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Chapter 13: Patterson's campaign.

Under the President's three months call the State of Pennsylvania was required to furnish sixteen regiments. This entitled her to two major-generals, and one of these, appointed by the Governor, was Robert Patterson. He had served with credit as a lieutenant and captain in the war of 1812, and as a major-general in the Mexican War; General Scott regarded him as “an excellent second in command;” his selection seemed, therefore, natural and proper. Notwithstanding he had now reached the age of sixty-nine, he entered at once with alacrity on the task of organizing the three months volunteers in the city of Philadelphia. After the Baltimore riot and the Maryland uprising, it became necessary to create the military “Department of Pennsylvania,” comprising Pennsylvania, Delaware, and part of Maryland, and Patterson was assigned to its command, with directions to co-operate in restoring Union authority in Maryland.

Sundry joint military movements projected to accomplish this object, were happily soon rendered unnecessary by the rapid accumulation of troops at Washington, Butler's occupation of Baltimore, and the sweeping political reaction in Maryland. But, meanwhile, the rebels had established a strong camp at Harper's Ferry, and Patterson's close attention was thus very naturally transferred to that point. The [156] three months troops could not be used in distant undertakings. Here, however, was a worthy enterprise at the very threshold of Pennsylvania, which, successfully prosecuted, would protect Maryland, relieve the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, encourage Virginia Unionists, and recover lost prestige. Patriotic pride, political security, and military advantage seemed, to the minds of both Patterson and Scott, to present combined reasons for an early recapture of Harper's Ferry.

For this purpose, Patterson, about the first of June, concentrated his available troops at Chambersburg, Pa., and on the third of that month issued an address to the regiments under his command, announcing that “you will soon meet the insurgents.” Orders from General Scott, however, held him back until strong reinforcements could be sent, and an important diversion organized to aid him; and while thus assisting, the General also admonished him to every prudence, reminding him that his expedition was “well projected, and that success in it would be an important step in the war; but, there must be no reverse.”

With the increase of his force, and a closer survey of his task, Patterson's own estimate of his enterprise grew in magnitude. “Remember, I beseech you,” he wrote to the Secretary of War, under date of June 10th, “that Harper's Ferry is (as I have said from the first) the place where the first great battle will be fought, and the result will be decisive of the future. The insurgents are strongly intrenched, have an immense number of guns, and will contest every inch of ground. .... The importance of a victory at Harper's Ferry cannot be estimated. I cannot sleep for thinking about it . I beseech you, therefore, by our ancient friendship, give me the means of success. You have the means; place them at my disposal, and shoot me if I do not use them to advantage.” [157]

With such professions of a fighting spirit, the Administration looked with some confidence for an offensive campaign, and sent its best regiments and officers to take part in it. Both General Scott and General Patterson were, however, deceived in their expectation that the rebels meant to risk a battle at that point. With a total force of something over seventeen regiments, Patterson at length began his forward movement via Hagerstown and Williamsport. But so leisurely were his preparations and advance, that the rebels had every knowledge of his coming; and when, on June 15th, he finally reached the Potomac River, he found, instead of the “desperate resistance” which had been looked for, that Johnston had hastily evacuated Harper's Ferry after destroying the railroad bridge and spiking his heavy guns, and had retreated upon Winchester.

Patterson and his officers were greatly mystified by this withdrawal of the enemy. “I believe it is designed for a decoy,” wrote Fitz John Porter, Chief of Staff, to Cadwalader, second in command. “There may be a deep-laid plot to deceive us.” “The whole affair is to me a riddle,” wrote Cadwalader back to Porter. Advancing with a painful overcaution, as if Johnston were the invader, a part of the army crossed the Potomac on the 16th of June.

Finding the rumor of the evacuation true, Patterson took sufficient courage to report a victory. “They have fled, and in confusion,” he wrote. “Their retreat is as demoralizing as a defeat; and, as the leaders will never be caught, more beneficial to our cause. Harper's Ferry has been retaken without firing a gun.”

“What movement, if any, in pursuit of the enemy, do you propose to make, consequent on the evacuation of Harper's Ferry?” asked General Scott by telegraph. “Design no pursuit; cannot make it,” replied Patterson. That determination [158] necessarily ended this first part of the campaign; and General Scott thereupon ordered the extra reinforcenents back to Washington.

