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Chapter 16: the Spawn of lethargy.

  • Reaction of sentiment
  • -- conflicting ideas about inaction -- popular wish for aggressive war -- sentiment settles to fact -- Mr. Davis' attitude to Johnston and Beauregard -- after-battle confusion -- strategic reasons -- inaction breeds grave discontent -- effect on the army -- sober second thought -- Government use of the lull -- bombast and sense -- a glance North -- the western outlook -- John B. Floyd.
    Considering the surroundings, it seems inevitable that the lull after the first great victory should have been followed by reaction, all over the South; and that reasons — as ridiculous as they were numerousshould have been assigned for inaction that appeared so unwarranted.

    Discontent-at first whispered, and coming as the wind comethgradually took tongue; and discussion of the situation grew loud and varied. One side declared that the orders for a general advance had been already given, when the President countermanded them upon the field, and sent orders by General Bonham to withdraw the pursuit. Another version of this reason was that there had been a council of the generals and Mr. Davis, at which it was agreed that the North must now be convinced of the utter futility of persisting in invasion; and that in the reaction her conservative men would make themselves heard; whereas the occupation of Washington would inflame the North and cause the people to rise as one man for the defense of their capital. An even wilder theory found believers; that the war in the South was simply one of defense, and crossing the Potomac would be invasion, the effect of which would retard recognition from abroad. Another again declared that there was a jealousy between Generals Johnston and Beauregard, and between each of them and the President, that prevented concert of action.

    The people of the South were eminently democratic and had their own views — which they expressed with energy and vim — on all subjects during the war; so these theories, to account for the paralysis after Manassas, were each in turn discussed, and each found warm defenders. But gradually it came to be generally conceded that none of them could be the true one. The President took no command on his visit to Manassas, for he reached the field only after the battle had been won and the flight commenced. Any suggestions that: occurred to him were naturally made to General Johnston. There is good authority for stating that he did not make any criticism on one [130] material point, stating to both generals that the whole plan, conduct and result of the battle met his fullest approval; and on reflection the whole people felt that their chief was too much a soldier to have committed the gross breach of discipline indicated. The story of the council came to be regarded as a silly fabrication. The fear of inflaming the North, coming on the heels of a complete and bloody victory, was about as funny as for a pugilist whose antagonist's head was “in chancery” to cease striking lest he should anger him; and events immediately following Manassas showed there could be little jealousy or pique between the generals, or between them and the President. General Johnston, with the magnanimity of the true knight his whole career has shown him to be, declared that the credit of the plan and choice of the field of battle was due to General Beauregard; and Mr. Davis' proclamation on the success was couched in language that breathed only the most honest commendation of both generals and of their strategy. The fear of invasion prejudicing opinion abroad was as little believed as the other stories, for-outside of a small clique — there grew up at this time all over the South such a perfect confidence in its strength and its perfect ability to work its own oracle, that very little care was felt for the action of Europe. In fact, the people were just now quite willing to wait for recognition of their independence by European powers, until it was already achieved. So, gradually the public mind settled down to the true reasons that mainly prevented the immediate following up of the victory.

    A battle under all circumstances is a great confusion. With raw troops, who had never before been under fire, and who had been all day fiercely contending, until broken and disordered, the confusion must necessarily have been universal. As they broke, or fell back, brigade overlapped brigade, company mixed with company, and officers lost their regiments. The face of the country, covered with thick underbrush, added to this result; so that when the enemy broke and the rout commenced, it was hard to tell whether pursuers or pursued were the most disorganized mass. The army of Manassas was almost entirely undisciplined, and had never before felt the intoxication of battle. On that terrible day it had fought with tenacity and pluck that belonged to the race; but it had largely been on the principle prevalent at weddings in the “ould country” --when you see a head, hit it! The few officers who desired [131] a disciplined resistance soon saw the futility of obtaining it, and felt that as the men, individually, were fighting bravely and stubbornly, it were better only to hold them to that. When the pursuit came, the men were utterly worn and exhausted; but, burning with the glow of battle, they followed the flying masses fast and far --each one led by his own instincts and rarely twenty of a company together.

    A major-general, who left his leg on a later field, carried his company into this fight. During the pursuit he led it through a by-path to intercept a battery spurring down the road at full speed. They overtook it, mastered the gunners and turned the horses out of the press. In the deepening twilight, he turned to thank the company, and found it composed of three of his own men, two “Tiger rifles,” a Washington artilleryman, three dismounted cavalry of the “Legion,” a doctor, a quartermaster's clerk, and the Rev. Chaplain of the First--!

