by Richard B. Irwin, Lieutenant-Colonel, Assistant Adjutant-General, U. S. V.
In some former notes1
I tried to trace with an impartial hand, and without intruding any prejudice or opinion of my own, the course of the unfortunate differences that had arisen between the Government
and the commander of the Army of the Potomac.
The acute stage was reached on the Peninsula
's campaign marked the first crisis.
On the 1st of September McClellan
found himself a general without an army.
On the 2d the Government
gave him what was left of two armies, and only asked him to defend the capital.
On the 5th the troops were in motion; on the 7th, without another word, and thus, as appears probable, overstepping the intentions of the Government
he set out to meet Lee
; and, moving deliberately under repeated cautions, ten days later he once more grappled fiercely with his antagonist, who stood waiting on the banks of the Antietam.
strained the back of the Confederacy
Hardly had the echo of the guns died away than again the angry ink began to flow.
To follow its track would here be as tedious and unnecessary as it must always be painful.
The sullen stage of the disorder had been reached; collapse was soon to follow.
As one turns the pages of the history of the seven weeks after Antietam
, or the scattered leaves that are some time to be gathered into history, it is impossible not to realize that we are reading of the last days of the first and best-loved commander of the Army of the Potomac; that the last hour is not far off.
Without going into the details, and without attempting to pass judgment, it must be said that no candid person, knowing anything of war and armies, can doubt that the Army of the Potomac, in the last days of September and early October, 1862, needed nearly everything
before beginning a fresh campaign of its own choice.
For some things, such as shoes, the troops were really suffering.
equally evident that the duty of providing these essential supplies rested with the administrative services in Washington
; that some of the supplies did not reach the troops for a long time,3
and that certain subordinate chiefs were at least indulged in expending an amount of energy in combating the earnest representations that came pouring in from the army on the field; that they, or some one, might well have been required to devote to the task of seeing that the supplies reached the troops who needed them, instead of resting content with perfunctory declarations that the stores had “been sent.”
Nor can any commander of an army be blamed for not liking this.
The wonder is, that a railway journey of a few hours should have stood in the way of a complete understanding and swift remedy, on one side or the other.
visited General McClellan
on the 1st of October, and. went over the battle-fields of South Mountain
, Crampton's Gap, and Antietam
in his company.
When the President
left him on the 4th, General McClellan
appears to have been under the impression that his military acts and plans were satisfactory.4
What these plans were at this time, beyond the reorganization and refitting of his army, in the absence of direct evidence, one can but conjecture from a passage that occurs in a private letter dated October 2d, printed in “McClellan
's own story” (p. 654). “His [the Presidents
] ostensible purpose is to see the troops and the battle-field; I incline to think that the real purpose of his visit is to push on into a premature advance into Virginia
. . . . The real truth is that my army is not fit to advance.”
However, on the 6th, two days after Mr. Lincoln
's departure, General Halleck
telegraphed to General McClellan
The President directs that you cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south.
Your army must move now, while the roads are good.
If you cross the river between the enemy and Washington and cover the latter by your operation, you can be reenforced with 30,000 men. If you move up the valley of the Shenandoah, not more than 12,000 or 15,000 can be sent to you. The President advises the interior line between Washington and the enemy, but does not order it. He is very desirous that your army move as soon as possible.
at first selected the valley route, but the tardy delivery of supplies delayed his movement, and when he crossed the Potomac
on the 25th and began the advance the circumstances had somewhat changed.6
Then, leaving the Twelfth Corps to hold Harper's Ferry
, he marched down the eastern side of the Blue Ridge
, as the President
had originally desired, picked up the Third and Eleventh Corps and Bayard
's division of cavalry on striking the railway opposite Thoroughfare Gap, and on the 5th of November made his headquarters at Rectortown
, with all his arrangements in progress for concentrating the army near Warrenton
This movement in effect placed the Army of the Potomac, with a force double that of the Army of Northern Virginia,7
between the two halves of that army, farther separated by the Blue Ridge
; for Lee
, with Longstreet
's corps, had kept pace with McClellan
's movement and advanced to Culpeper
, and Jackson
was still in the Valley of Virginia
, distant several days' march behind Thornton's Gap, with D. H. Hill
holding the western entrance to the gap against Pleasonton
, who was on the east, observing its debouch.
On that very day, the 5th of November, 1862, President Lincoln
, with his own hand, wrote the following order:8
Forthwith the following orders were issued:
This order was inclosed:
If we except Halleck
's report of October 28th, obviously called for and furnished as a record, and containing nothing new, no cause or reason has ever been made public, either officially or in any one of the many informal modes in which official action so often finds it convenient to let itself be known.
It is hard to credit that the Government
did not know, or that knowing they did not appreciate, the military situation on the 5th of November; still harder to believe that, knowing and appreciating it, they threw away such an opportunity for any cause that appears in Halleck
General C. P. Buckingham
, the confidential assistant adjutant-general of the Secretary of War
, bore these orders from Washington
by a special train.
He arrived at Rectortown
in a blinding snow-storm.
First calling upon Burnside
to deliver to him a counterpart of the order, late on the night of November 7th these two officers proceeded together to General McClellan
I at once [when he heard of Buckingham's arrival] suspected that he brought the order relieving me from command, but kept my own counsel.
Late at night I was sitting alone in my tent, writing to my wife.
All the staff were asleep.
Suddenly some one knocked upon the tent-pole, and upon my invitation to enter there appeared Burnside and Buckingham, both looking very solemn.
I received them kindly and commenced conversation upon general subjects in the most unconcerned manner possible.
After a few moments Buckingham said to Burnside: ‘ Well, General, I think we had better tell General McClellan the object of our visit.’
I very pleasantly said that I should be glad to learn it. Whereupon Buckingham handed me the two orders of which he was the bearer . . . .
I saw that both-especially Buckingham — were watching me most intently while I opened and read the orders.
I read the papers with a smile, immediately turned to Burnside, and said: ‘Well, Burnside, I turn the command over to you.’
The movements of troops that had already been begun were completed on the 8th and 9th, at General Burnside
's request; but there the execution of General McClellan
's plans stopped.
turned to the left and massed his army on the Rappahannock
, opposite Fredericksburg
conformed to this movement, called in Jackson
, and concentrated on the opposite heights.
The disaster of Fredericksburg
On the 10th McClellan
bade farewell to the Army of the Potomac.
As he rode between the lines, formed almost of their own accord to do honor for the last time to their beloved commander, grief and disappointment were on every face, and manly tears stood in many an eye that had learned to look on war without a tremor.
In the simple, touching words of the gallant and accomplished Walker
: “Every heart was filled with love and grief; every voice was raised in shouts expressive of devotion and indignation; and when the chief had passed out of sight, the romance of war was over for the Army of the Potomac.”
In all that these brave men did, in all that they suffered, and great were their deeds, unspeakable their sufferings, never, perhaps, were their devotion and loyalty more nobly proved than by their instant obedience to this order, unwisely wrung from the President
as many of them believed it to have been, yet still for them, as American soldiers, as American citizens, an implicit mandate.
The men who could talk so glibly of “praetoriann guards” knew little of the Army of the Potomac.
Hot work for Hazard's Battery.
See P. 115. |