If the evacuation of Harper's Ferry was a mystery to Patterson, it was a plain and common-sense necessity to the rebel commander. Occasionally an idea finds a tenacious and almost ineradicable lodgment in the public mind, without a shadow of reason or truth to justify it. Because the fanatic John Brown selected Harper's Ferry as the scene of his wild exploit, the public mind jumped to the conclusion that that spot was a natural stronghold, a Gibraltar, a Thermopylae. Now, the single mountain-line called the Blue Ridge, crossing the Potomac River at Harper's Ferry, is as far from being a mountain stronghold as a straight line of picketfence across a brook is from being a block-house. John Brown was as unsound in war as in politics. But it would seem that, even in highly civilized nations, there lingers a remnant of the savage superstition that insanity is inspiration; for strong minds caught at the suggestion that he had recognized in Harper's Ferry a negro Thermopylae.

This was apparently the light in which the rebel authorities regarded the place, and its occupancy and retention was made a prime object at the beginning. Jefferson Davis himself sent Johnston, one of his best officers, to command it. “My conversations with General Lee, in Richmond,” says Johnston, “and the President's [Jefferson Davis] oral instructions to me in Montgomery, had informed me distinctly that they regarded Harper's Ferry as a natural fortress, commanding the entrance into the Valley of Virginia from Pennsylvania and Maryland, and that it was occupied in that idea, and my command not that of a military district and active army, but of a fortress and its garrison.”

When Johnston arrived, however, and made a personal in- [159] [160] spection of the neighborhood, he at once recognized the error of this assumption. “There is no danger of attack in front,” he wrote (May 26th), “but the position is easily turned by crossing the river above or below. The present force is not sufficient for defence against a superior one attacking from the Virginia side. Relief, in case of investment, could not be furnished. Considered as a position, I regard Harper's Ferry as untenable against a strong enemy. We have outposts at the Point of Rocks, near the ferry at Williamsport, and the bridge at Shepherdstown, the extreme points being at least thirty miles apart.” Two days later he repeated his statement, his engineer reporting that “to hold this post, then, either as a fortress, a point d'appui, or as a condition of the defence of the Virginia Valley, we require a force of from twelve to fifteen thousand men.”

Lee did not relish the alternative; he sent him two additional regiments, and wrote him that the abandonment of Harper's Ferry “would be depressing to the cause of the South.” But Johnston held stubbornly to his opinion, and wrote on June 6th, that, though the abandonment of Harper's Ferry might be depressing to the cause of the South, the loss of five or six thousand men would be more so. “And if they remain here,” he added, “they must be captured or destroyed very soon after General McClellan's arrival in the valley.” The opinion was evidently based on the current rumors that McClellan would bring Western troops to join Patterson.

This decided warning had its effect on the rebel authorities, and under date of June 13th they authorized Johnston to retire upon Winchester, after destroying everything at Harper's Ferry, “whenever the position of the enemy shall convince you that he is about to turn your position.” But they coupled the permission with another strong reminder: [161] “The position of Harper's Ferry, as has been heretofore stated, is deemed valuable because of its relation to Maryland and as the entrance to the Valley of Virginia, the possession of which by the enemy will separate the eastern and western sections of the State from each other, deprive us of the agricultural resources of that fertile region, and bring in its train political consequences which it is well believed you cannot contemplate without the most painful emotions.” With Patterson on the point of moving against him, however, Johnston allowed political consequences to take care of themselves, destroyed Harper's Ferry on June 13th and 14th, and retired even before his permission was received. “We are twelve miles in advance of Winchester,” he reported on the 17th; “my only hope from this movement is a slight delay in the enemy's advance. I believe his force to be about eighteen thousand; ours is six thousand five hundred.” Patterson admits that he had seventeen regiments — a force fully capable of the brilliant and important blow he had been ambitious to strike, but which he had neither the skill nor courage to direct.

The succeeding two weeks furnish no incidents worthy of note in this connection. Practically the two armies remained in observation, inactive, and without definite plans. When General Scott withdrew the temporary reinforcements he had given Patterson to enable him to fight a battle, the latter once more retired to the north bank of the Potomac. For the moment military attention was directed elsewhere. McClellan was preparing his campaign in West Virginia; McDowell was strengthening the Federal occupation of Arlington Heights and Alexandria; the President and General Scott were deliberating upon possible operations against Manassas. In this interim Johnston remained in camp about Winchester, pushing his picket-line close up [162] to the Potomac, and keeping himself well informed by scouts and spies. Meanwhile the Confederate authorities, still anxious to hold the Shenandoah Valley, and having also in view a possible junction with Beauregard at Manassas, sent forward reinforcements which raised Johnston's army to the effective strength of nine thousand, besides twenty-five hundred local militia in process of organization.

