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Chapter 5:

  • Organization of the army of the Potomac

When General McClellan assumed command in Washington, on the 27th of July, the whole number of troops in and around the city was a little over fifty thousand, of whom less than a thousand were cavalry, and about six hundred and fifty were artillery-men, with nine imperfect field-batteries of thirty pieces. They were encamped in places selected without regard to purposes of defence or instruction; the roads were not picketed, and there was no attempt at an organization into brigades. The works of defence were very limited in number and very defective in character. There was nothing to prevent the enemy's shelling the city from heights within easy range, and very little to prevent their occupying those heights had they been so disposed. The streets of Washington were crowded with straggling officers and disorderly men, absent from their stations without authority, whose behavior [105] indicated a general want of discipline, aggravated by the demoralizing influences of the recent disaster at Bull Run, July 21, 1861.

The task of the commanding officer was one of no common magnitude. He had the materials for an army,--and excellent materials, too, but still only materials. ie had no more than the block out of which an army was to be carved. There were courage, patriotism, intelligence, physical energy, in abundance; and to these invaluable qualities were to be added discipline, the instinct of obedience, precision of movement, and the power of combination. A tumultuary military assemblage was to be organized into brigades, divisions, and corps, and brought into proper relations with their commanders. An adequate artillery establishment was to be created, and a sufficient force of engineers and topographical engineers was to be provided. The medical department, the quartermaster's, the subsistence, the ordnance, the provost-marshal's departments, were all to be set in movement. A signal corps was to be formed, and instructed in the use of flags by day and lights by night; and, to keep pace with the march of scientific improvement, a body of telegraphic operators could not be forgotten.

To these gigantic labors General McClellan addressed himself with unwearied diligence; and he was ably seconded by a most efficient staff, with numbers increased from time to time as necessity required. The new levies of infantry, upon arriving in Washington, were formed into provisional [106] brigades, and placed in camp in the suburbs of the city for equipment, instruction, and discipline. Cavalry and artillery troops reported to officers designated for that purpose. Order was restored in Washington by a military police bureau, at the head of which were a provost-marshal and a body of efficient assistants. New defensive works were projected and thrown up. Everywhere the hum of active, organized, and harmonious industry was heard. A preliminary organization was made of the troops on hand into twelve brigades. These were all volunteers, except two companies of cavalry and four of artillery; but all the commanding officers had been educated at West Point, with the single exception of Colonel Blenker, who had had a good military training in Europe.

On the 4th of August, 1861, General McClellan addressed to the President of the United States, at his request, a memorandum upon the objects of the war, the principles on which it should be conducted, and the operations by which it might be brought to a speedy and successful termination. As this is an important document in the history of the war, which should be carefully read by all who desire to understand its subsequent course, and still more by those who would do justice to a commanding officer whose military capacity and even whose loyalty and patriotism have been called in question in high places, it is here inserted in full:--

The object of the present war differs from those in which nations are usually engaged mainly in this: that [107] the purpose of ordinary war is to conquer a peace and make a treaty on advantageous terms; in this contest it has become necessary to crush a population sufficiently numerous, intelligent, and warlike to constitute a nation. We have not only to defeat their armed and organized forces in the field, but to display such an overwhelming strength as will convince all our antagonists, especially those of the governing aristocratic class, of the utter impossibility of resistance. Our late reverses make this course imperative. Had we been successful in the recent battle (Manassas), it is possible that we might have been spared the labor and expense of a great effort.

Now we have no alternative. Their success will enable the political leaders of the rebels to convince the mass of their people that we are inferior to them in force and courage, and to command all their resources. The contest began with a class; now it is with a people: our military success can alone restore the former issue.

By thoroughly defeating their armies, taking their strong places, and pursuing a rigidly protective policy as to — private property and unarmed persons and a lenient course as to private soldiers, we may well hope for a permanent restoration of a peaceful Union. But in the first instance the authority of the Government must be supported by overwhelming physical force.

Our foreign relations and financial credit also imperatively demand that the military action of the Government should be prompt and irresistible.

The rebels have chosen Virginia as their battle-field; and it seems proper for us to make the first great struggle there. But, while thus directing our main efforts, it is necessary to diminish the resistance there offered us, by movements on other points, both by land and water.

Without entering at present into details, I would advise that a strong movement be made on the Mississippi, and that the rebels be driven out of Missouri. [108]

As soon as it becomes perfectly clear that Kentucky is cordially united with us, I would advise a movement through that State into Eastern Tennessee, for the purpose of assisting the Union men of that region, and of seizing the railroads leading from Memphis to the East.

