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Chapter 18.

  • Blockade
  • -- Hatteras Inlet -- Port Royal captured -- the Trent affair -- Lincoln Suggests arbitration -- Seward's despatch -- McClellan at Washington -- army of the Potomac -- McClellan's quarrel with Scott -- retirement of Scott -- Lincoln's memorandum-“all quiet on the Potomac” -- conditions in Kentucky -- Cameron's visit to Sherman -- East Tennessee -- instructions to Buell -- Buell's neglect -- Halleck in Missouri
    Following the fall of Fort Sumter, the navy of the United States was in no condition to enforce the blockade from Chesapeake Bay to the Rio Grande declared by Lincoln's proclamation of April 19. Of the forty-two vessels then in commission nearly all were on foreign stations. Another serious cause of weakness was that within a few days after the Sumter attack one hundred and twenty-four officers of the navy resigned, or were dismissed for disloyalty, and the number of such was doubled before the fourth of July. Yet by the strenuous efforts of the department in fitting out ships that had been laid up, in completing those under construction, and in extensive purchases and arming of all classes of vessels that could be put to use, from screw and side-wheel merchant steamers to ferry-boats and tugs, a legally effective blockade was established within a period of six months. A considerable number of new war-ships was also immediately placed under construction. The special session of Congress created a commission to study the subject of ironclads, [245] and on its recommendation three experimental vessels of this class were placed under contract. One of these, completed early in the following year, rendered a momentous service, hereafter to be mentioned, and completely revolutionized naval warfare.

    Meanwhile, as rapidly as vessels could be gathered and prepared, the Navy Department organized effective expeditions to operate against points on the Atlantic coast. On August 29 a small fleet, under command of Flag Officer Stringham, took possession of Hatteras Inlet, after silencing the forts the insurgents had erected to guard the entrance, and captured twenty-five guns and seven hundred prisoners. This success, achieved without the loss of a man to the Union fleet, was of great importance, opening, as it did, the way for a succession of victories in the interior waters of North Carolina early in the following year.

    A more formidable expedition, and still greater success soon followed. Early in November, Captain DuPont assembled a fleet of fifty sail, including transports, before Port Royal Sound. Forming a column of nine war-ships with a total of one hundred and twelve guns, the line steamed by the mid-channel between Fort Beauregard to the right, and Fort Walker to the left, the first of twenty and the second of twenty-three guns, each ship delivering its fire as it passed the forts. Turning at the proper point, they again gave broadside after broadside while steaming out, and so repeated their circular movement. The battle was decided when, on the third round, the forts failed to respond to the fire of the ships. When Commander Rodgers carried and planted the Stars and Stripes on the ramparts, he found them utterly deserted, everything having been abandoned by the flying garrisons. Further reconnaissance proved that the panic extended [246] itself over the whole network of sea islands between Charleston and Savannah, permitting the immediate occupation of the entire region, and affording a military base for both the navy and the army of incalculable advantage in the further reduction of the coast.

    Another naval exploit, however, almost at the same time, absorbed greater public attention, and for a while created an intense degree of excitement and suspense. Ex-Senators J. M. Mason and John Slidell, having been accredited by the Confederate government as envoys to European courts, had managed to elude the blockade and reach Havana. Captain Charles Wilkes, commanding the San Jacinto, learning that they were to take passage for England on the British mail steamer Trent, intercepted that vessel on November 8 near the coast of Cuba, took the rebel emissaries prisoner by the usual show of force, and brought them to the United States, but allowed the Trent to proceed on her voyage. The incident and alleged insult produced as great excitement in England as in the United States, and the British government began instant and significant preparations for war for what it hastily assumed to be .a violation of international law and an outrage on the British flag. Instructions were sent to Lord Lyons, the British minister at Washington, to demand the release of the prisoners and a suitable apology; and, if this demand were not complied with within a single week, to close his legation and return to England.