Toward the end of June a movement against Manassas was resolved on at Washington. As a preliminary, General Scott once more suggested a definite task to Patterson. “Remain in front of the enemy,” he telegraphed on June 25th, “while he continues in force between Winchester and the Potomac. If you are in superior or equal force, you may cross and offer him battle.” Two days later he gave further emphasis to the suggestion by saying, “I had expected your crossing the river to-day in pursuit of the enemy.” But Patterson complained that Johnston outnumbered him, and clamored for reinforcements and batteries. Reinforcements and batteries were ordered to join him, and he was also informed of the intended movement on Manassas; upon which he again put on a bold front and crossed the Potomac at Williamsport, moving to Martinsburg, with sufficient opposition to bring on a smart skirmish at Falling Waters, the enemy retiring toward Winchester as he advanced.

From this point, during the short time he yet remained in command, Patterson's military conduct becomes the subject of criticism and controversy. It is military usage-perhaps military necessity establishes the usage — that orders and directions from superior to subordinate officers are conveyed in brief words expressing or suggesting only the objects to be accomplished, and leaving methods largely at the discretion of him who has to perform the task. Following this established usage, General Scott, by his orders and directions [163] from July 1st to the 13th, informed Patterson that McDowell would make an advance against Beauregard, and that Johnston must be defeated or detained in the Shenandoah Valley, in order that their two armies might not unite and defeat McDowell. “I telegraphed to you yesterday,” was Scott's language, “if not strong enough to beat the enemy early next week, make demonstrations so as to detain him in the valley of Winchester; but if he retreats in force toward Manassas, and it be too hazardous to follow him, then consider the route via Key's Ferry, Leesburg, etc.” That Patterson correctly understood the order is shown by his reply: “I have thus far succeeded in keeping in this vicinity the command under General Johnston, who is now pretending to be engaged in fortifying at Winchester, but prepared to retire beyond striking distance if I should advance too far. To-morrow I advance to Bunker Hill preparatory to the other movement. If an opportunity offers, I shall attack; but, unless I can rout, shall be careful not to set him in full retreat upon Strasburg.”

But the wishes of the Administration and General Scott were not allowed to depend alone on the customary orders. Patterson's former indecision and hesitancy had created a doubt of his disposition to fight; and a similar hesitancy was once more manifesting itself in his complaints, requests, and especially in his growing exaggeration of his antagonist's strength. It is always deemed hazardous to change commanders on the eve of battle, and therefore the alternative was adopted of sending General Sandford to him with additional reinforcements; who, waiving his rank, should take command under Patterson, and prompt him in pushing forward the army. Sandford, accepting the duty, reported to Patterson with four regiments from Washington, about July 10th; the column under General Stone also [164] joined him immediately afterward, so that Patterson's army now numbered eighteen thousand two hundred according to his own estimate, or over twenty-two thousand according to the estimate of others, opposed to the rebel army, which, altogether, Johnston states to have been less than twelve thousand men.

It would appear that at this time two impulses struggled for mastery in Patterson's mind. Apparently he was both seeking and avoiding a battle. He had called a council of war at Martinsburg on the 9th; and verifying the military adage that a council of war never fights, his officers had advised him that he was on a “false line,” and that he could most advantageously threaten Johnston from Charlestown. Accordingly, on July 12th, Patterson asked permission to transfer his forces to that line; while a dispatch from General Scott of the same date, in reply to a former letter, in substance accorded him the permission, but accompanied it with the significant reminder: “Consider this suggestion well, and except in an extreme case do not recross the Potomac with more than a sufficient detachment for your supplies on the canal.”

Such a movement upon Charlestown, made promptly at that date and under the then existing conditions, might have been judicious. But Patterson's dispatches show that from this on he found nothing but reasons for fear and justification for inaction and retreat. He wanted a regiment of regulars; he said the time of the three months regiments was about to expire; that his men were barefooted; that the enemy was reinforced and fortified; that “to attack under such circumstances, against the greatly superior force at Winchester, is most hazardous.”

Under these renewed manifestations of timidity General Scott's patience began to give way, and he now sent Patterson [165] two prompting telegrams, which ought to have warmed the sluggish blood of even sixty-nine years to action. “Do not let the enemy amuse and delay you with a small force in front,” he telegraphed July 17th, “whilst he reinforces the Manassas] Junction with his main body. McDowell's first day's work has driven the enemy beyond Fairfax Court House. The Junction will probably be carried to-morrow.” And again on the following day: “I have certainly been expecting you to beat the enemy. If not, to hear that you had felt him strongly, or, at least, had occupied him by threats and demonstrations. You have been at least his equal, and I suppose superior in numbers. Has he not stolen a march and sent reinforcements toward Manassas Junction? A week is enough to win victories.” Unfortunately, Patterson, even before he received the first of these, had already committed the fatal military blunder of a retreat. But the questions were so searching, and so plainly conveyed a reprimand, that he replied in a tone of offended dignity: “The enemy has stolen no march upon me. I have kept him actively employed, and, by threats and reconnoissances in force, caused him to be re-enforced. I have accomplished in this respect more than the General-in-Chief asked, or could well be expected in face of an enemy far superior in numbers, with no line of communication to protect.” The answer was admirable in form and spirit, but it lacked the essential element of correctness. The enemy did not outnumber him-was, in fact, only two-thirds as strong-and was at that moment actually making a rapid “stolen march” to Manassas, which Patterson did not discover till two days afterward.

