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Chapter 16.

  • Congress
  • -- the President's message -- men and money voted -- the contraband -- Dennison Appoints McClellan -- rich Mountain -- McDowell -- Bull Run -- Patterson's failure -- McClellan at Washington
    While these preparations for a Virginia campaign were going on, another campaign was also slowly shaping itself in Western Virginia; but before either of them reached any decisive results the Thirty-seventh Congress, chosen at the presidential election of 1860, met in special session on the fourth of July, 1861, in pursuance of the President's proclamation of April 15. There being no members present in either branch from the seceded States, the number in each house was reduced nearly one third. A great change in party feeling was also manifest. No more rampant secession speeches were to be heard. Of the rare instances of men who were yet to join the rebellion, ex-Vice-President Breckinridge was the most conspicuous example; and their presence was offset by prominent Sotthern Unionists like Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, and John J. Crittenden of Kentucky. The heated antagonisms which had divided the previous Congress into four clearly defined factions were so far restrained or obliterated by the events of the past four months, as to leave but a feeble opposition to the Republican majority now dominant in both branches, which was itself rendered moderate and prudent by the new conditions. [218]

    The message of President Lincoln was temperate in spirit, but positive and strong in argument. Reciting the secession and rebellion of the Confederate States, and their unprovoked assault on Fort Sumter, he continued:

    Having said to them in the inaugural address, ‘You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors,’ he took pains not only to keep this declaration good, but also to keep the case so free from the power of ingenious sophistry that the world should not be able to misunderstand it. By the affair at Fort Sumter, with its surrounding circumstances, that point was reached. Then and thereby the assailants of the government began the conflict of arms, without a gun in sight or in expectancy to return their fire, save only the few in the fort sent to that harbor years before for their own protection, and still ready to give that protection in whatever was lawful. . . . This issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic or democracy — a government of the people by the same people-can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes.

    With his singular felicity of statement, he analyzed and refuted the sophism that secession was lawful and constitutional.

    “This sophism derives much, perhaps the whole, of its currency from the assumption that there is some omnipotent and sacred supremacy pertaining to a State --to each State of our Federal Union. Our States have neither more nor less power than that reserved to them in the Union by the Constitution — no one of them ever having been a State out of the Union . . The States have their status in the Union, and they have [219] no other legal status. If they break from this, they can only do so against law and by revolution. The Union, and not themselves separately, procured their independence and their liberty. By conquest or purchase the Union gave each of them whatever of independence or liberty it has. The Union is older than any of the States, and, in fact, it created them as States. Originally some dependent colonies made the Union, and, in turn, the Union threw off their old dependence for them, and made them States, such as they are. Not one of them ever had a State constitution independent of the Union.”

    A noteworthy point in the message is President Lincoln's expression of his abiding confidence in the intelligence and virtue of the people of the United States.

    “It may be affirmed,” said he, “without extravagance, that the free institutions we enjoy have developed the powers and improved the condition of our whole people beyond any example in the world. Of this we now have a striking and an impressive illustration. So large an army as the government has now on foot was never before known, without a soldier in it but who has taken his place there of his own free choice. But more than this, there are many single regiments whose members, one and another, possess full practical knowledge of all the arts, sciences, professions, and whatever else, whether useful or elegant, is known in the world; and there is scarcely one from which there could not be selected a President, a cabinet, a congress, and, perhaps, a court, abundantly competent to administer the government itself. . . This is essentially a people's contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial [220] weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of life . . . I am most happy to believe that the plain people understand and appreciate this. It is worthy of note that while in this, the government's hour of trial, large numbers of those in the army and navy who have been favored with the offices have resigned and proved false to the hand which had pampered them, not one common soldier or common sailor is known to have deserted his flag.”

    Hearty applause greeted that portion of the message which asked for means to make the contest short and decisive; and Congress acted promptly by authorizing a loan of $250,000,000 and an. army not to exceed one million men. All of President Lincoln's war measures for which no previous sanction of law existed were duly legalized; additional direct income and tariff taxes were laid; and the Force Bill of 1795, and various other laws relating to conspiracy, piracy, unlawful recruiting, and kindred topics, were amended or passed.