    In the Northern States the capture was greeted with great jubilation. Captain Wilkes was applauded by the press; his act was officially approved by the Secretary of the Navy, and the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution thanking him for his “brave, adroit, and patriotic conduct.” While the President [247] and cabinet shared the first impulses of rejoicing, second thoughts impressed them with the grave nature of the international question involved, and the serious dilemma of disavowal or war precipitated by the imperative British demand. It was fortunate that Secretary Seward and Lord Lyons were close personal friends, and still more that though British public opinion had strongly favored the rebellion, the Queen of England entertained the kindliest feelings for the American government. Under her direction, Prince Albert instructed the British cabinet to formulate and present the demand in the most courteous diplomatic language, while, on their part, the American President and cabinet discussed the affair in a temper of judicious reserve.

    President Lincoln's first desire was to refer the difficulty to friendly arbitration, and his mood is admirably expressed in the autograph experimental draft of a despatch suggesting this course.

    “The President is unwilling to believe,” he wrote,

    that her Majesty's government will press for a categorical answer upon what appears to him to be only a partial record, in the making up of which he has been allowed no part. He is reluctant to volunteer his view of the case, with no assurance that her Majesty's government will consent to hear him; yet this much he directs me to say, that this government has intended no affront to the British flag, or to the British nation; nor has it intended to force into discussion an embarrassing question; all which is evident by the fact hereby asserted, that the act complained of was done by the officer without orders from, or expectation of, the government. But, being done, it was no longer left to us to consider whether we might not, to avoid a controversy, waive an unimportant though a strict right; because [248] we, too, as well as Great Britain, have a people justly jealous of their rights, and in whose presence our government could undo the act complained of only upon a fair showing that it was wrong, or at least very questionable. The United States government and people are still willing to make reparation upon such showing.

    Accordingly, I am instructed by the President to inquire whether her Majesty's government will hear the United States upon the matter in question. The President desires, among other things, to bring into view, and have considered, the existing rebellion in the United States; the position Great Britain has assumed, including her Majesty's proclamation in relation thereto; the relation the persons whose seizure is the subject of complaint bore to the United States, and the object of their voyage at the time they were seized; the knowledge which the master of the Trent had of their relation to the United States, and of the object of their voyage, at the time he received them on board for the voyage; the place of the seizure; and the precedents and respective positions assumed in analogous cases between Great Britain and the United States.

    Upon a submission containing the foregoing facts, with those set forth in the before-mentioned despatch to your lordship, together with all other facts which either party may deem material, I am instructed to say the government of the United States will, if agreed to by her Majesty's government, go to such friendly arbitration as is usual among nations, and will abide the award.

    The most practised diplomatic pen in Europe could not have written a more dignified, courteous, or succinct presentation of the case; and yet, under the necessities [249] of the moment, it was impossible to adopt this procedure. Upon full discussion, it was decided that war with Great Britain must be avoided, and Mr. Seward wrote a despatch defending the course of Captain Wilkes up to the point where he permitted the Trent to proceed on her voyage. It was his further duty to have brought her before a prize court. Failing in this, he had left the capture incomplete under rules of international law, and the American government had thereby lost the right and the-legal evidence to establish the contraband character of the vessel and the persons seized. Under the circumstances, the prisoners were therefore willingly released. Excited American feeling was grievously disappointed at the result; but American good sense readily accommodated itself both to the correctness of the law expounded by the Secretary of State, and to the public policy that averted a great international danger; particularly as this decision forced Great Britain to depart from her own and to adopt the American traditions respecting this class of neutral rights.

    It has already been told how Captain George B. McClellan was suddenly raised in rank, at the very outset of the war, first to a major-generalship in the three months militia, then to the command of the military department of the Ohio; from that to a major-generalship in the regular army; and after his successful campaign in West Virginia was called to Washington and placed in command of the Division of the Potomac, which comprised all the troops in and around Washington, on both sides of the river. Called thus to the capital of the nation to guard it against the results of the disastrous battle of Bull Run, and to organize a new army for extended offensive operations, the surrounding conditions naturally suggested to him that in all [250] likelihood he would play a conspicuous part in the great drama of the Civil War. His ambition rose eagerly to the prospect. On the day on which he assumed command, July 27, he wrote to his wife:

    I find myself in a new and strange position here; President, cabinet, General Scott, and all, deferring to me. By some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land.

