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Chapter 6:

  • Commencement of the Peninsular campaign of 1862

We are now brought to the close of the year 1861 and the opening of 1862. The positions and numbers of the Confederate army in Eastern Virginia were as follows. At Norfolk and Yorktown there was a considerable force,--probably over thirty thousand men. The army before Washington occupied an extended line running from the southeast to the northwest. The left wing was at Leesburg and its vicinity, in force about forty-five hundred; and there were about thirteen thousand in the valley of the Shenandoah. The main body, comprising about eighty thousand men, was at Manassas and Centreville. At these points the positions were naturally very strong, with impassable streams and broken ground, affording ample protection to their flanks, and with lines of intrenchment sweeping all the available approaches. The right was at Brooks's Station, Dumfries, Lower Occoquan and vicinity, numbering about eighteen thousand. This wing of the army formed a support to several batteries on the Lower Potomac, extending from High Point and Cockpit Point to the Chopawampsic Creek. These batteries, greatly obstructing the navigation of the river, and to this extent practically blockading [134] Washington, were a source of great annoyance to the Administration and of mortification to the people, and a strong desire was felt that a movement should be made to destroy them; but General McClellan was of the opinion that such an attempt would be attended with danger, and that the destruction of these batteries by our army would afford but temporary relief unless we were strong enough to hold the entire line of the Potomac. The desired end could be secured either by driving the enemy from Manassas and Acquia Creek by superior force, or by manoeuvring to compel him to vacate the position. The latter course was finally adopted, with success.

That an onward movement should be made to Richmond, and the rebellion be there attacked in its heart, was a point on which the public, the Administration, and the commander-in-chief were agreed; but by what route to make the approach — whether by the Lower Potomac and the Peninsula, or by a direct attack upon the positions at Manassas and Centreville — formed a fruitful subject of debate in the newspapers and among military men; and the discussion was all the more animated from the fact that whatever plans General McClellan had formed, or was forming, he did not make them known to others.

Thus far nothing had, apparently, disturbed the relations between General McClellan and the Administration, or changed the friendly feeling which had inspired the paragraph which has been quoted from the President's message. On the 14th day of [135] January, 1862, Mr. Simon Cameron resigned his position as Secretary of War, and Mr. Edwin M. Stanton was appointed to fill his place. Mr. Stanton had not been in political life, and was known only as a lawyer in large practice, of strong grasp of mind and great capacity for labor. He had been a member of the Democratic party; and the selection of an able and honorable political opponent for such a place, at such a time, seemed an act alike of wisdom and magnanimity, which gave general pleasure. Thus the appointment was hailed with universal favor, and the highest hopes were entertained of an improved administration of the War Department, under a man fresh from the people, unscarred and unstained by political strife. But, in whatever other respects the country may have been a gainer by the introduction into the Cabinet of a man of Mr. Stanton's energy, it is certain that the hands of General McClellan were not strengthened by the change, and that the confidence reposed in him by the Administration was not thereby increased.1 [136]

General McClellan had been taken ill at Christmas-time, 1861, and was confined to his bed about three weeks. Upon his recovery, in the middle of January, he says in his Report that he found that an excessive anxiety for an immediate movement of the Army of the Potomac had taken possession of the Administration. lie had an interview with the new Secretary of War, soon after the appointment of the latter, in which he explained verbally his design as to the part of the campaign to be executed by the Army of the Potomac; and this was, to attack Richmond by the Lower Chesapeake. The Secretary instructed him to develop his plan to the President,--which he did. Unfortunately, it did not meet with the approbation of the latter; and [137] from that moment there began on the part of the President an active interference with the movements of the army, frequently without conference with the commander, which much increased the difficulties of the latter, and were most untoward in their influence upon the results of the campaign. The President's course can be shown out of his own mouth to have been unwise; for in his Annual Message of December 3, 1861, he says, immediately after the paragraph which has been already quoted, announcing the appointment of General McClellan as commander in-chief,--

It has been said that one bad general is better than two good ones; and the saying is true, if taken to mean no more than that an army is better directed by a single mind, though inferior, than by two superior ones at variance and cross-purposes with each other.

And the same is true in all joint operations, wherein those engaged can have none but a common end in view, and can differ only as to the choice of means. In a storm at sea, no one on board can wish the ship to sink: and yet, not unfrequently, all go down together, because too many will direct, and no single mind can be allowed to control.

This is well put: it is good sense, enforced by pertinent illustration; and the question naturally rises, why did not the President “reck his own rede” ? Without impugning his patriotism, it may be presumed that he yielded his own judgment to the force of that mysterious influence called “pressure,” --“a power behind the throne, greater than the [138] throne,” --which has done so much harm and so little good in the conduct of the war.

The President's practical exercise of his constitutional functions as commander-in-chief began with the issuing of the following order, which, be it always borne in mind, was done without consultation with General McClellan:--

President's General War order, no. 1.)

Executive Mansion, Washington, January 27, 1862.
Ordered, That the 22d day of February, 1862, be the day for a general movement of the land and naval forces of the United States against the insurgent forces. That especially the army at and about Fortress Monroe, the Army of the Potomac, the Army of Western Virginia, the army near Munfordsville, Kentucky, the army and flotilla at Cairo, and a naval force in the Gulf of Mexico, be ready to move on that day.

That all other forces, both land and naval, with their respective commanders, obey existing orders for the time, and be ready to obey additional orders when duly given.

