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Chapter 37:

  • The defeat of General Pope at the second battle of Manassas.
  • -- McClellan again called to the command. -- the battle of Antietam. -- a Union victory. -- a few thoughts about the Union Commander. -- McClellan's removal from command and his farewell address.

On the second day of September, 1862, the following order was issued:

War Department, Adj't-General's Office, Washington, Sept. 2, 1862.
Major-General McClellan will have command of the fortifications of Washington, and of all the troops for the defense of the Capital.

By order of Maj.-Gen. Halleck,E. D. Townsend, Ass't. Adj't.-Gen.

At this time the Federal troops, under General Pope, were retreating in great disorder from the disastrous defeat in the Virginia campaign, and the roads leading to Washington were, for the second time during the war, filled with stragglers from the ranks, making their way to the capital. It will be remembered that while McClellan and the main Eastern army were in the Peninsula, the divisions of McDowell, Fremont [562] and Banks were, by orders of the government, held near Washington, for the protection of the national capital. On the 26th day of July, these forces were consolidated as the Army of Virginia, and placed under the command of General Pope. This army was guarding the line of the Rapidan.

Soon after the retreat of the Union army under General McClellan, the Confederates, in August, 1862, began to move towards Washington. Stonewall Jackson, leading the advance of the Southern army, attacked Banks' force at Cedar Mountain, on the 6th day of August. Banks, however, was able to hold Jackson in check for some time; but the main body of the rebels arriving, Banks was compelled to retreat. Lee now pressed heavily upon Pope, who retreated northward from every position then held by him.

When this movement became known to the authorities, General McClellan was ordered to hastily ship the Army of the Potomac back to Washington, and so persistent was General Halleck in his orders to that effect, that at the second battle of Manassas McClellan found himself completely stripped of his army-literally without a command-and compelled to submit to the mortification of listening to the roar of the battle from afar, and without being allowed to participate in its conflicts. Some idea of his feelings may be learned from a dispatch sent by him to General Halleck at this time: [563]

“I cannot express to you the pain and mortification I have experienced to-day, in listening to the distant sound of the fighting of my men. As I can be of no further use here, I respectfully ask that if there is a probability of the conflict being renewed to-morrow, I may be permitted to go to the scene of battle with my staff, merely to be with my own men, if nothing more; they will fight none the worse for my being with them. If it is not deemed best to intrust me with the command even of my own army, I simply ask to be permitted to share their fate upon the field of battle.”

These appeals, however, were utterly disregarded. Gen. Pope was to command the army, and to do the fighting, and in the end the contemptuous superiors of the heroic commander suffered a crushing defeat in the bloodiest battle of this campaign. The second battle of Manassas was a most disastrous one, and on August 29-30 Pope's army was utterly defeated.

Lee was now pressing forward, flushed with victory, and threatening Washington. On the 1st of September the battle of Chantilly was fought, and in which those brave Generals, Kearney and Stevens, lost their lives.

Learning by bitter experience the culpable folly of ignoring the genius and bravery of McClellan, and with the rebel army besieging the capital, General Halleck, in the excess of fear, was forced to again call for the services of the gallant commander of the Army of the Potomac, and General [564] McClellan was once more placed in command of an army defeated and demoralized by the incompetency of its generals.

The broken army of Pope was now united with that of the Army of the Potomac, and the army of Virginia ceased to exist as a separate organization. With the intense enthusiasm of the soldiers for McClellan, he soon brought order out of chaos, and in an incredibly short space of time he faced them about, in orderly columns, and started to repel the invading army of Lee, who was now crossing the Potomac.

From reports made by my operatives at this time, it was ascertained that Lee had abandoned, if, indeed, he ever seriously entertained the idea of advancing directly upon the capital, and was now contemplating carrying the campaign into Maryland. Longstreet's division had left Richmond about the 5th day of August for Gordonsville, marching to Orange Courthouse, he fell back to Gordonsville. Jackson fell back at the same time, and they both participated in the battle of Manassas, and in the fighting that followed. Jackson then crossed the river into Maryland, before Longstreet, who crossed a few days later, at or near Edwards' Ferry.

On the 4th day of September, my operatives, who were watching the movement of the rebel army, reported that Lee had his headquarters on the Aldie turnpike, near Dranesville; while Jackson was near Fairfax Court-house. On the 9th, it was understood [565] that the rebels had moved their entire army into Virginia, and it was presumed that his objective point was Baltimore.

General McClellan left Washington on the 7th day of September, and established his headquarters at Rockville, having first made all arrangements for the defense of Washington, and placing General Banks in command of the troops at that place. By this time it was known that the mass of the rebel army had passed up the south side of the Potomac river, in the direction of Leesburg, and that a part of the army had crossed the river into Maryland.

