Book Review: Decisions of the Maryland Campaign

ECW welcomes guest author John Michael Priest.

Over the past thirty years historians have increasingly begun to write about the Maryland Campaign of 1862. The studies range from publishing primary accounts of the campaign to overview books for the general public, to analytical studies of the generals’ tactics and plans of operation. Michael S. Lang’s new Decisions of the Maryland Campaign is part of a series published by the University of Tennessee Press entitled Command Decisions in America’s Civil War.

The book consists of three chapters and four appendices. “Chapter 1: The Campaign Begins, September 3 – 13, 1862” contains seven of the fourteen points of discussion, which coincides with Map 1 – 6.  The topics are: Lee Invades the North, McClellan Takes Command, Halleck Does Not Evacuate Harpers Ferry, Lee Divides His Army, Sugar Loaf Mountain is Occupied, McClellan Responds to Special Order 191, and Lee Stands at South Mountain. Chapter 2 discusses the campaign from South Mountain and Harpers Ferry to Lee’s stand at Antietam and accounts for maps 8-12. The author skipped the battle of Antietam because this was covered in a previous work in the series. Chapter 3, with two maps, concentrates on the campaign’s aftermath. A conclusion wraps up the main text of the book.

The appendices have a driving tour to the locations where the decisions occurred and it is laced with excerpts from the Official Records, comments from Longstreet’s From Manassas to Appomattox, and other primary sources. Appendices 2 and 3 contain the Union and Confederate Orders of Battle. The last 9 pages are tabulations of numbers present and casualties compiled from a variety of very good sources. The book contains endnotes, a bibliography, and is filled with photos (both contemporary and current) plus drawings of the campaign.   

All that being said I realize that, considering the complex range of decisions treated that this is not a book one should read in one sitting. Rather, one needs to approach it incrementally, to objectively examine the author’s premises, a great many of which I would like to investigate further myself. Each decision follows a specific format. The author introduces the reader to each topic with a summation of the context in which the decision occurred: the “Situation.”  He then lists two or more “Options” confronting the general commanding. For instance, on p. 42, Option 1 for “Lee Divides His Army,” reads.

Lee could abandon his offensive campaign, retreat to Virginia, and seek a better time and place to strike again.  While confident, the Confederate commander knew the nature of the risk he was taking. He had to ask himself whether the situation elevated that risk to acceptable proportions.

Lee held the initiative and believed that time was still on his side. He was only five days into his offensive, so it seems unlikely he would give it up at that point. Moreover, why would Lee invest all this time into a campaign only to forsake it at the first sign of an obstacle? All evidence indicates that the Confederate general was under no pressure to accelerate his campaign or change his plans based upon what he thought the Federals were doing. The Federal army was pursuing faster than Lee at first anticipated, but he gave no indication of being concerned by McClellan’s initial moves. As we will see in the discussion of a future decision, Lee seriously considered abandoning his campaign on September 14 or 15, but he was not under that kind of pressure at this point.

For the sake of clarity, this Option needed one or more endnotes to explain how Lee knew that “time was still on his side.” What source proves that Lee was “confident” of his decision to continue the campaign? What evidence specifically substantiates the assertion that Lee was not under pressure to change his plans while occupying Frederick, MD? What evidence confirms that the rapid Federal advance did not concern him at this stage of the campaign?

Once the author lists all of the Options, he then discusses which option the general chose and why he chose it. He follows this up with an assessment of “Results/Impact” of the decision and ends the commentary with “Alternate Decision Scenarios.”

The organization of Decisions of the Maryland Campaign makes it a difficult read, which, to be fair, is why the reader must approach it decision-by-decision over a period of time.

Decisions of the Maryland Campaign: The Fourteen Critical Decisions That Defined the Operation

By Michael S. Lang

University of Tennessee Press 2022 $29.95 paperback

Reviewed by John Michael Priest

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