What Happened In March 1862
The War in the East
On the 8th of March 1862, the United States Navy had at
anchor in Hampton Roads five warships of the line—Minnesota, Roanoke, St.
Lawrence, Congress, and Cumberland—plus many support vessels, steamers,
tugs, and barges; all of these ships were supporting the Union troops that were
operating against Confederate defenses on the Carolina coast, at Port Republic
and Roanoke Island. Shortly after noon "three small steamers" were
sighted coming around Sewell's Point. Soon, as the sailors were running to the
general battle stations, the report came from the lookouts that one of the
approaching vessels was the C.S.S. Virginia.
Steams into Hampton Roads
The Virginia stood straight for
the Congress and the Cumberland which opened their
guns on her as she came within three-quarter miles range. With cannon balls
slamming against her iron sides, the Virginia steamed pass the
Congress directly toward the Cumberland and rammed into her
starboard side, opening a great rift in her side and she began to sink. Backing
out, the Virginia, still under fire from the guns of both enemy
warships, turned, and standing broadside to the stern of the Congress, threw shot and shell into her as she slipped her anchor and her sailors
scrambled into the rigging to set foretopsails, her captain endeavoring to move
the ship closer to shore to get under the batteries of Fort Monroe, but as the
ship was maneuvered it ran aground in the shallows.
Rams U.S.S. Cumberland in Hampton Roads
Stuck fast in the shallows, the Congress kept
up a fire with her pivot guns for about an hour, with the Virginia,
lying off her stern boring her through and through with shells and finally
setting her on fire. As the fire exploded the ship's magazine, throwing a ball
of flame through her rigging, two Confederate gunboats, armed with rifle guns,
dismounted the Congress's stern guns, so that she became entirely
helpless. The colors were hauled down and the ship surrendered. Taking off the
crew in the gunboats, the Confederates left the ship to burn down to the
Blasts U.S.S. Congress
Everything on the exterior surfaces of the Virginia had been badly damaged by the fire of the enemy guns: the muzzles of two of her
guns were shot off, the anchors, smokestack and steam pipes were shot away,
railings, stanchions, boat davits, everything on the outside of the vessel were
swept clean. In the interior, notwithstanding the vessel's heavy armor, the
crew had taken twenty-one casualties.
During the Virginia's attack on Cumberland and Congress, the Minnesota,
Roanoke and St. Lawrence attempted to reach the scene
but they ran aground off Fort Monroe. Recognizing this, the Virginia,
late in the afternoon, turned toward the Minnesota, helpless now
on the shoals, and began steaming across the road, but, upon reaching the
middle channel, found the ebb tide made the passage too dangerous and she was
turned round and steamed out of sight behind Sewell's Point. As she did this,
with dusk settling over Chesapeake Bay, the U.S.S. Monitor came
steaming between the capes and entered the road.
After six months of construction and trials, the U.S.S.
Monitor put to sea from New York Harbor, on March 6, 1862, and, towed by
the tug, Seth Low, steamed south in stormy weather that twice
almost caused her to flounder. Despite chalking around the turret, the sea
water came into the interior of the vessel like a waterfall, causing the belts
of the blower-engines to slip, the steam pressure to fall, and the engines
consequently to stall. These conditions, in turn, produced a mixture of gasses
which filled the engine room, forcing the crew to abandon the space as some
were passing out from the lack of fresh air.
Monitor Awash At
With the chief engineer and his assistants unconscious from
the fumes, Alban Stimers, the vessel's construction foreman, was the only man
on board who understood how to operate the engines and pumps. Fumes were now
filling the entire ship and the water was rising. Stimers set the crew to
bailing by forming a bucket brigade up the turret ladder. Stimers sent men, in
quick relays, into the fireroom in an effort to get the blowers, engines, and
pumps operating again. As this was being done, the Seth Low altered course, bringing the Monitor closer to shore and into
calmer waters which relieved the situation for a time; but then the heavy seas
broke the vessel's tiller ropes and she floundered again. Stimers, though, was
able to restore control of the helm, and this allowed the ship to move on, and
it anchored in Hampton Roads just as the Virginia had retired
behind Sewell's Point.