The possession of those roads by us, in connection with the movement on the Mississippi, would go far towards determining the evacuation of Virginia by the rebels. In the mean time, all the passes into Western Virginia from the east should be securely guarded; but I would advise no movement from that quarter towards Richmond, unless the political condition of Kentucky renders it impossible or inexpedient for us to make the movement upon Eastern Tennessee through that State. Every effort should, however, be made to organize, equip, and arm as many troops as possible in Western Virginia, in order to render the Ohio and Indiana regiments available for other operations.

At as early a day as practicable, it would be well to protect and reopen the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Baltimore and Fort Monroe should be occupied by garrisons sufficient to retain them in our possession.

The importance of Harper's Ferry and the line of the Potomac in the direction of Leesburg will be very materially diminished so soon as our force in this vicinity becomes organized, strong, and efficient; because no capable general will cross the river north of this city, when we have a strong army here ready to cut off his retreat.

To revert to the West. It is probable that no very large additions to the troops now in Missouri will be necessary to secure that State.

I presume that the force required for the movement down the Mississippi will be determined by its commander and the President. If Kentucky assumes the right position, not more than twenty thousand troops will be needed, together with those that can be raised in that [109] State and Eastern Tennessee, to secure the latter region and its railroads, as well as ultimately to occupy Nashville.

The Western Virginia troops, with not more than five or ten thousand from Ohio and Indiana, should, under proper management, suffice for its protection.

When we have reorganized our main army here, ten thousand men ought to be enough to protect the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Potomac, five thousand will garrison Baltimore, three thousand Fort Monroe, and not more than twenty thousand will be necessary at the utmost for the defence of Washington.

For the main army of operations I urge the following composition:--

250regiments of infantry, say225,000 men.
100field-batteries, 600 guns15,000 men.
28regiments of cavalry25,500 men.
5regiments engineer troops7,500 men.
 Total273,000 men.

The force must be supplied with the necessary engineer and pontoon trains, and with transportation for every thing save tents. Its general line of operations should be so directed that water-transportation can be availed of from point to point, by means of the ocean and the rivers emptying into it. An essential feature of the plan of operations will be the employment of a strong naval force to protect the movements of a fleet of transports intended to convey a considerable body of troops from point to point of the enemy's sea-coast, thus either creating diversions and rendering it necessary for them to detach largely from their main body in order to protect such of their cities as may be threatened, or else landing and forming establishments on their coast at any favorable places that opportunity might offer. This naval [110] force should also co-operate with the main army in its efforts to seize the important seaboard towns of the rebels.

It cannot be ignored that the construction of railroads has introduced a new and very important element into war, by the great facilities thus given for concentrating at particular positions large masses of troops from remote sections, and by creating new strategic points and lines of operations.

It is intended to overcome this difficulty by the partial operations suggested, and such others as the particular case may require. We must endeavor to seize places on the railways in the rear of the enemy's points of concentration, and we must threaten their seaboard cities, in order that each State may be forced, by the necessity of its own defence, to diminish its contingent to the Confederate army.

The proposed movement down the Mississippi will produce important results in this connection. That advance and the progress of the main army at the East will materially assist each other, by diminishing the resistance to be encountered by each.

The tendency of the Mississippi movement upon all questions connected with cotton is too well understood by the President and Cabinet to need any illustration from me.

There is another independent movement that has often been suggested, and which has always recommended itself to my judgment. I refer to a movement from Kansas and Nebraska, through the Indian Territory, upon Red River and Western Texas, for the purpose of protecting and developing the latent Union and free-State sentiment well known to predominate in Western Texas, and which, like a similar sentiment in Western Virginia, will, if protected, ultimately organize that section into a free State. How far it will be possible to support this movement by an advance through New Mexico from California, [111] is a matter which I have not sufficiently examined to be able to express a decided opinion. If at all practicable, it is eminently desirable, as bringing into play the resources and warlike qualities of the Pacific States, as well as identifying them with our cause and cementing the bond of union between them and the General Government.

If it is not departing too far from my province, I will venture to suggest the policy of an intimate alliance and cordial understanding with Mexico: their sympathies and interests are with us,--their antipathies exclusively against our enemies and their institutions. I think it would not be difficult to obtain from the Mexican Government the right to use, at least during the present contest, the road from Guaymas to New Mexico: this concession would very materially reduce the obstacles of the column moving from the Pacific. A similar permission to use their territory for the passage of troops between the Panuco and the Rio Grande would enable us to throw a column of troops by a good road from Tampico, or some of the small harbors north of it, upon and across the Rio Grande, without risk and scarcely firing a shot.

