Robert E. Lee was an unlikely rebel. His father, Henry “Light Horse” Lee, gave the famous eulogy for George Washington, saying he was: “First in War, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” His wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington.
In April 1861, Abraham Lincoln offered Lee command of the Federal forces. Despite his strong feelings for the Union, Lee declined and returned to Virginia, where he became a general in that State’s army.
Initially, Lee served as a military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Then, in June 1862, Davis appointed him the Army of Northern Virginia commander after General Joseph E. Johnston was injured during fighting in the Peninsular Campaign.
Lee attacked McClellan’s army three weeks later and, in savage fighting during the Seven Days’ Campaign, forced the Union army out of the Peninsula. That saved Richmond for the time being.
As the war continued, Lee realized he needed to change his strategy. Rather than keep fighting McClellan in Virginia, he brought the fighting closer to Washington and shifted his campaign to Maryland. The move had several advantages for Lee. First, it would force McClellan to pull his troops out of Virginia, taking some pressure off Richmond. It would give his army a better chance at forage than Virginia, where they had already stripped the country bare. And, if his campaign proved successful, he hoped to pick up new recruits from Maryland.
The Army of Northern Virginia marched into Maryland on September 4. Once inside Maryland, Robert E. Lee divided his army of 55,000 men into four parts. He posted General James Longstreet to Boonsboro, then Hagerstown. Stonewall Jackson rode off to Harper’s Ferry to capture the government arsenal there, and D. H. Hill and JEB Stuart stood guard in the rear at South Mountain.
Unfortunately for Lee, Corporal Barton Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Infantry discovered a lost copy of his Special Order 191 on September 13. It gave McClellan a blueprint showing all the movements for the Army of Northern Virginia during the Maryland campaign.
For the over-cautious McClellan, it must have seemed like a Godsend. He quickened his pace and met Lee at South Mountain the next day. But unfortunately, McClellan settled for a partial victory. That set Stonewall Jackson up for his victory at Harper’s Ferry and allowed the rest of Lee’s army to escape to Sharpsburg, where he would soon have another showdown with General George McClellan and his Army of the Potomac.