The President’s Special War Order Number 3

March 11, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order removing George B. McClellan as general-in-chief of all Federal armies and creating new military departments that would report directly to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Lincoln had long been concerned that McClellan could not command all the Federal armies while staying in the field with the Army of the Potomac at the same time. This concern intensified when Stanton reported “great ignorance, negligence and lack of order and subordination–and reckless extravagance” within the Army of the Potomac. Now that McClellan had finally taken the field by leading that army into northern Virginia, the time was right for a military reorganization.

In addition to limiting McClellan’s authority to the Department of the Potomac, Lincoln assigned Major General Henry W. Halleck to command the new Department of the Mississippi. This consolidated the Departments of Kansas, Missouri, the Tennessee, and the Ohio, totaling 128,810 men ranging from Knoxville to Kansas.

Halleck had lobbied for this change since the fall of Fort Donelson; he had taken most of the credit for Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of that fort as well as Fort Henry. Major General Don Carlos Buell, who had been reluctant to cooperate with Halleck as an equal, became Halleck’s subordinate, commanding the Army of the Ohio within Halleck’s new department. Major General David Hunter, commanding the Department of Kansas, was transferred east.

In a surprise move, Lincoln brought back controversial Major General John C. Fremont to command the new Mountain Department. This absorbed Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans’s Department of Western Virginia, and included southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Rosecrans would command the new department until Fremont arrived. He was expected to invade eastern Tennessee in support of the Unionists in that region.

Fremont had been removed as commander of the Department of the West the previous November and later censured by the House of Representatives (103 to 28) for mismanaging that department. However, Fremont had backing from Radical Republicans, abolitionists, and the influential Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, so Lincoln bowed to their pressure and reinstated him.

U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton | Image Credit: Flickr.com

U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton | Image Credit: Flickr.com

McClellan, Halleck, and Fremont, now commanding the three major theaters of operation, were to “report severally and directly to the Secretary of War.” This put Stanton in charge of military administration and efficiency.

Before issuing this order, Lincoln had shared it with Stanton, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. All three cabinet members endorsed it, with Seward suggesting that Stanton issue the order through the War Department. Stanton demurred to avoid causing further animosity between himself and his once-close friend McClellan. So Lincoln officially signed the order and issued it under his authority.

Hoping to notify McClellan of the order before it became public, Lincoln dispatched one of his supporters, Ohio Governor William Dennison, to McClellan’s headquarters. Dennison bore a message from the president explaining that the move was not a demotion; rather, “having personally taken the field,” Lincoln wanted McClellan to fully concentrate on the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln also stated that McClellan would take on this lesser role “until otherwise ordered,” implying that he might reinstate him as general-in-chief in the future.

Dennison was too late. On the morning of the 12th, the National Intelligencer released details of the order, and McClellan’s allies in Washington telegraphed his headquarters at Fairfax Court House. Dennison arrived with Lincoln’s explanation after the fact, and McClellan wrote a reply: “I shall work just as cheerfully as before, and that no consideration of self will in any manner interfere with the discharge of my public duties.”

Most Washington insiders, especially Stanton and the Radical Republicans, pushed for this reorganization to elevate Halleck and Fremont while stripping McClellan of some of his authority. Many hoped that McClellan’s removal as general-in-chief would be permanent. Speculation soon abounded that, despite Lincoln’s assertions, the order indicated his doubts about McClellan’s abilities.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 87-89, 92; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 139; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7186-97; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 407-08, 502; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 266, 318; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 121; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 428-31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 183; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 424; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 500, 542-43; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 515, 815; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q162

McClellan Invades Northern Virginia

March 10, 1862 – General-in-Chief George B. McClellan’s Federals finally entered northern Virginia, but the Confederate retreat from that area jeopardized McClellan’s overall strategy.

Federal General-in-Chief George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

Federal General-in-Chief George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

On the night of the 9th, President Abraham Lincoln met with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and General McClellan. Lincoln announced that he had received word of General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Potomac falling back behind the Rappahannock River. If true, this would block McClellan’s planned landing at Urbanna. Lincoln’s secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, recorded that McClellan received the news “with incredulity which at last gave way to stupefaction.”