That the heads of departments, and especially the Secretaries of War and of the Navy, with all their subordinates, and the general-in-chief, with 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.

The President, as has been said, disapproved of General McClellan's plan of attacking Richmond by the Lower Chesapeake, and substituted one of his own, by a new order, as follows:-- [139]

President's special War order, no. 1.)

Executive Mansion, Washington, January 31, 1862.
Ordered, That all the disposable force of the Army of the Potomac, after providing safely for the defence of Washington, be formed into an expedition for the immediate object of seizing and occupying a point upon the railroad southwestward of what is known as Manassas Junction, all details to be in the discretion of the commander-in-chief, and the expedition to move before or on the 22d day of February next.

These two orders should be considered together and carefully pondered by every candid man who desires to form a correct judgment as to the past, irrespective of political prepossessions. The outposts of an army mark the line where the sphere of party politics ends. A general is a good general or a bad general, a cautious general or a rash general; but no military critic will speak of a tory general or a whig general, a Republican general or a Democratic general. The President of the United States is a civilian, without military training or experience; and he is, moreover, of necessity, greatly occupied with important civil duties, and thus unable to give his time and thoughts exclusively to military matters. The second in date of the above orders, by a stroke of the pen, directs that a most momentous campaign should be conducted upon a plan which the commanding officer, charged with the duty and responsibility of carrying it out, had, after great deliberation. [140] decided to be inexpedient. It is easy to see how unequal, under such difference of opinion, is the contest between the President of the United States and the general who acts under peremptory orders to take a certain step, but has the “details” in his own “discretion.” Does he succeed? it is because the plan was good; does he fail? it is because the “details” were not zealously and ably executed. 2

But the first of these orders deserves more consideration even than the second. The President appoints a certain future day for a general movement of the land and naval forces of the country, as if it were the marshalling of a civic procession or the arranging of a mock battle on the stage. No man can venture to say that a great army shall move or a great fleet shall sail on a fixed future day, unless he be endowed with [141] the gift of prophecy. And the 22d day of February was named for the combined movement, it may be presumed, simply because it was the birthday of Washington. Thus a sort of melodramatic grace was attempted to be thrown over the stern aspect of war, and the corps of fine writers who were in attendance upon the army were furnished with a theme for a sensation paragraph. It is melancholy to think that the lives and blood of brave men were under the control of those who could be moved by so trumpery a consideration as this.

General McClellan, on receiving the order of January 3, asked the President whether it was to be regarded as final, or whether he could be permitted to submit in writing his objections to the plan of the Executive and his reasons for preferring his own. Permission was granted, and a letter was addressed to the Secretary of War, under date of February 3. But, before it had been submitted to the President, General McClellan received from him the following note:--

Executive Mansion, Washington, February 3, 1862.
my dear Sir:--You and I have distinct and different plans for a movement of the Army of the Potomac,--yours to be done by 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:-- [142]

1st. Does not your plan involve a greatly larger expenditure of time and money than mine?

2d. Wherein is a victory more certain by your plan than mine?

3d. Wherein is a victory more valuable by your plan than mine?

4th. 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?

5th. In case of disaster, would not a retreat be more difficult by your plan than mine?

Yours, truly,

These questions were substantially answered in the letter to the Secretary of War above referred to, which appears in General McClellan's Report; but its length forbids its being copied in full, and only an abstract of its contents can be given.

He begins with a brief statement of the condition of the troops when he assumed the command in July, 1861, and of the defenceless position of the capital at that time, and thus recapitulates what had been accomplished up to the date of writing:--

The capital is secure against attack; the extensive fortifications erected by the labor of our troops enable a small garrison to hold it against a numerous army; the enemy have been held in check; the State of Maryland is securely in our possession; the detached counties of Virginia are again within the pale of our laws, and all apprehension of trouble in Delaware is at an end; the enemy are confined to the positions they occupied before the disaster of the 21st of July. More than all this, I have [143] now under my command a well-drilled and reliable army, to which the destinies of the country may be confidently committed. This army is young and untried in battle; but it is animated by the highest spirit, and is capable of great deeds.

That so much has been accomplished and such an army created in so short a time from nothing, will hereafter be regarded as one of the highest glories of the Administration and the nation.

After telling the Secretary that he has not yet under his command such a force as he asked for in his earliest papers submitted to the President, he thus proceeds:--

When I was placed in command of the armies of the United States, I immediately turned my attention to the whole field of operations, regarding the Army of the Potomac as only one, while the most important, of the masses under my command.

I confess that I did not then appreciate the total absence of a general plan which had before existed, nor did I know that utter disorganization and want of preparation pervaded the Western armies.

I took it for granted that they were nearly, if not quite, in condition to move towards the fulfilment of my plans. I acknowledge that I made a great mistake.

I sent at once — with approval of the Executive — officers I considered competent to command in Kentucky and Missouri. Their instructions looked to prompt movements. I soon found that the labor of creation and organization had to be performed there: transportation, arms, clothing, artillery, discipline, all were wanting. These things required time to procure them.

The generals in command have done their work most creditably; but we are still delayed. I had hoped that a [144] general advance could be made during the good weather of December: I was mistaken.

My wish was to gain possession of the Eastern Tennessee Railroad, as a preliminary movement, then to follow it up immediately by an attack on Nashville and Richmond as nearly at the same time as possible.

I have ever regarded our true policy as being that of fully preparing ourselves, and then seeking for the most decisive results. I do not wish to waste life in useless battles, but prefer to strike at the heart.

