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Chapter 9:

  • The army of the Potomac withdrawn from Richmond

The history of the Army of the Potomac during the months of July and August, 1862, may be told in a few words. During their retrograde movement to the banks of the James, they had been fearfully weakened by losses in killed, wounded, and prisoners; but they were not in the least demoralized. They had conducted themselves in a way to move the admiration and win the gratitude of their commander; and from a full heart, on the 4th of July, he issued to them the following admirable and heartful address:--

Headquarters army of the Potomac, camp near Harrison's Landing, July 4, 1802.
soldiers of the army of the Potomac :--Your achievements of the last ten days have illustrated the valor and endurance of the American soldier. Attacked by superior forces, and without hope of reinforcements, you have succeeded in changing your base of operations by a flank movement, always regarded as the most hazardous of military expedients. You have saved all your material, all your trains and all your guns, except a few lost in battle, taking in return guns and colors from the enemy. Upon your march, you have been assailed day after day, with desperate fury, by men of the same race and nation, skilfully massed and led. Under every disadvantage of number, and necessarily of position also, you have in every conflict beaten back your foes with enormous slaughter. Your conduct ranks you among the celebrated armies [262] of history. No one will now question that each of you may always with pride say, “I belong to the army of the Potomac.” You have reached the new base, complete in organization and unimpaired in spirit. The enemy may at any moment attack you. We are prepared to meet them. I have personally established your lines. Let them come, and we will convert their repulse into a final defeat. Your Government is strengthening you with the resources of a great people. On this, our nation's birthday, we declare to our foes, who are rebels against the best interests of mankind, that this army shall enter the capital of the so-called Confederacy, that our national Constitution shall prevail, and that the Union, which can alone insure internal peace and external security to each State, “ must and shall be preserved,” cost what it may in time, treasure, and blood.

The high spirit which breathes through this address, animates also his communications with the Government at Washington. He informs the President, in a despatch of July 7, that his men were in splendid spirits and “anxious to try it again;” and in this anxiety he himself distinctly shared.

Having a brief interval of comparative leisure, he drew up and addressed to the President a letter, under date of July 7, containing certain views regarding the conduct of the war, which, in his judgment, were essential to its objects and success. The letter is as follows :--

Headquarters army of the Potomac, camp near Harrison's Landing, Va., July 7, 1862.
Mr. President :-You have been fully informed that the rebel army is in our front, with the purpose of overwhelming [263] us by attacking our position or reducing us by blocking our river-communications. I cannot but regard our condition as critical, and I earnestly desire, in view of possible contingencies, to lay before your Excellency, for your private consideration, my general views concerning the existing state of the rebellion, although they do not strictly relate to the situation of this army or strictly come within the scope of my official duties. These views amount to convictions, and are deeply impressed upon my mind and heart. Our cause must never be abandoned; it is the cause of free institutions and self-government. The Constitution and the Union must be preserved, whatever may be the cost in time, treasure, and blood. If secession is successful, other dissolutions are clearly to be seen in. the future. Let neither military disaster, political faction, nor foreign war shake your settled purpose to enforce the equal operation of the laws of the United States upon the people of every State.

The time has come when the Government must determine upon a civil and military policy covering the whole ground of our national trouble.

The responsibility of determining, declaring, and supporting such civil and military policy, and of directing the whole course of national affairs in regard to the rebellion, must now be assumed and exercised by you, or our cause will be lost. The Constitution gives you power sufficient even for the present terrible exigency.

This rebellion has assumed the character of war: as such it should be regarded, and it should be conducted upon the highest principles known to Christian civilization. It should not be a war looking to the subjugation of the people of any State, in any event. It should not be at all a war upon population, but against armed forces and political organizations. Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization [264] of States, or forcible abolition of slavery, should be contemplated for a moment.

