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Chapter 12: General George B. McClellan and the organization of the army of the Potomac

In July 25th Major General George B. McClellan took command of the combined departments of Washington and Northeastern Virginia, and November 1st succeeded the venerable General Winfield Scott as the commander of all the armies of the United States. McClellan's name became familiar to every household in the land. In addition to his active, high command and an exalted rank his name was made still more conspicuous in that he stood as a candidate for the Presidency in 1864.

Indeed, McClellan holds no small place in the history of his country. The story of the Peninsular Campaign of 1862 could not be told without making him the central figure from the organization of the Army of the Potomac till the sad withdrawal of its forces after the bloody battle of Malvern Iill.

My first sight of McClellan was in 1850, when I was a cadet at West Point. He had then but recently returned from Mexico, where he had gained two brevets of honor. He was popular and handsome and a captain of engineers, and if there was one commissioned officer more than another who had universal notice among the young gentlemen of the academy it was he, himself a young man, a staff officer of a scientific turn who had been in several battles and had played everywhere [167] a distinguished part. Eleven years later, after his arrival in Washington, July 23, 1861, an occasion brought me, while standing amid a vast multitude of other observers, a fresh glimpse of McClellan. He was now a major general and fittingly mounted. His record, from a brilliant campaign in West Virginia, and the urgent demand of the Administration for the ablest military man to lift us up from the valley of our existing humiliation, instantly brought this officer to the knowledge and scrutiny of the Government and the people.

As he rode past nie that day with his proud staff, many of whom I recognized, his person and bearing made an indelible impression upon my memory. I saw a man five feet eight in height, with a good figure, muscular and closely knit, square shoulders, shapely head, and fine face ruddy with health; he had withal a quiet and reserved manner and showed vigor in his motions.

I partook of the common enthusiasm and hope, and my heart, if not my lips, joined the loud acclaim which that day saluted his deportment. Though McClellan never drew me to him, his intimacies being with those nearer his academic graduation, I have uniformly cherished the belief that he was a pure man, loyal to truth, to honor, and to his country.

A month later I again saw McClellan near the troops that I was commanding. He spoke to me briefly as he finished his visit, and won me, as he did other junior commanders, by his cordial manner.

His popularity, which had come almost of itself, was thus deepened and made permanent throughout the army by his showing on all occasions a marked courtesy. A general who has gained the hearts of his soldiers has only to plan well and execute well to bring [168] abundant success, but there is one drawback-his opponent may be equally well equipped in heart, plan, and purpose.

The first thing to be done by McClellan, on the heels of Bull Run, was to make an army. Our Congress had authorized the call for 500,000 more volunteers. It immediately fell to McClellan to receive, organize, equip, drill, and discipline the new levies which were flocking into Washington from the north and west, and prepare them for the field.

The Washington mobs still existed and were growing worse. They were made up largely from discontented regiments contributing to the disorderly mass, tenfold larger after the panic of Bull Run.

McClellan instituted three remedial measures: First, an order from the War Department, which organized boards of examination. Volunteer officers were to be brought before them to ascertain their fitness for the command they exercised. General Henry W. Slocum and I were for some time on one of these boards. Slocum at first demurred. THe thought it hard for prominent citizens recently commissioned who had generously spent their time and money to raise regiments not to be permitted to reap some benefit for their labor and sacrifice. It did seem a little cruel to examine them in army regulations and tactics! But the orders required that, and so we fell to work and had one officer after another brought before us. It proved a good move. While a few worthy men not sufficiently acquainted with their new business were sent home, a host of idlers and triflers were dismissed or compelled to resign.

The second, and a most important measure, was a thorough system of inspection of men and arms, carrying [169] it through relentlessly. I suffered from this, for while in command of the brigade I left the care of the Third Maine to the regimental commander and was severely condemned for the condition of the arms of “his own regiment” by an inspecting officer from army headquarters.

The third measure of relief was the inauguration of an effective provost marshal's department. General Andrew Porter set his machinery in motion and in a remarkably short time cleared the streets of Washington and Georgetown of all the vagrant soldiery who had daily congregated in those cities but had no proper business there. He issued not only a permit system, but so revised and controlled the passports across our lines as, at least for a time, to cause murmurers and traitors to fly from the District of Columbia or keep still. McClellan also made another wholesome regulation. He placed near Washington in provisional brigades the bulk of the newer regiments, keeping them there in camps under special discipline and drill before sending them to the front. The people behind us were always in haste, and the administration felt their quick pulsation; not so McClellan. Nobody ever saw him in haste.

