Porter Alexander's Assessment of Lee's Decision to Fight

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Andy Cardinal

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Alexander wrote (Fighting for the Confederacy, pp. 145-146) that Lee's decision to make a stand at Sharpsburg "will be pronounced by military critics to be the greatest blunder that Gen. Lee ever made.…Lee’s inferiority of force was too great to hope to do more than to fight a sort of drawn battle. Hard & incessant marching, & camp diseases aggravated by irregular diet, had greatly reduced his ranks, & I don’t think he mustered much if any over 40,000 men [while] McClellan had over 87,000, with more & better guns & ammunition.” He added that “Common Sense was just shouting" to McClellan, "Your adversary is back against a river, with no bridge & only one ford, & that the worst one on the whole river. If you whip him now, you destroy him utterly, root & branch & bag & baggage. Not twice in a life does such a chance come to any general. Lee for once has made a mistake, & given you a chance to ruin him if you can break his lines, & such game is worth great risks."

I am curious as to anyone's opinion of Alexander's assessment? Was it in fact Lee's greatest blunder?
 
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Alexander wrote (Fighting for the Confederacy, pp. 145-146) that Lee's decision to make a stand at Sharpsburg "will be pronounced by military critics to be the greatest blunder that Gen. Lee ever made.…Lee’s inferiority of force was too great to hope to do more than to fight a sort of drawn battle. Hard & incessant marching, & camp diseases aggravated by irregular diet, had greatly reduced his ranks, & I don’t think he mustered much if any over 40,000 men [while] McClellan had over 87,000, with more & better guns & ammunition.” He added that “Common Sense was just shouting" to McClellan, "Your adversary is back against a river, with no bridge & only one ford, & that the worst one on the whole river. If you whip him now, you destroy him utterly, root & branch & bag & baggage. Not twice in a life does such a chance come to any general. Lee for once has made a mistake, & given you a chance to ruin him if you can break his lines, & such game is worth great risks."

I am curious as to anyone's opinion of Alexander's assessment? Was it in fact Lee's greatest blunder?
So Alexander criticizes Lee for risking his army, but also criticizes McClellan for not risking his army? How does that work?
 
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McClellan would be risking little but casualties and reputation
If McClellan is facing over 90,000 confederates at Antietam, like he thinks, then he risks his whole army.
Lee was risking loosing the war, for no good reason.
If Lee wins at Antietam, then I think he wins the war: It would open Pennsylvania to invasion, which would lead to Democrats winning control of the House, which would mean that Lincoln couldn’t get the gigantic, 2 million man army in the second half of his term that was necessary for Union victory in the war.
 
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Andy Cardinal

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I agree that this is what was at stake. Both McClellan and Lee knew this. It partly explains why Lee took the gamble and also McClellan's "overcautiousness."

Still, in spite of Alexander's after the fact criticism, Lee was too good a general to take such a risk if he had no hope of success. And, to be honest, I don't buy the traditional argument that he was counting on McClellan not attacking for 2 days. Good generals plan for worst case scenario, which in this case would have been an attack late on September 15 or on September 16.
 
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Bruce Vail

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I would defer to Alexander's judgement as a military analyst, but history as written over of the last 150 years has overwhelmingly decided that Gettysburg was Lee's greatest blunder. And given the potential for disaster, his actions at Sharpsburg look pretty good in retrospect.
 
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Lee was too good a general to take such a risk if he had no hope of success.
Lee could have won the battle if he had taken advantage of the disorganization of the 1st and 12th Corps in the opening union attack. The 1st Corps is weak on the left, and the 12th Corps is too far behind to support them. Lee could have quickly disposed of both Union corps, sent them fleeing back to the Antietam, and McClellan would have reverted to caution and never sent the 2nd and 9th Corps across the creek.
 
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Andy Cardinal

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Lee could have won the battle if he had taken advantage of the disorganization of the 1st and 12th Corps in the opening union attack. The 1st Corps is weak on the left, and the 12th Corps is too far behind to support them. Lee could have quickly disposed of both Union corps, sent them fleeing back to the Antietam, and McClellan would have reverted to caution and never sent the 2nd and 9th Corps across the creek.
Which was why Lee, Jackson, & Longstreet all talked about launching an attack on the afternoon of September 17 and even on the 18th. My understanding, though, is that Federal artillery is ultimately what prevented an attack from being made.
 