In prosecuting the war, all private property and unarmed persons should be strictly protected, subject only to the necessity of military operations; all private property taken for military use should be paid or receipted for; pillage and waste should be treated as high crimes, all unnecessary trespass sternly prohibited, and offensive demeanor by the military towards citizens promptly rebuked. Military arrests should not be tolerated, except in places where active hostilities exist; and oaths, not required by enactments constitutionally made, should be neither demanded nor received.

Military government should be confined to the preservation of public order and the protection of political right. Military power should not be allowed to interfere with the relations of servitude, either by supporting or impairing the authority of the master, except for repressing disorder, as in other cases. Slaves, contraband under the act of Congress, seeking military protection, should receive it. The right of the Government to appropriate permanently to its own service claims to slave-labor should be asserted, and the right of the owner to compensation therefor should be recognized. This principle might be extended, upon grounds of military necessity and security, to all the slaves within a particular State, thus working manumission in such State; and in Missouri, perhaps in Western Virginia also, and possibly even in Maryland, the expediency of such a measure is only a question of time. A system of policy thus constitutional and conservative, and pervaded by the influences of Christianity and freedom, would receive the support of almost all truly loyal men, would deeply impress the rebel masses and all foreign nations, and it might be humbly hoped that it would commend itself to the favor of the Almighty.

Unless the principles governing the future conduct [265] of our struggle shall be made known and approved, the effort to obtain requisite forces will be almost hopeless. A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies. The policy of the Government must be supported by concentrations of military power. The national forces should not be dispersed in expeditions, posts of occupation, and numerous armies, but should be mainly collected into masses and brought to bear upon the armies of the Confederate States. Those armies thoroughly defeated, the political structure which they support would soon cease to exist.

In carrying out any system of policy which you may form, you will require a commander-in-chief of the army, one who possesses your confidence, understands your views, and who is competent to execute your orders, by directing the military forces of the nation to the accomplishment of the objects by you proposed. I do not ask that place for myself. I am willing to serve you in such position as you may assign me, and I will do so as faithfully as ever subordinate served superior.

I may be on the brink of eternity; and, as I hope for forgiveness from my Maker, I have written this letter with sincerity towards you and from love for my country.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

George B. McClellan, Major-General commanding. His Excellency A. Lincoln, President.

In regard to this communication, two questions have arisen. First, Was it proper for General McClellan to write such a letter? This would seem to be answered by the statement that he had previously asked and obtained the President's permission to do so. On the 20th of June e h ad said, in a despatch, “I would be glad to have permission [266] to lay before your Excellency, by letter or telegraph, my views as to the present state of military affairs throughout the country;” and the next day the President replied, in language marked by that personal kindness which generally characterized his communications, “If it would not divert too much of your time and attention from the army under your immediate command, I would be glad to have your views as to the present state of military affairs throughout the whole country, as you say you would be glad to give them.”

Second, Are the views which General McClellan sets forth in his communication sound and wise in point of fact? Upon this question much has been and will be said on both sides; but whatever is said on one side will do but little towards convincing the other. In short, it raises the issues on which the country began to be divided soon after the war broke out, and on which it is now rent in twain. Every man has made up his fagots on these questions and bound them round with the cords of passion and prejudice; and it is useless to attempt to disturb them. Time, which determines all things, will sooner or later determine whether General McClellan was right or wrong.

As to the Army of the Potomac, it was General McClellan's opinion that it ought not to be withdrawn, but that it should be promptly reinforced and thrown again upon Richmond. In his judgment, it was our policy to concentrate here every thing we could spare from less important points, in order to make a successful demonstration against [267] the enemy in his most vital and important point. The Government was undecided in its plans. On the 4th of July the President had informed General McClellan that it was impossible to reinforce him so as to enable him to resume the offensive within a month or six weeks, and that therefore for the present a defensive policy was his only care,--adding, “Save the army, first, where you are, if you can, and, secondly, by removal, if you must.”