McClellan, who had said for months that Johnston’s Confederates were too strong to confront, now hurried his own Army of the Potomac to pursue them. As General Philip Kearny’s Federals chased the Confederate rear guard, the bulk of McClellan’s army poured across the Potomac River into northern Virginia:

  • General Irvin McDowell’s division moved from Arlington to Centreville
  • General Edwin V. Sumner’s division occupied Manassas Junction
  • Other divisions advanced to Fairfax Court House

They found little more than wrecked railroad equipment and burned supplies. Even worse, the Federals soon discovered that many of the fortifications that McClellan had considered impregnable were manned by “Quaker guns,” or logs painted black to resemble cannon. Moreover, the abandoned camps indicated that no more than 50,000 enemy troops, or one-third the size of the force that McClellan had guessed, could have been stationed there.

A New York Tribune reporter submitted his article from what he called “Camp Disappointment, near Centreville.” Another correspondent stated that “the fancied impregnability of the position turns out to be a sham.” One reporter wrote, “Utterly dispirited, ashamed, and humiliated, I return from this visit to the rebel stronghold, feeling that their retreat is our defeat.”

Still, McClellan maintained that the abandoned defenses were “quite a formidable series of works.” While Johnston had held the line largely through bluff, he had been given enough time to build very strong defenses in certain points, especially overlooking a likely Federal approach northeast from Centreville. McClellan asserted that this area would have been “somewhat uncomfortable for new troops to carry by storm.”

Although Johnston’s withdrawal allowed for a deeper Federal probe into Virginia, Federal officials, particularly the Radical Republicans and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, were generally unimpressed with McClellan’s “hollow victory.” After McDowell gave him a tour of the Bull Run battlefield, McClellan directed the army to fall back to Alexandria while he pondered his next move.

The Urbanna plan was no longer tenable, but McClellan did not want to altogether abandon the idea of moving down the Virginia coast. When the U.S.S. Monitor recently drove the C.S.S. Virginia away from Hampton Roads, it opened the possibility for McClellan to move his army even further down the coast. He could land the Federals at Fort Monroe, on the peninsula formed by the York and James rivers. From there he could advance 70 miles up to Richmond, with only two waterways in his path.

McClellan, having previously discussed this possibility with Stanton, wired him from Fairfax Court House:

“I have just returned from a ride of more than 40 miles… The rebels have left all their positions, and, from the information obtained during our ride to-day, I am satisfied that they have fallen behind the Rapidan, holding Fredericksburg and Gordonsville… They left many wagons, some caissons, clothing, ammunition, personal baggage, etc… Having fully consulted with General McDowell, I propose occupying Manassas with a portion of Banks’s command, and then at once throwing all forces I can concentrate upon the line agreed upon last week… I presume you will approve this course…”

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 83, 86-87; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13385-93; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 183; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 423-24; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q162

The Battle of the Ironclads

March 9, 1862 – A naval duel at Hampton Roads off the Virginia coast marked the first time in history that two ironclad warships did battle.

After nearly destroying the Federal blockading fleet the day before, the C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimac) returned to Hampton Roads on the 9th. The Virginia’s commander, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, intended to finish off the grounded Federal flagship, the U.S.S. Minnesota. However, the Federal ironclad U.S.S. Monitor, designed to neutralize the Virginia, was waiting nearby.

The stationary Minnesota began firing at the Virginia as she closed to within a mile, but no damage was done. The Monitor then answered signals that the enemy was approaching by coming out to confront her. A midshipman aboard the Virginia recalled, “We thought at first it was a raft on which one of the Minnesota’s boilers was being taken to shore for repairs.”

The Monitor did not seem nearly as formidable as the Virginia, but she was iron-plated just like her Confederate adversary. The Monitor was also faster and more maneuverable than her lumbering opponent, with a more stable engine and a 10 1/2-foot draft as opposed to the Virginia’s 21-foot draft. Although the Virginia outgunned the Federal ship 10 to two, the Monitor’s two guns were on an innovative revolving turret.

The Monitor fired first, hitting the Virginia with a shot at the waterline. It did no damage, but the Confederate crewmen were startled to see such a strange craft firing on them. A Federal aboard the Monitor said, “You can see surprise in a ship just as you can see it in a man, and there was surprise all over the Merrimac.”

The Virginia opened fire at 8:06 a.m. with a shot that passed over the Monitor and struck the Minnesota. The Minnesota and Federal shore batteries returned fire as the ironclads closed in on each other. Lieutenant John L. Worden, the Monitor’s commander, stopped his engines and allowed his ship to drift alongside the Virginia, as both crews began firing as fast as they could from just a few yards apart. The Monitor’s revolving turret was struck twice, but the mechanism continued functioning properly.