    This was but a specimen of the style of the pursuit. There was but little cavalry-one regiment under Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart and a few single companies. No one brigade could be collected in anything like order; night was deepening and the enemy's flight was approaching what was reasonably supposed to be his reserve. Under these circumstances it was apparent that prudence, if not necessity, dictated calling in the pursuit by the disordered troops. General Bonham--the ranking officer in front-saw this plainly; and on his own authority gave the order that appeared most proper to him. I never heard that, at this time, it was objected to by his superior officers.

    Moreover, it was not only the demoralization caused by the pursuit that was sufficient reason for not following up Manassas. The army, ordinarily, was not in a condition to advance into an enemy's country, away from its regular communications. In the first place, there was no transportation, and the arms were bad. It was a work of time to utilize the spoils; to distribute arms where most needed; to put the captured batteries in condition for use; and to replace with the splendid ambulances and army wagons, that had been prepared for the holiday march to Richmond, the hastily and clumsily-constructed ones already in use; and to so give out the captured horses as best to utilize them. This latter was of the utmost moment before an advance could be attempted. The Confederates were shorter of [132] transportation-even of defective character-than of anything else; and for days after the fight the flood-gates of heaven seemed to stand open, to deluge the country around Manassas until it became a perfect lake of mud. Roads already bad were washed into gullies; holes, generally knee-deep became impassable. It is perfectly easy, therefore, to understand why, for a week after the battle, delay was necessary; but as week after week passed, and there was still no forward movement, it ceased to be strange that the people should murmur, and ask why it was the army was satisfied with laurels easily won when fresh ones were within its grasp. All felt that veteran officers handling raw troops had to be more careful in their management, and to count more closely before putting them into the new and dangerous position of an invading army, than would meet with the concurrence of a populace naturally ardent and doubly heated by triumph.

    But it is equally true that for ten days after the battle, Washington lay perfectly at the mercy of the South; and by that time the army of Manassas was in better condition than could be expected later; and it was anxious to move forward.

    But the auspicious moment was not seized; time was given for the broken fragments of the Union army to be patched again into something like organization. Fresh forts and earthworks were hastily thrown up; a perfect chain of defenses formed around Washington,. and strongly garrisoned. The pickets of the opposing armies were near enough to exchange constant shots, and even occasional “chaff.”

    Still there was no movement; the summer wore away in utter inactivity. The camp at Orange Courthouse began to be looked upon as a stationary affair; while the usual difficulties of camp lifeaggra-vated by the newness of the troops and the natural indisposition of the southron to receive discipline-began to show themselves. The army at this time was principally composed of the better educated and better conditioned class, who were the first to volunteer; and as I have already said, many of the privates were men of high position, culture and wealth. Thus composed, it was equal to great deeds of gallantry and dash. Elan was its characteristic-but it was hard to reduce to the stratified regularity of an army. Napier has laid down as an axiom that no man is a good soldier until he has become a perfect machine. He must neither reason nor think-only obey. Critics, [133] perhaps equally competent, in reviewing the Crimean war, differ from this and declare the main advantage of the French troops over the Russian was a certain individuality — a pride in themselves and their army that had been entirely drilled out of their stolid adversaries. Be this as it may, the esprit de corps of the Frenchman was in his corps only as such; and he would no more have discussed the wisdom, or prudence of any order-even in his own mind-than he would have thought of disobeying it.

    The steady-going professional men who sprung to arms throughout the South could face a deadly fire, without blenching, for hours; but they could not help reasoning, with nothing to do for twenty hours out of every twenty-four.