He next proceeds to state that two bases of operation presented themselves for the advance of the Army of the Potomac,--first, that of Washington, its present position, involving a direct attack upon the intrenched positions of the enemy at Centreville, Manassas, &c., or else a movement to turn one or both of those positions, or a combination of the two plans. The relative force of the two armies would not justify an attack on both flanks of the enemy; and an attack on his left flank alone would involve a long line of wagon-communication, and could not prevent him from collecting for the decisive battle all the detachments now on his extreme right and left.

He next sets forth in great detail the difficulties and dangers of an attack upon the right flank, by the line of the Occoquan, and a crossing of the Potomac below that river, showing a minute knowledge of the localities of the region, and demonstrating to his correspondent the great advantage possessed by the enemy in the central position he occupied, with roads diverging in every direction, [145] and a strong line of defence, enabling him to await an attack with a small force on one flank, while he concentrates every thing on the other for a decisive action. Among other difficulties, he speaks of “the present unprecedented and impassable condition of the roads.” But, supposing the movement in this direction to be successful, the results, he thinks, would be confined to the possession of the field of battle, the evacuation of the line of the Upper Potomac by the enemy, and the moral effect of the victory,--important results, it is true, but not decisive of the war, or securing the destruction of the enemy's main army or the capture of Richmond.

The second base of operations available for the Army of the Potomac is that of the Lower Chesapeake Bay, which affords the shortest possible land-route to Richmond and strikes directly at the heart of the enemy's power in the East. In favor of this plan he thus reasons:--

The roads in that region are passable at all periods of the year.

The country now alluded to is much more favorable for offensive operations than that in front of Washington (which is very unfavorable),--much more level, more cleared land, the woods less dense, the soil more sandy, and the spring some two or three weeks earlier. A movement in force on that line obliges the enemy to abandon his intrenched position at Manassas in order to hasten to cover Richmond and Norfolk. He must do this; for, should he permit us to occupy Richmond, his destruction can be averted only by entirely defeating us in a battle in which he must be the assailant. This movement, if successful, gives us the capital, the communications, the supplies, [146] of the rebels; Norfolk would fall, all the waters of the Chesapeake would be ours, all Virginia would be in our power, and the enemy forced to abandon Tennessee and North Carolina. The alternative presented to the enemy would be to beat us in a position selected by ourselves, disperse, or pass beneath the Caudine forks.

Should we be beaten in a battle, we have a perfectly secure retreat down the Peninsula upon Fort Monroe, with our flanks perfectly covered by the fleet.

During the whole movement our left flank is covered by the water. Our right is secure, for the reason that the enemy is too distant to reach us in time: he can only oppose us in front; we bring our fleet into full play.

After a successful battle, our position would be — Burnside forming our left, Norfolk held securely, our centre connecting Burnside with Buell both by Raleigh and Lynchburg, Buell in Eastern Tennessee and North Alabama, Halleck at Nashville and Memphis.

The next movement would be to connect with Sherman on the left, by reducing Wilmington and Charleston; to advance our centre into South Carolina and Georgia; to push Buell either towards Montgomery or to unite with the main army in Georgia; to throw Halleck southward to meet the naval expedition from New Orleans.

We should then be in a condition to reduce at our leisure all the Southern sea-ports, to occupy all the avenues of communication, to use the great outlet of the Mississippi, to re-establish our Government and arms in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, to force the slaves to labor for our subsistence instead of that of the rebels, to bid defiance to all foreign interference. Such is the object I have ever had in view; this is the general plan which I hope to accomplish.

For many long months I have labored to prepare the Army of the Potomac to play its part in the programme. From the day when I was placed in command of all our [147] armies, I have exerted myself to place all the other armies in such a condition that they too could perform their allotted duties.

He then tells his correspondent that, if it should be determined to operate from the Lower Chesapeake, the best point of landing would be Urbana, on the Lower Rappahannock, and states his reasons for the opinion; but, if circumstances should render it advisable not to land there, either Mobjack Bay or Fort Monroe might be resorted to. A large amount of cheap water transportation would be requisite to move the army to whatever point might be selected as a base of operations; and he gives some details in relation to this important point. The letter thus concludes:--

The total force to be thrown upon the new line would be, according to circumstances, from one hundred and ten thousand to one hundred and forty thousand. I hope to use the latter number by bringing fresh troops into Washington and still leaving it quite safe. I fully realize that, in all projects offered, time will probably be the most valuable consideration. It is my decided opinion that, in that point of view, the second plan should be adopted. It is possible — nay, highly probable — that the weather and state of the roads may be such as to delay the direct movement from Washington, with its unsatisfactory results and great risks, far beyond the time required to complete the second plan. In the first case, we can fix no definite time for an advance. The roads have gone from bad to worse. Nothing like their present condition was ever known here before: they are impassable at present. We are entirely at the mercy of the weather. It is by no means certain that we can beat them at Manassas. On the other line I regard success as certain by all the chances of war. We [148] demoralize the enemy by forcing him to abandon his prepared position for one which we have chosen, in which all is in our favor and where success must produce immense results.

My judgment, as a general, is clearly in favor of this project. Nothing is certain in war; but all the chances are in favor of this movement. So much am I in favor of the southern line of operations, that I would prefer the move from Fortress Monroe as a base, as a certain though less brilliant movement than that from Urbana, to an attack upon Manassas.