Virginia (Merrimac) v. Monitor | Image Credit: thehistorybomb.com

Virginia (Merrimac) v. Monitor | Image Credit: thehistorybomb.com

The Monitor’s heavy shot managed to crack the Virginia’s iron plating in some places, but for the most part, her broadsides bounced or slid off the Confederate vessel’s armor “with no more effect… than so many pebblestones thrown by a child.” Conversely, the Monitor sat so low on the water that most of the Virginia’s shots passed harmlessly overhead.

Thousands of spectators gathered on shore to watch the ironclads battle “mercilessly, but ineffectively” for four hours. With his shots having no effect, Worden directed his men to ram the Virginia’s stern and try disabling her propeller. The Monitor narrowly missed, and the firing resumed. As the ships circled each other, the Monitor came perpendicular to the Virginia, and Jones directed his Confederates to ram her. But Worden easily evaded the larger, slower vessel.

Near noon, the Monitor disengaged to replenish her ammunition. The Virginia steamed to within 10 yards and fired a round that struck the pilot house, sending iron splinters through the viewing slit and partially blinding Worden. Thinking that the pilot house had been seriously damaged, he ordered a withdrawal and retired to quarters, relinquishing command to Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene.

Meanwhile, the Virginia’s unstable engine began struggling and she went aground. Greene ordered his Federals to reengage the Confederates, but by the time they returned, the Virginia had broken free and was withdrawing back to Sewell’s Point, under the cover of Confederate artillery. The vessel was low on ammunition and taking on water due to the engine problems, and Jones feared that she could be grounded again in the lowering tides. The battle was over.

The Monitor, which had been hit 23 times, resumed guard duty alongside the Minnesota. The Virginia’s engine proved too ineffective to pose any further threat to the Federal naval fleet on the Atlantic. Nevertheless, this began a new era in naval warfare, as the Monitor’s chief engineer Alban Stimers wrote to his father that this battle “was the first of its kind that ever occurred in history.” Captain John Dahlgren noted, “Now comes the reign of iron–and cased sloops are to take the place of wooden ships.” As of this date, the wooden navies of the world were obsolete.

Both the exhausted crews were mutually happy to be done with each other, and they both claimed victory. The Monitor may have won a strategic victory by preventing the Virginia from accomplishing her mission to destroy the Federal blockading fleet. However, the Confederates may have won a psychological victory by making the Federal navy expend large amounts of resources to defend against enemy ironclads in the future. The resources included vessels that had originally been assigned to support Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula campaign.

At Washington, panic over the prospect of the Virginia steaming up the Potomac turned to jubilation when Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox telegraphed from Fort Monroe at 9 p.m.: “These two ironclad vessels fought part of the time touching each other, from 8 a.m. to noon, when the Merrimac retired… The Monitor is uninjured and ready at any moment to repel another attack.” This meant that Fort Monroe was safe for now, McClellan’s Peninsula campaign could proceed, and Washington would not fall under naval bombardment.

Soon “Monitor fever” swept the northern states in celebration of the Monitor’s defense of Hampton Roads. Naval officials quickly focused on constructing more Monitor-class vessels for the war effort. Worden later received a vote of thanks from Congress and a promotion to captain for leading the crew of the Monitor in this fight.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 72-74; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 85; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 179; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (9 Mar 1862); Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 46; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 385-86, 504; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 139; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 120-21; Keefer, Kimberly A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 842-43; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 131-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 181-82; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 375-76; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 101-05; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 787; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 279; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 504; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 335; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 62; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 529-30

The C.S.S. Virginia Attacks

March 8, 1862 – The Confederate ironclad Virginia demolished the Federal naval fleet off Hampton Roads, rendering all wooden warships obsolete and threatening to permanently break the Federal blockade.

C.S.S. Virginia | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

C.S.S. Virginia | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The crew of the C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimac), the flagship of the Confederate James River Squadron, completed preparations for action on the 7th. The next day, the ironclad vessel steamed out of the Norfolk Navy Yard, accompanied by five other vessels.

Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, commanding the Virginia, had been authorized to make a trial run, but he instead sent the workers ashore and took the ironclad out to confront the entire Federal blockading fleet off Hampton Roads. As the Virginia passed Sewell’s Point, Buchanan addressed his 350-man crew:

“My men, you are now about to face the enemy. You shall have no reason to complain of not fighting at close quarters. Remember, you fight for your homes and your country. You see those ships–you must sink them. I need not ask you to do it. I know you will do it.”