    Throughout the whole history of the South, by no means the least of the evils entailed by the institution of slavery was the dread of slave insurrections which haunted every master's household; and this vague terror was at once intensified by the outbreak of civil war. It stands to the lasting credit of the negro race in the United States that the wrongs of their long bondage provoked them to no such crime, and that the Civil War appears not to have even suggested, much less started, any such organization or attempt. But the John Brown raid had indicated some possibility of the kind, and when the Union troops began their movements, Generals Butler in Maryland and Patterson III [221] Pennsylvania, moving toward Harper's Ferry, and McClellan in West Virginia, in order to reassure non-combatants, severally issued orders that all attempts at slave insurrection should be suppressed. It was a most pointed and significant warning to the leaders of the rebellion how much more vulnerable the peculiar institution was in war than in peace, and that their ill-considered scheme to protect and perpetuate slavery would prove the most potent engine for its destruction.

    The first effect of opening hostilities was to give adventurous or discontented slaves the chance to escape into Union camps, where, even against orders to the contrary, they found practical means of protection or concealment for the sake of the help they could render as cooks, servants, or teamsters, or for the information they could give or obtain, or the invaluable service they could render as guides. Practically, therefore, at the very beginning, the war created a bond of mutual sympathy, based on mutual helpfulness, between the Southern negro and the Union volunteer; and as fast as the Union troops advanced, and secession masters fled, more or less slaves found liberation and refuge in the Union camps.

    At some points, indeed, this tendency created an embarrassment to Union commanders. A few days after General Butler assumed command of the Union troops at Fortress Monroe, the agent of a rebel master who had fled from the neighborhood came to demand, under the provisions of the fugitive-slave law, three field hands alleged to be in Butler's camp. Butler responded that as Virginia claimed to be a foreign country, the fugitive-slave law was clearly inoperative, unless the owner would come and take an oath of allegiance to the United States. In connection with this incident, the newspaper report stated that as the breastworks [222] and batteries which had been so rapidly erected for Confederate defense in every direction on the Virginia peninsula were built by enforced negro labor under rigorous military impressment, negroes were manifestly contraband of war under international law. The dictum was so pertinent, and the equity so plain, that, though it was not officially formulated by the general until two months later, it sprang at once into popular acceptance and application; and from that time forward the words “slave” and “negro” were everywhere within the Union lines replaced by the familiar, significant term “contraband.”

    While Butler's happy designation had a more convincing influence on public thought than a volume of discussion, it did not immediately solve the whole question. Within a few days he reported that he had slave property to the value of $60,000 in his hands, and by the end of July nine hundred “contrabands,” men, women, and children, of all ages. What was their legal status, and how should they be disposed of? It was a knotty problem, for upon its solution might depend the sensitive public opinion and balancing, undecided loyalty and political action of the border slave States of Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. In solving the problem, President Lincoln kept in mind the philosophic maxim of one of his favorite stories, that when the Western Methodist presiding elder, riding about the circuit during the spring freshets, was importuned by his young companion how they should ever be able to get across the swollen waters of Fox River, which they were approaching, the elder quieted him by saying he had made it the rule of his life never to cross Fox River till he came to it.

    The President did not immediately decide, but left it to be treated as a question of camp and local police, [223] in the discretion of each commander. Under this theory, later in the war, some commanders excluded, others admitted such fugitives to their camps; and the curt formula of General Orders, “We have nothing to do with slaves. We are neither negro stealers nor negro catchers,” was easily construed by subordinate officers to justify the practice of either course. Inter arma silent leges. For the present, Butler was instructed not to surrender such fugitives, but to employ them in suitable labor, and leave the question of their final disposition for future determination. Congress greatly advanced the problem, soon after the battle of Bull Run, by adopting an amendment which confiscated a rebel master's right to his slave when, by his consent, such slave was employed in service or labor hostile to the United States. The debates exhibited but little spirit of partizanship, even on this feature of the slavery question. The border State members did not attack the justice of such a penalty. They could only urge that it was unconstitutional and inexpedient. On the general policy of the war, both houses, with but few dissenting votes, passed the resolution, offered by Mr. Crittenden, which declared that the war was not waged for oppression or subjugation, or to interfere with the rights or institutions of States, “but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution, and to preserve the Union with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several States unimpaired.” The special session adjourned on August 6, having in a single month completed and enacted a thorough and comprehensive system of war legislation.