I know that his Excellency the President, you, and I, all agree in our wishes, and that these wishes are, to bring this war to a close as promptly as the means in our possession will permit. I believe that the mass of the people have entire confidence in us. I am sure of it. Let us, then, look only to the great result to be accomplished, and disregard every thing else.

This carefully-prepared and well-reasoned letter, and the many verbal conferences which followed it, seem to have induced the President to give up his own “plan;” for the execution of his order was not insisted upon,--though, as it was not revoked so formally as it had been issued, General McClellan stood before the public in the awkward position of a general officer declining to execute an order of the commander-in-chief still apparently in force. But from this time General McClellan's “plan” of attacking Richmond by way of the Peninsula was assented to, or acquiesced in, by the President; and no further conflict of opinion took place between them on this point.

The plan of operations being settled, the next [149] thing was to devise ways and means to carry it into execution. Secrecy and despatch were to be secured, as far as was practicable. An immense army was to be moved by water from a point or points in the neighborhood of Washington, and the plan of the campaign was to be kept from the knowledge of the enemy till the latest possible moment. Immediate measures were taken to provide a force of steamers and sailing-vessels necessary for the contemplated object.3 [150]

About the 20th of February, measures were taken to secure the reopening of the Baltimore & [151] Ohio Railroad. The whole of General Banks's division, and two brigades of General Sedgwick's division, were thrown across the river at Harper's Ferry on the 26th, superintended by General McClellan in person, who had gone up from Washington for that purpose. Materials had been collected for making a permanent bridge by means of canal-boats but, on attempting to pass the boats through the left lock, it was found, for the first time, that the lock was too small to permit their passage. This unexpected obstacle deranged the plans; and an order which had been given for the movement of some forces from Washington was countermanded. Every exertion was made to establish, as promptly as possible, depots of forage and subsistence on the Virginia side, to supply the troops. On the 28th, Charlestown was occupied by a strong Federal force; and on the same day General McClellan returned to Washington. In spite of the untoward mischance of the canal-boats,--for which the commander-in-chief could not be responsible,--the design aimed at had been accomplished, and before the 1st of April the railroad was in running order.

With General McClellan's return to Washington on the 28th of February, preparations were begun for carrying out the wishes of the President and Secretary of War in regard to destroying the batteries on the Lower Potomac,--though in giving his hand to this movement General McClellan yielded his own judgment to theirs. He was convinced that this operation would require the movement [152] of the entire army, that the extremely unfavorable condition of the roads was a serious obstacle to be overcome, and that it was unnecessary, because the proposed movement to the Lower Chesapeake would — as it subsequently did — force the enemy to abandon all his positions in front of Washington. But the preparations for a movement towards the Occoquan in order to carry the batteries were advanced as rapidly as the season permitted.

This brings us down to the 8th of March, 1862,--an important day in the history of the war. General McClellan had invited the commanders of divisions to meet at Headquarters on that day, in order to give them instructions and receive their advice and opinion in regard to their commands; but at a very early hour on the morning of that day he was sent for by the President, who expressed his dissatisfaction with the affair of Harper's Ferry and with the plans for the new movement down the Chesapeake. Explanations were made which, apparently, satisfied the President's mind. At a later hour in the day, the meeting of general officers which had been called was held at Headquarters. The officers present (besides General McClellan) were Generals McDowell, Sumner, Heintzelman, Keyes, Franklin, Fitz-John Porter, Andrew Porter, Smith, McCall, Blenker, Negley, and Barnard. The President of the United States was also there. The plans of General McClellan were fully explained to the council, and the general question submitted to them was whether the enemy [153] should be attacked in front at Manassas and Centreville, or whether a movement should be made down to the Lower Chesapeake. After a full discussion, four of the officers — McDowell, Sumner, Heintzelman, and Barnard — approved of the former plan, and the remainder of the latter. The details were not considered as fixed; though it was generally understood that the point of destination and landing was Urbana, on the Rappahannock.

At the close of this council of officers, nothing had transpired to lead General McClellan to suppose that there was any lingering distrust of him in the President's mind; and he was therefore much and painfully surprised to learn that on that very 8th day of March the President, without consulting him, had issued two important military orders. The first of these was as follows:--

President's General War order, no. 2.)

Executive Mansion, Washington, March 8, 1862.
Ordered, 1st. That the major-general commanding the Army of the Potomac proceed forthwith to organize that part of the said army destined to enter upon active operations (including the reserve, but excluding the troops to be left in the fortifications about Washington) into four army corps, to be commanded, according to seniority of rank, as follows:--

First Corps to consist of four divisions, and to be commanded by Major-General I. McDowell. Second Corps to consist of three divisions, and to be commanded by Brigadier-General E. V. Sumner. Third Corps to consist of three divisions, and to be commanded by Brigadier-General [154] S. P. Heintzelman. Fourth Corps to consist of three divisions, and to be commanded by Brigadier-General E. D. Keyes.

2d. That the divisions now commanded by the officers above assigned to the commands of army corps shall be embraced in and form part of their respective corps.

3d. The forces left for the defence of Washington will be placed in command of Brigadier-General James Wadsworth, who shall also be Military Governor of the District of Columbia.

4th. That this order be executed with such promptness and despatch as not to delay the commencement of the operations already directed to be undertaken by the Army of the Potomac.

5th. A Fifth Army Corps, to be commanded by Major-General N. P. Banks, will be formed from his own and General Shields's (late General Lander's) division.