    The gay young graduates of the promenade and ball-room could march steadily, even gaily, into the fiery belching of a battery, but they could not learn the practice of unreasoning blindness; and the staunch, hard-fisted countryman felt there was no use in it-the thing was over if the fighting was done-and this was a waste of time. Nostalgia-that scourge of camps — began to creep among the latter class; discontent grew apace among the former. Still the camp was the great object of interest for miles around; there were reviews, parades and division dinners; ladies visited and inspected it, and some even lived within its lines; but the tone of the army went down gradually, but steadily. During the summer more than one of Beauregard's companies-though of the best material and with a brilliant record-had to be mustered out as “useless and insubordinate.” Excellence in drill and attention to duty both decreased; and it was felt by competent judges that rust was gradually eating away the fabric of the army. This was certainly the fault to a great extent of the officers, though it may, in part, have been due to the men themselves. In the beginning these had tried honestly to choose those among them best fitted for command; but like all volunteers, they fell into the grave error of choosing the most popular. Almost all candidates for office were equally eligible and equally untried; so personal considerations naturally came into play. Once elected, they did their duty faithfully, in the field; but were either too weak, or too inexperienced, to keep the strict rules of discipline applied during the trying inactivity of camp; and they were too conscious of the social and mental equality of their men to enforce the distinction between officer and [134] private, without which the command loses half its weight. In some instances, too, the desire for popularity and for future advancement at the hands of friends and neighbors introduced a spirit of demagogism hurtful in the extreme.

    For these combined reasons the army of Manassas, which a few weeks before had gone so gaily “into the jaws of death,” began rapidly to mildew through warp and woof; and the whole texture seemed on the point of giving way.

    Thoughtful men — who had waited calmy and coolly when the first burst of impatience had gone up-began now to ask why and how long this lethargy was to continue. They saw its bad effects, but believed that at the next blast of the bugle every man would shake off the incubus and rise in his might a patriot soldier; they saw the steady stream of men from North and West pouring into Washington, to be at once bound and held with iron bands of discipline — the vast preparation in men, equipments, supplies and science that the North was using the precious days granted her to get in readiness for the next shock. But they felt confident that the southern army — if not allowed to rust too long-would again vindicate the name it had won at Manassas.

    These thinkers saw that some branches of the Government still kept up its preparations. Throughout the length of the land foundries were going up, and every improvement that science or experience could suggest was making in the construction of arms and ammunition; water-power, everywhere off the line of attack, was utilized for powder-mills and rope-walks; every cloth factory in the country was subsidized; and machinery of great variety and power was being imported on Government account. Over Richmond constantly hung a dense cloud of coal smoke; and the incessant buzz of machinery from factories, foundries and lathes, told of increased rather than abated effort in that branch of the Government. Then, too, the most perfect confidence was felt in the great strategic ability of General Johnston--who had already found that high level in the opinion of his countrymen, from which neither the frowns of government, the combination of cliques, nor the tongues of slanderers could afterward remove him.

    They believed, too, in the pluck and dash of Beauregard; and, combining this with the outside activity, evident in every direction, [135] felt there must be good and sufficient reason for the — to theminex-plicable quiet about the Potomac.

    But perhaps the very worst feature was the effect of the victory upon the tone of the people at large. The very tongues that had wagged most impatiently at the first delay — that had set in motion the wild stories by which to account for it-had been the first to become blatant that the North was conquered. The minutest details of the fight were carried over the land, repeated at country courts and amplified at bar-room assemblages, until the common slang was everywhere heard that one Southron was equal to a dozen Yanks. Instead of using the time, so strangely given by the Government, in making earnest and steady strides toward increasing the army, improving its morale and adding to its supplies, the masses of the country were upon a rampage of boastfulness, and the notes of an inflated triumph rang from the Potomac to the Gulf.

    In this regard the effect of the victory was most injurious; and had it not been for the crushing results — from a strategic point of view — that would have followed it, partial defeat might have proved a blessing in its place.

    The one, while it threw a gloom over the country, would have nerved the people to renewed exertion and made them look steadily and unwaveringly at the true dangers that threatened them. The other gave them time to fold their hands and indulge in a complacency, ridiculous as it was enervating.

    They ceased to realize the vast resources of the Union in men, money and supplies; and more than all, they underrated the dogged perseverance of Yankee character. It was as though a young boxer, in a deadly conflict with a giant, had dealt a staggering blow; and while the Titan braced his every muscle for a deadlier gripe, the weaker antagonist wasted his time lauding his strength and feeling his biceps.

    Meantime, the keen, hard sense of the Washington Government wasted no time in utilizing the reaction on its people. The press and the public clamored for a victim, and General Scott was thrown into its maw unhesitatingly. The old hero was replaced by the new, and General McClellan-whose untried and inexperienced talent could hardly have augured his becoming, as he did, the best general of the northern army — was elevated to his place to please the “dear public.” [136]

    The rabid crowds of men and men-women-whose prurient curiosity had driven them to follow the great on-to-Richmond, with hopes of a first view of the triumphant entry of the Grand Army-soon forgot their uncomfortable and terrified scramble to the rear. They easily changed their whine of terror to a song of triumph; and New England Judiths, burning to grasp the hair of the Holofernes over the Potomac, pricked the flagging zeal of their male companions.