    And three days later:

    They give me my way in everything, full swing and unbounded confidence . . W. ho would have thought, when we were married, that I should so soon be called upon to save my country?

    And still a few days afterward:

    I shall carry this thing en grande, and crush the rebels in one campaign.

    From the giddy elevation to which such an imaginary achievement raised his dreams, there was but one higher step, and his colossal egotism immediately mounted to occupy it. On August 9, just two weeks after his arrival in Washington, he wrote: , “I would cheerfully take the dictatorship and agree to lay down my life when the country is saved ;” while in the same letter he adds, with the most naive unconsciousness of his hallucination: “I am not spoiled by my unexpected new position.”

    Coming to the national capital in the hour of deepest public depression over the Bull Run defeat, Mc-Clellan was welcomed by the President, the cabinet, and General Scott with sincere friendship, by Congress with a hopeful eagerness, by the people with enthusiasm, and by Washington society with adulation. Externally he seemed to justify such a greeting. He was young, handsome, accomplished, genial and winning in conversation and manner. He at once manifested [251] great industry and quick decision, and speedily exhibited a degree of ability in army organization which was not equaled by any officer during the Civil War. Under his eye the stream of the new three years regiments pouring into the city went to their camps, fell into brigades and divisions, were supplied with equipments, horses, and batteries, and underwent the routine of drill, tactics, and reviews, which, without the least apparent noise or friction, in three months made the Army of the Potomac a perfect fighting machine of over one hundred and fifty thousand men and more than two hundred guns.

    Recognizing his ability in this work, the government had indeed given him its full confidence, and permitted him to exercise almost unbounded authority; which he fully utilized in favoring his personal friends, and drawing to himself the best resources of the whole country in arms, supplies, and officers of education and experience. For a while his outward demeanor indicated respect and gratitude for the promotion and liberal favors bestowed upon him. But his phenomenal rise was fatal to his usefulness. The dream that he was to be the sole savior of his country, announced confidentially to his wife just two weeks after his arrival in Washington, never again left him so long as he continued in command. Coupled with this dazzling vision, however, was soon developed the tormenting twofold hallucination: first, that everybody was conspiring to thwart him; and, second, that the enemy had from double to quadruple numbers to defeat him.

    For the first month he could not sleep for the nightmare that Beauregard's demoralized army had by a sudden bound from Manassas seized the city of Washington. He immediately began a quarrel with General Scott, which, by the first of November, drove the old [252] hero into retirement and out of his pathway. The cabinet members who, wittingly or unwittingly, had encouraged him in this he some weeks later stigmatized as a set of geese. Seeing that President Lincoln was kind and unassuming in discussing military questions, McClellan quickly contracted the habit of expressing contempt for him in his confidential letters; and the feeling rapidly grew until it reached a mark of open disrespect. The same trait manifested itself in his making exclusive confidants of only two or three of his subordinate generals, and ignoring the counsel of all the others; and when, later on, Congress appointed a standing committee of leading senators and representatives to examine into the conduct of the war, he placed himself in a similar attitude respecting their inquiry and advice.

    McClellan's activity and judgment as an army organizer naturally created great hopes that he would be equally efficient as a commander in the field. But these hopes were grievously disappointed. To his first great defect of estimating himself as the sole savior of the country, must at once be added the second, of his utter inability to form any reasonable judgment of the strength of the enemy in his front. On September 8, when the Confederate army at Manassas numbered forty-one thousand, he rated it at one hundred and thirty thousand. By the end of October that estimate had risen to one hundred and fifty thousand, to meet which he asked that his own force should be raised to an aggregate of two hundred and forty thousand, with a total of effectives of two hundred and eight thousand, and four hundred and eighty-eight guns. He suggested that to gather this force all other points should be left on the defensive; that the Army of the Potomac held the fate of the country in its hands; that [253] the advance should not be postponed beyond November 25; and that a single will should direct the plan of accomplishing a crushing defeat of the rebel army at Manassas.