This order was probably of no great practical importance, as it simply anticipated General McClellan's purpose. He had always been in favor of an organization into army corps, but preferred deferring its practical execution until some little experience in the coming campaign and on the field of battle should show what general officers were most competent to exercise these high commands, as an incompetent commander of an army corps might cause very serious damage, while an incompetent division commander could do no great harm. These views commend themselves to common sense; but they failed to convince the President's mind, who assumed a responsibility from which General McClellan at that time shrank. The latter at once [155] issued the order necessary to carry out the command of the President.

The second of the orders issued by the President on the 8th of March was as follows:--

President's General War order, no. 3.)

Executive Mansion, Washington, March 8, 1862.
Ordered, That no change of the base of operations of the Army of the Potomac shall be made without leaving in and about Washington such a force as, in the opinion of the general-in-chief and the commanders of army corps, shall leave said city entirely secure.

That no more than two army corps (about fifty thousand troops) of said Army of the Potomac shall be moved en route for a new base of operations until the navigation of the Potomac from Washington to the Chesapeake Bay shall be freed from enemy's batteries and other obstructions, or until the President shall hereafter give express permission.

That any movement, as aforesaid, en route for a new base of operations which may be ordered by the general-in-chief, and which may be intended to move upon the Chesapeake Bay, shall begin to move upon the bay as early as the 18th of March instant; and the general-in-chief shall be responsible that it so moves as early as that day.

Ordered, That the army and navy co-operate in an immediate effort to capture the enemy's batteries upon the Potomac between Washington and the Chesapeake Bay.

Abraham Lincoln. L. Thomas, Adjutant-General.

Here it will be seen that the President again assumes to fix a certain day in the future for the beginning of an important military movement. [156] Whether the army would be prepared to move upon the Bay on the 18th of March depended upon the state of readiness of the transports, the entire control of which had been placed by the Secretary of War in the hands of one of the assistant secretaries. Unless his arrangements had been completed on or before that day, the army could not have moved.

But the record of the important events of the 8th of March is not completed; for on that day the Merrimac appeared in Hampton Roads and destroyed the Cumberland and Congress, and the news, flashed far and wide by the telegraph-wires, filled the whole land with consternation and dismay. But our spirits rose the next day at the opportune arrival and gallant and successful achievement of the Monitor. It is needless to dwell upon the memorable contest between these two vessels, so important in its effects upon the whole science of naval warfare; but it was an event of no inconsiderable moment in the fate and fortunes of the Peninsular campaign. The power of the Monitor had been so satisfactorily demonstrated, and the other naval preparations were so extensive and formidable, that the security of Fortress Monroe as a base of operations was placed beyond a doubt; but, on the other hand, the presence of the Merrimac in the James River closed that river to us, and threw us upon the York River, with its tributaries, as our only line of water-communication with the fortress. The general plan, therefore, remained undisturbed, [157] though less promising in its details than when James River was in our control.

On Sunday, the 9th of March, trustworthy information came to Washington that the enemy was beginning to evacuate his positions at Centreville and Manassas, as well as on the Upper and Lower Potomac. It is not improbable that, in some mysterious way, they had heard of the council of general officers held on the preceding day, and of the conclusions arrived at.4 [158]

As soon as the news came, General McClellan determined to cross the river immediately and ascertain by observation whether the intelligence was true, and then determine what course to pursue. Orders were accordingly issued, during the 9th of March, for a general movement of the army the next morning towards Centreville and Manassas, sending in advance two regiments of cavalry as a corps of observation. At noon on the 10th of March the cavalry advance reached the enemy's lines at Centreville, finding there still burning heaps of military [159] stores and much valuable property. The mass of the army advanced to the vicinity of Fairfax Court-House, and General McClellan himself went to Manassas. The roads were in so impassable a condition that a rapid pursuit of an enemy who burned or broke up all the bridges behind him in his retreat was impossible. The main body of the army was on the 15th of March moved back to the vicinity of Alexandria, to be embarked. It was while General McClellan was absent on this brief reconnoissance in force that the President saw fit to remove him from the position of general-in-chief, by the following order, which appeared in the National Intelligencer of Marc h 12, and which General McClellan heard of for the first time at Fairfax Court-House.

President's War order, no. 3.)

Executive Mansion, Washington, March 11, 1862.
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.

Ordered, further, That the departments now under the respective commands of Generals Halleck and Hunter, together with so much of that under General Buell as lies west of a north-and-south line indefinitely drawn through Knoxville, Tennessee, be consolidated, and designated the Department of the Mississippi; and that, until otherwise ordered, Major-General Halleck have command of said department.

Ordered, also, That the country west of the Department [160] of the Potomac and east of the Department of the Mississippi be a military department, to be called the Mountain Department, and that the same be commanded by Major-General Fremont.

That all the commanders of departments, after the receipt of this order by them, respectively report severally and directly to the Secretary of War, and that prompt, full, and frequent reports will be expected of all and each of them.

Whatever emotions General McClellan may have felt on reading this order, his sense of duty as a patriotic citizen, and his instincts of obedience as a soldier, taught him to suppress all expression of them; and, in a note addressed by him to the President on the 12th of March, the next day, he said, in language alike distinguished for good feeling and good taste,--

I believe I said to you, some weeks since, in connection with some Western matters, that no feeling of self-interest or ambition should ever prevent me from devoting myself to the service. I am glad to have the opportunity to prove it; and you will find that, under present circumstances, I shall work just as cheerfully as before, and that no consideration of self will in any manner interfere with the discharge of my public duties.

