What Happened in August 1861 ©
THE UNION HIGH COMMAND
BEGINS IN DYSFUNCTION
The day following the Union army’s retreat from Bull Run, General Winfield Scott, at Lincoln’s behest, caused his Adjutant to telegraph George B. McClellan:
“Circumstances make your presence here necessary. Come hither without delay."
McClellan arrived in Washington on July 24 and went directly to the White House
for a meeting with Lincoln. Lincoln told him, McClellan says, “You are in
command of Washington and all troops in the vicinity" and invited him to attend
a cabinet meeting. Learning this when McClellan presented himself at Army
Headquarters, Winfield Scott kept McClellan from attending. “The general became
quite indignant," McClellan wrote his wife, Mary Ellen, “and said it was
improper that I should receive an invitation to attend a cabinet meeting to his
Winfield Scott was the General-in-chief of the Army and, as such, had
demonstrated repeatedly in the previous months that he expected the
communications between the civilian government and military officers to occur
through the chain of command, not outside of it. Lincoln, early on, had
side-stepped the chain, to confer privately with officers and to convey orders
directly to them. An example of this practice was the way in which Lincoln had reached out to Irvin McDowell and elevated him to the rank of
brigadier-general, without first securing Scott’s approval. Clearly, Scott was
easily irritated by what he perceived as usurpations of his authority as the
ranking general of the army and by breaches of strict military protocol as
shown by Lincoln’s interaction with McDowell, and now with McClellan. As a
result, cordial relationship between McClellan and Scott could not reasonably
be expected, and, indeed, the relationship, to the extent there was one,
deteriorated almost immediately into patent hostility that quickly led to Scott
tendering to the government his resignation.
Of course, McClellan did his best to hurry the government’s
acceptance of Scott’s tender as is shown by the letters he wrote to his wife,
August 2, 1861: “I handed Lincoln a plan for
conducting the war on a large scale. I shall carry this thing en grand
and crush the rebels in one campaign. Scott is very slow and very old. He
cannot retain command and when he retires I will succeed him."
McClellan, intent on gathering the reins of power to
himself, rejected Scott’s plan of enveloping the rebel states, by seizing
possession of the Mississippi to its mouth with the principal army operating on
that line, and substituted a plan of designating the army forming at Washington
the principal army and moving it against Richmond.
McClellan Handed Lincoln
“I advise that a strong movement be
made on the Mississippi, and that the rebels be driven out of Missouri. A
movement through Kentucky into Tennessee, seizing the railroads from Memphis to the east is also feasible. For the main army of operations (under his command
at Washington) I need 250 regiments, 225,000 men. Its general line of operations
should be directed that water transportation can be availed from point to
point. . . a strong naval force to protect the fleet of transports intended to
convey troops. (He is already thinking of reaching Richmond by Fort Monroe and the Yorktown peninsula.) The question is, shall we crush the rebellion in
one blow, terminate the war in one campaign, or shall it (go on forever)?
August 4, 1861: “I dined at the
President’s yesterday. Some 40 present. Prince Napoleon and staff. French
minister, cabinet members, and General Scott. It made me feel a little
strangely when I went in with Scott leaning on me."
August 8, 1861: “Had a long interview with
Seward about my `pronunciamiento’ against Scott’s policy. . . the old general
comes in the way, he is a perfect imbecile. He understands nothing, appreciates
nothing, and is always in my way. If he cannot be taken out of my path I shall
resign." (McClellan has been in Washington hardly a week!)
To Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, McClellan wrote this on
August 8: “Information confirms my impression that the enemy intends attacking.
I think the enemy has 100,000 men in our front. I suggest all garrisons
(everywhere in the Union) be reduced and the men sent here. I urge that our
force be brought up to 100,000 men before any other point is strengthened. I
also urge that the departments of N.E. Virginia, Washington, the Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, Baltimore, and Fort Monroe be merged into one department under my command."
(McClellan had a copy of this delivered to Lincoln and Scott)
Scott, receiving this, wrote immediately to Cameron and
Lincoln: “I have not the slightest apprehension for the safety of the
government." Of course, Scott was correct: The Confederate force at Bull Run amounted to no more than 25,000 men and was completely incapable of effectively
attacking either the forts surrounding Washington, or Washington itself.