On the 11th of July, one of the recommendations contained in General McClellan's letter of July 7 to the President was adopted, by the appointment of Major-General Halleck to the post of General-in-Chief of the entire army of the United States. This was the position held by General McClellan before he left Washington to conduct the Peninsular campaign. Its duties had subsequently been performed by the President and Secretary of War; and it was understood that they had a military adviser, in the person of Major-General Hitchcock.

The disposition to be made of the Army of the Potomac was one of the first subjects to which the attention of the general-in-chief was called on his arrival in Washington; and, in order to observe for himself its condition, he made a visit to Harrison's Landing, leaving Washington on the 24th of July and returning on the 27th. The result of this visit was that General Halleck, after full consultation with his officers, came to the conclusion that it would not be possible to strengthen the Army of the Peninsula with the reinforcements [268] which General McClellan required, and he therefore determined to withdraw it to some position where it could unite with that of General Pope, who was now in command of the Army of Virginia. But this decision was not immediately made known to General McClellan, who on the 30th of July received a despatch from General Halleck saying that, in order to enable him to move in any direction, it was necessary to relieve him of his sick, and that arrangements had been made accordingly, adding, “I hope you will send them away as quickly as possible, and advise me of their removal.” General McClellan began immediately to execute this order, but pressed the general-in-chief to inform him of the views of the Government in regard to the future disposition of the Army of the Potomac, because if a forward movement were contemplated many of the sick could be of service at the depots, and he could not decide what cases to send off unless he knew what was to be done with the army.

On the 3d of August, Coggin's Point, on the south side of the James, was occupied by our troops, and Colonel Averill, at the head of three hundred cavalry, attacked and dispersed a cavalry force of the enemy four hundred and fifty in number, at Sycamore Church, on the main road from Petersburg to Suffolk, four miles from Cole's House. On the 5th of August, General Hooker attacked a very considerable force of infantry and artillery stationed at Malvern Hill, carried the position, and drove the enemy back to Newmarket, four miles [269] distant; and on the same day Colonel Averill returned from a reconnoissance in the direction of Savage's Station towards Richmond, in the course of which he had encountered the 10th Virginia Cavalry near White Oak Swamp bridge and driven them back some distance towards Richmond. These military demonstrations were made with the expectation, or at least the hope, that an offensive movement upon Richmond would still be the policy of the Government.

On the 3d of August, the decision of the Government was distinctly communicated to General McClellan in a despatch from General Halleck, in which he said, “It is determined to withdraw your army from the Peninsula to Acquia Creek. You will take immediate means to effect this, covering the movement the best you can. Its real object and withdrawal should be concealed even from your own officers.” This was a heavy blow to General McClellan; and he earnestly protested against it in a long telegraphic despatch, dated August 4, to which General Halleck replied in a letter dated August 6.

General McClellan's arguments against the removal of the army and in favor of an offensive movement, as presented in his despatch, are briefly as follows. The army was in excellent discipline and condition, and in a favorable position, being only twenty-five miles from Richmond, and they would not be likely to have a battle till they were within ten miles of it.

At Acquia Creek they would be seventy-five [270] miles from Richmond, with only land-transportation all the way.

The step would demoralize the army, and have a most depressing effect upon the people of the North, and might induce foreign Powers to recognize our adversaries.

The communication concludes thus:--

It may be said that there are no reinforcements available. I point to Burnside's force,--to that of Pope, not necessary to maintain a strict defensive in front of Washington and Harper's Ferry,--to those portions of the Army of the West not required for a strict defensive there. Here, directly in front of this army, is the heart of the rebellion: it is here that all our resources should be collected to strike the blow which will determine the fate of the nation.

All points of secondary importance elsewhere should be abandoned, and every available man brought here. A decided victory here, and the military strength of the rebellion is crushed. It matters not what partial reverses we may meet with elsewhere: here is the true defence of Washington; it is here, on the banks of the James, that the fate of the Union should be decided.

Clear in my convictions of right, strong in the consciousness that I have ever been, and still am, actuated solely by the love of my country, knowing that no ambitious or selfish motives have influenced me from the commencement of this war, I do now what I never did in my life before: I entreat that this order may be rescinded.