Not long after Bull Run the brigades were broken up and mine with the rest, so with some disappointment I returned to my regiment and was encamped near Arlington engaged in furnishing working parties for the construction of the fortifications about Washington. Here I was under General Sedgwick. No one of his command will forget his quiet, watchful discipline and his fatherly management. An unexpected visit on August 8th from McDowell escorting Prince Jerome Napoleon through our camps had a cheering [170] feature for me. Just before the general with his cavalcade rode away he turned to me and spoke of the orders of McClellan which had dissolved my brigade. He said: “Colonel Howard, that action is not final; you shall not suffer nor lose your brigade.” The remark had its fruition on September 3, 1861, when I received my commission of brigadier general of volunteers. For several weeks thereafter I had, however, that unhappy experience of waiting for orders. Restless, talking with my adjutant, walking to and fro, reading the papers, conning over some books, and going over the regulations, or at orderly hours sitting in the anteroom of General Marcy, father-in-law and chief of staff to McClellan — the newly fledged brigadier feared that he never would be recognized again or trusted with a command. I suspected jealousy on the part of rivals who were near the throne. I was ashamed to go home and chagrined to remain unassigned.

But the change came. My first assignment was to another brigade, receiving, drilling, and forwarding new regiments under the supervision of General Silas Casey. We were sent to Bladensburg and encamped near the notorious dueling ground where members of Congress had formerly resorted to offer their blood for their honor's sake. The Sixty-first New York, Fifth New Hampshire, the Forty-fifth New York, the Eighty-first Pennsylvania, and Fourth Rhode Island took part under my command in one great review held on the public grounds east of the Capitol. McClellan was the conspicuous reviewing officer and Casey led the division. At first some slight mistakes very much disturbed our silver-haired division commander. He cried out despairingly: “Oh, Oh, what a fizzle!” Still, [171] a little extra effort on the part of our active aidsdecamp put all matters to rights and we passed in a creditable review.

How necessary was that period of preparation to the new Army I McClellan brought to bear upon it the conservatism of an engineer. He gathered around him a large staff, personal and administrative, which from time to time he caused to be announced to the army. Gradually he constructed, with immense labor, on both sides of the Potomac, a grand system of fortifications which environed the District of Columbia. They soon gave to the eye of every observer, military or not, the precise rallying points for times of attack; they were when manned a safe defense of the nation's capital.

The capital thus owed to McClellan not a little of its safety in his cleansing it of idlers and of traitors, in his strong army, and in his well-chosen and thoroughly constructed defenses.

The batteries of artillery and the infantry regiments, as soon as they emerged from the provisional state, were stationed around the new forts wherever convenient camping places could be found, at first under canvas alone; but when cold weather approached the men made themselves comfortable huts of logs, using their tentage for securing height and roofing. What veteran will ever forget the white-topped villages on every hill, patriotic and gay under their own flags, which seemed in perpetual motion Together they formed a city of over 100,000 souls. The larger proportion constituting the main body was on the Virginia side of the Potomac, but no other fronts were neglected; for example, as we have seen, Casey's division looking to the east was on the Bladensburg road; Hooker's facing the south was kept below the eastern [172] branch; while Wadsworth's, north and east, scattered here and there, crowned a score of important heights. Some of the forts were named for distinguished officers who had already fallen in the war, like Lyon and Greble.

McClellan's purpose in delaying the corps formation is indicated in a single sentence; “I did not desire to form them until the army had been for some little time in the field, in order to enable the general officers first to acquire the requisite experience as division commanders on active service, and that I might be able to decide from actual trial who were the best fitted to exercise these important commands.” This care and deliberation were characteristic.

It was not till March, 1862, that the corps formation was introduced, and then the President himself initiated it by his own orders.

The division commanders whose names, thanks to Bull Run and sundry reviews, had become familiar to the army were advanced in position but not in gradeour highest grade, except by special Act of Congress, was that of major general. McDowell, Sumner, Heintzelman, Keyes, and Banks were the first five army corps commanders. A few days later Banks's command was differently designated and a fifth corps was given to Fitz John Porter, a sixth to Franklin.

McDowell had for division commanders at first Franklin, McCall, and King; Sumner-Richardson, Sedgwick, and Bleriker. Heintzelman's division commanders were Fitz John Porter, Hooker, and Hamilton; Keyes's were Couch, W. F. Smith, and Casey; and Banks's, Williams and Shields.

But I am anticipating the order of events. Possibly the Army of the Potomac thus formed and located [173] might have remained sheltered along the Virginia Heights free from trials by combat or battle during the important time of incubation and growth had it not been for the Confederates. General Johnston at Centreville, Va., though disposed himself to stand mainly on the defensive, still had a teasing way of letting loose certain of his restless subordinates, such as Ashby, Stuart, Barksdale, and Evans.