news of the Virginia's appearance in Hampton Roads and the destruction of the
warships, Cumberland and Congress, with the loss of
300 men, shocked Lincoln and his cabinet. Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War,
met with Lincoln at the White House the morning of March 9, and pacing the
Cabinet Room with baleful glances at the men assembled—McClellan, Secretary of
the Navy Gideon Welles, Secretary of State William Seward and others—he almost
shouted in his anxiety that the rebels would destroy the Union fleet, capture
Fort Monroe, and be at Washington before nightfall. "Why, sir, it is not
unlikely that we shall have from one of her guns a cannonball in this room
before we leave it," he had burst out at one point. Welles responded, he
says, to Stanton's hysteria, by saying that the Monitor was
enroute to Hampton Roads and that the vessel would prove more than a match for
the rebel ironclad. A heated discussion followed, with Stanton insisting that
rock-laden steamers be sunk in the Potomac to block the Virginia from reaching the Washington Navy Yard, and he rushed out of the room to send
telegrams to Philadelphia and New York to guard their harbors.
McClellan, after leaving the conference, sent this message
to John Dix, commanding at Baltimore:
John A. Dix Washington, March 9, 11:00 a.m.
Virginia sank the Cumberland,
the Congress surrendered. Minnesota and St.
Lawrence ran aground in approaching scene of battle. At half past eight last night Virginia retired to Craney Island. Please be
fully on alert. See that Fort Carroll is in condition of defense in case Virginia should run by Fort Monroe,
McClellan, Maj.Gen Commanding USA
To John E. Wool, commanding at Fort Monroe, McClellan sent
To John Wool Washington, March 9, 1:00 p.m.
If the rebels obtain full command of
the water it would seem impossible for you to hold Newport News. You are
authorized to evacuate that place, drawing the garrison in upon Fort Monroe which I need not say must be held at all hazards. The performance of the Virginia places a new aspect upon everything and may very probably change my
whole plan of campaign, just on the eve of execution.
McClellan, Maj-Gen Commanding.
And to Edwin Stanton he wrote:
Hon. E. W. Stanton, Sec of War March
I think we will find the danger less as
we learn more, and am less inclined to think that the Virginia will venture out—nevertheless we must take it for granted that the worst will
As these messages were going forth the Virginia was indeed venturing forth, and this time she encountered the Monitor standing in her way. When dawn came clear and bright, on March 9, the United States pennant could be seen floating from the Cumberland whose top
sail mast appeared above the water, marking the spot where she sank. The Minnesota,
badly cut up, lay hard and fast aground, off Fort Monroe and it was evident it
was helpless to protect itself. The Congress was gone beneath the
waves. As the Virginia approached the Minnesota, it
veered around the "Rip Raps," a small man-made island in the main
channel of the Road, turned round and came back down on the Minnesota.
Then appeared the Monitor abeam the Virginia and
opened fire with the two 11-inch guns of her revolving turret, the shots
clanging against the Virginia's iron bulwark.
Though the Virginia had more guns, it had lost
its smokestack, which inhibited its engine from building steam, and this
allowed the Monitor, drawing less feet of water, to come in close
and engage the Virginia at point blank range.
The Monitor's captain, John L. Worden, maneuvered
to within several feet of the Virginia and concentrated the slow
fire of his turret guns in an effort to break in her sides with solid shot. The Virginia, in turn, kept up a rapid fire of broadside, but the
only target was the Monitor's turret and her blasts kept missing the
vital spot. More than two hours passed as the vessels threw shots and shells at
each other, the impacts of the missiles shuttering the iron but neither
punching home a vital blow against the other. Worden, at one point, went up
into the turret during a lull in the exchange and asked why the guns were not
firing. The gun captain replied, "I can do the enemy about as much damage
by snapping my fingers every few minutes." Worden then attempted to bring
the Monitor directly against the Virginia with the
view of boarding her, but the vessel's steering system was inadequate for the
The Crews at
Bringing the Virginia to full
speed her captain, Catesby Jones, tried to ram the Monitor, but
Worden turned as the two vessels came in contact and no harm was caused. Again
the Monitor came upon the Virginia's side, her bow touching, and fired at point blank range twice, causing the iron
plating at the point of impact to buckle. Crewmen of the Virginia came out of a hatchway and made to clamber on board the Monitor, but Worden slipped his vessel quickly astern and opened her batteries upon the
John L. Worden
Now, tired of the battering, Jones decided to ignore the Monitor and move on to destroy the Minnesota standing aground now in the
shoals in front of Newport News. As the Virginia steamed
toward it, the Minnesota opened with all her broadside guns. The Virginia responded with its rifled bow gun, sending shells crashing through
the frigate into its magazine. This caused an explosion and the ship burst into
flames. During this time the Virginia took fifty hits from the Minnesota's guns, sustaining no damage. Then the Monitor came into the scene, interposing herself between the contending vessels, and
the Virginia, maneuvering around the Monitor to get
a line of fire on the Minnesota, suddenly found herself run
aground. After a time, under fire from the Minnesota, Virginia regained the sea and steamed down the bay, with the Monitor trailing her; turning suddenly, Virginia attempted to ram Monitor,
but the sleek little vessel dodged away.
