previous next

The First great crime of the War.

Major General W. B. Franklin.
Nearly sixteen years ago the country was wrenched to its centre by the battle of Bull Run. This battle was the climax of a campaign, undertaken at the dictation of a clique in the press led by the New York Tribune, and in the then excited state of public feeling, the spirit awakened against the apparent inaction at Washington was override the President, the Secretaries, and the General-in-Chief. The facts that 75,000 militia should have been called out nearly three months before, and that a large number of them were encamped near Washington, that they had, so far, struck no blow for its defense (although their presence alone was ample defense), that few, if any, had been killed, and that the rebels were in force at Manassas, defying these defenders to come forward, were so flagrant and preposterous, that their mere presentation broke down all military caution and conservatism, and the “On to Richmond” cry forced the Bull Run campaign on the country, with all its sequence of disaster and depression, and the mixed feelings of shame, and grief, and rage, which swept over the country like a whirlwind. The Bull Run fight had one good result for our side, and, so far as I am aware, only one. It taught our people to be a little patient, and not to expect the army to be ready to move next week. The disaster which came upon us in July, when thirty thousand three months men, whose terms of enlistment would expire in a few days, commanded by general officers, not one of whom had been in action in a grade higher than that of captain, were hurried forward to defeat, would certainly have come upon us in September, [73] when hundreds of thousands of recruits would have begun to gather in the Eastern and Western camps of instruction, which General Scott had intended to form. The same feelings that urged us on to Bull Run in July would have sent forward a larger and quite an undisciplined an army at a later day, and the outcry would have been all the louder, as the force was greater in number, no matter if they were only enlisted yesterday. So I have no doubt that Bull Run was not an unmixed evil, but that Providence may have so overruled in our favor that the infliction of this defeat of a small army, depressing as it was, may have saved us from severer defeat two months afterward. 1No thanks, however, to those who brought on the campaign. In any event, the people were more patient, and afterward bore delays, which they could not understand, with a noble and self-sacrificing spirit.

So it happened that the first step taken by the dazed administration, after the battle of Bull Run, was to order to Washington, in command of the Army of the Potomac, the young General McClellan, who had been so far the only general upon whose banners victory for the cause had perched. He at once began a system of organization and distribution of troops, of purchase of material of war, of recommendations of generals to important commands East, West and South, of the erection of field fortifications, which to complete involved a long time, longer far than was suspected by the administration or the people. He and his subordinates worked day and night to perfect his system, and worked ably and with good effect. One day in August, shortly after his arrival at Washington, he, General Blair, and myself were together in a room in the seven buildings then occupied, I believe, as the headquarter offices. General McClellan stated to General Blair, who was Chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs in the House of Representatives, certain matters upon which he was anxious that the committee should act favorably and speedily. General Blair promised that the matter should be settled at once as General McClellan wished to have it, and then said in effect, “General, anything that you indicate as necessary shall always be acted upon favorably by our committee, and if you do not feel that you are to-day king of this country, you do not appreciate your position.” Although the saying was impulsive and extravagant, it nevertheless indicated the honest feelings of the speaker, and was a type of the sentiments of a great number of people then gathered in Washington. But the fall wore away, and no movement of the great army collected in front and rear of Washington was made. [74]

About the 1st of November, the country again began to get impatient that no forward movement was begun by any of the armies, but in the East this impatience was intensified against the Army of the Potomac. Bull Run was forgotten, and the facts that the enemy had once made his appearance on Munson's Hill, that the Potomac was virtually closed, and that we had met with a disaster at Ball's Bluff, were always present. But the great fact of all was, there were more than one hundred thousand soldiers about Washington. Although these men were generally raw troops who had never heard a hostile gun, and were daily improving in drill and discipline and physique, there was a feeling in Washington and in the country generally that they ought to be pushed forward into Virginia at all hazards. This feeling, considering the small amount of military knowledge among the people and the enormous expenditure then going on, was not singular, but it was nevertheless one that did harm, and was used by a set of politicians who had just come up, and who have remained up ever since, to excite the administration and the country against the management of the army.