While, during the fall of 1861, I was working away as a sort of school general at Bladensburg and vicinity and serving on those depleting boards and on several tedious courts-martial, there were several collisions which the enemy provoked or our troops brought on by foraging movements. For example, Stuart, my classmate, made his way to Loudon County, Va., about August 1st, and pushed out detachments here and there in the rudest way; one showed itself near “The Point of rocks,” south of the Potomac, just below Harper's Ferry, which was then but poorly garrisoned. A part of the Twenty-eighth New York, under Captain W. W. Bush, by a ford near at hand boldly crossed to the Virginia shore, where a lively skirmish ensued. Bush drove off the Confederate cavalry, inflicted a small loss in killed and wounded, captured twenty horses and came back with a number of prisoners.

At one period near the middle of October the daily journals were full of “Munson's Hill.” That prominence could be seen by observers looking westward from Arlington Heights and from other points about Washington. The Confederates had occupied this famous ground between the two armies and kept flying from the hilltop their new banner so unwelcome to Union gazers. Reference to this audacious flag pointed [174] the speech of many a brave orator that fall while criticising the slowness of McClellan. Munson's Hill armed the “On-to-richmond” press with pithy paragraphs. But suddenly and unexpectedly the Confederates withdrew from Munson's Hill and our cavalry pickets found there only mock intrenchments and “Quaker guns” --i. e., logs cut and daubed with black paint to imitate cannon. The natural query was: “What will our enemy do next?” To ascertain this, reconnoissances were undertaken.

The divisions of McCall and W. F. Smith marched out westward on October 19th. McCall, farthest south, bearing off northwesterly, passed through the village of Dranesville, and finding no enemy kept on five or six miles beyond toward Leesburg. He delayed his return march from time to time to enable his staff to gather local knowledge and make sketches of the country. A. telegram to McClellan from Darnestown the next morning said: “The signal station on ‘Sugar Loaf’ telegraphs that the enemy have moved away from Leesburg.” Upon receiving this message McClellan caused to be telegraphed to General Stone, at Poolsville, Md. (upper Potomac): “General McCall occupied Dranesville yesterday and is still there; will send out heavy reconnoissances to-day in all directions from that point. . . . Keep a good lookout upon Leesburg to see if this movement has the effect to drive them away. Perhaps a slight demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them.”

This simple telegram was the primary cause of the battle of Ball's Bluff-and the death of Colonel Baker.

Being in the District of Columbia at the time of the Ball's Bluff disaster, I realized how deeply people there were affected by it. The President had known [175] Baker well, for he had but recently, under patriotic impulse, gone from the Senate Chamber to the field. President, Congress, and people felt bereaved by his death. When the colonel's body arrived in Washington, I became one of the pallbearers.

Baker, though acting as a brigadier general, was the colonel of the Seventy-first Pennsylvania. Rev. Byron Sunderland, a Presbyterian pastor, preached his funeral sermon. Baker's brother and son were present. One of his officers fell in a swoon during the exercises. To the cemetery, a distance of three miles, I rode with General Denver, of California. Senator Henry Wilson was one of the pallbearers; this occasion afforded me my first introduction to him. An immense unsympathetic crowd followed to see the military procession. Nobody evinced sorrow-very few even raised their hats as we passed.

The Washington crowd, however, was no sample of our patriotic citizens. The passions, appetites, and sins of the great small men who had run the Government upon the rocks had left their impress on Washington, and the military had called in its train its usual motley brood of followers-such was the mixed multitude which followed the noble and generous Baker without emotion to his tomb. The wail in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania over the excessive and bootless losses at Ball's Bluff followed. To Senator Wilson and myself that funeral was deeply saddening. The evening shadows were thickening as we placed Baker in his last resting place.

Had General Stone's plans leading to this battle succeeded, he would have been praised for his energy and enterprise. The arrest and punishment which he underwent on account of his defeat, without having a [176] chance for a proper trial and without an opportunity to recover the confidence of the army, afford an extraordinary episode of injustice shown a good and able man.

At our homes the people were becoming vexed and impatient to have the war work so slow. While the bulk of the secession multitude were already in the war the majority of Union men were not yet at the front and a sort of apathy pervaded the armies in the field. I verily believed that they would not shake it off till their communications had been cut and the life of the defending hosts put in imminent peril. I wrote: “We have the numbers in the field, but the spirit and enthusiasm is at home. We want it here. God will help us when we stop self-seeking and moneymaking. When the pressure of want and deep sorrow is upon us, then will we turn to the Lord and cry unto Him; then will we grasp the means and go forth in His strength.” This was my feeling in the presence of selfish and disloyal Washington talk and under the shadow of the Ball's Bluff calamity.

