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Chapter 3: fall and winter of 1861

  • Ordnance service.
  • -- breech-loading small -- arms. -- Confederate Armaments. -- Richmond ordnance Bureau. -- secret service. -- McClellan's secret service. -- military situation. -- a council of War. -- Ball's Bluff. -- Occoquan battery. -- winter. -- army organization. -- Federal organization. -- lines of advance on Richmond. -- retreat from Manassas. -- the Valley. -- Kernstown.

On the day after Bull Run I was appointed Chief of Ordnance of Beauregard's corps, and within a few days Johnston extended my office over the whole army, which, about this period, took the name ever afterwards used,— ‘The Army of Northern Virginia.’ The enemy, about the same time, adopted their equally well-known title, ‘The Army of the Potomac.’

My new duties largely absorbed my time, but I remained in charge of the signal service, the work being now confined to sending instructed parties to all parts of the Confederacy where they might be of use. During the fall a ‘Department of Signals’ was organized in Richmond, and the charge of it, with the rank of colonel, was offered me, but declined, as I was unwilling to leave the field. As head of a department I was soon made Major, and, later, Lieutenant-Colonel of Artillery. Col. William Norris of Baltimore became the Chief Signal Officer.

Briefly, my duties embraced the supply of arms and ammunition to all troops in the field, — infantry, artillery, and cavalry. I organized the department, with an ordnance officer or sergeant in every regiment, from whom I received weekly statements showing the arms and ammunition on hand in cartridge boxes and regimental wagons. Reserve storehouses were provided at the nearest railroad points, and reserve trains for brigades and divisions, to run between the storehouses and the troops. For emergency, under my own control was held a train of ammunition and battery wagons equipped with tools and expert mechanics for all sorts of repairs from a broken mainspring to a spiked [53] fieldpiece. I was fortunate in securing for superintendent of this train, Maj. George Duffy, an expert from Alexandria, who became an institution in the army, and remained with it throughout the war.

In its early stages we had great trouble with the endless variety of arms and calibres in use, scarcely ten per cent of them being the muzzle-loading rifled musket, calibre 58, which was then the regulation arm for United States infantry. There were several breech-loading small-arms manufactured at the North, but none had secured the approval of the United States Ordnance Department, although many of them would have made more formidable weapons than any muzzle-loaders.

The old idea was still widely entertained that, because the percentage of hits is always small, the fire of infantry should not be rapid, lest the men waste too much ammunition. After a year or two some of the best breech-loaders got admission among cavalry regiments, and common sense and experience gradually forced a recognition of the value of a heavy fire. By 1864, the Spencer breech-loading carbine had been adopted as the regulation arm for the Federal cavalry, and by the fall of that year brigades of infantry began to appear with it.

On October 7, 1864, on the Darbytown road, Field's division was easily repulsed by two brigades armed with Spencers, with severe loss, including Genls. Gregg killed and Bratton wounded; and on Nov. 30, 1864, at Franklin, Tennessee, Casement's, brigade with these arms decided that battle with terrific slaughter, It was written of this fight that ‘never before in the history of war did a command, of the approximate strength of Casement's. in so short a period of time kill and wound as many men.’

There is reason to believe that had the Federal infantry been armed from the first with even the breech-loaders available in 1861 the war would have been terminated within a year.

The old smooth-bore musket, calibre 69, made up the bulk of the Confederate armament at the beginning, some of the guns, even all through 1862, being old flint-locks. But every effort was made to replace them by rifled muskets captured in battle, brought through the blockade from Europe, or manufactured at a few small arsenals which we gradually fitted up. Not until [54] after the battle of Gettysburg was the whole army in Virginia equipped with the rifled musket. In 1864 we captured some Spencer breech-loaders, but we could never use them for lack of proper cartridges.