Although the Virginia had not been built for speed (she could barely reach six knots at full steam), her thick iron plating made her almost invulnerable to enemy fire. Crewmen also greased the sloped plating with melted pork fat to better resist the cannonballs.

As the ironclad steamed down the James, five of the Federals’ most powerful warships were stationed near the river’s mouth, 10 miles from Norfolk: U.S.S. Cumberland, Congress, Roanoke, St. Lawrence, and the flagship Minnesota. The Congress, Cumberland, and St. Lawrence were sailing vessels considered behind the times due to the advent of steam power. The Roanoke had a broken shaft and was not functional. All five were wooden warships.

The 8th was a Saturday, so Federal crewmen were drying their laundry on their ships’ riggings when the Virginia appeared. The ironclad steamed directly for the 30-gun sloop Cumberland, one of the Federals’ largest ships, and rammed her around 1 p.m. The Cumberland’s superior firepower was no match for the Virginia’s iron plating. Despite losing her metallic ram, the ironclad opened a gaping hole below the Cumberland’s waterline and sank her.

The Congress, a 50-gun frigate led by Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, saw the action from Newport News Point and began firing at the Virginia. A witness observed several broadsides being fired into the ironclad and noted that the shots “struck and glanced off, having no more effect than peas from a pop-gun.” The Virginia took 98 hits that disabled two guns, blew nearly everything off the deck, and shot up her smokestack. But none inflicted serious damage.

In response, Buchanan directed his crew to bear down on the Congress. Smith ordered the Congress towed to shore, but she sustained heavy damage from direct fire before running aground. Many were killed or wounded, including Smith, who was decapitated by a shot around 4:20 p.m. His successor surrendered the burning vessel.

The Virginia then turned her attention to the flagship, Minnesota. However, the Minnesota’s crew grounded her off Newport News to avoid destruction. The ironclad’s deep 22-foot draft prevented her from steaming into the shallows to finish the Minnesota off.

Meanwhile, Federal shore batteries poured fire into the Virginia, with the cannonballs merely bouncing or sliding off her iron plating. But one shot managed to wound Buchanan, forcing him to pass command to Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones. Jones returned the Virginia to Sewell’s Point near nightfall, with plans to resume the attack on the Minnesota and any remaining blockaders the next day.

This was the Confederacy’s greatest naval victory of the war. The Virginia destroyed two powerful warships in four and a half hours and, despite losing two guns, suffered no serious damage. They sustained 21 casualties (two killed and 19 wounded, Buchanan among them).

Conversely, this was the worst day in U.S. naval history up to that time (only Pearl Harbor, 79 years later, was worse). The Federals sustained 250 casualties, the most the navy suffered on any day of the war. The remaining vessels at Hampton Roads faced almost certain destruction the next day, until a new vessel arrived late that night to help even the odds.

The Federal ironclad U.S.S. Monitor completed a harrowing journey from New York, during which she was nearly swamped several times. The Monitor’s primary mission was to stop the Virginia. Captain John Marston, acting commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron aboard the U.S.S. Roanoke, directed Lieutenant John Worden, commanding the Monitor, to protect the grounded Minnesota.

The Monitor steamed to the Minnesota’s side around midnight, using the light from the burning Congress to find her way. The Congress’s magazine ignited shortly after 1 a.m., sparking several explosions and destroying the vessel. Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene, the executive officer of the Monitor, reported: “Her powder tanks seemed to explode, each shower of sparks rivaling the other in its height, until they appeared to reach the zenith–a grand but mournful sight.”

Within two hours of the Congress’s explosion, Major General John Wool, the Federal army commander at Fort Monroe, telegraphed the War Department that the Confederacy’s “floating battery” had sunk two frigates and would sink the remaining three before assaulting the fort itself. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton read the dispatch with terror and hurried to the White House to notify President Abraham Lincoln. The news soon spread panic throughout Washington, with Lincoln repeatedly looking out windows to see if the Virginia was coming up the Potomac.

An emergency cabinet meeting began at 6:30 a.m. on the 9th, where Stanton paced “like a caged lion” and declared: “The Merrimac (i.e., Virginia) will change the whole character of the war. She will destroy, seriatim, every naval vessel; she will lay all the cities on the seaboard under contribution.”