    The peculiar error that they were fighting for the Union and the flag-so cruelly dissipated of late-threw thousands into the ranks; heavy bounties and hopes of plunder drew many more; and the still frequent interstices were filled with many an Irish-German amalgam, that was supposed to be peculiarly good food for powder.

    And so the summer wore on, the demoralizing influence of the inaction in the camps of the South increasing toward its close. The affair at Leesburg, occurring on the 20th of October, was another brilliant success, but equally barren of results. It showed that the men would still fight as readily and as fiercely, and that their officers would lead them as gallantly, as before; it put a few hundred of the enemy hors de combat and maintained “the right of way” by the river to the South. But it was the occasion for another shout of triumph-perfectly incommensurate with its importance — to go up from the people; and it taught them still more to despise and underrate the power of the government they had so far successfully and brilliantly defied.

    Elsewhere than on the Potomac line, the case had been a little different. Magruder, on the Peninsula, had gained no success of note. A few unimportant skirmishes had taken place and the Confederate lines had been contracted — more from choice than necessity. But the combatants were near enough-and respected each other enough --for constant watchfulness to be considered necessary; and, though the personnel of the army was, perhaps, not as good as that of the Potomac, in the main its condition was better.

    At Norfolk nothing had been done but to strengthen the defenses. General Huger had striven to keep his men employed; and they, at least, did not despise the enemy that frowned at them from Fort Monroe, and frequently sent messages of compliment into their camps from the lips of the “Sawyer gun.” The echo of the paeans from Manassas came back to them, but softened by distance and tempered by their own experience-or want of it. [137]

    In Western Virginia there had been a dull, eventless campaign, of strategy rather than action. General Wise had taken command on the first of June, and early in August had been followed by General John B. Floyd--the ex-U. S. Secretary of War.

    These two commanders unfortunately disagreed as to means and conduct of the campaign; and General R. E. Lee was sent to take general command on this-his first theater of active service. His management of the campaign was much criticised in many quarters; and the public verdict seemed to be that, though he had an army of twenty thousand men, tolerably equipped and familiar with the country, Rosecrans out-maneuvered him and accomplished his object in amusing so considerable a Confederate force. Certain it is that, after fronting Lee at Big Sewell for ten or twelve days, he suddenly withdrew in the night, without giving the former even a chance for a fight.

    The dissatisfaction was universal and outspoken; nor was it relieved by the several brilliant episodes of Gauley and Cotton Hill, that General Floyd managed to throw into his dark surroundings.

    It is hard to tell how much foundation the press and the public had for this opinion. There had been no decisive disaster, if there had been no actual gain; and the main result had been to maim men and show that both sides would fight; well enough to leave all collisions matters of doubt.

    It may not here be out of place to correct a false impression that has crept into the history of the times regarding General Floyd. The courteous press of the North-and not a few political enemies who felt safety in their distance from him-constantly branded him as “traitor” and “thief.” They averred that he had misused his position and betrayed the confidence reposed in him as U. S. Secretary of War, to send government arms into the South in view of the approaching need for them. Even General Scott-whose position must have given him the means of knowing better-reiterates these calumnies, the falsity of which the least investigation exposed at once.

    Mr. Buchanan, in his late book, completely exonerates General Floyd from this charge; and the committee to whom it was referred reported that of 10, 151 rifles distributed by him in 1860, the Southern and South-Western states received only 2,849!

    Followed by the hate of one government to receive the coldness [138] of the other, John B. Floyd still strove with all his strength for the cause he loved.

    After life's fitful fever he sleeps well

    in his dear Virginia soil; and whatever his faults-whatever his errors --no honest man, North or South, but must rejoice that his enemies even acquitted him of this one.

    Then the results elsewhere had not been very encouraging when compared with the eastern campaign; though Sterling Price had managed to more than hold his own against all obstacles, and Jeff Thompson had been doing great things with little means in south-western Missouri.

    Still, since Rich Mountain, no serious disaster had befallen Confederate arms, and the people were fain to be satisfied.

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