Our artillery equipment at the beginning was even more inadequate than our small-arms. Our guns were principally smoothbore 6-Prs. and 12-Pr. howitzers, and their ammunition was afflicted with very unreliable fuses. Our arsenals soon began to manufacture rifled guns, but they always lacked the copper and brass, and the mechanical skill necessary to turn out first-class ammunition. Gradually we captured Federal guns to supply most of our needs, but we were handicapped by our own ammunition until the close of the war.

No department of our government deserves more credit than our Ordnance Bureau in Richmond under Gen. Josiah Gorgas, for its success in supplying the enormous amount of ordinance material consumed during the war. Although always economical of ammunition, yet we never lost any action from the lack of it. We were, however, finally very near the end of our resources, in the supply of one indispensable article. To make percussion caps nitric acid, mercury, and copper were required. Our Nitre and Mining Bureau had learned to make saltpetre from caves, and the earth under old barns and smoke houses, and from all kinds of nitrogenous waste material. From the saltpetre our chemists could make nitric acid. Our quicksilver came from Mexico, but after the fall of Vicksburg we were cut off from it, and about the same time the supply of sheet copper was exhausted. The chemists found out a mixture of chlorate of potash and sulphuret of antimony which they could use in place of fulminate of mercury; and we collected all the turpentine and apple-brandy stills in the country and sent them to Richmond to be cut up and rerolled into copper strips.

From this copper and the above chemical mixture all the caps were made which we used during the last year of the war, but at its close the copper stills were exhausted. It is hard to imagine what we would then have done had not the surrender at Appomattox relieved the quandary.

In August our line of pickets was advanced within five miles [55] of the Potomac, opposite Washington, and it included two hills, Munson's and Mason's, from which many houses in Washington were plainly visible. This suggested opening a line of secret signals from a window in one of these houses to an observation room on the top of a residence on Mason's Hill. A powerful telescope was borrowed from Charleston, and an intelligent signal employee, E. P. Bryan, of Maryland, was sent in disguise to Washington to find a room with an available window, and to install himself therein. The scheme was entirely feasible, but before it could be put into operation Johnston decided that it was unwise to hold our lines so close to the enemy, and they were withdrawn, giving up the positions on the two hills.

Bryan then established a signal line across the Potomac, some 15 miles below Alexandria, with messengers from its termini to Manassas and to our secret agents in Washington. The principal business of these agents was to supply us with the Northern papers, although for some time careful account was kept of arrivals of new troops at Washington. But this was found less reliable than the accounts in the daily papers. From them we learned not only of all arrivals, but also of assignments to brigades and divisions, and, by tabulating these, we always knew quite accurately the strength of the enemy's army.

Why the enemy, by similar obvious methods, did not, also, always know our strength, remains a mystery. But McClellan had a bureau under Pinkerton to estimate for him, from the reports of spies, prisoners, and deserters, and implicitly believed, by preference, the most absurd and impossible of all their reports. As an illustration may be taken his report in October, 1861, in which he estimates the Confederate army on the Potomac as ‘not less than 150,000 strong, well-drilled and equipped, ably commanded and strongly intrenched.’

In fact, the Confederate army at the time was only about 40,000 strong. It was very poorly drilled and wretchedly equipped, and it had, practically, no intrenchments whatever. And although it numbered able officers among its generals, it was badly commanded, in that it was not organized into divisions, and could not have been well handled either on a march or in action. [56]

McClellan, though unfit to command in battle, had no superior in organizing an army to take the field as a thoroughly fit machine, able to concentrate its energies wherever needed. By the end of October he might easily have advanced upon the Confederates with a force three to one in numbers and twice better armed and organized.

Public opinion would have forced McClellan into making an attack, but for the moral effect of the imaginary battalions which Pinkerton's Bureau had conjured into existence and drilled and equipped so easily. And as so good a fighting machine of American soldiers would do hard fighting, even without a general at their head, as was abundantly shown by McClellan's subsequent career, it is entirely possible that the Confederates may owe their escape from a defeat in November, 1861, as much to yarns spun by their deserters as to their own impudent attitude in the field.

After the battle of Bull Run it was apparent that if the South sat quietly in a defensive attitude until the enemy was ready to advance again, he would come in overwhelming force. Consequently the burden was upon us to bring on the collision while our comparative resources were greatest. Johnston and Beauregard recognized this, but deferred action from day to day, hoping to receive reenforcements worth waiting for, and to accumulate transportation and supplies. President Davis recognized it also, and sent some new regiments from time to time, but the demands upon him were very great. He had urgent appeals for more troops from every quarter, from the Potomac to the Rio Grande. And, as scarce as men were, arms were even scarcer. He divided out all he had according to his best judgment, but it must be admitted that this was often mistaken. Troops were certainly held at Pensacola, Savannah, Charleston, Norfolk, and in West Virginia, which might have given the needed strength to the army at Manassas to enable it to take the offensive. As it was, the new troops sent were little more than enough to make good the losses from sickness which befell the army in the summer of 1861.

The entire country about Bull Run was malarial, and the troops were badly equipped and ignorant about sanitary [57] measures. All our new regiments from country districts were great sufferers from measles, which often reduced their effective force one-half.

In the latter part of Sept., feeling that the opportunity was about to pass, President Davis was induced to visit Johnston, Beauregard, and Smith at Manassas, and this matter was discussed. The three generals asked for 10,000 or 20,000 more men than the 40,000 they had. With this addition to their numbers they proposed to cross the Potomac and make an offensive campaign in Maryland. Mr. Davis seemed greatly disappointed to find so few troops available. He acknowledged the force of the argument for the offensive, but he could not see his way to taking troops from other points, and he could not provide more men until he could procure more arms.

On Oct. 21 an accidental affair took place at Ball's Bluff, near Leesburg, Virginia, which greatly elated the Confederates. Evans's brigade, of four regiments and a battery, was held at Leesburg in observation of the Potomac, and of a force under Gen. Stone on the Maryland shore. On Oct. 19, McClellan had sent out a strong reconnaissance toward Leesburg from his main body covering Washington. The reconnaissance was scarcely extended half-way to Leesburg, but McClellan thought that it might alarm Evans and cause him to fall back nearer to Manassas; so on Oct. 20 he wired Stone, suggesting a demonstration on his part. Stone made it by crossing the river at two points, Edward's Ferry and Ball's Bluff, about three miles apart. Both parties crossed without opposition, but the Ball's Bluff party, having occupied the high bluff on the Virginia shore, pushed out a reconnaissance through the woods toward Leesburg, some two miles off.

Evans, with three of his regiments and his battery, was observing the Edward's Ferry body, which had taken a strong position and intrenched itself. His fourth regiment, the 18th Miss., came in contact with the Ball's Bluff advance, and drove it back to the main body at the top of the bluff. There the fight grew hotter. Gen. Baker, commanding the Federals, brought up his whole brigade of five regiments and three pieces of artillery, — about 3000 men, — and Evans sent two of his three regiments, the [58] 8th Va. and 17th Miss., from in front of Edward's Ferry, making the Confederate force engaged about 1600. After a sharp and well-conducted fight under the inspiration of Col. Jenifer, Baker was killed, his artillery captured, and his entire force driven into the river, many being drowned. The casualties were:—

Federal:Killed 49,wounded 158,missing 714,total 921
Confederate:Killed 36,wounded 117,missing 2,total 155

This affair, so soon following Bull Run, had a powerful influence upon the Confederate morale. About this period we unmasked on the Potomac, near the mouth of the Occoquan, some heavy batteries, which, for some weeks, we had been secretly constructing to blockade the river. The enemy submitted to this blockade during the whole winter, although a well-planned attack at any time might have captured the batteries and established a very threatening lodgment upon our right flank.

McClellan's apparent apathy in this matter, taken in conjunction with the disaster at Ball's Bluff, gradually gave rise in Mr. Lincoln's mind to a loss of confidence in him as a leader which was never fully restored, and which materially influenced the course of events. Lincoln was now accumulating a force which seemed enormous. The expense incurred was certainly very great, and he became impatient to see reprisals. McClellan calmly advised waiting until he had collected, and thoroughly organized an army of about 273,000 men, which he said would take the blockading batteries without firing a gun. Lincoln submitted, but his discontent was increased.

Meanwhile winter put in its appearance. The vicinity of each army became a vast quagmire, and all military operations became impossible. The Confederate army was withdrawn to Centreville and the vicinity of Bull Run, where it went into winter quarters. Soon after this Beauregard was transferred to the Western Army under Gen. A. S. Johnston. His position in Virginia had been that of a supernumerary, and in his new position it was little better until after the battle of Shiloh, where Johnston was killed as he was about to grasp a victory. Beauregard was not yet immune to attacks of overcaution, the bane of [59] new commanders, and his excellent chance to win a great success was lost. He recalled his attack just at the critical moment when it gave every promise of developing a panic among the enemy.

Gen. Joseph E. Johnston at this time had organized his army into four divisions, two of four brigades each, commanded by Van Dorn and G. W. Smith; and two of five each, under Longstreet and E. Kirby Smith. These 18 brigades averaged about four regiments, and the regiments averaged about 500 men each. Besides these there were other troops under Jackson in the valley and under Holmes near Acquia. The total effective strength on February 28, 1862, was 47,617, with about 175 guns.

Early in March the Federal army was organized into five army corps under McDowell, Sumner, Heintzelman, Keyes, and Banks. Each corps was generally composed of three divisions, each division of three brigades, and each brigade of four regiments. The regiments were generally fuller than ours, and would average about 700 men. The total effective strength of all arms on February 28, 1862, was 185,420, with 465 field guns, of which 100 were massed in a reserve under the Chief of Artillery.

During the winter the Federal engineers had completely surrounded Washington with a cordon of fortifications consisting of detached forts impregnable to assault, with heavy guns and permanent garrisons connected by infantry parapets, and batteries for field guns. Within these lines a small movable force could defy any adversary not able to sit down and resort to siege operations. This was amply shown when Lee, in August, 1862, drove Pope into Washington, and also in July, 1864, when Early made his demonstration, but withdrew without venturing to attack.

The Federal government, however, had received such a scare in the Bull Run campaign that it had small confidence in fortifications without a big army to hold them. So when McClellan proposed to make his next advance upon Richmond, from Fortress Monroe as a base, Mr. Lincoln gave but reluctant consent, as it involved the removal of a large body of troops from their position between the enemy and the capital. At length he agreed that about 73,000 would be enough to keep for the [60] defence of Washington. This would allow McClellan to have about 150,000 at Fortress Monroe. Early in April, however, under some strong political pressure, Mr. Lincoln detached Blenker's division, about 10,000 men, from McClellan's force and sent them to Fremont in West Virginia.

Before taking up the history of this campaign, it will be interesting to take a general view of all routes to Richmond which were tried during the war.

There were seven campaigns under as many different commanders.

First. McDowell set out to follow the Orange and Alexandria Railway, but was defeated at Manassas in his first battle.

Second. McClellan set out from Fortress Monroe via the York River. As we shall see, he had some success. His advance was within six miles of Richmond when he was beaten at Gaines Mill. He found a refuge on the James River, but his army was soon recalled to Washington.

Third. Pope, in August, 1862, followed in McDowell's footsteps along the railroad from Alexandria, and was defeated upon nearly the same ground which had witnessed McDowell's defeat.

Fourth. Burnside took the railroad via Fredericksburg, and in December, 1862, met a bloody repulse at that point and gave up his campaign.

Fifth. Hooker also took the Fredericksburg route, but was attacked at Chancellorsville so severely that he also gave up his campaign early in May, 1863.

Sixth. Meade, after repulsing Lee at Gettysburg in July, 1863, in November essayed an advance from Alexandria upon Lee's right flank at Mine Run, about halfway between the two railroad lines. He found Lee so strongly intrenched that he withdrew without attacking.

Seventh. On May 4, 1864, Grant, with the largest force yet assembled, set out from Alexandria on a line between Meade's Mine Run and Hooker's Spottsylvania routes. Lee attacked his columns in the Wilderness. The battle thus joined raged for over 11 months, and only ended at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Our only concern here is to note the advantages and the disadvantages of the different lines. The overland route again [61] proved a failure. At Spottsylvania, North Anna, Totopotomoy, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg, Grant found Lee across his path, and was unable to drive him off. His only recourse, on each occasion, was to move to his left and try the next road to the eastward. And now every intermediate road had been tried, and, after losing 65,000 men, he was only on the James River with Fortress Monroe as his base, where his fleet might have landed him at the beginning and without losing a man.

Here at last, literally driven into the location in front of Petersburg, Grant found himself in a position of rare strategic advantage; certain to give him possession of Richmond when properly utilized. Indeed, it seems strange that it had not been realized in 1862, that the position astraddle both rivers at the junction of the James and Appomattox was the key to Richmond. For it would force Lee to hold an exterior line of such enormous length — from the Chickahominy River to the south of Petersburg, nearly 30 miles — that it could not be long maintained.

As McClellan selected the York River line before the James River was opened (by the loss of Norfolk and of the ironclad Merrimac), he is entitled to the credit of having selected the best route available at the time. After his retreat from Richmond, he very nearly had stumbled into the key position itself. His army was recalled to Washington by the Executive, against his strong protests and appeals.

Johnston fully realized that his inferiority of force left him no recourse but to stand upon the defensive, and watch to take advantage of any blunders his enemy might make. And it was ordered from Richmond, very prudently, that the army should be withdrawn from Manassas before the roads became good.

Johnston's movement was accordingly begun on March 8, which was some weeks before it would have been possible for McClellan to move his army. He followed Johnston's withdrawal slowly, for a short distance, but there was no collision. A considerable loss of provisions resulted to the Confederates from the condition of the roads, and the fact that their Commissary Department had established a meat-packing depot on the Manassas Gap Railroad at Thoroughfare Gap, and accumulated [62] there an amount of stores much greater than the railroad could remove upon short notice.

The army paused for a while behind the Rappahannock, but then took a better position behind the Rapidan, where it awaited developments.

Meanwhile on March 23, something took place in the Valley. Stonewall Jackson had been in command there of two small brigades through the winter, but had fallen back, about 40 miles south of Winchester, when Johnston's army abandoned Manassas. Banks's Federal Corps had been opposed to him, and it was now ordered to Manassas. Jackson learned of the movement in progress, and, believing that he might surprise its rear, and at least disconcert plans, he made a march of 36 miles in a day and a half, and fell upon his enemy at Kernstown.

His attack was so vigorous that, for a while, it bore promise of success, but the Federal force at hand was largely greater than had been anticipated. It consisted of Shields's division of three brigades, about 10,000 men. Jackson had upon the field only about 3500. Consequently, when the battle became fully developed, Jackson was driven off with a loss of 455 killed and wounded and 263 captured. Shields lost 568 killed and wounded, and 22 captured. It was a small affair, and apparently a Federal victory, but it was bread cast upon strategic waters.

There soon followed a serious development. Jackson's name and aggressiveness, and the fierceness of his attack, all tended to increase Mr. Lincoln's reluctance to see Washington stripped of any force available for its defence. He had already taken Blenker's division of 10,000 men from McClellan, and now, on April 4, he took also McDowell's corps of 37,000, ordering it to report to the Secretary of War. As the result of that order was to keep McDowell out of the ‘Seven Days’ battles in June, Jackson's battle at Kernstown, though generally reckoned a defeat, was really the first step to Lee's victory in June.

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