If my counsel does not prevail, I will with a sad heart obey your orders to the utmost of my power, directing to the movement, which I clearly foresee will be one of the utmost delicacy and difficulty, whatever skill I may possess. Whatever the result may be — and may God grant [271] that I am mistaken in my forebodings!--I shall at least have the internal satisfaction that I have written and spoken frankly, and have sought to do the best in my power to avert disaster from my country.

The considerations urged by General Halleck in reply were as follows :--

The enemy's forces in and around Richmond were estimated at two hundred thousand. General Pope's army was only forty thousand; the Army of the Peninsula, effective force, about ninety thousand. The relative position of the enemy towards them was such that his command and that of Pope must be united; and they could not be united by land without exposing both to destruction. It was a military impossibility to send Pope's forces by water to the Peninsula; and thus the only alternative was to send the Army of the Peninsula to Pope.

A simple change of position to a new and by no means distant base would not demoralize an army in excellent discipline, unless the officers themselves should assist in that demoralization,--which he is satisfied they would not.

The political effect of the withdrawal might at first be unfavorable; but the public were beginning to understand the necessity of it, and they would have more confidence in a united army than in its separated fragments.

It would be impossible to furnish the requisite reinforcements under several weeks.

To keep the army in its present position until it could be reinforced would almost destroy it, in the sickly region where it then was. In the mean time, [272] General Pope's forces would be exposed to the heavy blows of the enemy, without the slightest hope of assistance from General McClellan.

A majority of the highest officers of the Army of the Potomac were decidedly in favor of the movement.

All General McClellan's plans required reinforcements; but reinforcements could not be had.

There was nothing, of course, for General McClellan to do but to submit, and obey the orders of his superior,--which he did with a heavy heart. In the mean time, the removal of the sick, in compliance with the order of July 30, was going on as rapidly as possible, though somewhat interrupted by another order, of August 6, directing the immediate shipment of a regiment of cavalry and several batteries of artillery to Burnside's command at Acquia Creek. The order of August 3d also required the transportation of a great amount of material. All this was obviously a work of time; but in spite of this, in spite of General McClellan's repeated and emphatic assertions to the contrary, General Halleck's mind became possessed with the notion that the removal of the sick had not been begun when the order was first received, and that the whole business of transportation was not pushed on so rapidly as it should have been. But General McClellan never received from the Administration “that forbearance, patience, and confidence” for which he had asked,--and which every soldier has a right to ask,--but always had a countenance of suspicion and distrust turned [273] towards him. lie had now twelve thousand sick and wounded to transport, besides cavalry, artillery, wagons, baggage, and supplies. lie was working day and night to speed their removal; he was in a situation that demanded kind consideration, for he was the leader of an enterprise which had failed, whose hopes had been crossed, whose plans for the future had been arrested, who was obeying faithfully orders which he deemed unwise; and surely he did not need at such a moment the further discipline of a despatch like this, under date of August 9 :--“Considering the amount of transportation at your disposal, your delay is not satisfactory: you must move with all possible celerity.”

The plain statements in General McClellan's Report, and the letters of the Quartermaster and Assistant Quartermaster, which are also to be found there, are sufficient to vindicate him completely from the charge of negligence or delay in transporting his materials and men. Indeed, in an issue like that between him and the commander-in-chief the testimony of General McClellan must be held to be decisive. Here was a certain work to be done, the removal of a certain number of persons, sick and well, and a certain amount of stores, supplies, and warlike materials from one point to another. The time within which the task could be accomplished depended upon several elements which were wholly matters of fact,--such as the number of vessels, their capacity, their speed, the state of the water in the river, and the wharf-accommodations at the points of departure and arrival,--upon [274] all which General McClellan had, and General Halleck had not, the means of being exactly informed. Thus, it was General McClellan's knowledge against General Halleck's surmise or conjecture. General Halleck, sitting in his office at Washington, might have thought that there was unreasonable delay; but General McClellan alone could have known what was the proportion between the work to be done and the means to do it.