To what extent, if any, it would be desirable to take into service and employ Mexican soldiers, is a question entirely political, on which I do not venture to offer an opinion.

The force I have recommended is large; the expense is great. It is possible that a smaller force might accomplish the object in view; but I understand it to be the purpose of this great nation to re-establish the power of its Government, and to restore peace to its citizens, in the shortest possible time.

The question to be decided is simply this: shall we crush the rebellion at one blow, terminate the war in one campaign, or shall we leave it for a legacy to our descendants? [112]

When the extent of the possible line of operations is considered, the force asked for the main army under my command cannot be regarded as unduly large. Every mile we advance carries us farther from our base of operations, and renders detachments necessary to cover our communications, while the enemy will be constantly concentrating as he falls back. I propose, with the force which I have requested, not only to drive the enemy out of Virginia and occupy Richmond, but to occupy Charleston, Savannah, Montgomery, Pensacola, Mobile, and New Orleans; in other words, to move into the heart of the enemy's country and crush out the rebellion in its very heart.

By seizing and repairing the railroads as we advance, the difficulties of transportation will be materially diminished. It is perhaps unnecessary to state that, in addition to the forces named in this memorandum, strong reserves should be formed, ready to supply any losses that may occur.

In conclusion, I would submit that the exigencies of the treasury may be lessened by making only partial payments to our troops when in the enemy's country, and by giving the obligations of the United States for such supplies as may there be obtained.

George B. Mcclellan, Major-General.

General McClellan, speaking of this memorandum in his Report, written two years after, says,--

I do not think the events of the war have proved these views upon the methods and plans of its conduct altogether incorrect. They certainly have not proved my estimate of the number of troops and scope of operations too large. It is probable that I did underestimate the time necessary for the completion of arms and equipments. It was not strange, however, that by many civilians [113] intrusted with authority there should have been an exactly opposite opinion held in both these particulars.

This simple and modest statement is read with melancholy interest by the light of the events which have transpired since the date of the memorandum. And that portion of the American people — we believe, the larger portion — which is willing to hear before it judges, will not fail to recognize in the memorandum itself the sagacious and comprehensive views of a man who has carefully studied the problem before him, and believe that he had found a solution for it. It steers clear of the safe generalities in which mediocrity takes refuge, as well as the wild predictions that rash self-confidence is apt to make. His conclusions are drawn from a wide and patient survey of the field before him. Here is a plan broad in its scope and well con. sidered in its details. It may be that the event might not, under any circumstances, have responded to his expectations; it may be that the soldier might not have had the means to execute what the statesman had conceived: it is enough to know that the opportunity was never given him to try the experiment fairly. When he spoke of the possibility of ending the war by a single campaign, he perhaps underestimated both the moral and material forces arrayed against him; but, in the multitude of predictions as to the duration of the war which have not come to pass, an anticipation like this will not be treasured up against him.

For some weeks after the date of the above memorandum, the work of organizing and arranging [114] the troops went on diligently and uninterruptedly, and on the 15th of October the grand aggregate of the forces in and around Washington was one hundred and fifty-two thousand and fifty-one, of whom one hundred and thirty-three thousand two hundred and one were present and fit for active duty. The infantry was arranged in brigades of four regiments each, and divisions of three brigades each were gradually formed, with artillery and cavalry attached to each division as .far as was practicable. The formation into corps was to be postponed until the army had been for some time in the field, as were recommendations for the promotion of officers to the rank of major-generals till actual trial in service had shown who were best fitted for these important posts.

On the 15th of October, the main body of the Army of the Potomac was in the immediate vicinity of Washington, with detachments on the left bank of the river as far down as Liverpool Point and as far up as Williamsport and its vicinity. General Dix was at Baltimore, General Banks at Darnestown, and General Stone at Poolesville.

On the 21st of October, the disastrous engagement at Ball's Bluff took place. Efforts have been made to connect the name of General McClellan with this affair; but the facts in the case, and especially the testimony taken by the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, show that the reconnoissances directed by him had been brought to a close during the preceding day, and that the movements which led to the battle of the 21st were [115] not ordered by him. It is enough to say that the responsibility of the day does not rest upon General McClellan, without going further and inquiring to whom it does belong; but it may be added that the battle of Ball's Bluff is one of the many enterprises of this war which are held to be brilliant if successful, and rash if unsuccessful. The praise in one event and the blame in the other are alike exaggerated. A great stake is played for, but the rule of the stern game of war requires that in such cases a great stake must be laid down.