At this point, a shot from the Virginia exploded in front of the turret house, throwing hot power into Captain Worden's
face, where he had been standing, looking through a slit. Blinded by the blast,
Worden turned command over to his executive officer who continued to maneuver
the vessel as the Virginia again turned toward the helpless Minnesot. Then, with the tide falling in the Road, the Monitor drew
over the middle channel, which the Virginia, because of draft,
could not follow, and stood down by Fort Monroe. The falling tide caused
Captain Jones to break off the engagement and he steamed the Virginia for Sewell's Point and thence to the dockyard at Norfolk.
Virginia Steams Away
The sea battle between Virginia and Monitor was, tactically, a draw, but from the strategic point of view the edge clearly
goes to Virginia. The presence of the Monitor in
Hampton Roads gave the wooden war ship fleet some protection against Virginia—it
could press Virginia and hound her—but, unless the power of its
guns could somehow be increased enough to damage her, the Union gun boats could
not get past her into James River.
McClellan's Operation Against Richmond Begins
By March 1862, Abraham Lincoln was, according to hearsay
reports, in an agitated state. George McClellan had under his command, a fully
organized field artillery force of forty-nine batteries totaling two hundred
and seventy-four pieces, four regiments of regular cavalry and eighteen
regiments of volunteer cavalry, and an infantry force of one hundred and twenty
thousand soldiers. Yet, the Confederates were maintaining an army, under
General Joseph Johnston, on the Manassas plain and had artillery batteries
harassing navigation on the lower Potomac River. The Radical Republicans, in
Congress, were harping about the rebel forces' proximity to Washington and
According to the historians and civil war writers, these
circumstances explain what Lincoln did next—he stripped McClellan of his status
as "general commanding the United States armies," confining the reach
of his command to the Army of the Potomac, and imposed upon McClellan a plan of
army organization that required the establishment of corps; and then he selected
the general officers who were to command them. Not surprisingly, these mandates
of Lincoln's did not make George McClellan happy.
Prior to receiving orders from Lincoln detailing his
expectations for the operations of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan had made
his intentions clear in correspondence with subordinate officers, with his
wife, Mary Ellen, and with Lincoln. On March 3, Mac wrote to Halleck, who had
requested reinforcements of 50,000 men from the East: "I hope to open the Potomac this week. It will require the movement of the whole army in order to keep Manassas off my back. As soon as I have cleared the Potomac I shall bring here the water
transportation now ready and then move by detachments of about 55,000 men for
the region of the sandy roads. I expect to find a desperate battle somewhere
near Richmond, the most desperate of the war, for I am well assured that Joe
Johnston's army at Manassas remains intact, and that it is composed of the best
armed and best disciplined that the rebels have."
Note: This theme of
fighting "a desperate battle, the most desperate of the war," recurs
again and again in McClellan's writings addressed to third-parties, but when
the decisive moment came to plunge into it, the record will show that McClellan
shied away from it.
No doubt aware that McClellan was, in fact, calling his
forces to attention, ready now to move them out to confront the rebel force at
Manassas, clear the Potomac of the rebel batteries, and then proceed via the
Chesapeake Bay to Fort Monroe, to begin the approach to Richmond, Lincoln,
using his constitutional status as "Commander-in-Chief," issued
several military orders. The first of these—President's War Order No. 2—issued
on March 8th as the Virginia was sinking the Union warships in
Hampton Roads, reads, in pertinent part:
1. The Major General commanding the
Army of the Potomac will proceed forthwith to organize the army into four Army
corps to be commanded according to seniority of rank as follows:
First Corps, to consist of four
divisions and to be commanded by Major General Irwin McDowell.
Second Corps, to consist of three
divisions and to be commanded by Brigadier General E.V. Sumner.