    On the first of November the President, yielding at last to General Scott's urgent solicitation, issued the orders placing him on the retired list, and in his stead appointing General McClellan to the command of all the armies. The administration indulged the expectation that at last “The young Napoleon,” as the newspapers often called him, would take advantage of the fine autumn weather, and, by a bold move with his single will and his immense force, outnumbering the enemy nearly four to one, would redeem his promise to crush the army at Manassas and “save the country.” But the November days came and went, as the October days had come and gone. McClellan and his brilliant staff galloped unceasingly from camp to camp, and review followed review, while autumn imperceptibly gave place to the cold and storms of winter; and still there was no sign of forward movement.

    Under his own growing impatience, as well as that of the public, the President, about the first of December, inquired pointedly, in a memorandum suggesting a plan of campaign, how long it would require to actually get in motion. McClellan answered: “By December 15, --probably 25” ; and put aside the President's suggestion by explaining: “I have now my mind actively turned toward another plan of campaign that I do not think at all anticipated by the enemy, nor by many of our own people.”

    December 25 came, as November 25 had come, and still there was no plan, no preparation, no movement. Then McClellan fell seriously ill. By a spontaneous and most natural impulse, the soldiers of the various [254] camps began the erection of huts to shelter them from snow and storm. In a few weeks the Army of the Potomac was practically, if not by order, in winter quarters; and day after day the monotonous telegraphic phrase “All quiet on the Potomac” was read from Northern newspapers in Northern homes, until by mere iteration it degenerated from an expression of deep disappointment to a note of sarcastic criticism.

    While so unsatisfactory a condition of affairs existed in the first great military field east of the Alleghanies, the outlook was quite as unpromising both in the second-between the Alleghanies and the Mississippi --and in the third-west of the Mississippi. When the Confederates, about September I, 1861, invaded Kentucky, they stationed General Pillow at the strongly fortified town of Columbus on the Mississippi River, with about six thousand men; General Buckner at Bowling Green, on the railroad north of Nashville, with five thousand; and General Zollicoffer, with six regiments, in eastern Kentucky, fronting Cumberland Gap. Up to that time there were no Union troops in Kentucky, except a few regiments of Home Guards. Now, however, the State legislature called for active help; and General Anderson, exercising nominal command from Cincinnati, sent Brigadier-General Sherman to Nashville to confront Buckner, and Brigadier-General Thomas to Camp Dick Robinson, to confront Zollicoffer.

    Neither side was as yet in a condition of force and preparation to take the aggressive. When, a month later, Anderson, on account of ill health turned over the command to Sherman, the latter had gathered only about eighteen thousand men, and was greatly discouraged by the task of defending three hundred miles of frontier with that small force. In an interview with [255] Secretary of War Cameron, who called upon him on his return from Fremont's camp, about the middle of October, he strongly urged that he needed for immediate defense sixty thousand, and for ultimate offense “two hundred thousand before we were done.” “Great God!” exclaimed Cameron, “where are they to come from?” Both Sherman's demand and Cameron's answer were a pertinent comment on McClellan's policy of collecting the whole military strength of the country at Washington to fight the one great battle for which he could never get ready.

    Sherman was so distressed by the seeming magnitude of his burden that he soon asked to be relieved; and when Brigadier-General Buell was sent to succeed him in command of that part of Kentucky lying east of the Cumberland River, it was the expectation of the President that he would devote his main attention and energy to the accomplishment of a specific object which Mr. Lincoln had very much at heart.