On the 31st day of October, 1861, Lieutenant-General Scott addressed a letter to the Secretary of War, in which he requested that, on account of his increasing infirmities and the necessity of repose of mind and body, his name might be placed on the list of army officers retired from active service. The letter was laid before a Cabinet meeting, and General Scott was placed on the retired list of the army, with the full pay and allowance of his rank; and on the same day the President, accompanied by the members of the Cabinet, proceeded to his residence and read to him the official order which gave to the decision the force of law. The venerable commander-in-chief expressed his acknowledgments in words and with a manner which betokened strong emotion, and the President answered in appropriate terms. In the official order announcing General Scott's retirement, the President of the United States said, in language the justice and propriety of which were universally felt,-- [116]

The American people will hear with sadness and deep emotion that General Scott has withdrawn from the active control of the army, while the President and unanimous Cabinet express their own and the nation's sympathy in his personal affliction, and their profound sense of the important public services rendered by him to his country during his long and brilliant career, among which will ever be gratefully distinguished his faithful devotion to the Constitution, the Union, and the flag, when assailed by parricidal rebellion.

Upon the retirement of General Scott, General McClellan, by a general order dated November 1, was directed to assume the command of the army of the United States, with his Headquarters at Washington, and on the same day the new commander-in-chief issued the following order:--

General order no. 19.

Headquarters of the army, Washington, D. C., Nov. 1, 1861.
In accordance with General Order No. 94, from the War Department, I hereby assume command of the armies of the United States.

In the midst of the difficulties which encompass and divide the nation, hesitation and self-distrust may well accompany the assumption of so vast a responsibility; but confiding, as I do, in the loyalty, discipline, and courage of our troops, and believing, as I do, that Providence will favor ours as the just cause, I cannot doubt that success will crown our efforts and sacrifices.

The army will unite with me in the feeling of regret that the weight of many years, and the effect of increasing infirmities, contracted and intensified in his country's [117] service, should just now remove from our head the great soldier of our nation,--the hero who, in his youth, raised high the reputation of his country on the fields of Canada, which he sanctified with his blood; who, in more mature years, proved to the world that American skill and valor could repeat, if not eclipse, the exploits of Cortez in the land of the Montezumas; whose whole life has been devoted to the service of his country; whose whole efforts have been directed to uphold our honor at the smallest sacrifice of life;--a warrior who scorned the selfish glories of the battle-field, when his great qualities as a statesman could be employed more profitably for his country; a citizen who, in his declining years, has given to the world the most shining instance of loyalty in disregarding all ties of birth and clinging to the cause of truth and honor. Such has been the career of Winfield Scott, whom it has long been the delight of the nation to honor as a man and a soldier.

While we regret his loss, there is one thing we cannot regret,--the bright example he has left for our emulation. Let us all hope and pray that his declining years may be passed in peace and happiness, and that they may be cheered by the success of the country and the cause he has fought for and loved so well. Beyond all that, let us do nothing that can cause him to blush for us. Let no defeat of the army he has so long commanded embitter his last years, but let our victories illuminate the close of a life so grand.

Geo. B. McClellan, Major-General commanding, U. S. A.

On the next day, November 2, General McClellan received a sword which had been voted to him by the City Councils of Philadelphia, a deputation of which went to Washington and gave the sword to [118] him in person, at his house. In a very brief reply to the complimentary address which accompanied the gift, he said, “I ask in the future forbearance, patience, and confidence. With these we can accomplish all.”

On the 7th, 11th, and 12th days of November, 1861, respectively, letters of instruction were addressed by the commander-in-chief to General Buell, in charge of the Department of the Ohio, and General Halleck, in that of the Department of Missouri. These were general in their scope, rather indicating what it was desirable to accomplish, and pointing out certain principles of government and administration, than going into details which had been matters of oral discussion between him and these officers. A brief extract from the letter to General Buell, of the date November 7, will give an impression of their spirit and purpose:--

It is possible that the conduct of our political affairs in Kentucky is more important than that of our military operations. I certainly cannot overestimate the importance of the former: You will please constantly to bear in mind the precise issue for which we are fighting: that issue is the preservation of the Union, and the restoration of the full authority of the General Government over all portions of our territory. We shall most readily suppress this rebellion and restore the authority of the Government by religiously respecting the constitutional rights of all. I know that I express the feelings and opinions of the President when I say that we are fighting only to preserve the integrity of the Union and the constitutional authority of the General Government.