Third Corps, to consist of three divisions
and to be commanded by Brigadier General Heintzelman.
Fourth Corps, to consist of three divisions,
and to be commanded by Brigadier General E.D. Keyes.
2. The forces left for the defense
of Washington will be placed in command of Brigadier General James Wadsworth.
3. A fifth army corps, to be
commanded by Major General Nathaniel Banks will be formed with his own division
(now under Williams) and General Shields's division. (To this corps was briefly
attached Sedgwick's division.)
Note: As Lincoln wrote it,
the memorandum leaves the impression that the fifth corps, under Nathaniel
Banks, was a unit independent of the "Army of the Potomac," which,
the memo specifies, constitutes McClellan's command; yet, the record shows that
McClellan issued orders to Banks, designating the sector in which the corps was
to operate, and there are no writings of Lincoln's, written at this time,
contradicting McClellan's assertion of command over Banks. Therefore, it seems
clear that, in fact, Lincoln intended Banks's corps to be part of McClellan's
command, but to remain in the northern sector of McClellan's "Department."
Lincoln envisioned then, at the outset, two departments: Fremont's and
McClellan's, covering the line from Wheeling to Washington.
On the same day, Lincoln issued his "War order No
Ordered, that no change of the base of
the operations of the Army of the Potomac shall be made without leaving in, and
about Washington, such a force as, in the opinion of General McClellan, and the
commanders of all the Army corps, shall leave said City entirely secure.
That any given movement enroute for a
new base of operations shall begin to move upon Chesapeake Bay as early as
Lincoln's orders are not inherently defective, but they do
demonstrate clearly the estrangement that existed at that time between himself
and his top general in the East. McClellan was supposed to be—he certainly
should have been—Lincoln's primary military advisor. But, for some months, so
the historians say, he had been secretive and apparently not particularly
courteous in his dealings with Lincoln. A reasonable man in Lincoln's shoes
might well have developed as a result, feelings of distain toward McClellan;
but more than that, the plain fact that McClellan was a dyed-in-the-wool
Democrat made the relationship between the two men as incompatible as water and
In his Own Story, published posthumously, in
1885, McClellan's political leaning is set forth:
"The Radical leaders saw clearly
that it would not be possible to make a party tool of me, and soon concluded to
ruin me if possible. It had been clearly stated by the Congress and the
Government that the sole object of the war was the preservation of the Union. We fought to keep the South in the Union, and the practically unanimous sentiment of
the army, as well as of the mass of the people, was at that time strongly in favor of confining the war to that subject. The real object of the
Radical leaders was not the restoration of the Union, but the permanent ascendancy
of their party, and to this they were ready to sacrifice the Union, if
necessary. They knew that if I achieved military success my influence would be
necessarily very great throughout the country." (Emphasis
And to his wife, Mary Ellen, on March 11, he wrote of his
feelings toward the "Radical leaders," which must include Lincoln.
"I regret that the rascals are
after me again. I had been foolish enough to hope that when I went into the
field they would give me some rest, but it seems otherwise. Perhaps I should
have expected it. If I can get out of this scrape you will never catch me in
the power of such a set again—the idea of persecuting a man behind his
Given the attitude of each of these gentlemen toward the
other, taking into account the animosity and discord between them, Lincoln
should not have proceeded with McClellan as the general commanding his main
army, especially when that army was about to set off on an operation that would,
if successful, probably result in knocking Virginia out of the war.
Situation, March 1862
With the Union successes in the
West, in Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee, it was plain to see that Halleck's
armies were about to sweep these States clean of the enemy and march into the
upper reaches of Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama. When this happened, the
Confederacy's defensible western border would be shrunk to the lower reaches of
the Gulf States, leaving only the Confederate heartland of Georgia and the interior of the Carolinas safe from immediate enemy penetration.
Everything, then, would plainly depend on the Confederate army in Virginia keeping the enemy north of the Rappahannock River: for without the eastern barrier
to the Confederate heartland that Virginia provided, the war would be quickly lost.