    The military events that were transpiring in the meanwhile doubtless had their effect in hastening the decision and shortening the labors of Congress. To command the thirteen regiments of militia furnished [224] by the State of Ohio, Governor Dennison had given a commission of major-general to George B. McClellan, who had been educated at West Point and served with distinction in the Mexican War, and who, through unusual opportunities in travel and special duties in surveys and exploration, had gained acquirements and qualifications that appeared to fit him for a brilliant career. Being but thirty-five years old, and having reached only the grade of captain, he had resigned from the army, and was at the moment serving as president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. General Scott warmly welcomed his appointment to lead the Ohio contingent, and so industriously facilitated his promotion that by the beginning of June McClellan's militia commission as major-general had been changed to a commission for the same grade in the regular army, and he found himself assigned to the command of a military department extending from Western Virginia to Missouri. Though this was a leap in military title, rank, and power which excels the inventions of romance, it was necessitated by the sudden exigencies of army expansion over the vast territory bordering the insurrection, and for a while seemed justified by the hopeful promise indicated in the young officer's zeal and activity.

    His instructions made it a part of his duty to encourage and support the Unionists of Western Virginia in their political movement to divide the State and erect a Union commonwealth out of that portion of it lying northwest of the Alleghanies. General Lee, not fully informed of the adverse popular sentiment, sent a few Confederate regiments into that legion to gather recruits and hold the important mountain passes. McClellan, in turn, advanced a detachment eastward from Wheeling, to protect the Baltimore and Ohio [225] railroad; and at the beginning of June, an expedition of two regiments, led by Colonel Kelly, made a spirited dash upon Philippi, where, by a complete surprise, he routed and scattered Porterfield's recruiting detachment of one thousand Confederates. Following up this initial success, McClellan threw additional forces across the Ohio, and about a month later had the good fortune, on July I I, by a flank movement under Rosecrans, to drive a regiment of the enemy out of strong intrenchments on Rich Mountain, force the surrender of the retreating garrison on the following day, July 12, and to win a third success on the thirteenth over another flying detachment at Carrick's Ford, one of the crossings of the Cheat River, where the Confederate General Garnett was killed in a skirmish-fire between sharp-shooters.

    These incidents, happening on three successive days, and in distance forty miles apart, made a handsome showing for the young department commander when gathered into the single, short telegram in which he reported to Washington that Garnett was killed, his force routed, at least two hundred of the enemy killed, and seven guns and one thousand prisoners taken. “Our success is complete, and secession is killed in this country,” concluded the despatch. The result, indeed, largely overshadowed in importance the means which accomplished it. The Union loss was only thirteen killed and forty wounded. In subsequent effect, these two comparatively insignificant skirmishes permanently recovered the State of West Virginia to the Union. The main credit was, of course, due to the steadfast loyalty of the people of that region.

    This victory afforded welcome relief to the strained and impatient public opinion of the Northern States, and sharpened the eager expectation of the authorities [226] at Washington of similar results from the projected Virginia campaign. The organization and command of that column were intrusted to Brigadier-General McDowell, advanced to this grade from his previous rank of major. He was forty-two years old, an accomplished West Point graduate, and had won distinction in the Mexican War, though since that time he had been mainly engaged in staff duty. On the morning of July 16, he began his advance from the fortifications of Washington, with a marching column of about twenty-eight thousand men and a total of forty-nine guns, an additional division of about six thousand being left behind to guard his communications. Owing to the rawness of his troops, the first few days' march was necessarily cautious and cumbersome.

    The enemy, under Beauregard, had collected about twenty-three thousand men and thirty-five guns, and was posted behind Bull Run. A preliminary engagement occurred on Thursday, July 18, at Blackburn's Ford on that stream, which served to develop the enemy's strong position, but only delayed the advance until the whole of McDowell's force reached Centreville. Here McDowell halted, spent Friday and Saturday in reconnoitering, and on Sunday, July 21, began the battle by a circuitous march across Bull Run and attacking the enemy's left flank.

    It proved that the plan was correctly chosen, but, by a confusion in the march, the attack, intended for daybreak, was delayed until nine o'clock. Nevertheless, the first half of the battle, during the forenoon, was entirely successful, the Union lines steadily driving the enemy southward, and enabling additional Union brigades to join the attacking column by a direct march from Centreville.