In the latter part of the fall. Lieutenant General Scott asked to be retired, and his request was granted. General McClellan was then made Commander-in-Chief of the army, and at once became responsible for the movements and organization of all of the forces East and West. He determined, therefore, to carry out a plan as to the movement of the Army of the Potomac, which he had studied long, and which, independent of political and financial considerations, commends itself to every military mind as the very best for making a campaign against Richmond at that time. After events demonstrated the wisdom of this plan. In few words, the plan was to move the whole Army of the Potomac, except a force sufficient for the defense of Washington to the vicinity of a place named Urbana, on the Rappahannock, and from this point as a base, to advance upon Richmond. But this involved a delay until spring, and as soon as it became generally known that there was to be this delay, as its cause was not known, the most strenuous efforts were made by Congress and the press to find out what was contemplated. Generals commanding divisions who were known to be in General McClellan's confidence, were examined by Congressional committees for the sole purpose of finding out what he intended to do. On one occasion, in December, I think, I was examined before the Committee on the Conduct of the War. I was asked whether I knew General McClellan's plans, and I answered in the affirmative. I was then asked to divulge them, and replied that I would prefer to wait until [75] I could confer with him, he being then dangerously ill, and that my information was confidential. The committee then lost all interest in me, and the remainder of the time was taken up by Hon. Andrew Johnson, then a member of the committee, who demonstrated that a force of 50,000 men ought to be detached from the Army of the Potomac, marched through Leesburg, thence southwest through West Virginia, so as to reach and set free from the rebels East Tennessee. The matter of transportation and provisions in a march through such a country was below the attention of the committee, and any suggestion looking to difficulty in that direction was considered as an indication of Fabian policy.

General McClellan's position during this period was one of great difficulty and delicacy. He had determined upon a plan of campaign which involved a delay of movement of the armies until spring. The delay being misunderstood, his enemies, who, in some noted cases, pretended to be his best friends, quietly insinuated that he was not the man for the position. The duties of his command were excessively harassing, and the undercurrent of detraction began to come to the surface, and make itself felt in the administration. He attended the funeral of General Lander, who died in March, and was buried in Washington. Telling me about the funeral on the next day, he said that when he saw Lander's face in the coffin, looking so calm and peaceful, and thought of the troubles he was then having, and was to have thereafter, he regretted that he was not lying there instead of Lander. These were the defiant and insubordinate feelings of the General-in-Chief.

At length he was taken sick with typhoid fever, and for a long time he was on the border of death. His sickness gave his enemies an opportunity which they were not slow to embrace; and vilification and detraction increased, so that, at last, the President even began to think that something ought to be done to conciliate public opinion, by making an effort to start the Army of the Potomac, even if it had to move without the commanding general. During this time the troops lay quietly in camp. They were well clothed and fed, and, in general, enjoyed the life. The weather and ground were not fit for drill, and the roads were too bad for marching. At long intervals, and until General McClellan was taken sick, large reviews broke the monotony of the life; but it was, nevertheless, very dull. The discipline improved visibly, and the long quiet fostered the feeling of comradeship and reliance upon each other, which, to a great extent, makes the difference between the recruit and the old soldier. Glee and minstrel and amateur theatrical clubs [76] were formed, and performances were given by the men, and the army on the south side of the Potomac lived its own life as if it were hundreds of miles away from Washington, as many of its members devoutly wished it was. The men learned many old-soldier tricks. One. of these was reported to me by a colonel of my division, with an air of great disgust. Some of his companies lived in huts built by themselves. The huts were two in number, on both sides of the company parade ground-half of the company sleeping in each hut. At reveille some dozen of the men would turn out, and when the roll was called the remainder would answer to their names from their beds in the huts, and stay in bed until breakfast time. But, although the army was improving, the nervousness of the administration and Congress, caused by the delay and the alarming sickness of General McClellan, continually increased.