But what other option, but McClellan to lead the Army
of the Potomac, did Lincoln have? Of the four army corps commanders, of
his selection, Irvin McDowell was the senior regular army brigadier and
the logical choice to replace McClellan at this crucial moment. McDowell had,
it seems, Salmon Chase as a friend in the Cabinet. He had commanded the first
army Lincoln had been able to get into the field, and he had done a reasonably
good job, given the tactical restraints imposed by Lincoln, fighting the army at
the Battle of Bull Run. He lost the battle, it is true, and his army of
inexperienced volunteers had disintegrated at the end, but only because
Beauregard's force had been timely reinforced by Joe Johnston's. It was no
fault of McDowell that Robert Patterson, commanding four divisions of Pennsylvania volunteers, had failed to keep Johnston engaged in the Shenandoah Valley long
enough to allow McDowell to fight the battle with Beauregard alone. It was
Patterson's failure to keep pace with Johnston, not McDowell's management of
the battle, that was responsible for the Confederate win and the Union loss. Lincoln had gotten along with McDowell well enough and McDowell, unlike McClellan, was not
a rally point for the Democrats squirming for a way to build themselves back
At this moment in time Abraham Lincoln, regardless of what
the historians claim, was in an excellent position to end the war immediately.
He now had Henry Halleck, in the West, controlling all the Union forces west of
the Appalachian Mountains, pressing the undermanned Confederate army, under
Sidney Johnston, back from the southern border of Tennessee, with the future
pointing to an operation against Vicksburg—to open the Mississippi River to New
Orleans—and an operation into east Tennessee to capture Chattanooga and move
then toward Atlanta. If he could just push the enemy away from Richmond, he would gain access to the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, as well as the other
railroads descending into the Carolinas from Petersburg, and could then move
toward Atlanta from the East. Under the pressure of this closing pincer
movement, supported by the full force of the Union armies, with the immense
wealth of the North behind them, the heartland of the Confederacy could not
possibly survive for long.
Given these facts, it must be said then that, but for
something unique to McClellan's situation at that time, Lincoln certainly would
have dumped McClellan as army commander and replaced him with McDowell. The
only explanation for why he did not, seems reasonably to be the fact that
Little Mac was extremely popular with the soldiers in the
ranks—soldiers as McClellan pointed out in his Own Story who felt
strongly they were putting their lives on the line, for the Union; and not for African Negro slaves. Dumping McClellan at this moment in time,
given what was being simultaneously debated vehemently in Congress, would have
been perceived by the soldiers (and their families at home) as directly the
result of the Radical Republicans' agenda of freeing the slaves. So Lincoln choose to try and hold the rudder steady as it was.
But, having made the decision to leave McClellan in
executive control of the Army of the Potomac, Lincoln ought not then to have
interfered with Mac's execution of the agreed upon plan of operations. At the
very least, given Lincoln's war order, Mac had the right to expect to arrive on
the Yorktown peninsula with thirteen infantry divisions, aggregating at least
one hundred and forty thousand soldiers present for duty. But he arrived there
with ninety three thousand, Lincoln having stripped his army of five divisions
for a stupid reason. This happened because Lincoln took it in his head—no doubt
under extreme political pressure from the Radicals—to find John C. Fremont, who
he had dumped from the command of the Department of Missouri, a new occupation.
On Sunday, March 9, as the Virginia and Monitor were bouncing cannon balls off their iron sides, word came to Washington that
the Confederate army at Manassas was gone. McClellan rode out to Fairfax
Courthouse where he set up his headquarters camp, followed the next day by the
march of the army corps from Alexandria. The fact that the rebel army had
withdrawn from Manassas came as no surprise to McClellan. For weeks he had been
receiving intelligence that, as soon as the roads became hard enough to handle
the traffic of artillery and wagons, the place would be abandoned, for a safer
position behind the Rappahannock River. Mac saw no point in pursuing the enemy
to the Rappahannock, because he meant to put the army aboard steamers and move
it down the Potomac to Chesapeake Bay. Once word came to him that the Monitor had held her own against the Virginia, keeping the rebel ram away
from the remaining ships of the fleet, he decided upon Fort Monroe as the army's staging area and the movement commenced.
A day later came another of Lincoln's war orders; this one
informing Mac that, having taken the field in command of the Army of the Potomac, Lincoln was relieving him from command of the other military departments.
Henceforth, at least for a time, Lincoln would try his hand at issuing military
movement orders directly to the field generals; a task made somewhat
easy by the fact that, at about the same time, he had raised Henry Halleck to
supreme command of the territory west of the Appalachians, and Halleck was
proving himself well capable of moving the masses of Union infantry to the
strategic objectives without any prodding from Lincoln.