The uncertainty of Lee's intentions greatly distracted the authorities at Washington for the safety of that city, and they were fearful that he would make a feint towards Pennsylvania, and then suddenly seize the opportunity to attack the capital.

Some writers have animadverted freely upon the alleged “slowness” of McClellan's movements up the Potomac, and his “delay” in offering battle to Lee before the latter had time to unite his army and occupy the strong position he held at Antietam; but they persistently ignore the fact that the dispatches from the commander-in-chief at Washington, to McClellan in the field, from the 7th to the 16th of September, were filled with cautions against a too hasty advance, and the consequent impropriety of exposing Washington to an attack. Indeed, it seems evident to me, when I regard the career of the Army [566] of the Potomac, that had those in power in Washington been less concerned for their own safety, and trusted more to the skill and sagacity of the general in the field to direct its movements, the history of that army would have been widely different from what it is. The campaign of the Peninsula terminated disastrously to the Union arms, and it was mainly due to this real or assumed fear of the authorities for the safety of Washington.

It is not presuming too much to say, that McClellan knew far better than those at Washington the movements and intentions of the enemy, and that he was apprised of them sooner; but it is equally true that a certain element in the Cabinet was unfriendly to the secret service branch of the army, and, with characteristic stubbornness, placed but little reliance upon the information obtained from this source.

For instance, General Halleck was of the opinion, on the evening of the day before Antietam, that Lee's whole force had crossed the river, and so telegraphed McClellan, when the fact was that the rebel army was actually in our front, and ready for the battle that so speedily followed.

Still, the importance of moving with extreme caution was kept constantly in view, and the army was moved so that it extended from the railroad to the Potomac River, the extreme left flank resting on that stream.

On the twelfth of September, a portion of the [567] right wing of the army entered Frederick, Md., and on the following day the main body of the right and the center wings arrived, only to find that the enemy had marched out of the place two days before, taking the roads to Boonesboroa and Harper's Ferry.

Lee had left a force to dispute the possession of the passes, through which the roads across South Mountain ran, while he had dispatched Jackson to effect the capture of Harper's Ferry. In these plans he was partially frustrated, for, while Jackson succeeded in capturing Harper's Ferry, McClellan drove the rebel troops from the passes, after short but vigorous engagements at South Mountain, on September 14th, but failed in his efforts to relieve Harper's Ferry, and that place was surrendered on the following day.

Immediately following the actions at South Mountain, Lee, being closely pressed by McClellan, turned at bay in the beautiful valley of the Antietam. Here he resolved to endeavor to hold his position until he could concentrate his army. His forces at this time numbered about forty thousand men.

On the sixteenth, he was reinforced by Jackson's gallant corps, numbering about five thousand men, which, together with other reinforcements, received during the day, swelled his numbers to fifty thousand men, which, in the language of one of their own writers, constituted “the very flower of the Army of Northern Virginia.” [568]

Our own forces did not exceed eighty-five thousand men, and it is but correct to say that not seventy thousand were actually engaged on the day of the great battle. My own judgment is, that at no time during the fight was the Confederate army ever confronted by a force outnumbering their own.

Confederate writers have sought to make it appear that Lee, at Antietam, fought and practically defeated a force in excess of his own in the ratio of three to one. This assertion is proven to be a glaring error, for the facts are that the odds were less than three to two, even in point of actual numerical strength present, while, all things considered, these were reduced until the two armies faced each other on the morning of Antietam pretty evenly opposed, and with no decided advantage in favor of either contestant.

To explain: taking it for granted that McClellan had eighty-seven thousand men at roll-call on the morning of the seventeenth, it is now known that the battle was mainly fought by the First, Second, Ninth and Twelfth Corps, while the Fifth and Sixth Corps and the Cavalry Division were scarcely used at all. In addition to this, it should be remembered that ours was the attacking force; that the enemy occupied a chosen position, and therefore, in this view of the situation, the odds were by no means great in favor of the Federal troops.

On the morning of the sixteenth, being then at [569] headquarters, and desiring to learn from personal observation something of the position of the enemy, I accompanied a party of cavalry sent out to reconnoitre across the Antietam. Here it was discovered that the enemy had changed the position of some of their batteries, while their left and center were upon and in front of the Sharpsburg and Hagerstown turnpike, and their extreme left rested upon the wooded heights near the cross-roads to the north.

While returning from this reconnoitering expedition, fire was opened upon us from a masked battery upon the hill, and my horse, a beautiful sorrel, that had carried me for months, and to which I was much attached, was shot from under me while I was crossing the stream. Several of the men who accompanied me were seriously wounded, and I narrowly escaped with-my life.