On Friday evening, January 10th, 1862, I received a dispatch from the Assistant Secretary of War, informing me that the President wished to see me at eight o'clock that evening, if I could safely leave my command. I went to Washington, and arrived at the White House at eight o'clock. I was received in a small room in the northeast corner of the house, and found the President, Secretaries Seward and Chase, the Assistant Secretary of War, and General McDowell. The President was in great distress over the condition of the country. He complained that he was abused in Congress for the military inaction; that, notwithstanding the enormous amount of money which had been spent, nothing was doing East or West; that there was a general feeling of depression on account of the inaction; and that, as he expressed it, the bottom appeared to be falling out of everything. He was exceedingly sorry for the sickness of General McClellan. He was not allowed to see him to talk over military matters, and he wanted to produce some concerted action between Generals Halleck and Buell, who did not appear to pull together. He could, of course, do nothing with the Western armies; they were out of his reach; but he thought that he could, in a very short time, do something with the Army of the Potomac, if, he were allowed to have his own way, and had sent for General McDowell and me so that he might have somebody to talk to on the subject. In fact, he wanted, he said, to borrow the Army of the Potomac from General McClellan for a few weeks, and wanted us to help him as to how to do it. He complained of the rise of gold, of the unreasonableness of Congress, of the virulence of the press, and, in general, told us all that depressed him, in a plain, blunt way that was touching to a degree. Mr. Seward told us that an [77] Englishman whom he had sent into the enemy's lines had returned, giving him information of the number of rebel troops at Centreville, Richmond, Norfolk, etc.; and I inferred that Johnston, who commanded at Centreville, could have raised about 75,000 men to meet any attack which we might make within a moderate time.

Mr. Chase said very little, but what he did say left it plainly to be inferred that he thought that the army ought to be moved at once. General McDowell said that, in his opinion, the army ought to be formed into army corps, and that a vigorous movement in the direction of Centreville would enable us, he thought, to get into position by which we could cut the enemy's lines of communication, and that by the use of the railroad from Alexandria, and the connection of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad with those south of the river by a railroad over the. Long Bridge, large wagon trains would be avoided. He, however, did not know how long a time would be required to get ready to make the movement which he advocated. I said that I was ignorant of the things necessary to enable me to form a judgment on the subject, only knowing my own division, which was ready for the field. That I thought that the proper disposition to make of the Army of the Potomac was to transport it by the easiest and quickest route to York river, to operate against Richmond, leaving force enough to prevent any danger to Washington.

The Assistant Secretary of War thought that the transportation of this force in a reasonable time would be a very difficult work. As General McDowell and I both felt too ignorant of the proper state of the supply departments to justify us in speaking any more definitely, it was determined by the President that the same party should meet on the next evening at the same time, and that General McDowell and I should in the meantime get all the information from the chiefs of the various staff departments of the Army of the Potomac, as to their status with regard to a movement of the army within a short time. So on Saturday we met in the morning, and went to all of the chiefs of the staff departments, and obtained from them such information as to their departments as they could give us. We learned from Mr. Chase the destination of Burnside's expedition, which, until then, had been unknown to us, and he relieved our minds as to the apparent impropriety of our obtaining information from the chiefs of the staff departments without the authority of the commanding general, by reminding us that as we were acting by the direct orders of the President, we ought to execute those orders. He also told us what was McClellan's plan of operations for the Army of the Potomac. In the evening we again met at the White House. The party of [78] the evening before were there with the addition of Judge Blair, the Postmaster General. General McDowell read a paper embodying our joint views, which were in substance, that if the Army of the Potomac was to be moved at once, it would be better to march it into Virginia than to transport it by vessels. General McDowell was, however, in favor of the immediate movement into Virginia. I was not. Just here the presence of Judge Blair was felt. He strongly opposed any movement toward Centreville at that time, denounced it as bad strategy, said that a second Bull Run would occur, and strenuously and ably advocated the movement to the Peninsula by transports. Mr. Seward and Judge Chase were of opinion that a victory over the enemy was what was required, whether gained in front of Washington or further South, and that our difficulties would probably be as great on the Peninsula as they would be at Centreville. I thought that the President, who said little, was much impressed by what Judge Blair said, and he adjourned the meeting until three o'clock the next day, directing General McDowell and myself to see the Quartermaster General in the meantime as to water transportation for the army.