On the 13th of March a council of war was assembled at Fairfax Court-House, to discuss the military position. The President's order No. 3, of March 8, was considered. As future events made the action of this council of considerable importance, [161] the memorandum of its proceedings is here given in full:--

Headquarters, army of the Potomac, Fairfax Court-House, March 13, 1862.
A council of the generals commanding army corps, at the Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, were of the opinion--

I. That the enemy having retreated from Manassas to Gordonsville, behind the Rappahannock and Rapidan, it is the opinion of generals commanding army corps that the operations to be carried on will be best undertaken from Old Point Comfort, between the York and James Rivers: Provided--

1st. That the enemy's vessel, Merrimac, can be neutralized.

2d. That the means of transportation sufficient for an immediate transfer of the force to its new base can be ready at Washington and Alexandria to move down the Potomac; and,

3d. That a naval auxiliary force can be had to silence, or aid in silencing, the enemy's batteries on the York River.

4th. That the force to be left to cover Washington shall be such as to give an entire feeling of security for its safety from menace. (Unanimous.)

II. If the foregoing cannot be, the army should then be moved against the enemy, behind the Rappahannock, at the earliest possible moment, and the means for reconstructing bridges, repairing railroads, and stocking them with materials sufficient for supplying the army should at once be collected. for both the Orange & Alexandria and Acquia & Richmond Railroads. (Unanimous.)

N. B.--That, with the forts on the right bank of the Potomac fully garrisoned; and those on the left bank occupied, [162] a covering force in front of the Virginia line of twenty-five thousand men would suffice. (Keyes, Heintzelman, and McDowell.) A total of forty thousand men for the defence of the city would suffice. (Sumner.)

This was assented to by General McClellan, and immediately communicated to the War Department; and on the same day the following reply was received:--

War Department, March 13, 1862.
The President, having considered the plan of operations agreed upon by yourself and the commanders of army corps, makes no objection to the same, but gives the following directions as to its execution:--

1. 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.

2. Leave Washington entirely secure.

3. Move the remainder of the force down the Potomac, choosing a new base at Fortress 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.

On the 14th day of March, General McClellan issued the following address to his soldiers:--

Headquarters, army of the Potomac, Fairfax Court-House, Va., March 14, 1862.
soldiers of tie army of the Potomac:--
For a long time I have kept you inactive, but not without a purpose. You were to be disciplined, armed, [163] and instructed; the formidable artillery you now have had to be created; other armies were to move and accomplish certain results. I have held you back that you might give the death-blow to the rebellion that has distracted our once happy country. The patience you have shown, and your confidence in your general, are worth a dozen victories. These preliminary results are now accomplished. I feel that the patient labors of many months have produced their fruit: the Army of the Potomac is now a real army, magnificent in material, admirable in discipline and instruction, excellently equipped and armed; your commanders are all that I could wish. The moment for action has arrived, and I know that I can trust in you to save our country. As I ride through your ranks, I see in your faces the sure presage of victory; I feel that you will do whatever I ask of you. The period of inaction has passed. I will bring you now face to face with the rebels, and only pray that God may defend the right. In whatever direction you may move, however strange my actions may appear to you, ever bear in mind that my fate is linked with yours, and that all I do is to bring you, where I know you wish to be, on the decisive battle-field. It is my business to place you there. I am to watch over You as a parent over his children; and you know that you; general loves you from the depths of his heart. It shall be my care, as it has ever been, to gain success with the least possible loss; but I know that, if it is necessary, you will willingly follow me to our graves for our righteous cause. God smiles upon us, victory attends us. Yet I would not have you think that our aim is to be attained without a manly struggle. I will not disguise it from you: you have brave foes to encounter, foemen well worthy of the steel that you will use so well. I shall demand of you great, heroic exertions, rapid and long marches, desperate combats, privations perhaps. We will share all these together; and, when this sad war is [164] over, we will return to our homes and feel that we can ask no higher honor than the proud consciousness that we belonged to the Army of the Potomac.

Geo. B. McClellan, Major-General commanding.

Preparations were immediately begun, in compliance with the directions contained in the letter from the Secretary of War of March 13, above given. On the 16th of March, General McClellan addressed a letter of instructions to General Banks to post his command in the vicinity of Manassas and intrench himself strongly there, for the general object of covering the line of the Potomac and Washington; and on the same day a similar letter of instructions was addressed by him to General Wadsworth, who was in command at Washington, giving him minute and detailed directions as to the military precautions to be taken to keep the capital secure.

The Secretary of War having expressed a desire that General McClellan should communicate to the Departments, in an official form, his designs with regard to the employment of the Army of the Potomac, the latter addressed to the Department a note under date of March 19, in which he unfolds briefly his plan, sets forth its advantages, and states what will be requisite to insure its successful accomplishment. He especially urges the absolute necessity of a full co-operation of the navy in a combined naval and land attack upon Yorktown, as a part of his programme. He enforces this view [165] by many considerations, and thus concludes his communication:--

It may be summed up in a few words, that for the prompt success of this campaign it is absolutely necessary that the navy should at once throw its whole available force, its most powerful vessels, against Yorktown. There is the most important point,--there the knot to be cut. An immediate decision upon the subject-matter of this communication is highly desirable, and seems called for by the exigencies of the occasion.