These letters of instruction should be read in connection with two others written subsequently by General McClellan, one dated February 14, 1862, addressed to General Sherman, commanding at Port Royal, giving directions as to movements against Fort Pulaski, Fernandina, Savannah, Fort Sumter, and Charleston, and one dated February 23, 1862, addressed to General Butler, containing instructions as to military movements in the Southwest. From this letter an extract is here subjoined:--

The object of your expedition is one of vital importance,--the capture of New Orleans. The route selected is up the Mississippi River, and the first obstacle to be encountered (perhaps the only one) is in the resistance offered by Forts St. Philip and Jackson. It is expected that the navy can reduce these works: in that case, you will, after their capture, leave a sufficient garrison in them to render them perfectly secure; and it is recommended that, on the upward passage, a few heavy guns and some troops be left at the pilot-station (at the forks of the river), to cover a retreat in the event of a disaster. These troops and guns will, of course, be removed as soon as the forts are captured.

Should the navy fail to reduce the works, you will land your forces and siege-train, and endeavor to breach the works, silence their fire, and carry them by assault.

The. next resistance will be near the English Bend, where there are some earthen batteries. Here it may be necessary for you to land your troops and co-operate with the naval attack, although it is more than probable that the Navy, unassisted, can accomplish the result. If these works are taken, the city of New Orleans necessarily falls. In that event, it will probably be best to occupy Algiers [120] with the mass of your troops, also the eastern bank of the river above the city. It may be necessary to place some troops in the city to preserve order; but, if there appears to be sufficient Union sentiment to control the city, it may be best, for purposes of discipline, to keep your men out of the city.

After obtaining possession of New Orleans, it will be necessary to reduce all the works guarding its approaches from the east, and particularly to gain the Manchac Pass.

Baton Rouge, Berwick Bay, and Fort Livingston will next claim your attention.

A feint on Galveston may facilitate the objects we have in view. I need not call your attention to the necessity of gaining possession of all the rolling stock you can on the different railways, and of obtaining control of the roads themselves. The occupation of Baton Rouge by a combined naval and land force should be accomplished as soon as possible after you have gained New Orleans. Then endeavor to open your communication with the northern column by the Mississippi, always bearing in mind the necessity of occupying Jackson, Mississippi, as soon as you can safely do so, either after or before you have effected the junction. Allow nothing to divert you from obtaining full possession of all the approaches to New Orleans. When that object is accomplished to its fullest extent, it will be necessary to make a combined attack on Mobile, in order to gain possession of the harbor and works, as well as to control the railway terminus at the city. In regard to this, I will send more detailed instructions as the operations of the Northern column develop themselves.

I may briefly state that the general objects of the expedition are--first, the reduction of New Orleans and all its approaches; then Mobile and its defences; then Pensacola, Galveston, &c. It is probable that by the time New Orleans is reduced, it will be in the power of the [121] Government to reinforce the land forces sufficiently to accomplish all these objects. In the mean time, you will please give all the assistance in your power to the army and navy commanders in your vicinity, never losing sight of the fact that the great object to be achieved is the capture and firm retention of New Orleans.

The remarkably sagacious foresight shown in the instructions to General Butler as to the mode of attack upon New Orleans can be fully apprehended only after reading in detail the account of the brilliant capture of that city, by the combined military and naval forces of the United States, a few weeks later.

The several letters above referred to are given in full in General McClellan's Report, and, when read together, will be found to indicate a plan which embraced in its scope all the armies of the Union and the whole region occupied by the Confederates. It was the purpose of the commander-in-chief that the various parts of the plan should be carried out simultaneously, as far as was possible, and in co-operation along the whole line of movement. In this general scheme the Army of the Potomac was to bear its part,--a leading part, it is true, but still a part in concert with other forces of the Union. This should be borne in mind in order to explain and justify the delay which was necessary to enable that army to perform its share in the execution of the whole work.

