September Surprise

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Jun 11, 2020
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This book by Dennis Frye is a look at Robert E. Lee’s Maryland campaign.

That summer, Lincoln was dealing with the slavery issue. He was a proponent of emancipation followed by voluntary colonization, but financing it would be a challenge. “Relocation costs concerned the president, but even more troubling was the escalating price of the war itself. By the summer of 1862, the war siphoned $2 million per day from the U.S. Treasury. The country had become a debtor nation, with more accumulated debt than at any time in its history [up to then]. To reduce future debt burdens, and hopefully shorten the war, Lincoln conceived an audacious plan–the government would purchase slaves in the Border States. By compensating slave owners, then emancipating the enslaved, Lincoln believed he could sever these states from the economic noose of slave labor and strengthen their ties with the Union. He theorized this would isolate and hasten the demise of the rebellion, contricting the Confederaacy to the Deep South, and ultimately strangling it. The president summoned Congressional members from Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, and loyalists from Virginia and Tennessee to the White House on July 12 to pitch his plan. … The meeting ended with the president requesting that the representatives present his plan to their respective states. … By the president’s estimates, less than half a day’s cost of the war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at $400 per slave. Only 87 days of war would, at the same price, pay for all of the slaves in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and the District of Columbia. The president had warned the members to give his plan careful consideration. ‘If the war continues long,’ he predicted, ‘the [slave] institution in your States will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion–by the mere incidents of the war. It will be gone, and you will have nothing valuable in lieu of it.’ ” [pp. 45-46]

Lincoln didn’t get the answer he hoped. “Twenty out of 28 Border State congressional members refused to pusue the idea. They cited numerous reasons. First, it proposed ‘a radical change of our social system.’ Championing states rights, ‘it seemed like an interference, by this government, with a question which peculiarly and exclusively belonged to our respective States.’ Many doubted ‘the constitutional power of this government to make appropriations’ to purchase slaves. All thought ‘our finances were in no condition to bear the immense outlay’ from the Treasury. They did not feel justified in adopting a measure that would add a ‘vast amount to our public debt, at a moment when the Treasury was reeling under the enormous expenditures of the war.’ On slavery, the members were adamant. ‘The right to hold slaves is a right appertaining to all the States of this Union. They have the right to cherish or abolish the institution as their tastes or their interests may prompt, and no one is authorized to question the right, or limit its enjoyment.’ ” [pp. 46-47]

When the carrot didn’t work, the US went to the stick. “As the plan for compensation failed, the idea of confiscation soared. Since slaves legally were defined as property, seizure of slaves from rebellious slave owners was considered a justifiable act of war. Confiscation of slaves as property not only shattered the investment of slave owners, but it destabilized market values for slaves, reducing Southern wealth dramatically. In addition to this attack on personal capital, confiscation of slaves removed the principal source of labor from the Southern economy, thus making gits aricultural basis unstable. Confiscation, in short, threatened to ruin the South’s pirmary means of generating wealth. Confiscation came in three forms: seizure, capture, or exrication. Seizure occurred when U.S. troops precipitated the action, such as collecting and removing the enslaved from a known Rebel sympathizer. Capture happened when Union troops occupied an area previously held by Rebel forces Extraction occurred when slaves seeking freedom initiated the move–literally deporting themselves from their places of bondage–then migrating to safe shelters behind Federal lines, whereupon the U.S. government guaranteed they would ot be returned to captivity (hence confiscation).” [pp. 47-48]

Frye takes us through the 2nd Bull Run campaign and then gets to Lee’s decision to launch the Maryland campaign. “It appeared Lincoln and his epublicans were teetering on political collapse. With the fall elections of 1862 only weeks away, Lee realized combat victories upon U.S. territory could alter the political landscape in the North, evolving into a U.S. Congress more favorable to the Confederacy. Opportunity also availed itself on the diplomatic front. The debate in the British parliament the previous month over English recognition of the Confederacy–or perhaps mediation of the American conflict–appeared in newspapers both North and South. … But British leaders in particular, remained unconvinced the South had established enough miiltary might to sanction Confederate independene. Victories by Lee on Northern soil could perhaps alter their position. Lee also faced practical reasons for an invastion that transcended politics and diplomacy. He recognized: ‘the two grand armies of the United States that have been operating in Virginia more than 34,000 casualties–the bloodiest three months of the war for the North. Lee knew they eventually would recover. … Another issue confronting Lee was U.S. reinforcements. Lincoln had called for 600,000 volunteers to bolster the Union ranks. If not enough men volunteered, they would be drafted. Lee understood he could never equal the enemy’s numbers, but numbers did not equate to trained soldiers. … It seemed imperative that Lee strike before the raw recruits received training and discipline, improving his odds for a more even match on the battlefield.” [pp. 108-110]

Those weren’t Lee’s only considerations. “The Rebel Congress could govern a draft, but it could not grow crops. Lee’s army needed food. But there was little food in war-ravaged Northern Virginia. … Lee knew this situation,, and realized the region could not sustain his army. Temptation came into view just across the Potomac, where Maryland’s crops and herds looked enticing.” [p. 111]

This is not a battle history. Rather, it’s a discussion of the strategic and operational decisions Lee and McClellan made in the campaign. Those looking for discussions of the tactics involved will be disappointed, but the book gives us some views and insights we don’t normally get. For this reason, and for the cogent analysis Frye provides us, I can recommend this book for students of the war. It’s well written, and easy read, and well reasoned.

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