Admirable Self-Denial

Major Federal command changes took place in July, both before and after the Battle of Bull Run. Two days before the battle, General-in-Chief Winfield Scott issued orders relieving Major General Robert Patterson as commander of the Department of Pennsylvania. Patterson had failed to keep Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates from leaving the Shenandoah Valley and joining forces with P.G.T. Beauregard’s army at Bull Run, which had greatly contributed to the Federal defeat. Brigadier General George Cadwallader, one of Patterson’s brigade commanders, was also relieved.

Patterson’s department was renamed the Department of Shenandoah, with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks commanding. Banks became the fourth ranking general in the U.S. army (behind only Scott, John C. Fremont, and George B. McClellan). He had been a prominent Massachusetts Republican and former U.S. House speaker who once proclaimed that he was “not acquainted with the details of military matters, and personally have no pride in them.” The department consisted of the Valley, along with Maryland’s Washington and Allegheny counties, with headquarters at Harpers Ferry.

The Department of Annapolis became the Department of Maryland, with Major General John A. Dix commanding. The department absorbed the old Department of Pennsylvania and included all Maryland counties within 20 miles of both sides of the railroad from Annapolis to Washington. These changes would take effect on July 27.

The most significant change took place regarding the defeated Army of Northeastern Virginia, now straggling around Washington and Alexandria. At 2 a.m. on the 22nd, Major General George B. McClellan received a telegram ordering him to go to Washington and replace Major General Irvin McDowell as the army commander. McClellan was currently headquartered at Beverly in northwestern Virginia.

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

McClellan instead suggested staying put and having his army reinforced since Johnston and Beauregard would expect no immediate threat from McDowell. General-in-Chief Scott initially agreed, but then sent McClellan another message later that morning: “Circumstances make your presence here necessary. Charge (General William S.) Rosecrans or some other general with your present department and come hither without delay.” McClellan relented, leaving Rosecrans to take over the Department of the Ohio.

The Federals needed a young, energetic, and confident leader for the army that had been demoralized at Bull Run, and the 34-year-old McClellan had recently enjoyed highly publicized successes in western Virginia (even though those victories had been minor compared to Bull Run). McDowell no longer had the confidence of his officers and his men to lead the army, even if the defeat was not entirely his fault, and Scott was too old and infirmed to take active field command.

McClellan arrived in Washington late on the afternoon of the 26th, having hurried from northwestern Virginia on horseback to the nearest railroad station on the Baltimore & Ohio line, and traveling 150 miles by rail. McClellan wrote that he found “no army to command–only a mere collection of regiments cowering on the banks of the Potomac, some perfectly raw, others dispirited by the recent defeat.”

On the 27th, McClellan met with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. Lincoln knew the young general from when McClellan was vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad and Lincoln was its legal advisor. McClellan officially received command of the new Military Division of the Potomac, which included McDowell’s Department of Northeastern Virginia and Joseph K.F. Mansfield’s Department of Washington. This annoyed Mansfield, who had been passed over by McDowell in May and was now passed over again. McClellan wrote his wife Ellen: “Neither of them like it much–especially Mansfield.”

Lincoln invited McClellan to return to the White House for the cabinet meeting that afternoon. But first, McClellan met with Scott, the only U.S. general that still ranked him. The aging commander, hurt by charges from younger officers (including McClellan) that he was no longer competent enough to retain his rank (and stung that McClellan had met with Lincoln without going through him), kept McClellan occupied long enough to miss the cabinet meeting. Before he left, McClellan received some advice from Scott’s aide:

“You will find splendid material for soldiers sadly in need of discipline. You will be beset on all sides with applications for passes, and all sorts of things, and if you yield to the pressure your whole time will be taken up at a desk, writing. You can from the outset avoid this; another officer can do it as well in your name. The troops want to see their commanding general, and to be often inspected and reviewed by him. Another thing: there is here a fine body of regulars; I would keep that intact, as a sort of ‘Old Guard.’ It may some time save you a battle.”

The new commander’s first assignment was to protect the capital while reorganizing the army for a new invasion of Virginia. To that end, he spent the rest of the day riding through army camps and observing the undisciplined troops. He quickly noted that approaches to Washington were unguarded, and many soldiers randomly left their posts to seek entertainment or drink whenever they pleased. McClellan met with Lincoln that night and informed him that Scott had intentionally kept him from attending the cabinet meeting. Lincoln was amused by such petty behavior and asked McClellan to develop a strategy to win in Virginia and quickly end the war.

