High-Water Mark, part ten

We have reached the fascinating and complex eighth chapter of High-Water Mark: The 1862 Maryland Campaign in Strategic Perspective where author Timothy Reese notes that our understanding of Crampton's Gap and the campaign has been hurt by McClellan and Franklin turning their backs, after the war, on the contingent paragraphs of McClellan's September 13 orders to Franklin. Said text disappeared from the record and was not alluded to again – even in Congressional testimony. In Reese's memorable phrase, their silence created "a yawning pitfall into which future analysts would obligingly slide."

The word "obligingly" is important. In order to slide, historians have had to miss reading and understanding the full order – long available - as well as dismiss or quibble with the testimony of Lee himself on the strategic implications of losing Crampton's Gap. Lee is on the record in three instances linking his withdrawal to Sharpsburg with Franklin's victory. Reese:

Modern analysts tend to overlook Lee's three preceding statements in making other points, irrespective of what was clearly meant via plain-spoken, unambiguous language. It remains pointless to liberally construe the sense of his precise words, especially after they were uttered three times. Nor is it necessary to try because Lee will always remain the final arbiter of his own actions and motives. (Emphasis added.)

People may grind their teeth when reading, "Lee will always remain the final arbiter of his own actions and motives." Too many Civil War readers are like Evelyn Waugh's Anglican priest who, asked if he believes in the immaculate conception, answers "up to a point."

So we have a double bind. McClellan and Franklin allow the popular "relief of Harpers Ferry" to crowd out other missions and intentions; historians – especially pop historians – rationalize away Lee's testimony to accommodate a quick, easy, and accessible interpretation of intentions and events. They believe Lee "up to a point."

I think the treatment of Crampton's Gap symbolizes the corruption of Civil War history as a discipline.

As a low-grade McClellan specialist (and partisan), I would add that aside from writing his official report, McClellan twice placed himself in situations where he would have to explain his Maryland campaign intentions in detail; he gave himself two more chances to explain the strategic opportunity and the failure.

At the end of his life, he began a military memoir never finished – he did not reach the Maryland topic before dying and it had to be constructed out of old notes and previously published stuff. Lost chance. Immediately after the war, McClellan wrote a long, detailed Civil War book, the only manuscript copy of which was destroyed in a warehouse fire. Some notes survive, but the book's contents are gone. Lost information. Did he/would he have revisited Crampton's Gap and the campaign-winning strategy placed in Franklin's hands? Would he have shared the full meaning of the Lost Order?

We have High-Water Mark in any case. More on Tuesday.