The first of these movement orders hit Mac in the solar
plexus and made him sputter. On the 13th of March, McClellan had met in council
with his corps commanders and they came to an agreement which, reduced to
writing, was sent to the President. The memorandum specified that, the enemy
having retreated from Manassas to Gordonsville, the Army of the Potomac would carry on its operations from Old Point Comfort, between the York and James
1. That the enemy's vessel, Virginia, can be neutralized.
2. That the means of transportation is
3. That a naval force can silence the
enemy's batteries on York River.
4. That the force to be left to cover Washington shall be such as to give Lincoln an "entire feeling of security for
Note: Lincoln has written,
"in and around Washington."
The same day, Secretary of War Stanton wired McClellan, Lincoln's reply.
1. Leave such force at Manassas as shall make it "entirely certain that the enemy shall not repossess himself
of that position and line of communication."
2. Leave Washington "entirely
3. Move the remainder of the force
down the Potomac, choosing a new base at Fort Monroe, and pursue the enemy at
as long as Virginia can operate James River is Blocked.
McClellan then issued orders in compliance with Lincoln's requirements, at least so he thought. To Nathaniel Banks, the "Bobbin
Boy" of Massachusetts, who then, with the Fifth Corps, was at Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley, went these instructions:
1. You will entrench your command at Manassas, and rebuild the Orange & Alexandria Railroad from Washington to Manassas, and the Manassas Gap Railroad to Strasburg in the Shenandoah Valley.
2. As soon as you have the Gap
Railroad running, place a brigade of infantry at the point the road crosses the
Shenandoah River (Front Royal), and send cavalry regiments to Winchester and scout the upper valley, paying attention to Chester's Gap in the Blue Ridge.
3. Place a regiment at Warrenton and
at the railroad bridge over the Rappahannock south of that place.
4. The general idea is to cover the line of the
Potomac and Washington.
Note: Lincoln's general idea,
whether expressed or not at this time, was to cover the line from Wheeling, on the Ohio River, to Romney, to Winchester to Manassas, to Washington.
To James Wadsworth, whose force consisted of thirty-seven
volunteer regiments, plus seven artillery batteries, and about 4,000
cavalrymen, went these orders:
1. Banks will command at Manassas with two divisions, Williams and Shields, and you will command the forts around Washington with the troops shown on the list attached.
2. As new troops arrive in Washington, you will form them into brigades, promote their training and discipline and
facilitate their equipment.
The Key, here,
is Fremont's role in Lincoln's mind.
Then, on March 31, as Mac was going on board a steamer to go
down to Fort Monroe, most of his army having by now preceded him, he received
from Lincoln the first of several disappointing communications.
Executive Mansion, Washington, March 31
Maj Gen McClellan:
My dear sir: This morning I felt
constrained to order Blenker's division to Fremont; and I write this to assure
you that I did so with great pain, understanding you would wish it otherwise.
If you could know the full pressure of the case I am confident that you would
justify it, even beyond a mere acknowledgement that the commander-in-chief may
order what he pleases.
Truly, A. Lincoln
Yes, indeed, you may, but is it wise? At this
time President Lincoln had on his plate two grand operations, each involving
over one hundred thousand soldiers, concentrating against two strategic points:
Corinth, Mississippi, a crossroads where the major north/south and east/west
railroads in the western theater came together, and Richmond, the base of
operations for the rebel army in the East. In the West, by this time, Lincoln had no problem unifying army command under one general, Henry Halleck, and
allowing him to concentrate all the military forces in the West
for an attack on Corinth, which brought together at one place Grant's, Buell's,
and John Pope's armies, giving Halleck an aggregrate force of about 127,000
men. Yet, in the East, at the every moment he has released McClellan to move
the Army of the Potomac 100 miles south, to lay siege to the Confederate
Capitol, he strips McClellan's siege army of almost 10,000 men and sends them off where, to do what?
Lincoln's Fixation on East Tennessee
For months Lincoln had been pushing McClellan, and McClellan
for his own reasons was a willing supplicant in this instance, to get Carlos
Buell, who had almost 80,000 men under his command, to move to occupy Knoxville, Tennessee. Without question, east Tennessee was filled with Union men who were
as rebellious against the authority of the Confederate Government as the
citizens of North Missouri were rebellious against the authority of Lincoln's Government. Lincoln quite naturally wished to get a force into that region in
order to support the Union rebellion, but Buell, intelligently recognizing this
was not possible—there was no way to support the movement of a large force that
far, no railroads, no hard roads, no rivers—concentrated instead on moving in
the direction of Bowling Green, Kentucky, using the railroad between Louisville
and Nashville to support the movement of his army.
