The Fog of War–When Modern Weather Gives Us a History Lesson

Col. Lonsdale Hale first coined the now oft-used phrase “fog of war” in 1896.  He termed it as “the state of ignorance in which commanders frequently find themselves as regards the real strength and position, not only of their foes, but also of their friends.”  Hale meant this figuratively, but there are times in war when its fog literally masks the reality of the moment.

The hills and fields on either side of Antietam Creek seem to find themselves in their own microclimate.  Living across the street from the battlefield, I cannot help but notice it.  The incredible part of it all is that still over 150 years after the fighting at Sharpsburg, this unique climate will give you a glimpse into the past.

Take, for example, the morning of September 16, 1862.  Portions of both opposing armies were coming together on either side of the Antietam Creek, ready for whatever might come next.  Army of the Potomac commander George McClellan was confident his army had dealt the enemy a severe defeat just two days prior on the slopes of South Mountain, and he sought to finish the job.  Then entered the (literal) fog of war.

Soldiers from both sides awoke on September 16 to a view that must have looked very similar to what I saw out my front door at 6:30 a.m. (5:30 a.m. in 1862 time) on September 10, 2016: fog-630-am This view typically yields a glimpse of the Piper Farm, a mere quarter of a mile away, as well as the observation tower at the Sunken Road, an additional four-tenths of a mile beyond that.  As you can see, no Piper Farm to speak of in the above picture.

The literal fog of war covered the Antietam Valley on the morning of September 16, 1862, but by all accounts one could not see clearly more than fifteen or twenty feet away from them (the treeline in the above picture is approximately 0.19 miles [1,003 feet] from where the picture was taken).

George McClellan probably did not expect Robert E. Lee to be standing on the hills covered by the fog screen on the morning of the 16th.  He told Henry Halleck at 7 a.m.: “This morning a heavy fog has thus far prevented our doing more than to ascertain that some of the enemy are still there.  Do not yet know in what force.  Will attack as soon as situation of the enemy is developed.”  But the fog continued to linger on September 16.  And then the figurative fog of war kept up its game.

Five and one half hours later, Henry Halleck replied to McClellan’s earlier dispatch.  “I think however, you will find that the whole force of the enemy in your front has crossed the [Potomac] river [back into Virginia].  I fear now more than ever that they will recross at Harper’s Ferry or below and turn your left, thus cutting you off from Washington.  This has appeared to me to be a part of their plan, and hence my anxiety on the subject.”

By the time McClellan would have received this note of warning (a note that today we know as false), the literal fog obscuring his vision of Lee’s positions had burned away, but it was not instantaneous.  Here is the September 10, 2016 fog at 8:30 a.m., two hours after the previous photo: fog-830-amStill no Piper Farm or observation tower.  The September 10 fog burned off by 9:30 a.m. (remember, with no daylight savings time, 8:30 a.m. in September 1862) and revealed this view: fog-930-am There you have it, the Piper Farm and observation tower clear as day.  On September 16, 1862, the fog lifted at approximately 9 a.m.  Then why didn’t McClellan pitch in right away to the remaining rebels he could now see?  There were multiple reasons for this, some of which were out of McClellan’s control, but the vanishing of the literal fog of war did not remove the figurative fog of war.

First, Halleck’s dispatch mentioned above would have arrived while McClellan was making his plans for the coming fight and second, Robert E. Lee had arrayed his forces brilliantly on a beautifully deceiving piece of ground.  Take a close look at the 9:30 a.m. picture above.  What’s on the other side of the ridge line where the observation tower sits?  McClellan, his staff, and his subordinates had to face the same question on September 16, 1862, just from the other side of the creek.  Who knew how many men Lee had sitting behind that ridge?  We know, 154 years later, but it was impossible to tell then and from where the Federals stood.

Let’s hear from George McClellan and what he saw, or did not see, on September 16.  “The ground in front of [the enemy’s] line consisted of undulating hills, their crests in turn commanded by others in their rear.  On all favorable points the enemy’s artillery was posted, and their reserves, hidden from view by the hills on which their line of battle was formed, could maneuver unobserved by our army…” (emphasis added).

George Smalley, correspondent for the New York Tribune and certainly no lover of McClellan, also commented on the view of the Confederate lines from the Federal positions:

Next morning [September 16] the lines and columns which had darkened cornfields and hill crests had been withdrawn. Broken and wooded ground behind the sheltering hills concealed the Rebel masses. What from our front looked like only a narrow summit fringed with woods, was a broad table-land of forest and ravine, cover for troops everywhere, nowhere easy access for an enemy. The smoothly sloping surface in front and the sweeping crescents of slowly mingling lines was all a delusion. It was all a Rebel stronghold beyond.

Both versions of the fog of war were very much alive on the Antietam battlefield on September 16, 1862.  Historians would do well to continue to not overlook the difficulties such a factor in war caused for generals on the field of battle, and has caused for generals since the introduction of war to the human race.  Occasionally, you can find the real fog of war giving us a glimpse of what it was like here in Sharpsburg, Maryland 154 years ago.

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6 Responses to The Fog of War–When Modern Weather Gives Us a History Lesson

  1. Dave Powell says:

    I have encountered the same problem several times when taking people around Chattanooga, especially at Lookout Mountain. Trying to interpret Wauhatchie while wrapped in a dense fog can be a real challenge to one’s descriptive skills.

    • Kevin Pawlak says:

      Agreed. I don’t think the common visitor to our battlefields can “see” how fog can slow the operations of an army unless they’ve actually seen such heavy fog. Most people sort of shrug about it when I tell them what the fog did to the Army of the Potomac on September 16, 1862.

  2. I was lucky enough to be a spectator at one of the Antietam reenactments when the fog rolled in. It was so eerie and immediately one could see why the soldiers couldn’t.

  3. Charles Martin says:

    I was at the 150th at Fort Sumter in 2011 and at guard mount on the parade ground at 2:00 A.M. The fog had rolled in and the visibility was limited to the first or ground floor tier of the Fort. The fog had blocked my ability to see anything existing above the first tier including the empty sky where the walls of the fort would have been 150 years ago. No imagination was necessary to take me back 150 years to the time when the Fort’s upper tiers extended above the first tier, and I found myself in my antebellum regular army artillery uniform shouldering my model 1842 smoothbore Springfield musket guarding the multi tiered fort 150 years ago with the upper tiers rendered invisible by the fog. That was only one of many spiritual experiences that I had doing sesquicentennial reenactments for four years, another being in the thick fog on the morning of the first day for the surprise attack of the Confederates at Shiloh a year later.

  4. John Foskett says:

    I’ve always thought that one of the best examples of the [literal] “fog of war” was during the AWI at Germantown in 1777. A thick fog thoroughly mucked up Washington’s multi-pronged plan, exacerbated by Knox’s stupid advice to take out the Chew House with its 100-man garrison and General Stephen’s apparent resort to liquid stimulants.

  5. Meg Groeling says:

    Your series of photos is excellent. Here is a case where modern digital photography is worth the proverbial 1,000 words. I would love to see more of this kind of work done–maybe the reality of a “mud march” or the dust raised by hundreds of thousands of marching men–maybe a thunderstorm. It is so easy to criticize when one has only seem a battlefield on a soft Fall afternoon. Well done!

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