    At noon, however, the attack came to a halt, partly [227] through the fatigue of the troops, partly because the advancing line, having swept the field for nearly a mile, found itself in a valley, from which further progress had to be made with all the advantage of the ground in favor of the enemy. In the lull of the conflict which for a while ensued, the Confederate commander, with little hope except to mitigate a defeat, hurriedly concentrated his remaining artillery and supporting regiments into a semicircular line of defense at the top of the hill that the Federals would be obliged to mount, and kept them well concealed among the young pines at the edge of the timber, with an open field in their front.

    Against this second position of the enemy, comprising twelve regiments, twenty-two guns, and two companies of cavalry, McDowell advanced in the afternoon with an attacking force of fourteen regiments, twenty-four guns, and a single battalion of cavalry, but with all the advantages of position against him. A fluctuating and intermitting attack resulted. The nature of the ground rendered a combined advance impossible. The Union brigades were sent forward and repulsed by piecemeal. A battery was lost by mistaking a Confederate for a Union regiment. Even now the victory seemed to vibrate, when a new flank attack by seven rebel regiments, from an entirely unexpected direction, suddenly impressed the Union troops with the belief that Johnston's army from Harper's Ferry had reached the battle-field; and, demoralized by this belief, the Union commands, by a common impulse, gave up the fight as lost, and half marched, half ran from the field. Before reaching Centreville, the retreat at one point degenerated into a downright panic among army teamsters and a considerable crowd of miscellaneous camp-followers; and here a charge or two by the Confederate [228] cavalry companies captured thirteen Union guns and quite a harvest of army wagons.

    When the truth came to be known, it was found that through the want of skill and courage on the part of General Patterson in his operations at Harper's Ferry, General Johnston, with his whole Confederate army, had been allowed to slip away; and so far from coming suddenly into the battle of Bull Run, the bulk of them were already in Beauregard's camps on Saturday, and performed the heaviest part of the fighting in Sunday's conflict.

    The sudden cessation of the battle left the Confederates in doubt whether their victory was final, or only a prelude to a fresh Union attack. But as the Union forces not only retreated from the field; but also from Centreville, it took on, in their eyes, the proportions of a great triumph; confirming their expectation of achieving ultimate independence, and, in fact, giving them a standing in the eyes of foreign nations which they had hardly dared hope for so soon. In numbers of killed and wounded, the two armies suffered about equally; and General Johnston writes: “The Confederate army was more disorganized by victory than that of the United States by defeat.” Manassas was turned into a fortified camp, but the rebel leaders felt themselves unable to make an aggressive movement during the whole of the following autumn and winter.

    The shock of the defeat was deep and painful to the administration and the people of the North. Up to late Sunday afternoon favorable reports had come to Washington from the battle-field, and every one believed in an assured victory. When a telegram came about five o'clock in the afternoon, that the day was lost, and McDowell's army in full retreat through Centreville, General Scott refused to credit the news, [229] so contradictory of everything which had been heard up to that hour. But the intelligence was quickly confirmed. The impulse of retreat once started, Mc-Dowell's effort to arrest it at Centreville proved useless. The regiments and brigades not completely disorganized made an unmolested and comparatively orderly march back to the fortifications of Washington, while on the following day a horde of stragglers found their way across the bridges of the Potomac into the city.

    President Lincoln received the news quietly and without any visible sign of perturbation or excitement; but he remained awake and in the executive office all of Sunday night, listening to the personal narratives of a number of congressmen and senators who had, with undue curiosity, followed the army and witnessed some of the sounds and sights of the battle. By the dawn of Monday morning the President had substantially made up his judgment of the battle and its probable results, and the action dictated by the untoward event. This was, in brief, that the militia regiments enlisted under the three months call should be mustered out as soon as practicable; the organization of the new three years forces be pushed forward both east and west; Manassas and Harper's Ferry and the intermediate lines of communication be seized and held; and a joint movement organized from Cincinnati on East Tennessee, and from Cairo on Memphis.

    Meanwhile, General McClellan was ordered from West Virginia to Washington, where he arrived on July 26, and assumed command of the Division of the Potomac, comprising the troops in and around Washington, on both sides of the river. He quickly cleared the city of stragglers, and displayed a gratifying activity in beginning the organization of the Army of the [230] Potomac from the new three years volunteers that were pouring into Washington by every train. He was received by the administration and the army with the warmest friendliness and confidence, and for awhile seemed to reciprocate these feelings with zeal and gratitude.

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