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles expressed concern but shared a message from Lieutenant Worden announcing that the Monitor had arrived at Hampton Roads. Stanton, unimpressed, went to a window and said, “Not unlikely, we shall have a shell or a cannonball from one of her (Virginia’s) guns in the White House before we leave this room.”

Welles argued that the Virginia drew too much water to come up the Potomac. He later recalled that there was “something inexpressibly ludicrous in the wild, frantic talk, action and rage of Stanton.” Lincoln shared Stanton’s concerns but remained calm. Later that day, Stanton telegraphed the coastal state governors: “Man your guns. Block your harbors. The Merrimac is coming.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 72-74; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 139; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 258; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 119; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 131-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 180-81; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 697; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 375; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 787; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 275; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 504; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 335; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 49, 57-58; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 99-100; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 529-30

Lincoln Issues Two General War Orders

March 8, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln demonstrated his flagging confidence in General-in-Chief George B. McClellan by creating a corps command structure within the Army of the Potomac.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Lincoln and McClellan met at the White House on the morning of the 8th to discuss McClellan’s plan to load the army on transports and move down Chesapeake Bay, landing at Urbanna on Virginia’s coast. During the discussion, Lincoln said that a “very ugly matter” had come up concerning rumors that the plan “was conceived with the traitorous intent of removing its defenders from Washington, and thus giving over to the enemy the capital and the government, thus left defenseless.”

McClellan quickly snapped that no man would call him a traitor, and, according to McClellan, Lincoln relented and “said that he merely repeated what others had said, and that he did not believe a word of it.” To prove his loyalty, McClellan announced that he would share the Urbanna plan with his division commanders, most of whom knew nothing about it yet, and ask them to vote on whether it was sound.

McClellan summoned the 12 division commanders to his headquarters, where he explained the plan and took the vote. He then returned to the White House that same day to report to Lincoln that the commanders had voted in favor of the plan, 8 to 4. This seemed to satisfy Lincoln enough to allow McClellan to proceed with his Urbanna strategy.

However, Lincoln was not completely satisfied until he issued two peremptory orders to McClellan later that day. The first, titled “President’s General War Order No. 2,” dismantled McClellan’s division-command structure by grouping the 12 divisions within the Army of the Potomac into four corps, to be led by Generals Irvin McDowell, Edwin V. Sumner, Samuel P. Heintzelman, and Erasmus D. Keyes. A fifth corps was also created and assigned to operate in the Shenandoah Valley under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks.

McClellan had considered creating a corps system, but he wanted to select his corps commanders himself once they were tested in battle. Lincoln had not only made the selections, but he had consulted with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, not McClellan, beforehand. None of those promoted were McClellan’s favorites, and worse, three of the four (McDowell, Sumner, and Heintzelman) had voted against McClellan’s Urbanna plan.

Lincoln’s second directive, titled “President’s General War Order No. 3,” officially approved the Urbanna plan on several conditions:

  • McClellan had to leave enough troops behind so that Washington remained “entirely secure;”
  • He had to reach a consensus among his top officers as to how many men to leave behind;
  • He could not move the bulk of his army until the Confederate blockade of the lower Potomac River was broken;
  • He had to begin operations within 10 days.

Thus, McClellan got the approval he sought for his plan, but he feared that the conditions placed upon the approval might compromise his overall strategy. This would play a significant role in the way he conducted operations in the future.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 84-85; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7164-75; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 252-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 119; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 180-81; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 424; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 172-75, 598; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 773-74

The Battle of Pea Ridge: Day Two

March 8, 1862 – Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis regrouped his Federal Army of the Southwest and prepared to counterattack Major General Earl Van Dorn’s Confederates at Pea Ridge and Elkhorn Tavern.

Brig Gen S.R. Curtis | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Brig Gen S.R. Curtis | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

As Curtis concentrated his Federal line on the Telegraph road facing Elkhorn Tavern, Van Dorn intended to renew his assault from the previous day. A chance to capture the Federals’ supplies motivated the starving Confederates. Van Dorn began with a minor artillery bombardment, opting to use just three of his 15 guns.

When the firing stopped, Curtis correctly guessed that the Confederates were low on ammunition and ordered a general advance to start at 10 a.m. Curtis preceded the advance with an artillery barrage of his own, using all six of his guns to silence the Confederates’ cannon. The Federal artillery then turned on the enemy infantry, firing a shot every other second for two hours and inflicting many casualties.

