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Chapter 21.

  • McClellan's illness
  • -- Lincoln Consults McDowell and Franklin -- President's plan against Manassas -- McClellan's plan against Richmond -- Cameron and Stanton -- President's War order no. I -- Lincoln's questions to McClellan -- news from the West -- death of Willie Lincoln -- the Harper's Ferry Fiasco -- President's War order no. 3 -- the news from Hampton Roads -- Manassas evacuated -- movement to the Peninsula -- Yorktown -- the Peninsula campaign -- seven days battles -- retreat to Harrison's Landing
    We have seen how the express orders of President Lincoln in the early days of January, 1862, stirred the Western commanders to the beginning of active movements that brought about an important series of victories during the first half of the year. The results of his determination to break a similar military stagnation in the East need now to be related.

    The gloomy outlook at the beginning of the year has already been mentioned. Finding on January 10 that General McClellan was still ill and unable to see him, he called Generals McDowell and Franklin into conference with himself, Seward, Chase, and the Assistant Secretary of War; and, explaining to them his dissatisfaction and distress at existing conditions, said to them that “if something were not soon done, the bottom would be out of the whole affair; and if General McClellan did not want to use the army, he would like [289] to borrow it, provided he could see how it could be made to do something.”

    The two generals, differing on some other points, agreed, however, in a memorandum prepared next clay at the President's request, that a direct movement against the Confederate army at Manassas was preferable to a movement by water against Richmond; that preparations for the former could be made in a week, while the latter would require a month or six weeks. Similar discussions were held on the eleventh and twelfth, and finally, on January 13, by which date General McClellan had sufficiently recovered to be present. McClellan took no pains to hide his displeasure at the proceedings, and ventured no explanation when the President asked what and when anything could be done. Chase repeated the direct interrogatory to Mc-Clellan himself, inquiring what he intended doing with his army, and when he intended doing it. McClellan stated his unwillingness to develop his plans, but said he would tell them if he was ordered to do so. The President then asked him if he had in his own mind any particular time fixed when a movement could be commenced. McClellan replied that he had. “Then,” rejoined the President, “I will adjourn this meeting.”

    While these conferences were going on, a change occurred in the President's cabinet; Secretary of War Cameron, who had repeatedly expressed a desire to be relieved from the onerous duties of the War Department, was made minister to Russia and Edwin M. Stanton appointed to succeed him. Stanton had been Attorney-General during the last months of President Buchanan's administration, and, though a lifelong Democrat, had freely conferred and cooperated with Republican leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives in thwarting secession schemes. He was [290] a lawyer of ability and experience, and, possessing organizing qualities of a high degree combined with a strong will and great physical endurance, gave his administration of the War Department a record for efficiency which it will be difficult for any future minister to equal; and for which service his few mistakes and subordinate faults of character will be readily forgotten. In his new- functions, Stanton enthusiastically seconded the President's efforts to rouse the Army of the Potomac to speedy and vigorous action.

    In his famous report, McClellan states that very soon after Stanton became Secretary of War he explained verbally to the latter his plan of a campaign against Richmond by way of the lower Chesapeake Bay, and at Stanton's direction also explained it to the President. It is not strange that neither the President nor the new Secretary approved it. The reasons which then existed against it in theory, and were afterward demonstrated in practice, are altogether too evident. As this first plan was never reduced to writing, it may be fairly inferred that it was one of those mere suggestions which, like all that had gone before, would serve only to postpone action.

    The patience of the President was at length so far exhausted that on January 27 he wrote his General War Order No. I, which directed “that the 22d day of February, 1862, be the day for a general movement of all the land and naval forces of the United States against the insurgent forces,” and that the Secretaries of War and of the Navy, the general-in-chief, and all other commanders and subordinates of land and naval forces “will severally be held to their strict and full responsibilities for prompt execution of this order.” To leave no doubt of his intention that the Army of the Potomac should make a beginning, the President, [291] four days later, issued his Special War Order No. I, directing that after providing safely for the defense of Washington, it should move against the Confederate army at Manassas Junction, on or before the date announced.

    As McClellan had been allowed to have his way almost without question for six months past, it was, perhaps, as much through mere habit of opposition as from any intelligent decision in his own mind that he again requested permission to present his objections to the President's plan. Mr. Lincoln, thereupon, to bring the discussion to a practical point, wrote him the following list of queries on February 3:

    My Dear Sir: You and I have distinct and different plans for a movement of the Army of the Potomac-yours to be down the Chesapeake, up the Rappahannock, to Urbana, and across land to the terminus of the railroad On the York River; mine, to move directly to a point on the railroad southwest of Manassas.