The next morning, at early dawn, the battle commenced, and raged with unabated fury until nightfall, when the rebels withdrew, and our soldiers slept that night upon a dearly won, yet decisively victorious field. McClellan determined not to renew the attack upon the following day, for which his critics have censured him severely; yet, I am satisfied, that not a few writers, who have fought, on paper, the battle of Antietam, just as it should have been fought in their own estimation, have not, in a single instance, given the subject more painful and anxious thought than did the General himself, during all that night, while [570] his weary troops lay resting on their arms, on a field covered with their own and their enemy's dead.

No better reasons can be assigned, and, indeed, none better need be given for the course he pursued, than he, himself, has stated in his own report of that battle. He says: “I am aware of the fact, that, under ordinary circumstances, a General is expected to risk a battle if he has a reasonable prospect of success; but at this critical juncture, I should have had a narrow view of the condition of the country, had I been willing to hazard another battle with less than an absolute assurance of success. At that moment, Virginia lost, Washington menaced, Maryland invaded, the National cause could afford no risks of defeat. One battle lost, and almost all would have been lost. Lee's army might then have marched as it pleased on Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia or New York. It could have levied its supplies from a fertile and undevastated country, extorted tribute from wealthy and populous cities, and nowhere east of the Alleghanies was there another organized force able to arrest its march.”

The day after the battle, however, General McClellan gave orders for a renewal of the attack on the morning of the nineteenth; but when morning dawned, it was discovered that the rebels had suddenly abandoned their position and retreated across the river, leaving nearly three thousand of their unburied dead on the late field of battle. Thirteen guns, thirty-nine [571] colors, upwards of fifteen thousand stand of small arms, and more than six thousand prisoners, were taken in the battles of South Mountain, Crampton's Gap and Antietam, while not a single gun or color was lost by our troops in any of these encounters.

The Battle of Antietam, in its effects, was a brilliant and decisive victory for the Union arms, as it was a terrible blow to the South, who had expected much from Lee's sudden and daring invasion of a loyal state; and their losses, from the time they first invaded Maryland until the end of the Battle of Antietam, were in the neighborhood of thirty thousand men.

Whatever, therefore, has been said by unfriendly critics, concerning General McClellan's achievements, they must be regarded by the intelligent and fair-minded student of history, as far from being failures. Nor were they merely the achievements of an ordinary man. It is an easy, and no doubt a tempting task, nearly twenty years after a battle has occurred, and with the knowledge and materials now at hand, for writers to fight this battle over again, and point out alleged blunders here and there, and in their vivid, and not always truthful, imaginations conduct affairs as they should have been conducted.

It may be safely asserted, that no General in the history of the Nation was ever so shamefully treated by his government, as was General McClellan. With a brave and noble devotion, and with a self-sacrificing [572] love for his country and her flag, he fearlessly offered his life and his services in sustaining the honor of the one, and the perpetuity of the other.

Reviewing his career from the date of his taking command of all the armies, down to the close of the battle of Antietam, he received the bitter opposition of the Cabinet, and the ill-concealed enmity of the politicians; and scarcely had he been called to this important position, than his enemies began working to effect his downfall. With such persistence and success did they devote themselves to their task, that by the time he had his Army of the Potomac ready for the field, they had practically deposed him as the Commander-in-Chief.

His plans of the campaign were required to be submitted to a body of twelve of his subordinates for approval, and this ridiculous proceeding ended in their adoption by a vote of eight to four. The next day the enemy abandoned Manassas, a move which was the result of direct treason, or, at least, criminal indiscretion on the part of some member of that commission, either directly or indirectly. After his plans were adopted, and their execution commenced, he was hampered and distressed by orders from his superiors at Washington, conflicting with his own well formed ideas and deranging his carefully prepared plans in the field.

He, however, bore all these things patiently, and at all times faithfully endeavored to do the very best, [573] under the adverse circumstances which surrounded him. He, however, at all times, had the courage to speak his convictions, knowing the purity of his own actions, notwithstanding the fact that he was frequently called upon to execute orders that his own better judgment convinced him were conceived in ignorance or malice, and which could but do harm to him and to the cause he loved.

On July 7, 1862, we find him writing to the President his views on the conduct of the war. He said:

In carrying out any system of policy which you may form, you will require a Commander-in-Chief of the army, one who possesses your confidence, understands your views, and who is competent to execute your orders by directing the military forces of the nation to the accomplishment of the objects by you proposed. I do not ask that place for myself, I am willing to serve you in such position as you may assign me, and I will do so as faithfully as ever subordinate served superior. I may be on the brink of eternity, and as I hope for forgiveness from my Maker, I have written this letter from sincerity towards you, and from love for my country.

