The Second Battle of Bull Run has ended badly for Union forces, the losing commander, Maj. Gen. John Pope, has been dispatched to fight the Indians far, far away, and—to the surprise of everyone, including himself—the recalcitrant Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan not only retains command of the Army of the Potomac, but is given Pope’s former command, the Army of Virginia. By order of President Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln’s advisers, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton the loudest, have urged the President to ditch Little Mac for dragging his feet when he should have been rushing to Pope’s aid at Bull Run. But Lincoln needs the reluctant warrior’s talents at organizing, training, and inspiring troops—and so, this President, not afraid to make an unpopular decision—re-anoints McClellan to the sound of teeth gnashing throughout the capital.
As the week wears on, McClellan works on integrating the Army of Virginia into the Army of the Potomac while trying to figure out what’s Lee's intentions are. Washington shivers at the possibility it might be in Lee’s sights, but the nation’s capital is heavily defended and the Confederates choose to slide by, moving into Maryland instead.
Everyone wonders: what is Lee going to do? Savage Maryland and claim it for the Confederacy? Invade Pennsylvania and capture the state capital at Harrisburg? Move on to Philadelphia or even New York? Fear racks loyal citizens in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and even some New Yorkers wonder if they should start packing their bags.
On Tuesday, September 9, Lee reveals his intentions to his commanders. He orders his forces into positions around Maryland and tells Stonewall Jackson to march on Harpers Ferry. The plan for his “Maryland campaign” is laid out in his “Special Order #191.” The order will achieve far more circulation than Lee could ever imagine
McClellan continues shadowing Lee and wondering what his next move will be. Edges of the Union and Confederate armies brush each other and crackling firefights and skirmishes break out across Maryland and nearby Virginia.
Far to the west, Cincinnati—the Union’s biggest city west of the Appalachians—is suffering its own terrors. Confederate Gens. Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith have moved through Tennessee and are intending to drive north through Kentucky, reclaim the state for the Confederacy and perhaps cross the Ohio River and capture Cincinnati and Covington, just across the Ohio River in Kentucky. In Fact, Smith sends a force under Gen. Henry Heth to seize Covington and Cincinnati
But Union Gen. Lew Wallace (later to be famous as the author of Ben Hur) is sent to prepare the city’s defenses. Citizens rally, aided by Cincinnati’s African Americans, who are organized into a “Black Brigade” to throw up fortifications in Cincinnati and nearby Covington. The “Black Brigade” is the first organized use of black men for defense of the Union.
Because most of Ohio’s soldiers are engaged elsewhere, Gov. David Tod calls for civilian volunteers to rush to Cincinnati’s defense. Nearly 16,000 farmers, clerks, and school teachers from throughout Ohio, wearing their civilian clothes and lugging weapons ranging from horse pistols to squirrel guns, show up and take up positions into the trenches. They will become famed as the "Squirrel Hunters." When not on duty, they are housed in churches, meeting halls, and warehouses and are fed in the city’s Fifth Street Markethouse. Light skirmishing breaks out near Covington.
On Saturday, September 13, however, word reaches Cincinnati that Heth’s main force of Confederates has changed direction and the city is no longer threatened. Then something amazing happens. Spontaneously and without a leader, the city’s thousands of defenders, scattered across miles of entrenchments and mostly out of sight of each other, burst into simultaneous, triumphant song. A mighty chorus of “John Brown’s Body” rises from thousands of throats and floats above the hills and across the river. Then the Squirrel Hunters disappear into the city’s taverns to wet down those throats before heading for home.
On the same day but far to the east, Union soldiers lounging about Confederate Gen. D. H. Hill’s former campground in Maryland find a copy of Lee’s “Special Order No. 191.” It had slipped from the possession of a careless Confederate who can only be described in Twenty-first Century terms as a klutz. Learning his opponent’s plans, McClellan chortles that he has “Bobby Lee” where he wants him—but he doesn’t rush to take advantage of his valuable knowledge. In the meantime, word filters back to Lee of lost order and McClellan’s brief advantage evaporates.
With two massive armies only miles apart in Maryland, what will happen next? And is Ohio truly safe?