Gettysburg, 1862

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Riding on the current tide of alternate history as well as raising it, Putnam is publishing a new book, edited by Robert Cowley, called What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been . Among other speculations, Victor Davis Hanson has Western culture strangled in its cradle by a Persian victory at Salamis, Geoffrey Parker charts the fortunes of a successful Armada, David McCullough follows the Battle of Long Island to the likely capture of George Washington, John Keegan shows how Hitler could have won the war with a drive on the Middle Eastern oil fields—and James M. McPherson gives Lee the final victory in the essay excerpted here.

GREAT POSSIBILITIES RODE WITH THE ARMY OF Northern Virginia as it began to cross the Potomac at a ford thirty-five miles upriver from Washington on September 4, 1862. Since taking command of this army three months earlier, Gen. Robert E. Lee had halted the momentum of Union victory that had seemed imminent in May. At that time the Army of the Potomac had stood only five miles from Richmond, poised to capture the Confederate capital. But Lee launched a series of counter-offensives that turned the war around. His troops drove Union forces back from Richmond in the Seven Days’ Battles (June 25–July 1 ) and then shifted the action to northern Virginia, where they won the battles of Cedar Mountain (August 9), Second Manassas (August 29–30), and Chantilly (September 1). Dispirited Union troops retreated to the defenses of Washington to lick their wounds.

Worse was to come: Western Confederate armies, which had been defeated in every campaign and battle from January to June, regrouped during July, and in August and in September they not only reconquered the eastern half of Tennessee but also moved into Kentucky, captured the capital at Frankfort, and prepared to inaugurate a Confederate governor.

This startling reversal caused Northern morale to plummet, it encouraged the peace wing of the Democratic party to step up its attacks on Lincoln’s policy of trying to restore the Union by war, and it emboldened the watchers overseas. Napoleon instructed his foreign minister to “ask the English government if it does not believe the time has come to recognize the South,” and Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer gave a speech declaring that “Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made what is more than either; they have made a nation.”

Meanwhile, Lincoln was hardening on the issue of emancipation. On July 22 he informed the cabinet that he had decided to use his war powers as Commander in Chief to seize enemy property to issue an emancipation proclamation. Emancipation, he said, had become “a military necessity.…We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.…” Most of the cabinet agreed, but Secretary of State William H. Seward advised postponement of the proclamation “until you can give it to the country supported by military success.” Otherwise the world might view it “as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help … our last shriek , on the retreat.”

Lee, well aware of all the implications a decisive move now could have for the Confederacy, was pushing north into Maryland; if Lincoln was to have his victory, it would have to be given him by Gen. George McClellan.

McClellan, as so often, was clamoring for reinforcements, particularly the twelve-thousand-man garrison at Harpers Ferry. But General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck refused to release these troops. That refusal created both a problem and an opportunity for Lee. The garrison threatened his line of supply through the Shenandoah Valley. So on September 9 Lee drafted Special Order No. 191 for the dispatch of almost two-thirds of his army in three widely separated columns under the overall command of Stonewall Jackson to converge on Harpers Ferry and capture it. The opportunity: a large supply of artillery, rifles, ammunition, provisions, shoes, and clothing for his ragged, shoeless, hungry troops. The problem: McClellan might get between the separated parts of his army during the three to six days it would take to carry out this operation and destroy the fragments of the Army of Northern Virginia in detail.

The odds against the loss and finding and verification of Lee’s Special Order No. 191 must have been a million to one.

But two of Lee’s hallmarks as a commander were his uncanny ability to judge an opponent’s qualities and his willingness to take great risks. If he could seize the Harpers Ferry armory, he could freshly provision his troops, give them a few days’ precious rest, and allow thousands of exhausted stragglers the chance to catch up. Then Lee intended to tear up the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and move to Harrisburg and destroy the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge over the Susquehanna, thus severing the Union’s main east-west rail links. “After that,” Lee concluded, describing the plan to one of his commanders, “I can turn my attention to Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington, as may seem best for our interests.” McClellan, he added, “is an able general but a very cautious one.…”