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Maybe the blunder was raiding Maryland to begin with, particularly under the wrong assumption that Marylanders would flock to the confederate ranks. But that's another discussion, so I would say that once the ANV was already across the Potomac, Lee had little choice but to consolidate his disparate army wings and make a stand at Sharpsburg. I understand that Alexander was critical of the location because it offered no easy means of extraction (backing up against the Potomac) if the battle went badly for Lee. On the other hand, Lee's position was good in the sense that its flanks were anchored to the river and therefore, not "up in the air," and susceptible for flanking by the AOTP. Furthermore, it's position across the Antietam Creek turned out to be a savior because Burnside took too long in crossing that body of water, thereby giving time for A.P. Hill to come charging from Harpers Ferry to save the day.
 

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If Lee wins at Antietam......
Not possible -- the best he could do was inflict a lot of casualties on the Union army, just like he was going to do at Fredericksburg. Lee never had an army big enough to destroy the AoP -- all he could do was hurt it again and again and hope the public got tired of loosing.
 
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Not possible -- the best he could do was inflict a lot of casualties on the Union army, just like he was going to do at Fredericksburg. Lee never had an army big enough to destroy the AoP -- all he could do was hurt it again and again and hope the public got tired of loosing.
Lee didn’t need to destroy McClellan’s army in order to win at Antietam; all he had to do was repulse McClellan’s initial, disjointed attack. McClellan would have been convinced that Lee had a large force in a good defensive position, and would have withdrawn into his own good defensive position on the eastern side of the creek and waited for Lee to attack, which wouldn’t have happened. McClellan would have called to Lincoln for more troops, and Lee would have taken the opportunity to move north into Pennsylvania.
 
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Ole Miss

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Why did Lee invade Maryland? I listed my thoughts below:
1) Lee had just defeated the Union forces in Northern Virginia during the Seven Day’s Battle and the Second Battle of Manassas and desired to continue his success by crossing the Potomac River

2) Lee was by nature an aggressive fighter and he believed he had the Army of the Potomac on its heels---huddling behind the forts circling Washington D,C,---and desired to draw the Federals to a battle of his choosing which would reduce the pressure on Northern Virginia.

3) Moving into Maryland at this time his army would gain access to the rich crops, livestock and vital supplies while enabling the Virginia farmers to reap their fall crops.

4) Being aware of the political divide in the U. S. between the Republicans and Democrats, Lee believed that occupying Maryland would damage the Lincoln administration’s ability to wage war.
Regards
David
 
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Why did Lee invade Maryland? I listed my thoughts below:
1) Lee had just defeated the Union forces in Northern Virginia during the Seven Day’s Battle and the Second Battle of Manassas and desired to continue his success by crossing the Potomac River

2) Lee was by nature an aggressive fighter and he believed he had the Army of the Potomac on its heels---huddling behind the forts circling Washington D,C,---and desired to draw the Federals to a battle of his choosing which would reduce the pressure on Northern Virginia.

3) Moving into Maryland at this time his army would gain access to the rich crops, livestock and vital supplies while enabling the Virginia farmers to reap their fall crops.

4) Being aware of the political divide in the U. S. between the Republicans and Democrats, Lee believed that occupying Maryland would damage the Lincoln administration’s ability to wage war.
Regards
David
5) Got to go through Maryland to get to Pennsylvania.
 

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Lee didn’t need to destroy McClellan’s army in order to win at Antietam; all he had to do was repulse McClellan’s initial, disjointed attack. McClellan would have been convinced that Lee had a large force in a good defensive position, and would have withdrawn into his own good defensive position on the eastern side of the creek and waited for Lee to attack, which wouldn’t have happened. McClellan would have called to Lincoln for more troops, and Lee would have taken the opportunity to move north into Pennsylvania.
Lee would have been very short of ammunition and with an exhausted and shot up army. Not good to head into PA with the AoP only needing a more aggressive general to make life difficult.
 
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Ole Miss

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Both are good additions yet Lee was stretching his limited supply lines with just invading Maryland. Harper's Ferry was a windfall yet he used a lot of those supplies fighting at South Mountain and Antietam. How long could he have lasted without acquiring additional military supplies?
Regards
David
 
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