    Ever since the days in June, when President Lincoln had presided over the council of war which discussed and decided upon the Bull Run campaign, he had devoted every spare moment of his time to the study of such military books and leading principles of the art of war as would aid him in solving questions that must necessarily come to himself for final decision. His acute perceptions, retentive memory, and unusual power of logic enabled him to make rapid progress in the acquisition of the fixed and accepted rules on which military writers agree. In this, as in other sciences, the main difficulty, of course, lies in applying fixed theories to variable conditions. When, however, we remember that at the outbreak of hostilities all the great commanders of the Civil War had experience only as captains and lieutenants, it is not strange [256] that in speculative military problems the President's mature reasoning powers should have gained almost as rapidly by observation and criticism as theirs by practice and experiment. The mastery he attained of the difficult art, and how intuitively correct was his grasp of military situations, has been attested since in the enthusiastic admiration of brilliant technical students, amply fitted by training and intellect to express an opinion, whose comment does not fall short of declaring Mr. Lincoln “the ablest strategist of the war.”

    The President had early discerned what must become the dominating and decisive lines of advance in gaining and holding military control of the Southern States. Only two days after the battle of Bull Run, he had written a memorandum suggesting three principal objects for the army when reorganized: First, to gather a force to menace Richmond; second, a movement from Cincinnati upon Cumberland Gap and East Tennessee; third, an expedition from Cairo against Memphis. In his eyes, the second of these objectives never lost its importance; and it was in fact substantially adopted by indirection and by necessity in the closing periods of the war. The eastern third of the State of Tennessee remained from the first stubbornly and devotedly loyal to the Union. At an election on June 8, 1861, the people of twenty-nine counties, by more than two to one, voted against joining the Confederacy; and the most rigorous military repression by the orders of Jefferson Davis and Governor Harris was necessary to prevent a general uprising against the rebellion.

    The sympathy of the President, even more than that of the whole North, went out warmly to these unfortunate Tennesseeans, and he desired to convert their mountain fastnesses into an impregnable patriotic [257] stronghold. Had his advice been followed, it would have completely severed railroad communication, by way of the Shenandoah valley, Knoxville, and Chattanooga, between Virginia and the Gulf States, accomplishing in the winter of 1861 what was not attained until two years later. Mr. Lincoln urged this in a second memorandum, made late in September; and seeing that the principal objection to it lay in the long and difficult line of land transportation, his message to Congress of December 3, 1861, recommended, as a military measure, the construction of a railroad to connect Cincinnati, by way of Lexington, Kentucky, with that mountain region.

    A few days after the message, he personally went to the President's room in the Capitol building, and calling around him a number of leading senators and representatives, and pointing out on a map before them the East Tennessee region, said to them in substance:

    I am thoroughly convinced that the closing struggle of the war will occur somewhere in this mountain country. By our superior numbers and strength we will everywhere drive the rebel armies back from the level districts lying along the coast, from those lying south of the Ohio River, and from those lying east of the Mississippi River. Yielding to our superior force, they will gradually retreat to the more defensible mountain districts, and make their final stand in that part of the South where the seven States of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia come together. The population there is overwhelmingly and devotedly loyal to the Union. The despatches from Brigadier-General Thomas of October 28 and November 5 show that, with four additional good regiments, he is willing to undertake the campaign and is confident [258] he can take immediate possession. Once established, the people will rally to his support, and by building a railroad, over which to forward him regular supplies and needed reinforcements from time to time, we can hold it against all attempts to dislodge us, and at the same time menace the enemy in any one of the States I have named.

    While his hearers listened with interest, it was evident that their minds were still full of the prospect of a great battle in Virginia, the capture of Richmond, and an early suppression of the rebellion. Railroad building appeared to them altogether too slow an operation of war. To show how sagacious was the President's advice, we may anticipate by recalling that in the following summer General Buell spent as much time, money, and military strength in his attempted march from Corinth to East Tennessee as would have amply sufficed to build the line from Lexington to Knoxville recommended by Mr. Lincoln--the general's effort resulting only in his being driven back to Louisville; that in 1863, Burnside, under greater difficulties, made the march and successfully held Knoxville, even without a railroad, which Thomas with a few regiments could have accomplished in 1861; and that in the final collapse of the rebellion, in the spring of 1865, the beaten armies of both Johnston and Lee attempted to retreat for a last stand to this same mountain region which Mr. Lincoln pointed out in December, 1861.