On Sunday General McDowell and I saw General Meigs, the Quartermaster General. He thought that a month or six weeks would be required to collect the water transportation necessary for the movement of the army. Some of us were gathered at three o'clock for the ordered meeting. Suddenly Mr. Seward hurried in, threw down his hat in great excitement, and exclaimed, “Gentlemen, I have seen General McClellan, and he is a well man. I think that this meeting would better adjourn.” A general discussion was entered upon as to what was the best course to pursue with regard to the army, and it was understood that we would meet again on Monday, at one o'clock, when General McClellan would be present. On Monday, January 13th, at one o'clock, the same party was gathered at the President's. General McClellan shortly afterward appeared, looking exceedingly pale and weak. The President explained, in an apologetic way, why he had called General McDowell and me to these conferences, and asked General McDowell to explain the proposed plan of operations. General McDowell did so, he and I differing slightly as to the time of commencement of the movement from our front. In answer to some statement from General McDowell as to the delicate position in which we were placed, General McClellan stated that we were, of course, entitled to our opinions. I stated that in giving my opinion as to the Peninsula movement, I knew that my judgment coincided with General [79] McClellan's. General McDowell stated that he was in ignorance of any plan of General McClellan's. The President went over the subject of discussion in a general way, and then there was a silence. It was broken by Governor Chase, who asked General McClellan if he had any objection to telling the persons there assembled what his plan for the movement of the Army of the Potomac was. After a long silence the General made a few general remarks, and ended by saying to the President that he knew when his plans had hitherto been told to the Cabinet that they had leaked out, and he would therefore decline to divulge them now, unless the President would order him so to do. Then there was another long silence, and the President broke it by asking the General if he had matured a plan for the movement of the Army of the Potomac. The General answered that he had. After another silence the President said, “Then, General, I shall not order you to give it.” During this time Governor Chase, General McDowell and I were standing in one of the window embrasures. When General McClellan declined to give his plans to the meeting, Governor Chase 1 said to us, “Well, if that is Mac's decision, he is a ruined man.” The President then adjourned the meeting, and this episode was over. About a fortnight after this time the President ordered the Army of the Potomac to move forward on or before February 22d, to take Manassas. This order was countermanded early in February, and toward the end of the month orders were given to collect the transportation necessary to move the army by water.

On the 8th of March I was ordered to repair to headquarters. Assembled there were the General-in-chief, the Engineer of the Army of the Potomac, and all of the division commanders, except General Hooker, who was represented by General Naglee. General McClellan submitted to us his plan for the movement of the army, and then left us to ourselves. Upon the question of approval of his plan the vote was, I think, nine for approval to three against it, although it has been reported as eight to four. I believed then, and still believe, that the main object of the meeting was to obtain a condemnation of the plan by the subordinate generals. Immediately after this meeting we were informed that the President wished to see us. We went to the White House, and found there the President and Secretary of War. They knew the result of our meeting. [80] Each one of us was asked in turn by the Secretary of War our opinion of the time required to transfer the army to its new base. The general opinion was that a month would be required, and each was asked by the Secretary whether he was willing to have this suffering country wait a month longer before a blow was inflicted upon.the enemy. We were then asked in turn whether we thought the army ought to be organized into army corps or not. We unanimously answered that we thought it ought to be so organized. The President then informed us that he deferred his opinion as to the proper method of moving the army to ours. He asked us to use all our energies to help the country out of its great dangers, and ended by saying to us, “If you are faithful to me, I, on my part, will be faithful to you.” He then said that he should form the Army of the Potomac into four army corps, and knowing but little of the capacities of the generals suitable for the command of these corps, should assign the commands according to rank. The meeting was then dismissed.