McClellan immediately set about reorganizing the army, seeking to boost morale while training the new recruits streaming into Washington every day. He resisted Lincoln’s urgings to launch a new offensive in conjunction with a Federal thrust into Tennessee, insisting that the troops be fully trained before moving out. The new commander wrote, “I see already the main causes of our recent failure; I am sure that I can remedy these, and am confident that I can lead these armies of men to victory once more.” He told his wife:

“I find myself in a new and strange position here–President, Cabinet, Genl Scott & all deferring to me–by some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land. I almost think that were I to win some small success now, I could become Dictator, or anything else that might please me–but nothing of that kind would please me–therefore I won’t be Dictator. Admirable self-denial!”

Near month’s end, McClellan went to Capitol Hill to lobby for legislation that would allow him to appoint civilians to his staff. He wrote of the experience to his wife:

“I went to the Senate to get it through, and was quite overwhelmed by the congratulations I received and the respect with which I was treated… It seems to strike everybody that I look young. They give me my way in everything, full swing and unbounded confidence. All tell me that I am held responsible for the fate of the nation, and that all its resources shall be placed at my disposal. It is an immense task that I have on my hands, but I believe I can accomplish it. Who would have thought, when we were married, that I should so soon be called upon to save my country?”

It did not take long for McClellan to grow tired of all the dignitaries fighting among themselves to meet with him. He attended a dinner at the White House that included the president, the ministers of Great Britain and France, and various senators. He wrote that it was “rather long and rather tedious, as such things generally are.”

One of McClellan’s confidants at the outset was Allan Pinkerton, the famous detective who had guarded Lincoln on his trip from Springfield to Washington in February. Pinkerton, alias Major E.J. Allen, reported: “It is beyond a doubt that from some source the rebels have received early, and to them, valuable notice of the intended actions of the government.” Pinkerton soon began supplying McClellan with regular, though questionable, intelligence on Confederate operations.

Meanwhile, President Lincoln signed two bills into law authorizing the recruitment of 500,000 volunteers each. The second bill offered each volunteer a $100 bonus if they served two years; this aimed to offset this month’s expiration of many 90-day enlistments. It was now expected that the war would last much longer than 90 days. Another measure authorized the creation of military boards to inspect officers and remove those unqualified for command. Minimum criteria for competency were adopted, although some officers continued to be elected by their men or appointed by their home state governors.

Shortly after Bull Run, Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward took a carriage out to inspect the army at Arlington. They rode past Colonel William T. Sherman, who asked them if they were going to visit the camps. Lincoln told him, “Yes, we heard that you had got over the big scare, and we thought we would come over and see the boys.”

Sherman joined the president and secretary on their visit. He warned Lincoln that if he wanted to address the men, there should be “no more hurrahing, no more humbug,” because that had led to the Bull Run defeat. Addressing the troops, Lincoln stopped them from cheering by saying “don’t cheer, boys. I confess I rather like it myself, but Colonel Sherman here says it’s not military; and I guess we had better defer to his opinion.”

At another camp, Lincoln called on the soldiers to let him know if they needed anything. An officer replied, “Mr. President, I have a cause of grievance. This morning I went to speak to Colonel Sherman, and he threatened to shoot me.” After confirming he had heard correctly, Lincoln bent down as if to tell a secret and said, “well, if I were you, and he threatened to shoot, I would not trust him, for I believe he would do it.”

When the carriage returned to the White House, Lincoln sat down and drafted a memorandum of “military policy suggested by the Bull Run defeat.” He had little military experience, but he did what he could to develop an overarching strategy for victory. It contained eight points:

“1. Let the plan for making the Blockade effective be pushed forward with all possible dispatch. 2. Let the volunteer forces at Fort Monroe & vicinity—under Genl. Butler—be constantly drilled, disciplined, and instructed without more for the present. 3. Let Baltimore be held, as now, with a gentle, but firm, and certain hand. 4. Let the force now under Patterson, or Banks, be strengthened, and made secure in its position. 5. Let Gen. Frémont push forward his organization, and operations in the West as rapidly as possible, giving rather special attention to Missouri (because it contained most of the main trails to the Pacific). 6. Let the forces late before Manassas, except the three months men, be reorganized as rapidly as possible, in their camps here and about Arlington. 7. Let the three months forces, who decline to enter the longer service, be discharged as rapidly as circumstances will permit. 8. Let the new volunteer forces be brought forward as fast as possible, and especially into the camps on the two sides of the river here.”

A few days later, Lincoln made additions:

“When the foregoing shall have been substantially attended to– 1. Let Manassas Junction (or some point on one or the other of the railroads near it) and Strasburg, be seized, and permanently held, with an open line from Harper’s Ferry to Strasburg–the military men to find the way of doing these. 2. This done, a joint movement from Cairo on Memphis; and from Cincinnati on East Tennessee.”

Whether or not the Federal commanders would agree with these points remained to be seen.


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