At the same time, Scott informed Lincoln and Cameron that he
wanted out, writing to them that, “I have become an encumbrance to the Army and
that therefore I ought, giving way to a younger commander, to be placed on the
retired list." Lincoln blinked and held on to Scott for the moment. Now
McClellan begins to see Lincoln as the obstacle.
August 9, 1861: “General Scott
is the great obstacle. He will not comprehend the danger (of the rebels
suddenly attacking Washington). I have to fight my way against him. Tomorrow
the question will be decided, giving me absolute control independently of him."
August 15, 1861: “General Scott
is the most dangerous antagonist I have. (Scott was holding on it seems) Our
ideas are so widely different that it is impossible for us to work together."
(So much for the Union.)
August 16, 1861: “The President
is an idiot, the old general in his dotage. I am weary of all this." (“Weary of
all this?" He’s been here two weeks.)
Faced with McClellan’s threat to resign, if he doesn’t get
his way, Lincoln caves in part-way to his demands. On August 20, McClellan
issues the following order:
In accordance with general order No.
15, of August 17, I hereby assume command of the Army of the Potomac,
comprising the troops serving in the former departments of Washington and Northeastern Virginia, in the valley of the Shenandoah, and in the states of Maryland and Delaware."
Almost immediately the danger of Washington being captured
by the enemy, evaporates in McClellan’s mind. To Mary Ellen he writes:
August 25, 1861 “Beauregard has allowed the
chance to escape him. I have now 65,000 effective men and will have 75,000 by
week’s end. Last week he certainly had double our force. I feel sure the
dangerous moment has passed."
The record shows, here, the great handicap Lincoln was
saddled with at the outset of his war: He had no general he could implicitly
trust to carry his armies to victory in the field. He had either generals too
old for the task—officers like Scott, Wool, and Mansfield left over from the
old army—or generals too young, too inexperienced, and too full of themselves.
On July 29, 1861, the best men Lincoln could find to nominate for major-general
rank in the Regular Army were McClellan, Fremont, Mansfield, McDowell, Anderson
(of Fort Sumter fame) and Rosecrans. Later he would add Halleck to the list.
And for major-general of volunteers, the best he could find to nominate were
the politicians, Banks, Dix, and Butler. For brigadier-generals of volunteers, Lincoln nominated Lyon, Pope, McCall, Curtis, Kearny, Reynolds, King, Cox, Sigel, and
Schenck. Of these Lyon, Kearny, and Reynolds would be killed and Pope, McCall,
Curtis, King, Sigel, and Schenck would soon disappear.
The Confederate Army Lacks the Resources to Advance on
As the battle of Bull Run was ending, on July 20, Jefferson
Davis arrived at Manassas Junction by train from Richmond. Davis rode to Henry
Hill, met Beauregard and Johnston, and accompanied them to a house behind the
hill where he held a conference. The issue was what then to do. Davis suggested that a pursuit be mounted, pressing the rear of the Union army as it
retreated into the forts in front of the Potomac and Washington. Apparently the
two generals and Davis agreed to make the advance at dawn the next day, but the
dawn brought a thunderstorm which caused Bull Run to become unfordable and
their enthusiasm dampened as reality set in.
The rain storm reminded them that
the army had no means available to cross the Potomac from its position at Bull
Run, and it was too weak in numbers and war material, to overcome the barriers
presented by the ditches and palisades of the forts occupied by the Union
troops, much of which were fresh blocks of men unaffected by the rout that
occurred on July 20. Even if, somehow, the army were to reach the Potomac bluffs overlooking Washington, all that practicably could be done, would be to
shell the city.
When the conference closed, Davis returned to Richmond where he remained until he came to Fairfax Courthouse on August
31, to which place Johnston had advanced during the month. Again Davis raised the issue of attempting to get closer to Washington, but Beauregard and
Johnston were adamant that no decisive success could be gained by attacking the
Union army in its position, under the guns of a long line of forts. To move on Washington, the two generals said, required that all available forces be concentrated at Fairfax. Davis asked how many troops the generals would need to cross the Potomac and advance against Washington. They answered: “50,000 to 60,000." Davis responded to this, with the statement that he had no troops available that could be
spared from other points. Indeed, even if such troops could be spared, he had
no rifles, except for the 2,100 picked up from the field of Bull Run, to arm
General Lee Goes to West Virginia
Since July 12, when Virginia’s Militia forces were assimilated into the Confederate Army, General Lee’s
position within the Confederate military command was essentially that of a
staff officer or aide to President Davis. While Joseph Johnston and Pierre
Beauregard were assigned command of the troops in the field, Lee worked in Richmond, preparing and moving troops from the training camps to the field. Five days
after the Battle of Bull Run, Davis allowed Lee to leave this post and go to
western Virginia, apparently not to take charge of the military operations
being conducted by two politician generals, Henry Wise and John Floyd, but to
contain their intra-personal rivalries and induce them to coordinate their
operations against the enemy. As he wrote in a letter to his wife, it had been
his concern that the enemy would attempt to come up the Kanawha Valley and get possession of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad that brought him from Richmond.