In the mean time, the troops destined to form the active army were collected in camps convenient to the points of embarkation, and every preparation was made to despatch them as rapidly as possible when the transports should be ready. While the army was still encamped at Alexandria, a few days before sailing for Fortress Monroe, General McClellan met the President, by appointment, on board a steamer, and was told by the President that he had been strongly pressed to take General Blenker's division from his (General McClellan's) command and give it to General Fremont; but he, however, suggested many considerations in opposition to this step, and frankly and voluntarily avowed his purpose of allowing the division to remain with the Army of the Potomac. The astonishment, therefore, of General McClellan may well be imagined when by the receipt of the following note he learned that the President had changed his mind, and determined upon a measure the inexpediency of which was so obvious to him but a few days before :-- [166]

Executive Mansion, Washington, March 31, 1862.
my dear Sir:--This morning I felt constrained to order Blenker's division to Fremont; and I write this to assure you that I did so with great pain, understanding that you would wish it otherwise. If you could know the full pressure of the case, I am confident that you would justify it, even beyond a mere acknowledgment that the commander-in-chief may order what he pleases.

Yours, very truly,

The weak and deprecatory tone of this note disarms, or at least alloys with contempt, the indignation justly awakened by the deliberate breach of faith which it confesses; but it is a melancholy fact that at so critical a period the reins of executive power were in hands that held them with so slack a grasp, and that the President, by yielding to unknown and irresponsible advisers in the conduct of a campaign, seemingly acted as if he thought that many bad generals were better than one good one.

General McClellan could only acquiesce in the latest decision of the President, not suppressing some natural expressions of surprise; but he was relieved by the President's positive and emphatic assurance that he might be confident that in no event should any more troops be detached from his command. General Blenker's division consisted of about ten thousand men.

On the 1st of April, General McClellan addressed [167] another letter of instruction to General Banks, founded upon the retreat of General Jackson up the Valley of the Shenandoah, and the change for the better in the military position of the Federal cause in that region.

In view of events which subsequently occurred, and of questions which were subsequently raised, it becomes of importance here that the reader should ,understand how far the defence of Washington was provided for before the Army of the Potomac was withdrawn.

In the first place, the city itself was defended by a strong system of fortifications, built under the directions of General Barnard, and sweeping round a line of thirty-three miles in extent. The troops which were assigned to garrison these fortifications were eighteen thousand in number, with thirty-two field-guns. At Manassas there were ten thousand men; on the Lower Potomac, thirteen hundred; in the Valley of the Shenandoah, thirty-five thousand. Thus without~ including General Blenker's division, which was at Warrenton, there were about sixty-three thousand men disposed at various points for the protection of Washington, together with eighty-five pieces of light artillery, including the thirty-two above mentioned. There was also a body of troops in New York, over four thousand in number, which General McClellan recommended to have sent to Washington to reinforce the garrison there.

These forces were deemed by him amply adequate to insure the safety of Washington and to give everybody there an entire sense of security,--a [168] conclusion not to be doubted, as the following facts show.

There was no reason to apprehend an attack by way of Manassas and Centreville; for the enemy in their retreat across the Rappahannock had destroyed all the railroad-bridges behind them. Had they attempted such a movement, their progress must have been very slow; for they must have rebuilt their bridges, and this would have announced their purpose beforehand and afforded ample time to concentrate a large body of forces at Washington.

Nor was there any real ground of apprehension from the Valley of the Shenandoah; because the movement of the army on Richmond would make it impossible for the enemy to leave in that region men enough to overpower the large body of troops we had there. But, in General McClellan's opinion, the way to defend Washington was to attack Richmond; and the greater the force thrown against the rebel capital, the greater the security of our own. Strongly fortified as Washington was, capable of being readily reinforced from the North, it was manifest that the enemy could not afford to detach from his main army a force sufficient to capture it.

Here were solid grounds enough, it would appear, for General McClellan's conclusion that he had left Washington perfectly safe; but, unhappily, fears, panics, and apprehensions take their rise in that part of the mind which is not reached by the voice of reason. Whether Washington were safe or not [169] was a matter of sound military judgment; but as a matter of fact it is certain that from the moment the Army of the Potomac landed upon the Peninsula an uneasy sense of insecurity took possession of the minds of the President, the Cabinet, and the members of Congress. The public in general shared this feeling; and the Northern press encouraged and increased it. All over the loyal States the question of the safety of Washington was discussed, with abundant zeal and very little knowledge. Some of this alarm may have been counterfeited for political effect; but without doubt much of it was real; and this should be borne in mind, when discussing measures subsequently adopted, disastrous in their consequences, but, unquestionably, inspired by an honest but miserable fright. It was destined, in the providence of God, that our cause should suffer alike from unreasonable hopes and extravagant fears.

1 The following is an extract from the journal of the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, under date of January 21, 1862, a few days after Mr. Stanton's appointment:--

Sir:--I am instructed by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the present War to inquire of you whether there is such an office as commander-in-chief of the army of the United States, or any grade above that of major-general. If so, by what authority is it created? Does it exist by virtue of any law of Congress, or any usage of the Government? Please give us the information asked for, at your convenience.

I remain, &c.,

This seems hardly respectful to the President of the United States, after his announcement in his Annual Message that he had appointed General McClellan to the very office which the committee insinuate does not exist; and had Abraham Lincoln been Andrew Jackson, he would have been a bold man who would have addressed such a letter to the Secretary of War. But we may infer that such a communication would not have been sent to Mr. Stanton unless the committee had surmised it would be welcome,--which inference is strengthened by the fact that the committee, on the preceding day, January 20, had had a conference with the Secretary, at his request, of several hours' duration.