So, after the Kentucky Line had collasped and Nashville had been occupied, and as McClellan was taking the field, Lincoln changed the
department arrangement to give Halleck full control of Buell's force, in his
push to seize Corinth. But, at the same time, quite unreasonably, given the
circumstances, Lincoln did not give up on his idea of getting a force to Knoxville.
To gain that point, he set up the Mountain Department—the
territory bounded by the reaches of the Appalachians—and, under pressure from
the Radicals, assigned command of it to John C. Fremont, an incredible choice
given Fremont's demonstrated incompetence in Missouri. According to the
renowned historian Alvin Nevins's view of things, "Lincoln believed it
feasible to march from western Virginia through the Appalachian Mountains into East Tennessee and seize the railroad at Knoxville, rescuing the Unionists of that
region." If this was, in fact, Lincoln's purpose in building up a force,
under Fremont's command, taking a division of infantry from McClellan to do
it, he was being ridiculous.
On March 22, Lorenzo Thomas, the Army Adjutant General, no
doubt at the behest of Lincoln, wired Fremont this:
Washington, March 22, 1862
Maj. Gen John C. Fremont, USA, commanding
Sir: Your attention will be directed to
the railroad between Knoxville and Richmond, some one point of which within
your command you will seize and hold with the troops under your command. You
will enter without delay upon your command and lose no time in commencing
By order of the Secretary of War:
Thomas, Adjutant General
Under Lincoln's orders, arriving at Wheeling on March 22, Fremont formally assumed command of the Mountain Department on March 29. The next day,
demanding that Lincoln give him Blenker's division, Fremont set forth his
initial plan of campaign in a letter to Washington.
HON. E.M. STANTON, secretary of
War March 30, 1862
Assuming it is the desire of the
Government that the first object shall be to take possession of the Virginia
& Tennessee Railroad, the army corps should march through the open land of Kentucky and East Tennessee directly upon Cumberland Gap or Knoxville, and so turn
the position which the enemy may have assumed in the mountain defiles. It will
be therefore necessary to concentrate troops at Nicholsville, Kentucky, a point
having railroad connections with Louisville. The roads from there to Knoxville are good.
reasons that will become apparent, Fremont would move instead from Romney in the
valley of the south branch of the Potomac, south through the narrow mountain
valleys to Franklin and then Monterey. This is a distance of 70 miles. From
Monterey the alternative plan eventually adopted was to continue marching south
through the mountain valleys until the line of march reached the Tennessee
& Virginia Railroad crossing at New River as it passed to the northeast
toward Lynchburg and Roanoke. From there, Fremont was to move on to Knoxville. The total distance to be marched, from Romney to Knoxville , was 297 miles.
Eventual Move South Through The Alleghanies
As Union general, Jacob D. Cox, who operated in this area
under Fremont's command, put it: "The plan would have failed, first, from
the impossibility of supplying the army on the route, as it would
have been without any reliable base of operations; and, second, because the
railroads east of the mountains ran on routes well adapted to enable the enemy
quickly to concentrate any needed force at Staunton and Lynchburg to overpower the
column." It is just incredible that, at this crucial moment, Lincoln would commit 20,000 Union troops to a silly and impossible endeavor when those
troops would make the difference between McClellan's success or failure in his
operation against Richmond.
should have been to control the Shenandoah Valley,
to control the Manassas Plain.
In compliance with Stanton's request for information of his
movement plan, Fremont wired him on March 30 a list of troops presently within
his command. These totaled 21,000 men. Of these, Fremont stated he meant to use
for "active operations" Blenker's, Schenck's, and Cox's divisions,
plus Milroy's brigade. Eventually he would be reinforced with a division of
troops under Franz Sigel, another of Fremont's cast-off cronies.
Soon it will become plain that Lincoln is attempting to do
too much and that McClellan will pay the price. Lincoln has Halleck's forces,
including Buell's army, concentrating for an advance against Corinth, and he
has a detachment from Buell's army, Garfield's command, moving toward Cumberland Gap. General Rosecrans, with several thousands of men, is at Wheeling, in
position to cooperate with Garfield in this endeavor. In this configuration, Fremont's base of operations clearly belongs at Winchester, to guard the lower Shenandoah Valley from Stonewall Jackson's intrusions. But, instead of assigning Fremont this role, Lincoln made the conscious decision to build up the force at Wheeling, with Fremont in command, in order to move through the Appalachian range to reach
the Tennessee & Virginia Railroad.