Through all his correspondence, while in the field, with his superiors, there breathed a spirit of earnest and sincere devotion to country; and rarely was he tempted to utter words which proved how sorely he was tried and how much he resented the interference of incompetent authority. When pushed beyond all [574] control by the foolish, unfriendly and unjust course of those at Washington, and when their interference had caused the failure of his plans, he wrote to Secretary of War Stanton, “You have done your best to sacrifice this army,” and even then the words were written more in a tone of regret than of anger.

Nearly a month later, when the order was issued for the withdrawal of the Army of the Potomac before Richmond, under the full force of his convictions, he uttered a manly protest against such action. and entreated that the order might be rescinded. “All points,” said he, “of secondary importance elsewhere should be abandoned, and every available man brought here. A decided victory here and the strength of the rebellion is crushed, it matters not what partial reverses we may meet with elsewhere. Here is the true defense of Washington; it is here, on the banks of the James, that the fate of the Union should be decided. Clear in my convictions of right, strong in the consciousness that I have ever been and still am actuated by love of my country, .... I do now, what I never did in my life before, I entreat that this order may be rescinded.”

How true these words were, and how prophetic their scope, may be proven by the words of General Sheridan several years later. When Grant was compelled at last to adopt the very plans of McClellan, thus giving as practical a vindication of that general as could be desired, Sheridan sent a message [575] to Grant, but a little while before the surrender, urging him to come with all the force he could command in pursuit of Lee, saying, “Here is the end of the rebellion.” A fit corollary to McClellan's dispatch from James River to Halleck: “Here, directly in front of this army, is the heart of the rebellion.”

No general in this country, or in any other, was more universally beloved and admired by his troops, and no commander ever returned that affection with more warmth than did McClellan. Troops that under other commanders suffered defeat after defeat, until dismayed and discouraged they fled to Washington, followed by a pursuing and exultant enemy, were in a few days, by his magical influence over them, again transformed into brave and hopeful soldiers, ready to follow anywhere their trusted commander might lead.

It is a strange fact, but a fact, nevertheless, that the Army of the Potomac received all its good words, words of cheer and encouragement, from McClellan alone. Those in power at the capital were painfully blind to its sufferings on the toilsome march, or its deeds of valor on the bloody field. After the battle of Antietam, and after the Army of the Potomac had driven Lee from Maryland, General McClellan telegraphed his chief as follows: “I have the honor to report that Maryland is entirely freed from the presence of the enemy, who has been driven across [576] the Potomac. No fears need now be entertained for the safety of Pennsylvania; I shall at once occupy Harper's Ferry.”

Two days later, receiving no word of acknowledgement for his troops, whom he felt had earned them from the Commander-in-Chief, he, in a telegram of September 20th, said: “I regret that you have not yet found leisure to say one word in commendation of the recent achievements of this army or even to allude to them.”

Before this, he had taken occasion to remind General Halleck of the fact that the army deserved some credit for its labors, and appreciated any acknowledgment of the same which the Commander-in-Chief might make.

On August 18th, 1862, and after the fighting before Richmond, he wrote to General Halleck as follows:

Please say a kind word to my army, that I can repeat to them in general orders, in regard to their conduct at Yorktown, Williamsburg, West Point, Hanover Court-house, and on the Chickahominy, as well as in regard to the seven days, and the recent retreat. No one has ever said anything to cheer them but myself. Say nothing about me; merely give my men and officers credit for what they have done. It will do you much good, and strengthen you much with them, if you issue a handsome order to them in regard to what they have accomplished. They deserve it.


Is it any wonder, then, that the army exhibited such splendid enthusiasm for their leader, when they, above all others, were fully acquainted with his character as a man and a general?

Self was his last and least consideration. Always mindful of the comfort of his men, yet inculcating, by his splendid discipline, the essential requisites of the true soldier, he led his troops through the campaigns of the Peninsula and of Maryland, achieving a record that was a credit to him, his army, and the nation, and is an enduring monument to the faithful devotion and the gallant services of the Army of the Potomac. I cannot close this chapter in more fitting words than those used by General McClellan, in his brief and affectionate farewell to his officers and men, after the battle of Antietam, when, having won a victory at a critical period, he was, as a reward, relieved from his command.

November 7th, 1862.
Officers and soldiers of the Army of the Potomac:
An order of the President devolves upon Major-General Burnside the command of this army. In parting from you I cannot express the love and gratitude I bear you. As an army, you have grown up under my care. In you I have never found doubt or coldness. The battles you have fought under my command will proudly live in our nation's history. The glory you have achieved, our mutual perils and fatigues, the graves of our comrades fallen in battle and by disease, the broken forms of those whom [578] wounds and sickness have disabled — the strongest associations which can exist among men-unite us still by an indissoluble tie. We shall ever be comrades in supporting the constitution of our country and the nationality of its people.

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