Federal General-in-Chief George B. McClellan had pushed for his Army of the Potomac to be shipped from the Washington area down Chesapeake Bay to Urbanna, on the Virginia coast. This would place the Federals behind the Confederate army stationed around Manassas and Centreville and force their commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, to abandon that line in order to better protect the Confederate capital of Richmond. President Abraham Lincoln approved this plan, and McClellan spent most of February putting it into motion.
While much of this plan involved ensuring that the massive army could be safely transported east and south, the western sector of McClellan’s line would play a key role as well. This sector consisted of the upper Potomac portion above Washington, including Harpers Ferry, the area around the Ball’s Bluff fiasco of last October, and the entrance into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. This sector was held by the 18,000-man division of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks.
Banks had been urging McClellan to let him invade the Valley, arguing that his men “could occupy Winchester and Leesburg by the 1st of March.” But McClellan instead planned for Banks to secure Harpers Ferry and protect the vital supply line via the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. This would not be easy because the railroad bridge spanning the Potomac had been destroyed. To cross into Virginia and occupy Harpers Ferry, a new bridge would have to be built. McClellan instructed engineers to gather boats to construct a temporary pontoon bridge in the meantime.
Banks’s Federals began concentrating around Sandy Hook and Maryland Heights, opposite Harpers Ferry, on February 24. Troops of Colonel John W. Geary’s 28th Pennsylvania began fashioning a rope ferry to get across, but a violent storm stopped their work. The storm passed the next day, and Geary’s Pennsylvanians managed to get across using the rope ferry and secured Harpers Ferry. Engineers and lumberjacks of the 3rd Wisconsin then went to work lashing pontoon boats together and spanning them with wooden planks. By the 26th, a makeshift bridge spanning 1,300 feet was finished.
McClellan arrived to witness the bridge’s completion; he apparently ascribed more importance to this event than the actual Chesapeake transport project to the southeast. He was the first to cross the new bridge, and Banks’s Federals followed to the sounds of patriotic music and loud cheers. But the bridge was very unsteady; a Massachusetts private wrote that “the oscillation of the cadence step or trotting horse is dangerous to the stability of a bridge of any kind, much more so the seemingly frail structure of boats and timbers, put together with ropes.”
Nevertheless, at 10:20 p.m. McClellan reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that 8,500 infantry, 18 guns in three batteries, and two cavalry squadrons had crossed into Virginia. McClellan wrote, “I have examined the ground and seen that the troops are in proper positions and are ready to resist any attack.” To his wife Ellen, McClellan wrote, “I crossed the river as soon as the bridge was finished & watched the troops pass. It was a magnificent spectacle–one of the grandest I ever saw.”
The next step was to build a more permanent bridge to ferry more Federals across or (if needed) facilitate a quick retreat back into Maryland. McClellan therefore ordered the shipment of barges from Washington. They were to come up the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, and then be sent through a lock into the Potomac at Harpers Ferry. Now that Harpers Ferry and the B&O Railroad were secure, McClellan looked to send the Federals on to Winchester as Banks had urged. McClellan reported, “We will attempt the canal-boat bridge tomorrow. The spirit of the troops is most excellent. They are in the mood to fight anything.”
The barges came up the canal as planned on the 27th, but nobody seemed to realize that they had been built for canal-use only. When they reached the lock, it was discovered that they were six inches too wide to fit through. Engineers had no solution to this problem, and McClellan was forced to inform Stanton, “The lift lock is too small to permit the canal boats to enter the river so it is impossible to construct the permanent bridge as I intended.”
McClellan then attempted to shift blame: “It had always been represented to the engineers by the military railroad employees and others that the lock was large enough, and, the difference being too small to be detected by the eye, no one had thought of measuring it.” McClellan would be forced to cancel any plans to advance on Winchester. Instead, he informed his chief of staff and father-in-law, Brigadier General Randolph B. Marcy, that he had “determined on the course I indicated to the president and secretary of war, viz., the opening of the railway and rebuilding of its bridges.”
That night, Stanton visited the White House to deliver the bad news to President Lincoln. The president had just finished assuring visitors that “McClellan has, in this case, left himself no loophole through which to escape; for he has said to both Stanton and myself, ‘If this move fails, I will have nobody to blame but myself.’” Stanton handed Lincoln the telegrams and fumed, “It means it’s a damn fizzle! It means that he doesn’t intend to do anything!”
According to reporter Horace White, “Lincoln swore like a Philistine when he learned the upshot of the affair, & there was wailing & gnashing of teeth among the imperial staff… It was Ball’s Bluff all over again, minus the slaughter.” Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase quipped, “The expedition, it was said, and not untruly, died of lock-jaw.”
Chief of Staff Marcy was summoned to the White House, where Lincoln tore into him: “Why in the damnation, General Marcy, couldn’t the General have known whether a boat would go through that lock, before he spent a million of dollars getting them there? I am no engineer but it seems to me that if I wished to know whether a boat would go through a hole, or a lock, common sense would teach me to go and measure it. I am almost despairing at these results. Everything seems to fail. The general impression is daily gaining ground that the General does not intend to do anything…”
Marcy assured the president that there would be a reasonable explanation for the misunderstanding. McClellan spent the last day of February exchanging messages with his superiors regarding the failure. It turned out not to be as serious as first supposed, mainly because the Federal presence at Harpers Ferry would ensure that the B&O supply line would remain secure. McClellan proposed an alternate plan in which Federal detachments would seize Charles Town, Bunker Hill, and Martinsburg on the Virginia side of the Potomac. He assured Stanton, “I make other arrangements which render us secure. You will be satisfied when I see you that I have acted wisely and have everything in hand.”
What McClellan did not know was that this ancillary part of his Urbanna plan would soon rouse the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah at Winchester, commanded by Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.
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- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
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- Cozzens, Peter, Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 2008.
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