Ball's Bluff was the last affair in our vicinity of any considerable importance during that period of formation. But the delay and waiting were so long that not only our loyal friends became suspicious that something was wrong at headquarters, but the disloyalty in the neighborhood of the armies and, in fact, everywhere, became bold and vexatious.

Mr. Lincoln wanted something done on the lower Potomac or against Johnston's communications, but touching all plans for movement he still deferred to the judgment and respected the reticence of his popular army commander.

An affair at last came that relieved the monotony [177] of my own life and made me feel as if I was accomplishing something. As the November elections approached, certain hot-headed secessionists of Maryland were working hard to carry the State. Violent men began to intimidate the more quiet Union voters, and in the lower counties Confederate soldiers were crossing the Potomac in uniform to influence the polls. This gave to my troops for that month of November a “political campaign.”

The 3d of the month, Saturday, receiving word from General Casey, I rode to Washington in a heavy and continuous rain and went to his headquarters. He instructed me to march my brigade forthwith to the southern part of Maryland, placing troops in Prince George and Calvert counties. For further specific instructions Casey sent me to General Marcy, McClellan's chief of staff. I was told that after my arrival in lower Maryland I must consult with Union men, cooperate with them, and do all in my power to prevent any obstruction of the polls. As it was very stormy I secured for personal use some waterproof clothing and returned to Bladensburg to hasten our preparation. By Sunday morning the weather had cleared but the eastern branch which flowed between our camp and Bladensburg had risen so much that it was over fifty yards across, and the ford, usually shallow, was deep.

When with my staff I undertook to cross, our horses lost their footing and had to swim, and all of the riders received more or less of a wetting. By planking the ties of the railroad bridge we quickly had a dry crossing for the men, but a squadron of cavalry sent me for the expedition and the supply wagons were obliged to worry through the ford; we had special contrivances to raise our ammunition and hard bread [178] above the water.1 Our Sunday march, muddy and difficult, was fourteen miles and we bivouacked in a grove at Centreville, Md. The troops, new to marching, were weary enough to sleep. Some of them, however, before morning had wakened and made havoc of a widow's fence. I put an officer of the Fourth Rhode Island, who was on guard, under arrest and obtained from the officers whose men had helped themselves to rails a sufficient contribution to pay the widow for her loss. There was no more burning of fences on that expedition, but there was murmuring at my severity. I sent companies on Monday to Upper Marlboro, to Nottingham, Queen Anne, and Piscataway. Upper Marlboro we found a very pretty village three miles from the Patuxent River, having a courthouse, taverns, and churches. Here were several secessionists who were giving much trouble, but finding there also several excellent Union men I left Colonel Miller to aid them in keeping the peace. With my cavalry squadron I marched on to the Patuxent, the bridge across which had been carried away by the freshet. In two hours the bridge was made passable and we crossed over, completing our projected expedition at dark, and camping upon the large and beautiful estate of Mr. Thomas J. Graham. His generous hospitality could not have been excelled. Neither my officers nor myself ever forgot the joyous welcome and kind treatment from host and hostess, for Mrs. Graham joined her husband in the entertainment. My surgeon, Dr. Palmer, Adjutant General Sewall, and I remained with these good people for three days. It gave us a breath of home. I had managed so promptly to distribute my

The “contrivances” were cross-planks placed above the wagon-beds and also deep empty boxes. [179] troops that there was not a voting precinct in Prince George or Calvert counties that was not occupied by my men on Wednesday, the day of election. On Thursday the scattered detachments were gathered, and on Friday and Saturday marched back to their respective camping grounds near Washington.

We had made some arrests. Mr. Sollers, at Prince Frederick, a former congressman, showed a violent disposition, threatening to kill any Union man he could reach and striking right and left with a bowie knife. He and four others were put under guard. On Friday morning Mr. Sollers was very ill, but as his excessive excitement was over I took his promise to report at Washington and released him. The others I let go upon their taking the oath of allegiance. Only one Confederate soldier in uniform was picked up; he was kept for exchange. General Casey's happy approval, commending my brigade and myself for our faithfulness and promptitude, gave me much pleasure, and McClellan's recognition of the work so quickly done, which owing to the storm he had thought hardly possible, awakened a strong hope that I would soon go to the front, taking with me instead of sending the regiments I had last drilled. That crossing of swollen streams, making long marches through clayey mud, bivouacking without canvas, disciplining the men on friendly soil, and giving officers something of importance to do, were, indeed, conducive to their contentment, to useful experience together, to comradeship, and in brief to all the needed preparations for grander trials in the coming events which were most consonant to our hearts.

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