Robert E. Lee took advantage of the confusion in the Union army and pressed his luck. He moved the Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland.
It was a risky move.
Lee’s army was beaten; his men half-starved. Many didn’t have decent clothing or shoes; others lingered on the sick list and struggled to follow the army as it marched into Maryland.
“We cannot afford to be idle,” said Lee in a letter explaining his actions to Jefferson Davis. “The movement is attended with much risk, yet I do not consider success impossible.”
Lee didn’t need to destroy the Union army, just its fighting spirit. The midterm elections were coming up. Northerners were fed up with all the fighting, killing, and money spent to fuel the administration’s war machine. If he could win another battle or two, Lee figured it might bring Lincoln to the table so that he could negotiate a peace on his terms.
What Lee did know was he couldn’t linger in Northern Virginia. A year of heavy fighting had stripped the area of food and fodder.
Delay could kill his army.
Contrary to what Northerners believed, Robert E. Lee had no intention of attacking Washington. That would have been suicide. However, his threat of doing so was enough to force the White House to pull tens of thousands of troops out of his path. In an 1868 letter, Lee explained that he never intended to attack Washington. He just wanted it to seem that way. His primary reason for crossing the Potomac into Maryland was to feed his troops and force General McClellan to move his army north of the Potomac.
Lee’s movement threw Lincoln and Stanton into a panic.
They were sure that Bobby Lee planned an excursion to the White House. Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtain felt an invasion of his state was imminent. So, he called out the militia and bullied Abraham Lincoln into releasing General John Gibbon from the Army of the Potomac so that Gibbon could lead his State’s forces.