The Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run at the end of August 1862 created a crisis in the North. Confederate General Robert E. Lee had thwarted Union General George McClellan’s attempt to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond in July. Abraham Lincoln had responded by diminishing Democratic General McClellan’s control of Union forces and raising up the Republican General John Pope to command a new army. It was Pope’s army that had been crushed at Bull Run. Pope may have been an ally of Lincoln politically and supported emancipation of the slaves, but his failures in the field were manifest. Perhaps more importantly for Lincoln, they were being blamed on the Republicans for putting politics above national interest.1
A letter from a Union officer to his brother, dictated as he was dying on the field at Bull Run, expressed what was doubtless the dying thoughts of hundreds of Northern soldiers. Captain Thorton Brodhead of the 13th Massachusetts wrote; “I have fought manfully and now die fearlessly. I am one of the victims of Pope’s imbecility”. Captain Brodhead begged his brother to work to remove the incompetents, beginning with Pope, then leading the Union forces, writing that he must dedicate himself to “force them from places where they can send brave men to assured destruction.” Brodhead’s letter was published posthumously in newspapers across the country. 2
German American General Carl Schurz had seen the way incompetence and in-fighting among generals had done as much to defeat the Union army as the Confederates had. He had been the victim of it himself at Second Bull Run. Because his commander Franz Sigel and another general, Phil Kearney, had been feuding over the place of immigrants in the army, Kearney had apparently refused to send troops to support Schurz at a key moment in the battle. Schurz told a reporter after the Second Battle of Bull Run that “I have lost a thousand men. I dare not go to the hospital and look in the faces of those wounded men, who, I know, have shed their blood bravely and in vain.”3
As Pope’s army slipped back to Washington in disorder and disgrace, McClellan’s army arrived in the same city, evacuated by ship from its own defeat on the Virginia Peninsula. Lincoln needed time to sort out the problem of who should command the Union forces in the east and the troops needed time to reorganize their units, incorporate new recruits, and rest after months of tough fighting. Robert E. Lee was resolved not to give them that time.4
On September 4, 1862, Lee launched his invasion of the North. Lee’s force was outnumbered by the Northern troops, but he believed that his enemies were demoralized, divided, and poorly led. He crossed his army from Virginia and into Maryland not far from Washington itself. In a few days his troops would capture Fredrick, the largest Maryland city west of Baltimore, and place itself north of Washington and almost on the Pennsylvania border. While Lee probably had fewer than 60,000 men, many in the North, including George McClellan, believed his army was twice as large. For the first time since the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, panic gripped Washington, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.5
Confederate cavalry crossing the Potomac in September 1862. Unionist civilians who saw them couldn’t believe that such a poorly nourished and ragged force had inflicted defeat after defeat on the United States Army.
Lee’s move North was as much political as it was military. The Union was just two months away from a Congressional election, the first since the war had begun. Lee hoped that Northerners would vote for peace and elect anti-war Democrats if they saw their own cities threatened by the continuation of the fighting. Confederate diplomats believed that taking the war to the North would encourage the British to intervene and force Lincoln into a negotiated peace with an independent Confederacy. Finally, Confederate leaders held out hope that some men in slave states like Maryland that still remained in the Union might view the Confederates as liberators and be encouraged to join the rebel army.6
The danger to the Union worried the Irish editor of the Galway American. He called on his readers to rally “around the Stars and Stripes…for the preservation of the Union will be the salvation of Ireland.” As Lee’s army headed north, the editor knew that kings and princes rejoiced at the Confederate triumph. He wrote that “the breaking of the great republic would be a fatal blow to the cause of freedom all over the world.” He urged immigrants to rush to enlist to save the United States, the country whose very existence, he wrote, was a “rebuke and a terror to the despotic dynasties of the Old World.” Union soldiers were not only fighting for America, the editor concluded, they were fighting for “Ireland, for humanity, and universal freedom”. Immigrants and native-born did rush to the colors, but the hard job of chasing Lee would fall to men who already felt used up by fighting.7
One of the lead regiments in pursuit of Lee was the 79th New York Volunteers. Known as the Highlanders, the regiment had originally been recruited from New York’s Scottish community. Months of battle losses had forced the regiment to accept replacement recruits from whatever source it could find, and the Highlanders were becoming increasingly Irish in makeup.8
As the 79th took to the roads of Maryland to chase Lee’s army, young Captain William Lusk sat down to write to his mother. His letters had often been optimistic in the past, but now he reflected on the army’s decline. He saw the decay mirrored in his own regiment. The 79th New York, he wrote, “has been in five large battles, and in ten or twelve smaller engagements… t has never taken part in a successful action. The proud [regiment] that started from the city over a thousand strong, are now a body of cripples…The morale is destroyed- discipline relaxed beyond hope of restoration.” The regiment was down to only 230 men he informed his mother grimly.9
The source of low morale, Lusk wrote, was poor leadership from the generals all the way up to Abraham Lincoln:
The battle comes-there is no head on the field- the men are handed over to be butchered- to die on inglorious fields. Lying reports are written. Political Generals receive praises where they deserve execration. Old Abe makes a joke. The army finds that nothing has been learned…Alas, my poor country! The army is demoralized…The army is exhausted with suffering- its enthusiasm is dead.”10
This was the army the Union would have to rely on to save Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh from Robert E. Lee and his victorious Confederate army.
1. Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas by
John J. Hennessy published by Simon and Schuster (1993) .
2. September Suspense: Lincoln’s Union in Peril by Dennis E. Frye published by Antietam Rest Publishing (2012) Kindle Location 534-538
3. September Suspense: Lincoln’s Union in Peril by Dennis E. Frye published by Antietam Rest Publishing (2012) Kindle Location 510-512
4. Washington Under Banks by Richard B. Irwin found in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II pp 541-544; From the Peninsula to Antietam by George B. McClellan found in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II pp 545-555;
5. Stonewall Jackson in Maryland by Henry Kyd Douglas found in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II pp. 620-624; The Invasion of Maryland by James Longstreet found in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. II pp. 663-666.
6. Unholy Sabbath: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory, September 14, 1862 by Brian Jordan published by Savas Beatie (2012); Maryland Campaign of September 1862: Volume 1, South Mountain by General Ezra A Carman and Thomas G. Clemens published by Savas Beattie (2010); Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears published by Mariner Books (2003)
7. Unholy Sabbath: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory, September 14, 1862 by Brian Jordan published by Savas Beatie (2012) Kindle Location 410.
8. Foreigners in the Union Army by Ella Lonn published by LSU Press.
9. War Letters of William Thompson Lusk P. 190 (Sept. 6, 1862 letter from W. Lusk to his mother).
10. War Letters of William Thompson Lusk P. 189 (Sept. 6, 1862 letter from W. Lusk to his mother).
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.