Understanding fully, both from General Scott's telegrams and General Sandford's personal explanations, that an advance against Manassas Junction was in progress, which [166] would lead to a heavy battle between McDowell and Beauregard, Patterson had moved from Martinsburg on July 15th, directly toward Johnston at Winchester, as far as Bunker Hill, within nine miles of the enemy. On the following day he ordered a slight reconnoissance. Until the night of the 16th it was believed by his officers that the advance meant fight. Every one understood that the critical moment had come, or was at hand. The time for elaborate strategy or new combinations had passed. Confronting the enemy there were but three alternatives admissible under his imperative duty: to hold him, to fight him, or to follow him.

It is sad to relate that, with the complete advantage of numbers and position, he did neither. In justice to him, however, it should always be remembered that his personal instinct was right, and that he was led into his fatal error mainly by the influence of his chief-of-staff, Fitz John Porter. His senior aid-de-camp, in his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, relates the circumstances under which he took his final decision:

At one time, General Patterson had given an order to move from Bunker Hill to Winchester. He was very unwilling to leave Johnston, even at Winchester, without attacking him; and on the afternoon before we left Bunker Hill he decided to attack him, notwithstanding his strong force.

Question. Behind his intrenchments?

Answer. Yes, sir; it went so far that his order was written by his assistant adjutant-general, Colonel Porter. It was very much against the wishes of Colonel Porter, and he asked General Patterson if he would send for Colonel Abercrombie and Colonel Thomas, and consult them on the movement. General Patterson replied: “ No, sir; for I know they will attempt to dissuade me from it, and I have made up my mind to fight Johnston under all circumstances.” [167] That was the day before we left Bunker Hill. Then Colonel Porter asked to have Colonel Abercrombie and Colonel Thomas sent for and consulted as to the best manner to carry out his wishes. He consented, and they came, and after half an hour they dissuaded him from it.

With his intentions thus changed, Patterson late that night ordered a retrograde movement; and the next day, July 17th, his army marched to Charlestown-nominally as a flank movement, but practically in retreat, since it about doubled the distance between himself and the enemy. It adds neither excuse nor credit to himself or his advising subordinates that, as a partial justification, they had gulped down an absurd rumor about the enemy being forty thousand strong, without taking any efficient means to ascertain its correctness. And so lifeless and inefficient had the whole army become under such influences and management, that not till July 20th did Patterson learn the humiliating fact that he had wrecked the fair military reputation of a lifetime by permitting the enemy to escape through utterly inexcusable lack of energy and want of judgment. And if that reflection could be still further embittered, it was done by the early realization that his stupendous blunder had lost to the Union cause the first important battle of the war.

Johnston was at Winchester, in daily anticipation of Patterson's attack, when, a little after midnight of July 17th, he received orders from the Confederate authorities to go at once to the help of Beauregard. Just twenty-four hours had elapsed since Patterson's order to retreat, and the Union army was already at Charlestown. By nine o'clock on the morning of July 18th, Johnston's scouts brought him reports indicating clearly the actual situation. At noon of that day he had his whole effective force of nine thousand men on the march; at nightfall his advance passed through Ashby's [168] Gap of the Blue Ridge; by eight o'clock on the 19th it was at Piedmont, the nearest station of the Manassas Gap Railroad, and embarking here in cars, seven regiments were in Beauregard's camp, at Manassas, that afternoon. Johnston himself, with another detachment, arrived at Manassas at noon of Saturday, July 20th; and most of the remainder of his force reached the battle-field of Bull Run in the nick of time to take a decisive part in that famous conflict, about three o'clock on Sunday, July 21st. It was these nine thousand men of Johnston's army which not merely decided, but principally fought the battle. Patterson could and ought either to have defeated or held them at Winchester. Only a little more than a month had elapsed since he had written to the Secretary of War, “Give me the means of success. You have the means; place them at my disposal, and shoot me if I do not use them to advantage.” He would have fared ill under a literal enforcement of his own offer.

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