    If you will give me satisfactory answers to the following questions, I shall gladly yield my plan to yours.

    First. Does not your plan involve a greatly larger expenditure of time and money than mine?

    Second. Wherein is a victory more certain by your plan than mine?

    Third. Wherein is a victory more valuable by your plan than mine?

    Fourth. In fact, would it not be less valuable in this, that it would break no great line of the enemy's communications, while mine would?

    Fifth. In case of disaster, would not a retreat be more difficult by your plan than mine?

    Instead of specifically answering the President's concise [292] interrogatories, McClellan, on the following day, presented to the Secretary of War a long letter, reciting in much detail his statement of what he had done since coming to Washington, and giving a rambling outline of what he thought might be accomplished in the future prosecution of the war. His reasoning in favor of an advance by Chesapeake Bay upon Richmond, instead of against Manassas Junction, rests principally upon the assumption that at Manassas the enemy is prepared to resist, while at Richmond there are no preparations; that to win Manassas would give us only the field of battle and the moral effect of a victory, while to win Richmond would give us the rebel capital with its communications and supplies; that at Manassas we would fight on a field chosen by the enemy, while at Richmond we would fight on one chosen by ourselves. If as a preliminary hypothesis these comparisons looked plausible, succeeding events quickly exposed their fallacy.

    The President, in his anxious studies and exhaustive discussion with military experts in the recent conferences, fully comprehended that under McClellan's labored strategical theories lay a fundamental error. It was not the capture of a place, but the destruction of the rebel armies that was needed to subdue the rebellion. But Mr. Lincoln also saw the fearful responsibility he would be taking upon himself if he forced McClellan to fight against his own judgment and protest, even though that judgment was incorrect. The whole subject, therefore, underwent a new and yet more elaborate investigation. The delay which this rendered necessary was soon greatly lengthened by two other causes. It was about this time that the telegraph brought news from the West of the surrender of Fort Henry, February 6, the investment of Fort [293] Donelson on the thirteenth, and its surrender on the sixteenth, incidents which absorbed the constant attention of the President and the Secretary of War. Almost simultaneously, a heavy domestic sorrow fell upon Mr. Lincoln in the serious illness of his son Willie, an interesting and most promising lad of twelve, and his death in the White House on February 20.

    When February 22 came, while there was plainly no full compliance with the President's War Order No. I, there was, nevertheless, such promise of a beginning, even at Washington, as justified reasonable expectation. The authorities looked almost hourly for the announcement of two preliminary movements which had been preparing for many days: one, to attack rebel batteries on the Virginia shore of the Potomac; the other to throw bridges-one of pontoons, the second a permanent bridge of canal-boats-across the river at Harper's Ferry, and an advance by Banks's division on Winchester to protect the opening of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad and reestablish transportation to and from the West over that important route.

    On the evening of February 27, Secretary Stanton came to the President, and, after locking the door to prevent interruption, opened and read two despatches from McClellan, who had gone personally to superintend the crossing. The first despatch from the general described the fine spirits of the troops, and the splendid throwing of the pontoon bridge by Captain Duane and his three lieutenants, for whom he at once recommended brevets, and the immediate crossing of eighty-five hundred infantry. This despatch was dated at ten o'clock the previous night. “The next is not so good,” remarked the Secretary of War. It stated that the lift lock was too small to permit the canal-boats to enter the river, so that it was impossible to [294] construct the permanent bridge. He would therefore be obliged to fall back upon the safe and slow plan of merely covering the reconstruction of the railroad, which would be tedious and make it impossible to seize Winchester.

    “What does this mean?” asked the President, in amazement.

    “It means,” said the Secretary of War, “that it is a damned fizzle. It means that he does n't intend to do anything.”

    The President's indignation was intense; and when, a little later, General Marcy, McClellan's father-in-law and chief of staff, came in, Lincoln's criticism of the affair was in sharper language than was his usual habit.

    “Why, in the name of common sense,” said he, excitedly, “could n't the general have known whether canal-boats would go through that lock before he spent a million dollars getting them there? I am almost despairing at these results. Everything seems to fail. The impression is daily gaining ground that the general does not intend to do anything. By a failure like this we lose all the prestige gained by the capture of Fort Donelson.”