From what has been said, it is easy to see how trying was the position of General McClellan during the closing weeks of the year 1861, and how [122] painful was the weight of responsibility resting upon him. He was a young man, whose name until recently had been unknown to the public, suddenly set at the head of military operations which extended over a space and were upon a scale to tax the strategical skill and vast organizing genius of Napoleon himself. The Army of the Potomac, which was immediately under him, was ten times larger than any army that had ever been under the command of one man upon the soil of the United States since the Revolution; and the difficulty of commanding armies increases in much more than a direct ratio with their numbers,--or, in other words, it does not follow that among ten men fit to command ten thousand men there will always be found one fit to command a hundred thousand. Even the Duke of Wellington never led an army of a hundred thousand men. 1

His position was thus in itself one of great responsibility; but there were extrinsic elements which added to its burdens. The American people are easily elated and easily depressed, and they had passed through both of these states of feeling during the eventful year 1861. At the breaking out of the war, amidst the magnificent uprising of the nation to sustain the Government, we had exulted in the confident expectation that the rebellion [123] would at once be crushed and broken into fragments by the irresistible force arrayed against it. But the disastrous battle of Bull Run and the untoward affair of Ball's Bluff had blighted these fervid hopes, and a despondency had taken possession of the public mind which was as unreasonable as the previous assurance had been. This rising and sinking of our spirits had tended to aggravate that impatience which must be admitted to be one of our national traits; and in the autumn of 1861 a strong desire had taken possession of the public mind that some decisive step should be taken, some vigorous blow should be struck. The people murmured and chafed at the delay that clogged the movements of the Army of the Potomac; the press, with its myriad voices, gave utterance to the feeling, and the cry “On to Richmond!” became the symbol and motto of the hour. This was a very natural sentiment, and, to some extent, commendable,--because it caught its warmth in part from the patriotism of the people and their earnest wish to have the Union restored. They desired to see some results commensurate with their efforts and sacrifices. But strong feeling is apt to be unjust, especially when it is general as well as strong; and our ignorance of war — that happy element in our lot — had an-influence in the same direction. We had read of armies, but practically we knew nothing about them. The battles of the War of 1812 and of the war with Mexico had been fought with small and manageable bodies of men; but so immense an army as that which was encamped in and around Washington [124] was a wholly new thing to us. We knew nothing of the vast amount of transportation necessary to supply a hundred thousand men with food,--especially on the bountiful scale upon which our troops are fed,--how dependent such a body is, in a country like Eastern Virginia, on its base of operations, and how it must keep up an uninterrupted connection with a navigable stream or a railway. We knew little or nothing of the obstacles presented to the advance of a great army by the nature of the country,--its woods, its swamps, its streams, and its mud. From some of the articles which appeared in the Northern papers, one would have thought that the writers supposed the soldiers had wings and could live without food. Their experience would have been enlarged, and their judgment corrected, had they been required to transport a single battery of siege-guns over the roads of Eastern Virginia in a rainy December, 2 [125]

And it must be admitted that the friends of General McClellan themselves, or some of them, were unwise in the lavish praise they heaped upon him, by which they awakened such wild hopes and impossible expectations. He was commended not for what he had done, but for what he was about to do; and what he did and said, and still more what he was going to do, was paraded before the public gaze in a way that to no one could be more distasteful than to him, an essentially modest man, who knew better than anybody else the weight of the burden that was upon him. The highest kindness to him at that time would have been to let him alone and say as little about him as possible. To a manly and truthful nature, nothing is less welcome than undeserved praise. Undeserved blame is bitter, but undeserved praise is sickening. Besides, [126] extravagant commendation is sure to produce a reaction, sooner or later.

The newspaper-correspondents who bedaubed him with flattery, who described his person and features with the minuteness of a passport, who chronicled all his movements, who named him the Young Napoleon,--he being of the same age as the Emperor was at the date of the battle of Austerlitz,--were moved by a friendly spirit, mingled with that hero-worship which is so decided an American trait; but they were doing him any thing but a kindness. Indeed, they were playing directly into the hands of his enemies and ill-wishers, political and personal.

Nor was this all. General McClellan was as little of a politician as a citizen of the United States well can be. The subject of politics had never occupied his mind. His time and attention had been wholly given to the duties of his profession while he remained in the army, and afterwards to the duties of his business. It had so happened that he had never but once, since reaching the legal age, been in a position to exercise the right of voting. But he had opinions upon the political issues of the time; and these opinions were not those of the party into whose hands the people had committed the government of the country; and the only time he had ever voted was in the memorable contest in Illinois between Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas, when he had preferred the latter; but in our country, sooner or later, every thing is swept into the gulf of polities; and thus General McClellan's [127] military capacity, his courage, even his patriotism, began to be looked at from a political point of view, and to be called in question by heated political partisans.