General McClellan, happily for his peace of mind and health of body, is not a man of irritable temperament, and so he could possess his soul in patience under the rash expressions of General Halleck's impatience, which, too, may have had the excuse of being prompted by patriotic zeal and professional activity; but this excuse cannot be offered on behalf of a deliberate wrong. In a letter subsequently written to the Secretary of War, General Halleck says, “The evacuation of Harrison's Landing, however, was not commenced till the 14th, eleven days after it was ordered.” The authority for this statement — which is neither more nor less than that General McClellan had refused or delayed for eleven days to execute a military order — is a despatch from the latter, under date of August 14, which says,--

“Movement has commenced,--by land and water. All the sick will be away by to-morrow night.1 Every thing being done to carry out your orders.” At the date of this despatch, nearly all the sick, a [275] large amount of supplies and materials, a regiment of cavalry, and five batteries of artillery had been removed, and the phrase “movement has commenced” referred obviously to the movement of the main army; and yet General Halleck sets his hand and gives his official sanction to a statement which distinctly conveys the impression that none of these things had been done at that time Comment is unnecessary, as strong facts do not need the aid of strong language.2 [276]

On the 16th of August all the troops were in motion by land and water, and late in the afternoon [277] of that day, when the last man had disappeared from the deserted camps, General McClellan followed with his personal staff in the track of the grand Army of the Potomac, “bidding farewell,” as he says in his Report, “to the scenes still covered with the marks of its presence, and to be ever memorable in history as the vicinity of its most brilliant exploits.” On the 20th the army was at Yorktown, Fortress Monroe, and Newport News, ready to embark for whatever might be its destination.

A brief extract from General McClellan's Report at this point may be here fittingly introduced:--

As the campaign on the Peninsula terminated here, I cannot close this part of my report without giving an expression of my sincere thanks and gratitude to the officers and men whom I had the honor to command.

From the commencement to the termination of this most arduous campaign, the Army of the Potomac always evinced the most perfect subordination, zeal, and alacrity in the performance of all the duties required of it.

The amount of severe labor accomplished by this army in the construction of intrenchments, roads, bridges,&c. was enormous; yet all the work was performed with the most gratifying cheerfulness and devotion to the interests of the service.

During the campaign ten severely contested and sanguinary battles had been fought, besides numerous small engagements, in which the troops exhibited the most determined enthusiasm and bravery. They submitted to exposure, sickness, and even death, without a murmur. Indeed, they had become veterans in their country's cause, and richly deserved the warm commendation of the Government. [278]

It was in view of these facts that this seemed to me an appropriate occasion for the general-in-chief to give, in general orders, some appreciative expression of the services of the army while upon the Peninsula. Accordingly, on the 18th, I sent him the following despatch:--

Headquarters army of the Potomac, August 18, 1862, 11 P. M.
Please say a kind word to my army, that I can repeat to them in general orders, in regard to their conduct at Yorktown, Williamsburg, West Point, Hanover Court-House, and on the Chickahominy, as well as in regard to the (7) seven days, and the recent retreat.

No one has ever said any thing to cheer them but myself. Say nothing about me. Merely give my men and officers credit for what they have done. It will do you much good, and will strengthen you much with them, if you issue a handsome order to them in regard to what they have accomplished. They deserve it.

As no reply was received to this communication, and no order was issued by the general-in-chief, I conclude that my suggestion did not meet with his approbation.

Immediately on reaching Fortress Monroe, General McClellan gave directions for strengthening the defences of Yorktown, so as to resist any attack from the direction of Richmond, and left General Keyes, with his corps, to perform the work and temporarily to garrison the place. On the evening of the 23d he sailed with his staff for Acquia Creek, where he arrived on the following morning and reported for [279] orders. On the 26th he was ordered to Alexandria, and reached there the same day. In the mean time the corps of Heintzelman and Porter had sailed from Newport News and Yorktown, on the 19th, 20th, and 21st, to join General Pope's army; and those of Franklin and Sumner followed a day or two after.