    The prediction of the Secretary of War proved correct. That same night, McClellan revoked Hooker's authority to cross the lower Potomac and demolish the rebel batteries about the Occoquan River. It was doubtless this Harper's Ferry incident which finally convinced the President that he could no longer leave McClellan intrusted with the sole and unrestricted exercise of military affairs. Yet that general had shown such decided ability in certain lines of his profession, and had plainly in so large a degree won the confidence of the Army of the Potomac itself, that he [295] did not wish entirely to lose the benefit of his services. He still hoped that, once actively started in the field, he might yet develop valuable qualities of leadership. He had substantially decided to let him have his own way in his proposed campaign against Richmond by water, and orders to assemble the necessary vessels had been given before the Harper's Ferry failure was known.

    Early on the morning of March 8, the President made one more effort to convert McClellan to a direct movement against Manassas, but without success. On the contrary, the general convened twelve of his division commanders in a council, who voted eight to four for the water route. This finally decided the question in the President's mind, but he carefully qualified the decision by two additional war orders of his own, written without consultation. President's General War Order No. 2 directed that the Army of the Potomac should be immediately organized into four army corps, to be respectively commanded by McDowell, Sumner, Heintzelman, and Keyes, and a fifth under Banks. It is noteworthy that the first three of these had always earnestly advocated the Manassas movement. President's General War Order No. 3 directed, in substance: First. An immediate effort to capture the Potomac batteries. Second. That until that was accomplished not more than two army corps should be started on the Chesapeake campaign toward Richmond. Third. That any Chesapeake movement should begin in ten days; and-Fourth. That no such movement should be ordered without leaving Washington entirely secure.

    Even while the President was completing the drafting and copying of these important orders, events were transpiring which once more put a new face upon the [296] proposed campaign against Richmond. During the forenoon of the next day, March 9, a despatch was received from Fortress Monroe, reporting the appearance of the rebel ironclad Merrimac, and the havoc she had wrought the previous afternoon — the Cumberland sunk, the Congress surrendered and burned, the Minnesota aground and about to be attacked. There was a quick gathering of officials at the Executive Mansion-Secretaries Stanton, Seward, Welles, Generals McClellan, Meigs, Totten, Commodore Smith, and Captain Dahlgren-and a scene of excitement ensued, unequaled by any other in the President's office during the war. Stanton walked up and down like a caged lion, and eager discussion animated cabinet and military officers. Two other despatches soon came, one from the captain of a vessel at Baltimore, who had left Fortress Monroe on the evening of the eighth, and a copy of a telegram to the “New York Tribune,” giving more details.

    President Lincoln was the coolest man in the whole gathering, carefully analyzing the language of the telegrams, to give their somewhat confused statements intelligible coherence. Wild suggestions flew from speaker to speaker about possible danger to be apprehended from the new marine terror-whether she might not be able to go to New York or Philadelphia and levy tribute, to Baltimore or Annapolis to destroy the transports gathered for McClellan's movement, or even to come up the Potomac and burn Washington; and all sorts of prudential measures and safeguards were proposed.

    In the afternoon, however, apprehension was greatly quieted. That very day a cable was laid across the bay, giving direct telegraphic communication with Fortress Monroe, and Captain Fox, who happened to [297] be on the spot, concisely reported at about 4 P. M. the dramatic sequel — the timely arrival of the Monitor, the interesting naval battle between the two ironclads, and that at noon the Merrimac had withdrawn from the conflict, and with her three small consorts steamed back into Elizabeth River.

    Scarcely had the excitement over the Monitor and Merrimac news begun to subside, when, on the same afternoon, a new surprise burst upon the military authorities in a report that the whole Confederate army had evacuated its stronghold at Manassas and the batteries on the Potomac, and had retired southward to a new line behind the Rappahannock. General Mc-Clellan hastened across the-river, and, finding the news to be correct, issued orders during the night for a general movement of the army next morning to the vacated rebel camps. The march was promptly accomplished, notwithstanding the bad roads, and the troops had the meager satisfaction of hoisting the Union flag over the deserted rebel earthworks.

