Harper’s Ferry Chief Historian Dennis Frye made his third trip to the First Defenders Civil War Round Table in fine style by questioning mainstream historians and logic itself by asking whether George McClellan out-thought Robert E. Lee during the first invasion of the North in 1862.
Frye outlined four instances in the first two weeks of September during which McClellan’s carefully-crafted tactical moves wrecked Lee’s invasion plans. In the first instance, Little Mac wisely deployed Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps to the north of Washington, D.C. to block any move by the Army of Northern Virginia in the direction of Baltimore. Days later, his unusually rapid westerly advance threatened to interpose between the divided parts of Lee’s army, the lead elements of which were within only a few miles of Pennsylvania.
As the armies neared, McClellan extended his right at Sharpsburg on September 16th across the Antietam Creek and blocked the Hagerstown Pike which Lee was planning to use to continue his northerly excursion. Instead, the following day saw some of the most intense combat of the Civil War and would come to be the bloodiest day in American history.
Finally, when Lee withdrew back across the Potomac River beginning on September 18th, he still had thoughts of continuing the invasion by racing upstream to recross the river at Williamsport. McClellan, anticipating the move, sent both cavalry and infantry to the area that denied Lee the opportunity.
Most histories of the Maryland Campaign come to the conclusion McClellan threw away his best opportunity to end the war up until the final showdown at Appomattox. While this may be true, Frye contends McClellan, at minimum, turned the Rebels back into Virginia and defeated Lee’s strategy for going North in the first place. While it may still believe McClellan could never out-think anyone (save, perhaps, for himself), there are four instances in which he appears to have frustrated the “Gray Fox” in September 1862.