Following the barrage, about 7,000 Federal infantrymen surged forward, led by Brigadier General Franz Sigel’s German immigrants from Missouri and Illinois. Sigel announced to his men before advancing that their only two options were to destroy the Confederates or surrender.

The charging Federals drove Major General Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guards away from Elkhorn Tavern to the east, while two divisions led by Sigel and Colonel Eugene A. Carr drove the Confederates off to the west. The demoralized Confederates quickly wavered all along the line, and Van Dorn ordered a retreat.

Day 2 fighting | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Day 2 fighting | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Van Dorn could not retreat in the same direction from which he came (the west) because Curtis could cut him off and destroy his army. Van Dorn therefore directed a withdrawal to the east, and then south, to his original encampment near Fayetteville in the Boston Mountains. To Van Dorn’s benefit, the bulk of the Federal attack came against the western portion of his line, enabling the eastern portion to slip away and pushing the rest in the direction that Van Dorn needed to go.

However, what Van Dorn hoped would be a fighting retreat soon became a confused rout, as the Confederates fell back in multiple directions. This resembled the panicked retreat at Bull Run, except this time it was the Confederates who fled.

The bulk of Van Dorn’s army rejoined the supply train around 2 p.m., and by nightfall, most of the Confederates had reached Van Winkle’s Mill, some 20 miles from the battlefield. Sigel’s Federals conducted a half hearted pursuit and camped about 10 miles north, while the rest of Curtis’s army remained at Pea Ridge.

As a consequence of this battle, Missouri remained firmly in Federal hands. Curtis sustained 1,384 casualties (203 killed, 980 wounded, and 201 missing or captured). Colonel Carr later received the Medal of Honor for his performance in the first day of fighting. Curtis wrote his brother after the battle:

“The enemy is again far away in the Boston Mountains. The scene is silent and sad–the vulture and the wolf now have the dominion and the dead friends and foes sleep in the same lonely graves.”

The Confederates had fought well considering their exhaustion and hunger; many had gone into the fight with shotguns or obsolete flintlock muskets to take on state-of-the-art Federal weaponry. Van Dorn suffered about 1,300 casualties (1,000 killed or wounded and 300 missing or captured). His worn out men straggled back toward the Arkansas River and ultimately Van Buren, but it took them two weeks to fully regroup.

Despite being driven off in confusion, Van Dorn reported: “I was not defeated, but only foiled in my intentions.” He acknowledged that no victory could have replaced the cost, which included the loss of Generals Ben McCulloch and James McIntosh on the battle’s first day. However, Van Dorn had high praise for Price’s Missourians:

“During the whole of this engagement, I was with the Missourians under Price, and I have never seen better fighters than these Missouri troops, or more gallant leaders than Gen Price and his officers… Gen Price received a severe wound in the action, but would neither retire from the field nor cease to expose his life to danger.”

The Confederates did not accomplish their goals of regaining Missouri or diverting Federal attention from the Confederate military buildup in northern Mississippi. However, they inflicted enough damage on Curtis to compel him to end his Arkansas invasion and return to Missouri.

Van Dorn ultimately led his Army of the West across the Mississippi River to join Confederates confronting Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s army in Tennessee. This caused great resentment among Brigadier General Albert Pike and his Native American Confederates, who had participated in the first day’s fighting at Pea Ridge, because it broke a Confederate pledge to protect the Indian Territory from Federal invasion.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 120; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (8 Mar 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 138; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 282-92; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 119; Hoffsommer, Robert D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 688; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 141-46; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 180-81; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 404-05; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 283-85; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 707; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 813; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 566-67, 707

The Battle of Pea Ridge: Day One

March 7, 1862 – Major General Earl Van Dorn’s Confederates attacked Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis’s Federals in northwestern Arkansas, as part of Van Dorn’s mission to reclaim Missouri.

General Earl Van Dorn | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

General Earl Van Dorn | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

By March 6, Van Dorn’s men had marched through snow and sleet to get within striking distance of Curtis’s Army of the Southwest entrenched on Pea Ridge, near Fayetteville. During the night, the Confederates left their campfires burning while they moved around the Federals’ right and into their rear. Van Dorn had the numerical advantage (16,000 to 10,500), but his men were exhausted and hungry, having marched 55 miles in three days.

Van Dorn, directing operations from an ambulance due to illness, further compromised his superior manpower by dividing the army in the hopes of executing a “double envelopment”: Major General Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guards marched down the Telegraph road to confront the Federals’ eastern (left) sector near Elkhorn Tavern, while Brigadier General Ben McCulloch’s force attacked the Federals’ western (right) sector near Leetown. Van Dorn expected the two wings to reunite as they pushed the Federals back.