    For two weeks the enemy had been preparing for this retreat; and, beginning their evacuation on the seventh, their whole retrograde movement was completed by March II, by which date they were secure in their new line of defense, “prepared for such an emergency — the south bank of the Rappahannock strengthened by field-works, and provided with a depot of food,” writes General Johnston. No further comment is needed to show McClellan's utter incapacity or neglect, than that for full two months he had commanded an army of one hundred and ninety thousand, present for duty, within two days march of the forty-seven thousand Confederates, present for duty, whom he thus permitted to march away to their new strongholds without a gun fired or even a meditated attack. [298]

    General McClellan had not only lost the chance of an easy and brilliant victory near Washington, but also the possibility of his favorite plan to move by water to Urbana on the lower Rappahannock, and from there by a land march via West Point toward Richmond. On that route the enemy was now in his way. He therefore, on March 13, hastily called a council of his corps commanders, who decided that under the new conditions it would be best to proceed by water to Fortress Monroe, and from there move up the Peninsula toward Richmond. To this new plan, adopted in the stress of excitement and haste, the President answered through the Secretary of War on the same day:

    First. Leave such force at Manassas Junction as shall make it entirely certain that the enemy shall not repossess himself of that position and line of communication.

    Second. Leave Washington entirely secure.

    Third. Move the remainder of the force down the Potomac, choosing a new base at Fort Monroe, or anywhere between here and there; or, at all events, move such remainder of the army at once in pursuit of the enemy by some route.

    Two days before, the President had also announced a step which he had doubtless had in contemplation for many days, if not many weeks, namely, that-

    Major-General McClellan having personally taken the field at the head of the Army of the Potomac, until otherwise ordered, he is relieved from the command of the other military departments, he retaining command of the Department of the Potomac.”

    This order of March I included also the already mentioned consolidation of the western departments under Halleck; and out of the region lying between Halleck's command and McClellan's command it created [299] the Mountain Department, the command of which he gave to General Fremont, whose reinstatement had been loudly clamored for by many prominent and enthusiastic followers.

    As the preparations for a movement by water had been in progress since February 27, there was little delay in starting the Army of the Potomac on its new campaign. The troops began their embarkation on March 17, and by April 5 over one hundred thousand men, with all their material of war, had been transported to Fortress Monroe, where General McClellan himself arrived on the second of the month, and issued orders to begin his march on the fourth.

    Unfortunately, right at the outset of this new campaign, General McClellan's incapacity and want of candor once more became sharply evident. In the plan formulated by the four corps commanders, and approved by himself, as well as emphatically repeated by the President's instructions, was the essential requirement that Washington should be left entirely secure. Learning that the general had neglected this positive injunction, the President ordered McDowell's corps to remain for the protection of the capital; and when the general complained of this, Mr. Lincoln wrote him on April 9:

    After you left I ascertained that less than twenty thousand unorganized men, without a single field-battery, were all you designed to be left for the defense of Washington and Manassas Junction; and part of this, even, was to go to General Hooker's old position. General Banks's corps, once designed for Manassas Junction, was divided and tied up on the line of Winchester and Strasburg, and could not leave it without again exposing the upper Potomac and the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. This presented (or would present [300] when McDowell and Sumner should be gone) a great temptation to the enemy to turn back from the Rappahannock and sack Washington. My explicit order that Washington should, by the judgment of all the commanders of corps, be left entirely secure, had been neglected. It was precisely this that drove me to detain McDowell.

    I do not forget that I was satisfied with your arrangement to leave Banks at Manassas Junction; but when that arrangement was broken up and nothing was substituted for it, of course I was not satisfied. I was constrained to substitute something for it myself.

    And now allow me to ask, do you really think I should permit the line from Richmond via Manassas Junction to this city to be entirely open, except what resistance could be presented by less than twenty thousand unorganized troops? This is a question which the country will not allow me to evade ...

    By delay, the enemy will relatively gain upon you — that is, he will gain faster by fortifications and reinforcements than you can by reinforcements alone. And once more let me tell you it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow. I am powerless to help this. You will do me the justice to remember I always insisted that going down the bay in search of a field, instead of fighting at or near Manassas, was only shifting and not surmounting a difficulty; that we would find the same enemy and the same or equal intrenchments at either place. The country will not fail to note-is noting now — that the present hesitation to move upon an intrenched enemy is but the story of Manassas repeated.