General McClellan remained at Alexandria till the close of the march. A brisk intercourse by telegraph was kept up between him and the commander-in-chief with reference to General Pope's movements and the defence of Washington; but no specific duty was assigned to him, and his brave army was by parcels detached from him, and sent to take part in movements in regard to which it is easy to see he had the gravest misgivings. Few experiences in life are more trying than to see things going wrong and have no power to prevent it. The following extract from a despatch sent from the camp near Alexandria, on the 30th of August, while the disastrous second battle of Bull Run was going on, shows how much he felt and how much he suppressed:--

I cannot express to you the pain and mortification I have experienced to-day in listening to the distant sound of the firing of my men. As I can be of no further use here, I respectfully ask that, if there is a probability of the conflict being renewed to-morrow, I may be permitted to go to the scene of battle with my staff, merely to be with my own men, if nothing more: they will fight, none the worse for my being with them. If it is not deemed best to intrust me with the command even of [280] my own army, I simply ask to be permitted to share their fate on the field of battle.

On the 30th, the following order was issued from the War Department:--

War Department, August 30, 1862.
The following are the commanders of the armies operating in Virginia:--

General Burnside commands his own corps, except those that have been temporarily detached and assigned to General Pope.

General McClellan commands that portion of the Army of the Potomac that has not been sent forward to General Pope's command.

General Pope commands the Army of Virginia and all the forces temporarily attached to it. All the forces are under the command of Major-General Halleck, general-in-chief.

E. D. Townsend, Assistant Adjutant-General.

The practical effect of this order was that General McClellan had no control over anybody, except his staff, some hundred men in camp near Alexandria, and a few troops at Fortress Monroe.

1 This would have been absolutely impossible if nearly all of them were not already gone.

2 A passage between General Halleck and General McClellan is worthy of being preserved in a note, as one of the curiosities of official life. On the 12th of August, General McClellan's Headquarters were at Berkeley, seventy miles from Jamestown Island, the nearest telegraph-office. Being desirous of having more speedy and full explanation of the condition of affairs in the army than he could get by sending a steamer to Jamestown Island and waiting ten hours for a reply, he proposed to go in person to the office, and so informed General Halleck at the close of a despatch of the 12th. He accordingly went to Jamestown Island, but on arriving there found there was an interruption in the electric current, so that he was obliged to continue on to Fortress Monroe and across the Chesapeake Bay to Cherry-Stone Inlet, on the “Eastern shore.” He arrived there late in the evening, and immediately sent the following dispatch:--

Cherry-Stone, August 13, 1862, 11.30 P. M.
Please come to the office; wish to talk to you. What news from Pope?

The next day, at half-past 12, he sent another despatch, as follows:--

Cherry-Stone Inlet, August 14, 1862, 12.30 A. M.
Started to Jamestown Island to talk with you; found cable broken, and came here. Please read my long telegram. All quiet at camp. Enemy burned wharves at City Point yesterday. No rebel pickets within eight (8) miles of Coggin's Point yesterday.

Richmond prisoners state that large force with guns left Richmond northward on Sunday.

To which the following reply was received:--

Washington, August 14, 1862, 1.40 A. M.
I have read your despatch. There is no change of plans. You will send up your troops as rapidly as possible. There is no difficulty in landing them. According to your own accounts, there is now no difficulty in withdrawing your forces. Do so with all possible rapidity.

Before General McClellan had time to decipher and reply to this despatch, the telegraph-operator in Washington informed him that General Halleck had taken his hat and walked out of the office without another word or message! General McClellan then telegraphed thus:--

Cherry-Stone Inlet, August 14, 1862, 1.40 A. M.
Your orders will be obeyed. I return at once. I had hoped to have had a longer and fuller conversation with you, after travelling so far for the purpose.

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