When Congress assembled, in December, 1861, President Lincoln announced the appointment of General McClellan to the post of commander of the army, in these terms, which were generally received as expressing no more than the exact truth:--

With the retirement of General Scott came the executive duty of appointing in his stead a general-in-chief of the army. It is a fortunate circumstance that neither in council nor country was there, so far as I know, any difference of opinion as to the proper person to be selected. The retiring chief repeatedly expressed his judgment in favor of General McClellan for the position; and in this the nation seemed to give a unanimous concurrence. The designation of General McClellan is, therefore, in a considerable degree, the selection of the country, as well as of the Executive; and hence there is better reason to hope there will be given him the confidence and cordial support thus, by fair implication, promised, and without which he cannot with so full efficiency serve the country.

Within a few days after the meeting of Congress, the vague discontent and restless impatience of the community found expression in the shape of a Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, consisting of three members of the Senate and four members of the House of Representatives. The first motion towards the formation of the committee was made in the Senate on the 9th day of [128] December, and the first meeting of the committee was held on the 20th of the same month. From that time until the close of April they sat nearly every day; and there were several meetings during the months of May, June, and July. Had the committee confined their inquiries and investigations to past transactions, and considered themselves as charged with the duty of collecting and recording testimony to be used by future historians of the war, their labors might have been of value to the country; but they did not take this limited view of the scope and sphere of their operations. In their judgment, the future as well as the past was committed to their trust. For instance, the very first witness examined before them was General I. B. Richardson, and the second was General S. P. Heintzelman, and both were examined on the same day, December 24. General Richardson's examination was short, and not very important. The first question put to General Heintzelman by the chairman began thus:--“We have inquired a little about the past: now we want to inquire a little about the present and the future, which is, perhaps, more important. As you are a military man of great experience, we want some of your opinions on some matters.” As to the “opinions” of the witness which they wanted, one or two questions and answers may suffice to show:--

Ques.--“I would inquire whether there has been any council of war among your officers and the commander-in-chief.” [129]

Ans.--“ I have never been consulted upon any military subject.”

* * * * * *

Ques.--“ You think a council of war among the chief officers might be beneficial?”

Ans.--“ I thought so. Certainly it would be very satisfactory to some of them, I know. We have been very anxious to know what is proposed to be done. I should act with more confidence if I knew.”

Ques.--“ Is there any feeling among officers that they are not consulted,--that they are slighted?”

Ans.--“Yes, sir: I suppose there is some,” &c. &c.3

This particular grievance — the reserve of the commander-in-chief, and his not consulting with his inferior officers — was a frequent point of inquiry on the part of the committee during the winter months, but by no means the only one. The general plan of the campaign, the policy which delayed a forward movement, the organization of the army, the proportion of cavalry to the other arms, the defences about Washington, the number of men requisite to make it secure, were also among the subjects to which the inquiries of the committee were directed. Their investigations were moulded and colored by a spirit not friendly to the commander-in-chief. Day after day, general officers, and sometimes those of inferior rank, were called before them, and invited, not to say encouraged, to give their opinions upon the plans of the commander-in-chief, his military views, and the manner in which he discharged his duties, and thus to [130] enter upon a line of discussion which, if not directly forbidden by the Army Regulations,4 was unfavorable to discipline and tended to injure the relations between the commander-in-chief and his subordinates. [131]

It is fair to state that at the very first meeting of the committee “it was agreed that, as a matter of honor, none of its members should reveal any thing that transpired in committee until such time as the injunction of secrecy should be removed;” but such a determination, by the cloud of mystery it threw around their proceedings, could only give rise to conjectures probably more injurious in their influence than the truth would have been if fully revealed. Besides, Congressional committees are human, and not hermetically sealed against the transmission of that kind of knowledge which has the charm of being forbidden.