General Johnston having evacuated his position at Centreville on the 8th of March, the army was immediately moved to Fairfax Court-House. Here the assignment to corps was made, and my division was assigned to General McDowell's corps. Shortly afterward, about the middle of March, we returned to a position in front of Alexandria to await transportation. It was determined that the bulk of the army should be landed at Fortress Monroe, and move up the Peninsula between the York and James rivers, and that General McDowell's corps should land on the north side of the York river. By this plan a force of over 80,000. men would have been on the Peninsula, and a corps of nearly 30,000 men would have been on the north side of the York river, in position to turn Yorktown. The result of carrying out this plan would have been that Yorktown would have been evacuated without a siege, the Williamsburg battle would not have taken place, and the whole army would have concentrated in front of Richmond in a few days after McDowell's corps would have joined-without serious loss. Communication would have easily been kept up between the two banks of the river by the squadron under Captain Missroon, which was then in the river. This arrangement required that General McDowell's corps should move last, and General McClellan, with his headquarters, left Alexandria on April 1st, he supposing that nothing could occur to change that arrangement.

On the 3d of April I was ordered to embark my division. About eleven o'clock in the evening I received orders to move part of the division on the next day, and to call at headquarters for further [81] instructions. Going at once to the War Department I found General McDowell and General Wadsworth there. General McDowell informed me that the Secretary of War had told him about an hour before that General McClellan intended to work by strategy and not by fighting, and that he should not have another man from his department; that all of the enemies of the administration centred around him, and the Secretary accused him of having political aspirations. Also, that he had not left the number of troops to defend Washington that the President required — in other words, that he had disobeyed the President's orders. General McDowell remonstrated against the step which was about to be taken, arguing that if General McClellan had political aspirations they would be forwarded by the very course which the administration was taking in this case. He used all of the arguments which he could bring to bear, to convince the Secretary that he was making a mistake in ordering the detachment of his corps. The result was, General McDowell's corps was detached from the Army of the Potomac, and was marched to Catlett's Station, on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, where it could do no possible good. General McClellan's plan of turning Yorktown, by the movement of McDowell's corps on the north bank of the York river, was utterly destroyed. The Army of the Potomac was forced to stay a whole month on the Peninsula uselessly, to make the expensive and abortive siege of Yorktown, to fight the bloody battle of Williamsburg; and the capture of Richmond, which in all human probability would have been made in the month of May, had General McClellan's plan been carried out, was deferred for three years.

Thus was consummated the first great crime of the war. An army of nearly one hundred thousand men which had been in preparation for more than six months, was despatched to deal the enemy a deadly blow, under the general who had organized it, and was beloved by it, and who was unanimously recognized by soldiers and civilians as its proper commander. Before he had been absent forty-eight hours, his largest corps, commanded by his second in command, containing more than one-fourth of his army, assigned to a service which was vital to the success of his campaign, was detached from his command, without consultation with him and without his knowledge, I do not know whether the perpetrators of this crime were punished for it in this life; but the ghastly account of bloodshed in Virginia for the next three years shows that the innocent country was punished, in a way that will be remembered by widows and orphans for a generation.

1 In thinking over this matter, I find that I cannot be positive whether it was Governor Chase or Judge Blair who was with General McDowell and me, and made this remark. It was one of them, however.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
July (2)
March 8th (2)
March (2)
January 10th, 1862 AD (1)
December (1)
November 1st (1)
September (1)
August (1)
May (1)
April 3rd (1)
April 1st (1)
February 22nd (1)
February (1)
January 13th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: