I. The Army of the Potomac in history.

So soon as the passionate rushing to arms that succeeded the bombardment and fall of Fort Sumter had indicated that a great war was upon the sundered sections of the American Union, it became manifest that Virginia was marked out as the principal theatre of the impending conflict. The tidings of what had happened in the harbor of Charleston found that State assembled at Richmond in high debate on the question of Secession; and then whatever there was in its councils of what men called ‘Unionism’ or conservatism was hushed, and in wild tumult Virginia was voted out of the Union and into the Confederacy.

This, Virginia voted on the 16th of April, 1861; but from her eyes was hid what else she voted—to wit, a War destined to redden all her streams, to desolate her fertile fields, to cut off the flower of her young men, and to leave her at its close a wreck and waif of fortune.

When Virginia linked her destiny with the Confederacy, those who controlled the Secession Revolution signified their appreciation of the accession of that ancient and powerful Commonwealth by transferring to her chief city the capital of [14] the Confederate Government; and whereas that Government had borne the prefix ‘provisional’ at Montgomery, at Richmond it assumed to itself the style and title of ‘permanent.’ Thus marked out as a seat of war by virtue of being the administrative centre of the insurgent power, Virginia was furthermore marked out as the main seat of war by her geographical relations as a frontier State. For upon her secession the Potomac, her northern boundary, became, for all the region between the Atlantic and the Alleghanies, the dividing line betwixt those ‘points of mighty opposites,’ the North and the South,—names which, hitherto of no more than political import, now assumed the new and dread significance of belligerent Powers.

Thus, by her will and by fate, Virginia became the Flanders of the war. And already, from the moment the events in Charleston harbor made war flagrant, armed men, in troops and battalions, hurried forward, from the North and from the South, to her borders. An equal fire animated both sections. President Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand men; Mr. Davis, for a hundred thousand,—armies of a proportion never before seen on the Western continent. Yet such was the spontaneous alacrity with which on each side the summons was obeyed, that within the space of a few weeks, these limits were greatly overpassed, and an additional call for a half million men on the part of the North, and a levy en masse on the part of the South, met a like response. Then by that new agent of transport that has wrought a revolution in military operations no less than in the movement of commerce, the volunteers were quickly conveyed to Virginia from points so distant and divergent as to strike the imagination with wonder. It is estimated that for many weeks after the first call for troops, armed men arrived in Richmond, from all parts of the South, at the rate of from fifteen hundred to two thousand daily; and the multitude poured forth from the populous North was not less, but greater. From the loyal States, the point of concentration was Washington, where for a time the gathering force held a simply defensive attitude: then bursting the [15] barrier of the Potomac, it launched itself upon that soil which the men of Virginia fondly named ‘sacred,’ and the history of the Army of the Potomac began.

I design in this volume to record, as far as may now be done, what that Army did and suffered in ten campaigns and twoscore battles, in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. This history, if adequately made, must be the history also of much the larger part of that gigantic war that, originating in the secession of eleven States from the Federal Union, ended, after four years, in the establishment of that Union on a lasting basis. For though this conflict assumed continental proportions and raged around a circumference of many thousand miles, it was observed that its head and front remained alway in that stretch of territory between the Potomac and the James, and between the Blue Ridge and the Chesapeake. Here, from the start, each belligerent, as by common consent, concentrated its richest resources; here, throughout the struggle, each continued to sustain its greatest armies, under its ablest commanders: and never for a day did it lose its military primacy in the eyes of either party to the conflict. It is estimated that out of the half million men who met death, and the two million who suffered wound in the war—the losses of both sides, and the casualties of all the battles and sieges over the whole continental field of action, being included— above one-half this appalling aggregate belongs to the Army of the Potomac and its adversary. These losses are the summing up of a series of campaigns and battles as grand in their proportions as any on record, waged with a remorseless energy, wrought out with all the resources that modern art has devised to make war deadly, and fought upon a theatre peculiar in its character and the conditions of warfare. That theatre is Virginia—a colossal canvas whereon moving masses and the forms of wrestling armies appear.

The history of the War for the Union would set forth that majestic exhibition of power by which a free People, without military traditions, created great armies, waged a national [16] war, and subdued an internal revolt of a magnitude without parallel. But my present province is more restricted, and embraces the story of one alone of these armies, though the main one.

I shall have to trace how this force arose, and its first essays and failures; how it grew into the shape and substance of an army; and how it then entered upon campaigns, bloody, indecisive, and protracted.

I shall have to show how this army, losing again and again the component parts of its structure,—thinned by death, and wounds, and wasting disease, and filled up again and again by the unquenched patriotism of the People,—never lost its individual being, but remained the Army of the Potomac still; and I shall have to follow those changing phases that the life of an army, not less than the life of an individual, undergoes.

I shall have to celebrate the unswerving loyalty of this army, that, ofttimes when the bond of military cohesion failed. held it, unshaken of fortune, to a duty self-imposed.

I shall have to follow it through a checkered experience, in a tale commingled of great misfortunes, great follies, and great glories; but from first to last it will appear, that amid many buffets of fortune, through ‘winter and rough weather,’ the Army of the Potomac never gave up, but made a good fight, and finally reached the goal.

Nor can there fail to arise the image of that other Army that was the adversary of the Army of the Potomac—and which, who can ever forget that once looked upon it?—that array of ‘tattered uniforms and bright muskets’—that body of incomparable infantry, the Army of Northern Virginia— which for four years carried the Revolt on its bayonets, opposing a constant front to the mighty concentration of power brought against it; which, receiving terrible blows, did not fail to give the like; and which, vital in all its parts, died only with its annihilation.

Of this drama there will be no other hero than the Army of the Potomac itself; for it would seem that in this war of the [17] People it was decreed there should arise no imperial presence to become the central figure and cynosure of men's eyes Napoleon, in an outburst of haughty eloquence, exclaims that in the great armies of history the Commander was every thing. ‘It was not,’ says he, ‘the Roman army that conquered Gaul, but Caesar; it was not the Carthaginian army that made Rome tremble at her gates, but Hannibal; it was not the Macedonian army that marched to the Indus, but Alexander; it was not the Prussian army that defended Prussia for seven years against the three most powerful States of Europe, but Frederick.’ This proud apotheosis has no application for the Army of the Potomac. And one must think —seeing it never had a great, and generally had mediocre commanders—it was that it might be said, that whatever it won it owed not to genius, but bought with its blood.

I must now add, that it would be to fail to draw some of the most important lessons furnished by the history of the army whose deeds form the subject-matter of this volume, if I should fail to set forth the relations of that army with the central authority at Washington. The conduct of a war under a popular government introduces new conditions into the established military system and traditions, and greatly complicates the duties of the commander. Now the history of the American war affords a new and enlarged exhibition of the behavior of a democratical Executive, suddenly plunged into the governance of great military affairs. While a sense of justice will suggest the exercise of much lenience in the judgment of an Administration called to a difficult task, it is none the less incumbent on the historian to point out errors and follies that cost much.

In the campaigns of the Army of the Potomac there is presented a remarkable unity, both as regards the theatre of operations and the objective of operations. The theatre was Virginia; the objective, Richmond. The first military aspiration of the North expressed itself in the vehement cry, ‘On to Richmond:’ and when, after many battles and campaigns, [18] —more than any man then dreamed,—Richmond fell, the structure of the Confederacy fell with it.

But though the sphere of action is in the main bounded by the geographical figure of the State of Virginia, it resulted from the fact of the war assuming twice on the part of the insurgent force an aggressive character, that its area must be extended so as to include a part of the territory of the contiguous States of Maryland and Pennsylvania. This circumstance does not destroy, however, the unity of the zone within which the Armies of the Potomac and of Northern Virginia operated. The battles of Antietam and Gettysburg—the two actions out of the limits of Virginia—were fought in the narrow salient of a great triangle, having the southern boundary line of Virginia as its base, the Shenandoah and Cumberland valleys as its western side, and the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay as its eastern side. From its apex, this triangle measures seven hundred and fifty miles on its mountainside, and about three hundred miles on its western side, with five hundred miles on its base line.

Now if it be considered that within this comparatively restricted space, two great armies manoeuvred and fought during the protracted period of four years, and that for all that time, though surging backwards and forwards, each maintained its essential vantage-ground, there will arise the inference, either that the operations were conducted with little vigor, or else that there must have been some peculiar conditions that shut out victory from sooner declaring itself on the one side or the other.

But the former supposition is excluded by the palpable evidence, notorious to all the world, of a long bead-roll of bloody battles, and the terrible aggregate of losses sustained, in this conflict of Americans with Americans.

It results therefore that we must seek in the alternative the explanation of a historic fact seemingly so unaccountable. I shall briefly set forth some of the leading elements that enter into this problem as it stands related to the theatre of operations in Virginia and the conditions of warfare upon that [19] theatre. A proper appreciation of these conditions will help to explain the many bloody but indecisive battles that characterized the Virginia campaigns, and must modify the conclusions of those who, from a distance, vainly seek to apply the principles and precedents of European warfare to a region having hardly one mentionable element in common.

From the Potomac, as base, to Richmond, on the left bank of the James, as objective, the distance is one hundred and ten miles; and it is to be noted, first of all, that in this zone an army upon the defensive has its operations facilitated, while an army assuming the offensive has its operations rendered difficult, from the fact that the water-shed being towards the coast, all the rivers cross any line of manoeuvre against Richmond. These rivers are: the Occoquan, formed by the union of Bull Run and Cedar Run; the Rappahannock, swelled by the converging tides of the Rapidan and Hedgman rivers; the Mattapony, which results from the confluence of four streams, named the Mat, the Ta, the Po, and the Ny; the Pamunkey, formed by the union of the North and South Anna; and the Chickahominy, which has its embouchure in the James. The Confederates found eligible lines of defence along these rivers, which they used to great advantage, from the time when, at the opening of the war, Beauregard formed his array along Bull Run, to when, almost four years thereafter, Lee disputed with Grant the passage of the Chickahominy, and compelled the Union commander to seek a new base south of the James.

The mountain system of Virginia is thrown off on the western flank of the theatre of operations, where the Blue Ridge forms, with that parallel ridge called successively the Clinch, Middle, and Shenandoah mountains, the picturesque and fertile Valley of the Shenandoah. This valley, from its direction north and south, and its peculiar topographical relations, is an eminently aggressive line for a hostile force moving northward to cross the Potomac into Maryland, either with the view of penetrating Pennsylvania or of manoeuvring [20] towards Washington. It was by this line that Lee issued upon the soil of the loyal States on the occasion of both the Confederate invasions—to wit, the Maryland invasion of 1862, and the Pennsylvania invasion of 1863. This circumstance compelled, throughout the war, the constant presence of a considerable army to guard the debotuche of this great valley and the passes of the Blue Ridge; and the Shenandoah region was the scene of a series of operations having an intimate relation with those of the main theatre, which in general terms may be defined as the territory between the Blue Ridge and the Chesapeake, and between the Potomac and the James.

This region has, as its characteristic feature, a dense forest of oak and pine, with occasional clearings—rarely extensive enough, however, to prevent the riflemen concealed in their margins from covering the whole opening with their fire. The roads are few, bad, and form so many defiles; and it was, throughout the war, commonly necessary for the axeman to precede the artillerist, to hew for him a path. It is rare, in all this tract of country, to find a field in which cavalry can have any legitimate play; and it frequently happened that, owing to the density of the forest, not even artillery could be employed.

It is easy to see that under these circumstances military operations must assume many peculiarities; and, it is to be added, these were quite in favor of the defensive. The abundance of wood afforded such facility for the construction of breastworks and abatis, that, during all the late years of the Virginia campaigns, actions were invariably waged behind and about hastily improvised ramparts of earth and logs, with which every hundred yards gained was instantly intrenched. Under cover of these rude yet strong ‘coigns of vantage,’— with the infantry protected by a parapet, and equipped with the improved arms—with rifled artillery sweeping a front of two or three thousand yards, and this front obstructed by ‘slashings,’ —the army on the defensive might await, with comparative security, the approach of lines of battle that were almost foredoomed [21] to repulse. If, peradventure, driven from one line, the enemy could, with the greatest ease, take up another, and another. A campaign thus became a kind of rough siege; and in this state of facts, even victory was generally fruitless, because pursuit was impossible. The task of the commander increased in difficulty in the same proportion. Shut out from sight, and often even from hearing, the general on the field of battle was constrained to work in a manner blindfold, and compelled to rely on the firmness of his troops till couriers should arrive to bring tidings of the fight.

But the obstructions that beset American warfare are not confined to these distinguishing features of the terrain; for the difficulty of any extended operation became greatly enhanced by the question of subsistence, on which the mobility of an army so largely depends. There are two maxims that forcibly set forth the bearing of the commissariat on wars of invasion: the first is the saying of Frederick the Great, that ‘an army, like a serpent, moves on its belly;’ the second is the declaration of Caesar, that ‘war must support war.’ The former of these maxims asserts the absolute dependence of military operations on the means of feeding the operating army; the latter, that this dependence should be simplified by drawing supplies from the country in which the troops act. But while it is no less true in America than elsewhere that ‘an army, like a serpent, moves on its belly,’ the actual condition did not permit of carrying out the admonition to ‘make war support war.’ In the densely populated countries of Europe, it is easy, from the resources of the country, to subsist an army of a hundred thousand men; and Napoleon, while operating in the basins of the Rhine and Danube, and in the rich granaries of Belgium, Italy, and Swabia, constantly supported by requisitions much greater numbers. But in proportion as the population becomes thin, the productive forces decrease, and local sources of supply for an army decline or disappear altogether. What is possible in Germany, therefore, is impracticable in Poland, Russia, or America. In Virginia, no dependence whatever could be placed on procuring [22] local subsistence. The area of manoeuvre was, therefore, circumscribed by the amount of rations that could be carried on the persons of the soldiers and in wagons, which in Virginia was not more than sufficient for from ten to sixteen days; while its transport necessitated immense trains of two, three, and four thousand wagons—an overgrown mass of impedimenta that made rapidity of movement almost impossible, and constantly bound in the commander to saucy doubts and fears. Indeed, what alone made operations over the immense tracts of country overrun by the Union armies practicable were, first, that new element in warfare, the railroad; and, secondly, the command of the seaboard by the North.

Now taking into account this cardinal maxim of American warfare, that an army operating over a large tract of country must pivot either on a railroad or a river, it appears that from Washington as a base, a force advancing against Richmond by the overland route, and having at the same time to cover Washington, is restricted to two lines of manoeuvre: 1. The line of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad; 2. The line of the Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad. Each of these lines was repeatedly essayed during the Virginia campaigns— the former by Pope and Meade; the latter by Burnside and Hooker. Touching the merits of these lines, experience confirmed what theory would have postulated: that the line of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, though an eminently defensive line as regards Washington, is hardly aggressive; and beyond the Rapidan involves so many complex considerations that no commander was ever able, on this line, to push an advance south of that river. The Fredericksburg route is an aggressive line as regards Richmond, though it is surrounded with many difficulties. It is not, however, a good defensive line as regards Washington; and experience has shown that an army operating by that line, and having also to cover Washington, may readily be dislodged from it and forced to attempt to regain the Orange and Alexandria line by a simple menace against the latter. And this fact suggests the reflection that railroads in war, though affording great facilities for [23] transport, and permitting the execution of operations that, without this resource, would be impracticable, have their own peculiar drawbacks, and require the detachment of a considerable part of the active force for their protection against hostile raids.

But it may be said that the possession by the North of the whole Virginia seaboard gave many other secondary bases and lines of operation, free from the objections above mentioned. This is undoubtedly true; yet the statement must be taken with the limitations that belong to it. The most important of these lines are the Peninsula between the York and James rivers, and the route by the south side of the James. The former was adopted by General McClellan in the spring of 1862, and the latter was eventually taken up by General Grant in the summer of 1864, after having, in a remarkable campaign, crossed every possible line of operation against Richmond. But it is manifest that Richmond could be operated against from the coast only by an army that was in condition to leave Washington out of the question. The secession of Virginia made the Potomac the dividing line between two warring powers; and the unfortunate location of the national capital on the banks of that river, and on an exposed frontier, profoundly affected the character of military operations in Virginia, and, during the first three years of the war, caused a subordination of all strategic combinations to the protection of Washington. Saving the time when McClellan moved to the Peninsula, and Grant swung across the James River, the Army of the Potomac was never allowed to ‘uncover’ Washington. Now, in the former case, the first menace by Lee foreshadowing a northward movement caused the withdrawal of the army from the Peninsula; and, in the latter instance, a small raiding column, detached by way of the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland, compelled General Grant to part with two of his corps to protect the national capital, and, for the time, almost suspended active operations before Petersburg.

It remains now to add that the gigantic war whose principal [24] field was Virginia was one that, from its very nature, threw the burden of the offensive on the side of the North. For, as the National Government undertook to subdue the insurrection of the Southern States, it rested with it to strike, and with the South to parry. But it soon became apparent that the task was very different from that involved in the quelling of an ordinary rebellion, and that the conflict had, from the unanimity of hostile sentiment at the South, the vast extent of territory in insurrection, and the mighty force in arms, all the character of a war waged between two powerful nations. Now, of all the forms that war may assume, that is the most formidable which is denominated a ‘National War,’ the nature of which is thus powerfully depicted by the greatest of military theorists: ‘The difficulties in the path of an army in National wars are very great, and render the mission of the general conducting them very arduous. The invader has only an army; his adversaries have an army and a people wholly, or almost wholly, in arms—a people making means of resistance out of every thing, each individual of whom conspires against the common enemy; so that even the non-combatants have an interest in his ruin, and accelerate it by every means in their power. He holds scarcely any ground but that upon which he encamps; and, outside the limits of his camp, every thing is hostile, and multiplies a thousandfold the difficulties he meets at every step. These obstacles become almost insurmountable, when the country is difficult. Each armed inhabitant knows the smallest paths and their connections; he finds everywhere a relative or friend who aids him. The commander also knows the country, and, learning immediately the slightest movement on the part of the invader, can adopt the best measures to defeat his projects; while the latter, without information of their movements, and not in a condition to send out detachments to gain it, having no resource but in his bayonets, and certain of safety only in the concentration of his columns, is like a blind man—his combinations are failures; and when, after the most carefully concerted movements and the most rapid and [25] fatiguing marches, he thinks he is about to accomplish his aim and deal a terrible blow, he finds no sign of the enemy but his camp-fires; so that, while, like Don Quixote, he is attacking windmills, his adversary is on his line of communications, destroys the detachments left to guard it, surprises his convoys and depots, and carries on a war so disastrous for the invader that he must inevitably yield after a time.’

It needs not to tell any one who has followed the history of the Virginia campaigns, that every sling and arrow thus graphically shown to assail an army penetrating a hostile country in which the population as well as the army enters into the belligerency, did harass the Army of the Potomac. Yet it is not possible that any, save such as have had actual experience of command, can measure aright the obstructions of every nature that hedged military operations in a country unknown and unmapped, filled with a population ready to convey to the enemy information of every movement, and eager to cut a telegraph-wire or throw a railroad-train from its track. The Confederates, waging war on that theory that is named the ‘defensive with offensive returns,’ attempted, in two memorable campaigns, an operation of invasion; but the decisive failure that attended both, may stand as an exemplar of the difficulties that constantly beset the Union army.

If, notwithstanding these difficulties, the Army of the Potomac at length succeeded in destroying its opponent,—thus disproving the dictum of General Jomini, who, in the passage I have just quoted, asserts that in such a task the invader ‘must inevitably yield after a time,’—it would appear to be a reasonable inference that the means by which this end was brought about must be notable, and that the army that accomplished this result may be worthy of a larger fame than the world has yet accorded it.

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