The reason Confederate troops were
in the West Virginia mountains was to prevent the Union forces McClellan had
previously advanced as far as Huttonsville from moving further south; either in
the direction of Staunton or toward the line of the Virginia-Tennessee
Railroad. The key position for the Union forces was Cheat Mountain, close to
Huttonsville, as it dominated the main road through the mountains between Wheeling, Parkersburg and Staunton.
New York Times, August 10
General Lee arrived in the
vicinity of Cheat Mountain on July 27, after making a circuit through the lower
counties, attempting to organize the local inhabitants into militia companies
without success. Bringing Wise and Floyd from the south, Lee attempted to get
them up to the Cheat Mountain, for an attack on the Union forces now under
Rosecrans command, but the incessant rain in the mountains made the few paths
that passed for roads impossible to move supply wagons, much less artillery
carriages, and the effort bogged down in bottomless mud.
Writing to his wife, Mary, in
August, Lee said: “The rain has saturated the soil that the roads are impassable.
I cannot get up supplies. Much sickness among the men, measles, dysentery, we
are too weak to break the enemy’s lines, but he cannot reach Richmond through
He finished his letter to Mary
with this: “I traveled from Staunton on horseback. A part of the road, as far
as Buffalo Gap, I passed over the summer of 1840, on my return from St. Louis, after bringing you home. If any one had told me that the next time I traveled
that road would have been on my present errand, I should have supposed him insane.
I enjoyed the mountains, as I rode along. The views are magnificent—the valleys
so beautiful, the scenery so peaceful. What a glorious world Almighty God has
given us." This, a far cry from the tone and content of McClellan’s letters to
A few days later, he wrote Mary
again: “We are on the dividing ridge, just south of Huttonsville and Beverly,
occupied by our invaders, and the Cheat Mountains to the east, their present
stronghold, are in full view. The mountains are beautiful, fertile to the tops,
covered with the richest sward of bluegrass and white clover. This is
magnificent grazing country. Now it is pouring."
Finally, at the end of August, he
writes to Mary—“We have a great deal of sickness among the soldiers and now
those on the sick-list would form an army. The measles is still among them. The
constant cold rains, with no shelter but tents, have aggravated it. All these
drawbacks, with impassable roads, have paralyzed our efforts. We are right
up to the enemy in three lines." Though unable to act on the offensive, Lee
had organized the local forces in a defensive position that eliminated
permanently the threat of a Union advance into the upper Shenandoah Valley.
Then, a letter came from Samuel
Cooper, the Adjutant General of the Confederate Army: “General: President Davis
has not ceased to feel an anxious desire for your return to this city to resume
your former duties. Whenever, in your judgment, circumstances will justify it,
you will consider yourself authorized to return." Whether the reason was his
desire to keep away from Richmond while Davis and Joe Johnston were quarrelling
over the issue of ranking, Lee remained in the wilderness of West Virginia for
two more months.
On August 31, President Davis
designated the seniority of his five ranking generals:
1. Samuel Cooper to rank
from May 16
2. Albert S. Johnston to
rank from May 28 (killed at Shiloh)
3. Robert E. Lee to rank
from June 14
4. Joseph J. Johnston to
rank from July 4
5. Pierre Beauregard to
rank from July 21.
To pit against these Lincoln had only McClellan, Rosecrans, Fremont and Buell. Despite the Union’s great
superiority in money, manpower, and arms, this disparity in generalship would
induce Lincoln into blunders that would cause the war to go on two years longer
than otherwise it would.
Note: There are over fifty
negatives of studio photographs taken of McClellan during the war. There are no
photographs taken of General Lee before the surrender, save one taken as he
rode Traveller through the shell- cratered streets of Petersburg, in 1865. In
terms of personal vanity, these were two very different men.