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[107]

VI. VirginiaMcClellan's advance.


the rooted inaction of the Army of the Potomac,1 with the Baltimlore and Ohio Railroad obstructed and broken up on its right, and the navigation of the Potomac precluded2 by Rebel batteries on its left, was stubbornly maintained, in spite of fitful, delusive promises of movement, throughout the Winter of 1861-2. Gen. McClellan, who, from his comfortable house in Washington, issued orders to all the military forces of our country, retained likewise the immediate and especial command of this grand army of 200,000 men, apparently fatigued by the necessity of framing excuse after excuse for its inaction,3 though the most of it remained under tents, exposed to the vicissitudes of a Winter which — though it had been remarkably dry and fine, with the roads in admirable condition, until Christmas — became stormy and inhospitable soon afterward; so that the since famous Stonewall Jackson, who, for eminent services

1 See Vol. I., p. 627-9.

2 Capt. Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, as early as July 1st, 1861, notified the War Department that the Potomac would “soon be closed by the batteries of the Rebels;” and Secretary Welles reiterated the warning on the 20th of August.

“In October, 1861, the Navy Department again urged the matter upon the consideration of the War Department * * * representing that the question was simply: Would the Army cooperate with the Navy in securing the unobstructed navigation of the Potomac, or, by withholding that cooperation at that time, permit so important a channel of communication to be closed?”

McClellan at last agreed to spare 4,000 men for the cooperative measure; but, when Capt. Craven assembled his flotilla at the appointed time and place, the troops were not on hand. The General's excuse was that his engineers were of the opinion that so large a body of troops could not be landed at Matthias Point — the place agreed upon. Upon Capt. Fox's assurance that the Navy Department would attend to the landing of the troops, he (McClellan) agreed that they should be sent on the following night. Again the flotilla was in readiness; again the troops were missing. No troops were then, nor ever, sent down for that purpose; the only reason elicited from McClellan being that he feared it might bring on a general engagement. Capt. Craven indignantly threw up his command on the Potomac, and applied to be sent to sea — not wishing to lose his own reputation, on account of non-cooperation on the part of the army.

(The foregoing note is condensed from the first Report of the Joint Committee of Congress on the Conduct of the War.)

3 Gen. John G. Barnard, Chief of Engineers to the Army of the Potomac, in a report to Gen. McClellan at the close of the Peninsula campaign, says:

One of the prominent among the causes of ultimate failure was the inaction of eight months, from August, 18;1, to April, 1862. More than any other wars, Rebellion demands rapid measures. In November, 1861, the Army of the Potomac, if not fully supplied with all the “ materiel,” was yet about as complete in numbers, discipline, and organization as it ever became. For four months, the great marine avenue to the capital of the nation was blockaded, and that capital kept in a partial state of siege, by a greatly inferior enemy, in face of a movable army of 150,000 men.

In the Winter of 1861 and 1862, Norfolk could and should have been taken. The navy demanded it, the country demanded it, and the means were ample. By its capture, the career of the Merrimac, which proved so disastrous to our subsequent operations, would have been prevented. The preparation of this vessel was known, and the Navy Department was not without forebodings of the mischief it would do.

Though delay might mature more comprehensive plans and promise greater results, it is not the first case in which it has been shown that suceesstful war involves something more than abstract military principles. The true policy was to seize the first practicable moment to satisfy the perhaps unreasonable but natural longing of an impatient nation for results to justify its lavish confidence, and to take advantage of an undivided command and untrammeled liberty of action while they were possessed.

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