Curtis had anticipated an attack on his right flank, but not such an aggressive drive so deep behind his lines. Near dawn on the cold, dreary morning of the 7th, Curtis realized the extent of the Confederate maneuver and hurriedly ordered an “about face” to meet the threats to his flank and rear.

Skirmishing opened between 6 and 7 a.m. Delays in positioning the Confederate troops gave Curtis more time to brace his army for the impending attack. Price’s surprise attack on Curtis’s left was also slow to generate, and it was not until 10:30 that the first sortie began.

Battle of Pea Ridge | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Battle of Pea Ridge | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Fighting surged back and forth all day. Three Federal divisions held off attacks from McCulloch, Brigadier General Albert Pike, and a portion of Price’s Missourians in the western sector, which became the Federal left after the troops about-faced. Meanwhile, Colonel Eugene A. Carr’s Federal division, supported by artillery, repelled Price’s main force near the important intersection at Elkhorn Tavern.

In the western sector, Pike’s Cherokee regiments, led by Colonel Stand Watie, withstood an artillery barrage from Colonel Peter J. Osterhaus’s Federal division. The Natives then charged the battery in full warrior dress, armed with rifles, bows and arrows, and tomahawks. They sent the Federals running, with many later accusing the Natives of scalping their victims.

The Cherokees became disorganized when they stopped to celebrate their victory. This gave another Federal division time to step up and counterattack. Pike could not regroup his command, and the Federals sent the Natives in retreat. Many of them left Van Dorn’s army completely, heading back to the Indian Territory by nightfall. This was the first and last major battle of the war that featured Native American combatants.

McCulloch, on Pike’s left, had hoped to capitalize on Pike’s initial success with gains of his own. However, the disorganized retreat left his men unsupported in the western sector. Consequently, the exhausted Confederates could not close the gap between themselves and Price as Van Dorn had hoped. As they slowly advanced, McCulloch rode out front to reconnoiter the Federal lines around 10:30 a.m. Wearing a black velvet uniform, he was easily visible among his butternut-clad men, and a Federal sharpshooter shot him dead.

McCulloch had been the second-ranking Confederate brigadier general, and his death demoralized the troops. Brigadier General James McIntosh, McCulloch’s cavalry commander, replaced him but was killed just minutes later while leading a charge against the divisions of Osterhaus and Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate president). This, along with the capture of the Confederates’ third-ranking officer, further damaged troop morale.

Meanwhile, brutal fighting occurred in the eastern sector. Carr’s Federals repelled two charges by Price’s Missourians, despite being outnumbered two-to-one. A furious third charge knocked the Federals back beyond Elkhorn Tavern, but they counterattacked and regained the lost ground as Carr repeatedly called for reinforcements. A fourth assault just before nightfall drove the Federals about 800 yards west, as more Federals finally arrived to stabilize Carr’s lines.

Fighting ended by nightfall. The Confederates had gained some ground and inflicted substantial damage on Curtis’s army. However, the two wings could not coordinate their efforts to destroy the Federals as Van Dorn had hoped. And the failure to regroup the Cherokees, along with the deaths of McCulloch and McIntosh, caused considerable disarray among the Confederate ranks.

Van Dorn reported that McIntosh had been alert, daring, and devoted to duty, and his death was significant due to his popularity among his troops. Both McIntosh and McCulloch became the two greatest heroes of this battle. Van Dorn, apparently resentful of Pike’s inability to regroup his Natives, omitted their contribution in his official report. As both sides settled down for the night, the Confederates found themselves separated from their supply train. Van Dorn had not directed it to follow his army, thus depriving the troops of food and ammunition.

At Federal headquarters, Curtis held a council of war. Federal prospects seemed bleak considering that the Confederates had taken Pea Ridge and Elkhorn Tavern, and they cut his supply line to the north. However, Curtis knew that McCulloch had been killed, and that other top officers had also been killed or captured. He also knew that the Natives had left the fight. Guessing that Confederate morale was low, Curtis resolved to concentrate his forces and fight his way through to the north the next morning.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 120; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (7 Mar 1862); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 12910; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 138; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9562; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 381, 461-62; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 282-92; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 118-19; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 143; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 179-80; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 404; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 458, 585; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 566-67