was tired, and that the South had won by default.
On the Western Front, the same
day that Gettysburg was fought, Confederate General Braxton
Bragg had defeated Don Carlos Buell in Kentucky, and had pressed on to capture a great deal of Kentucky and eastern Tennessee. Grant and the Army of the Cumberland retreated listlessly, knowing that they were against a much more confident and powerful foe.
Lee moved south from Gettysburg to besiege Washington DC; the city's defenses were too powerful for an all-out attack, but if he could bring up his siege guns from Richmond, he could batter the defenses into dust.
On Election Day, November 4th, the Republicans were defeated. In all states the Democrats swept into Congress, calling immediately for Abraham Lincoln's impeachment. Even worse, the Secretary of State Seward was called for negotiations with Great Britain and France.
"We plead with you not to recognize these rebels," Seward had begged. "The war is still winnable yet."
"Will you sign a peace treaty with the South?" the British delegate had asked.
"Never," Seward swore.
"Then our government must officially recognize the Confederate States of America," came the reply. "Not out of preference or spite, but out of simple fact."
On a gloomy New Year's Day, 1863, Abraham Lincoln stood outside the Capitol and addressed the people of America.
"Four score and seven years ago our father brought upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," Lincoln began quietly and tearfully. "Today I had wanted to give a proclamation, a document of emancipation for all slaves North and South. I waited and waited for a victory which could be coupled with this declaration. None came."
"For months the Confederacy has advanced on Washington. Just today I received a message from Robert E. Lee giving three days for all civilians to evacuate the city, and then he will open up with the siege guns."
"Friends, my country has forsaken me." the haggard Lincoln said. "I hereby resign the presidency of the United States. My fellow Americans, we can no longer exist as one nation, indivisible."
But it did not happen like that. Fate enabled the Union Scout to find Lee's secret orders, which led to the defeat of the Confederacy at Antietam Creek. Lincoln had used this victory to release the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order which declared slavery illegal and provided for the freeing of any captured slaves.
The next summer Lee invaded Pennsylvania and met a terrible defeat at Gettysburg. That was the end of the Confederacy; Vicksburg and the southwest fell, and Sherman marched through Georgia, capturing and burning all that was in his path. Grant began his long, slow, bloody push through Virginia, ending the war effectively at Appomattox, when Robert E. Lee surrendered the last pathetic remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant.
In the early autumn of 1862, the United States of America had been brought to the brink of destruction and back again.