Nor did the committee confine themselves to the task of taking and recording testimony, and the free discussion in their own room of military plans and movements, but, as they say in their Report, “they were in constant communication with the President and his Cabinet, and neglected no opportunity of at once laying before them the information acquired by them in the course of their investigations.” It is fair to presume that they gave advice as well as information; and, indeed, the journal of their proceedings shows that they did; and their advice was probably of weight in the conduct of the campaign. The following is an extract from the journal of the committee:--

February 26, 1862.
Pursuant to previous arrangement, the committee waited upon the President at eight o'clock on Tuesday evening, February 25. They made known to the President that, having examined many of the highest military [132] officers of the army, their statements of the necessity of dividing the great Army of the Potomac into corps d'armee had impressed the committee with the belief that it was essential that such a division of that army should be made,--that it would be dangerous to move upon a formidable enemy with the present organization of the army. The application was enforced by many arguments drawn from the usages in France, and every other military nation in Europe, and the fact that, so far as the committee could learn, all our military officers agreed that our army would not be efficient unless such an organization was had. The President observed that he had never considered the organization of the army into army corps so essential as the committee seemed to represent it to be: still, he had long been in favor of such an organization. General McClellan, however, did not seem to think it so essential, though he had at times expressed himself as favorable to it. The committee informed the President that the Secretary of War had authorized them to say to him that he deemed such an organization necessary.

General McClellan was in favor of an organization into corps, but only proposed deferring it till time should show what officers were best fitted for corps commanders,--which seems reasonable enough. It was a measure which surely might have been postponed till the army had taken the field, at least.

Whatever may have been the motives of the committee, or however earnest may have been their desire to see the war brought to a speedy and successful termination, it is certain that, in point of fact, they were only aiding the enemy; for the interference of such a body, direct or indirect, with the conduct of the campaign, could [133] have no other effect than to impair the unity of action and concentration of purpose which are so essential to the success of an army.

1Napoleon was of the opinion that he and the Archduke Charles were the only men in Europe who could manoeuvre one hundred thousand men: he considered it a very difficult thing.” --General Heintzelman. (Report on the Conduct of the War, Part I. p. 118.)

2 “Again, the public treat the army as a man or a horse, to whom it is only necessary to say ‘go’ and motion follows. They fancy that a fight can be witnessed from a hill-top, as a boxing-match can be viewed from a third-story window. They forget that this army, say of sixty thousand men only, must eat at least one hundred thousand meals a day, and, if the army is to be kept in prime order, must sleep at least six hours out of the twenty-four. Where there are turnpike roads, artillery can get along very well. Where there are no turnpikes, and the weather is wet, the last carriage of a single company of artillery — the thirteenth--often mires where the first carriage — a gun, technically — has found no difficulty. What, then, must it be when two or three hundred pieces of artillery, each one accompanied by a caisson, or ammunition-wagon, and every six with a forge,--making six hundred and fifty carriages that go into a battle,--have to be carried, in wet weather, through a swampy country, like that, for example, on the Chickahominy? This is mere fighting-material; to which add two or three thousand wagons for feeding-purposes, and you begin to have an idea of what has to be moved when an army moves, to say nothing of the cattle by thousands that have to be driven along, and a horde of camp-followers of all kinds. I am not speaking now of a corps of ten or twenty thousand men who start on a foray with nothing but their shirts, pantaloons, and boots to carry, besides their arms, but of an army which, when a victory is gained, is prepared to retain what is won in an enemy's country,--just such an army as McClellan had in the Peninsula.” --From “Three Great Battles” (a pamphlet printed, but not published), by J. H. B. Latrobe, Esq.

3 Report on the Conduct of the War, Part I. pp. 117-121.

4 The following is the 26th Article of the Revised Regulations for the Army:--

Deliberations or discussions among any class of military men, having the object of conveying praise or censure or any mark of approbation toward their superiors or others in the military service, . . . are strictly prohibited.

Some of the officers examined seemed conscious of the difficult position in which they stood between their duty as subjects and their duty as officers. General Lander, for instance, was asked this question:--

“If you will give us your opinion as a military man on that subject [the plan of the campaign], I will be obliged to you.”

Ans.--“ It is against the Army Regulations and laws of Congress to discuss the views and plans of your superior officer. In answering this question,” &c.--Report on the Conduct of the War, Part I. p. 160.

General Fitz-John Porter was asked,--

“Should” the army “retire into winter quarters, or should it attempt an enterprise to dislodge the enemy?”

Ans.--“That is a question I cannot answer.”

Ques.--“ I merely ask your military opinion.”

Ans.--“I decline to give a military opinion on that point. I am in possession of information in regard to intended movements,--rather, a portion of General McClellan's plans, a small portion only; and I decline giving any information whatever in regard to future movements, or what they ought to be. I do not think it my business to do so, and we are forbidden by our regulations to discuss or express opinions on these matters.” --Report on the Conduct of the War, Part I. p. 171.

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