    General McClellan's expectations in coming to the Peninsula, first, that he would find few or no rebel intrenchments, and, second, that he would be able to [301] make rapid movements, at once signally failed. On the afternoon of the second day's march he came to the first line of the enemy's defenses, heavy fortifications at Yorktown on the York River, and a strong line of intrenchments and dams flooding the Warwick River, extending to an impassable inlet from James River. But the situation was not yet desperate. Magruder, the Confederate commander, had only eleven thousand men to defend Yorktown and thethirteen-mile line of the Warwick. McClellan, on the contrary, had fifty thousand at hand, and as many more within call, with which to break the Confederate line and continue his proposed “rapid movements.” But now, without any adequate reconnaissance or other vigorous effort, he at once gave up his thoughts of rapid movement, one of the main advantages he had always claimed for the water route, and adopted the slow expedient of a siege of Yorktown. Not alone was his original plan of campaign demonstrated to be faulty, but by this change in the method of its execution it became fatal.

    It would be weary and exasperating to recount in detail the remaining principal episodes of McClellan's operations to gain possession of the Confederate capital. The whole campaign is a record of hesitation, delay, and mistakes in the chief command, brilliantly relieved by the heroic fighting and endurance of the troops and subordinate officers, gathering honor out of defeat, and shedding the luster of renown over a result of barren failure. McClellan wasted a month raising siege-works to bombard Yorktown, when he. might have turned the place by two or three days operations with his superior numbers of four to one. By his failure to give instructions after Yorktown was evacuated, he allowed a single division of his advanceguard [302] to be beaten back at Williamsburg, when thirty thousand of their comrades were within reach, but without orders. He wrote to the President that he would have to fight double numbers intrenched, when his own army was actually twice as strong as that of his antagonist. Placing his army astride the Chickahominy, he afforded that antagonist, General Johnston, the opportunity, at a sudden rise of the river, to fall on one portion of his divided forces at Fair Oaks with overwhelming numbers. Finally, when he was within four miles of Richmond and was attacked by General Lee, he began a retreat to the James River, and after his corps commanders held the attacking enemy at bay by a successful battle on each of six successive days, he day after day gave up each field won or held by the valor and blood of his heroic soldiers. On July 1, the collected Union army made a stand at the battle of Malvern Hill, inflicting a defeat on the enemy which practically shattered the Confederate army, and in the course of a week caused it to retire within the fortifications of Richmond. During all this magnificent fighting, however, McClellan was oppressed by the apprehension of impending defeat; and even after the brilliant victory of Malvern Hill, continued his retreat to Harrison's Landing, where the Union gunboats on the James River assured him of safety and supplies.

    It must be borne in mind that this Peninsula campaign, from the landing at Fortress Monroe to the battle at Malvern Hill, occupied three full months, and that during the first half of that period the government, yielding to McClellan's constant fault-finding and clamor for reinforcements, sent him forty thousand additional men; also that in the opinion of competent critics, both Union and Confederate, he had, after the [303] battle of Fair Oaks, and twice during the seven days battles, a brilliant opportunity to take advantage of Confederate mistakes, and by a vigorous offensive to capture Richmond. But constitutional indecision unfitted him to seize the fleeting chances of war. His hope of victory was always overawed by his fear of defeat. While he commanded during a large part of the campaign double, and always superior, numbers to the enemy, his imagination led him continually to double their strength in his reports. This delusion so wrought upon him that on the night of June 27 he sent the Secretary of War an almost despairing and insubordinate despatch, containing these inexcusable phrases:

    Had I twenty thousand or even ten thousand fresh troops to use to-morrow, I could take Richmond; but I have not a man in reserve, and shall be glad to cover my retreat and save the material and personnel of the army . . . If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.

    Under almost any other ruler such language would have been quickly followed by trial and dismissal, if not by much severer punishment. But while Mr. Lincoln was shocked by McClellan's disrespect, he was yet more startled by the implied portent of the despatch. It indicated a loss of confidence and a perturbation of mind which rendered possible even a surrender of the whole army. The President, therefore, with his habitual freedom from passion, merely sent an unmoved and kind reply:

    Save your. army at all events. Will send reinforcements as fast as we can. Of course they cannot reach you to-day, to-morrow, or next day. I have not [304] said you were ungenerous for saying you needed reinforcements. I thought you were ungenerous in assuming that I did not send them as fast as I could. I feel any misfortune to you and your army quite as keenly as you feel it yourself. If you have had a drawn battle or a repulse, it is the price we pay for the enemy not being in Washington.

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