    Though the President received no encouragement from senators and representatives in his plan to take possession of East Tennessee, that object was specially enjoined in the instructions to General Buell when he was sent to command in Kentucky.

    “It so happens that a large majority of the inhabitants of eastern Tennessee are in favor of the Union; [259] it therefore seems proper that you should remain on the defensive on the line from Louisville to Nashville, while you throw the mass of your forces by rapid marches by Cumberland Gap or Walker's Gap on Knoxville, in order to occupy the railroad at that point, and thus enable the loyal citizens of eastern Tennessee to rise, while you at the same time cut off the railway communication between eastern Virginia and the Mississippi.”

    Three times within the same month McClellan repeated this injunction to Buell with additional emphasis. Senator Andrew Johnson and Representative Horace Maynard telegraphed him from Washington:

    Our people are oppressed and pursued as beasts of the forest; the government must come to their relief.

    Buell replied, keeping the word of promise to the ear, but, with his ambition fixed on a different campaign, gradually but doggedly broke it to the hope. When, a month later, he acknowledged that his preparations and intent were to move against Nashville, the President wrote him:

    Of the two, I would rather have a point on the railroad south of Cumberland Gap than Nashville. First, because it cuts a great artery of the enemy's communication, which Nashville does not; and. secondly, because it is in the midst of loyal people, who would rally around it, while Nashville is not. . . . But my distress is that our friends in East Tennessee are being hanged and driven to despair, and even now, I fear, are thinking of taking rebel arms for the sake of personal protection. In this we lose the most valuable stake we have in the South.

    McClellan's comment amounted to a severe censure, and this was quickly followed by an almost positive [260] command to “advance on eastern Tennessee at once.” Again Buell promised compliance, only, however, again to report in a few weeks his conviction “that an advance into East Tennessee is impracticable at this time on any scale which would be sufficient.” It is difficult to speculate upon the advantages lost by this unwillingness of a commander to obey instructions. To say nothing of the strategical value of East Tennessee to the Union, the fidelity of its people is shown in the reports sent to the Confederate government that “the whole country is now in a state of rebellion” ; that “civil war has broken out in East Tennessee” ; and that “they look for the reestablishment of the Federal authority in the South with as much confidence as the Jews look for the coming of the Messiah.”

    Henry W. Halleck, born in 1815, graduated from West Point in 1839, who, after distinguished service in the Mexican war, had been brevetted captain of Engineers, but soon afterward resigned from the army to pursue the practice of law in San Francisco, was, perhaps, the best professionally equipped officer among the number of those called by General Scott in the summer of 1861 to assume important command in the Union army. It is probable that Scott intended he should succeed himself as general-in-chief; but when he reached Washington the autumn was already late, and because of Fremont's conspicuous failure it seemed necessary to send Halleck to the Department of the Missouri, which, as reconstituted, was made to include, in addition to several northwestern States, Missouri and Arkansas, and so much of Kentucky as lay west of the Cumberland River. This change of department lines indicates the beginning of what soon became a dominant feature of military operations; namely, that instead of the vast regions lying west of the Mississippi, [261] the great river itself, and the country lying immediately adjacent to it on either side, became the third principal field of strategy and action, under the necessity of opening and holding it as a great military and commercial highway.

    While the intention of the government to open the Mississippi River by a powerful expedition received additional emphasis through Halleck's appointment, that general found no immediate means adequate to the task when he assumed command at St. Louis. Fremont's regime had left the whole department in the most deplorable confusion. Halleck reported that he had no army, but, rather, a military rabble to command, and for some weeks devoted himself with energy and success to bringing order out of the chaos left him by his predecessor. A large element of his difficulty lay in the fact that the population of the whole State was tainted with disloyalty to a degree which rendered Missouri less a factor in the larger questions of general army operations, than from the beginning to the end of the war a local district of bitter and relentless factional hatred and guerrilla or, as the term was constantly employed, “bushwhacking” warfare, intensified and kept alive by annual roving Confederate incursions from Arkansas and the Indian Territory in desultory summer campaigns.

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