2 It may be a consolation for us to know that the interference of civilians in the plans of military commanders has been an evil in other countries besides ours. A respectable English writer, speaking of their Peninsular campaign, says, “We may here observe how hard is the fate of an English general sent out in command of an expedition. With the single exception of the first Earl of Chatham, England never has possessed an able war-minister. Ministers, in general, are far better skilled in parliamentary tactics and political intrigue than in history, geography, and the other sciences connected with war. Yet they will boldly take upon them to plan campaigns, and will even order impossibilities to be performed, and the whole blame of failure is laid upon the unfortunate commander. What, for example, can be conceived more absurd than a Castlereagh, a Canning, or a Frere, directing .a Moore or a Wellington? Such things, however, were.” --Keightley: History of England vol. III. p. 507.

3 In the order of time, the following letter of the Secretary of War may be appropriately introduced here, as showing his feeling towards General McClellan and the Army of the Potomac:--

War Department, Washington, February 17, 1862.
To Brigadier-General F. W. Lander:--
The President directs me to say that he has observed with pleasure the activity and enterprise manifested by yourself and the officers and soldiers of your command. You have shown how; much may be done, in the worst weather and worst roads, by a spirited officer, at the head of a small force of brave men, unwilling to waste life in camp when the enemies of their country are in reach. Your brilliant success is a happy presage of what may be expected when the Army of the Potomac shall be led to the field by their gallant general.

Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War.

A few days after, the Secretary wrote another letter, addressed to the editor of the New York Tribune, which is as follows:--

Washington, February 20, 1862.
Sir:--I cannot suffer undue merit to be ascribed to my official action. The glory of our recent victories belongs to the gallant officers that fought the battles. No share of it belongs to me.

Much has been recently said of military combination and organizing victory. I hear such phrases with apprehension. They commenced in infidel France with the Italian campaign, and resulted in Waterloo. Who can organize victory? Who can combine the elements of success on the battle-field? We owe our recent victories to the Spirit of the Lord, that moved our soldiers to dash into battle, and filled the hearts of our enemies with terror and dismay. The inspiration that conquered in battle was in the hearts of the soldiers, and from on high. Patriotic spirit with resolute courage in officers and men is a military combination that never failed.

We may well rejoice at the recent victories; for they teach us that battles are to be won now and by us in the same and only manner that they were ever won by any people or in any age since the days of Joshua,--by boldly pursuing and striking the foe. What, under the blessing of Providence, I conceive to be the true organization of victory and military combination to end this war, was declared in a few words by General Grant's message to General Buckner:--“I propose to move immediately on your works.”

Yours, truly,

It is difficult to believe that this absurd letter, which no officer in the army could have read without indignation and disgust, could have been written by a Secretary of War. Besides its bad taste and false rhetoric, it involves a contemptuous disparagement of military science, most unbecoming in a man who was at the head of the War Department of a great nation engaged in a momentous war. And there breathes through it a spirit of hostility towards General McClellan, of ominous import to the success of our arms. After reading it, the President of, the United States ought at once to have removed either that officer or Mr. Stanton himself.


We have the right, we think, to say that McClellan never intended to advance upon Centreville. His long-determined purpose was to make Washington safe by means of a strong garrison, and then to use the great navigable waters and immense naval resources of the North to transport the army by sea to a point near Richmond. For weeks — perhaps for months — this plan had been secretly maturing Secrecy as well as promptness$, it will be understood, was indispensable here to success. To keep the secret, it had been necessary to confide it to few persons; and hence had arisen one great cause for jealousy of the general.

Be this as it may, as the day of action drew near, those who suspected the general's project and were angry at not being informed of it — those whom his promotion had excited to envy,--his political enemies (who is without them in America?)--in short, all those beneath or beside him who wished him ill,--broke out into a chorus of accusations of slowness, in-action, incapacity. McClellan, with a patriotic courage which I have always admired, disdained these accusations, and made no reply. He satisfied himself with pursuing his preparations in laborious silence. But the moment came in which, notwithstanding the loyal support given him by the President, that functionary could no longer resist the tempest. A council of war of all the divisional generals was held; a plan of campaign, not that of McClellan, was proposed and discussed. McClellan was then forced to explain his projects, and the next day they were known to the enemy Informed, no doubt, by one of those thousand female spies who keep up his communications into the domestic circles of the Federal enemy, Johnston evacuated Manassas at once. This was a skilful manoeuvre. Incapable of assuming the offensive, threatened with attack either at Centreville, where defence would be useless if successful, or at Richmond, the loss of which would be a grave check, and unable to cover both positions at once, Johnston threw his whole force before the latter of the two.

The above is taken from a pamphlet published in New York, in 1863, with the following title:--“The Army of the Potomac: its Organization, its Commander, and its Campaign. By the Prince de Joinville Translated from the French, with Notes, by William Henry Hurlbert.” The original appeared in the number of the “Revue des Deux Mondes” for October 15, 862. It is there entitled “Campagne de l'armee du Potomac, Mars-Juillet, 1862,” and bears the signature of “A. Trognon.” The article has been generally ascribed to the Prince de Joinville; and, as the translation bears his name on the title-page and has been constantly referred to as his, the future extracts from the pamphlet will be cited under his name.

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