Yet, at the same time, Lincoln knows that McClellan's plan
includes the movement of Banks's Fifth Corps from the Shenandoah Valley to the Manassas plain as the means of making it impossible for the enemy to occupy Manassas—and so threaten Washington directly—thus meeting Lincoln's requirement that Washington "be entirely secure."
It seems from the record that Lincoln therefore expected
Fremont to be responsible for keeping the Shenandoah Valley clear of Stonewall,
as he had designed Fremont's "Mountain Department" to include the
lower Shenandoah Valley as far as Moorefield, in Hardin County, which was to be
guarded by one of Fremont's divisions, Robert Schenck's. This fact is clear
from Stanton's correspondence with Fremont at this time.
WAR DEPARTMENT, Washington, March 28, 1862
Major-General Fremont, commanding
The events at Winchester since you left
Washington require that immediate attention should be given to the condition
of your forces at Cumberland and along the line of the Baltimore & Ohio
Railroad. Cooperation with the forces in McClellan's department,
continguous to yours, may be very essential. Romney should be held by
adequate force and Moorfield should be occupied.
STANTON, Secretary of War
The Shenandoah Valley
"events at Winchester" Stanton refers to, relate to the reality that
Stonewall Jackson, with three brigades of infantry, totaling 3,700 men, has
been operating in the Shenandoah Valley threatening Winchester and the line of
the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad for months; advancing and retreating as the
divisions of Banks's corps occupied and then abandoned Winchester.
Between the time the Virginia and Monitor had their engagement in Hampton Roads and the time that McClellan moved his
headquarters to Fairfax Courthouse as the Confederate army at Manassas fell
back, Stonewall Jackson's small division was occupying Winchester. To drive him
away, McClellan had Banks advance Shields's division up the valley to
Strasburg, forcing Jackson to fall back about 18 miles to Mount Jackson, a point midway Harrisonburg and Strasburg.
Lincoln apparently expected, as he worked up his paper
plan, that, as Banks pulled his forces out of the valley and onto the Manassas plain, Fremont would promptly have his forces, totaling about 21,000 men, fill
the void. How Lincoln expected Fremont to do this, while at the same time
marching several hundred miles to Knoxville defies rational explanation.
In Lincoln's mind, it's plain to see, a line was drawn from
Halleck's concentration point at Shiloh, east to Washington, with Fremont and
Banks covering the line between Wheeling, Romney, Winchester and Manassas. His miscalculation in this regard will result in his hamstringing McClellan's
operation against Richmond. The fault, then, for McClellan's failure—to a
point—must rest entirely with Abraham Lincoln
That Confederate President Jefferson Davis understood the
importance of McClellan's movement to the Yorktown peninsula is clear from the
RICHMOND, February 28, 1862
General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding
Sir: Your opinion that your position at
Manassas may be turned whenever the enemy shall choose to advance, so clearly
indicates prompt effort to disencumber yourself of everything which would
interfere with your rapid movement when necessary. The Commissary General had
previously stopped further shipments to your army. With your present force, you
cannot secure your communication from the enemy, and may at any time, when he
can pass to your rear by Brentsville, be compelled to retreat at the sacrifice
of your train and army stores, and without any preparation on a second line to
receive your army as it retired.
Threatened as we are by a large force
on the southeast (Burnside) you must see the danger, should we be beaten on the
lines south and east of Richmond; and that reflection is connected with
consideration of the fatal effect which the loss of Richmond
would have upon the cause of the Confederacy.
Two questions therefore press upon us
for solution. First, how can your army best serve to prevent the advance of the
enemy while the want of force compels you to stand on the defensive? Second,
what dispositions can you make to enable you most promptly to cooperate with
other columns, in the event of danger to the capital?
I need not urge on you the value to our
country of arms and munitions of war. You know the difficulty with which we
have obtained our present small supply. We need you to save the heavy guns at Manassas as they will be needed for the defense of this city.
The letter of General Jackson presents
the danger with which he is threatened and the force he requires to meet it. I
have not the force to send, and have no other hope of his reenforcement than by
the militia of the valley. Anxious to hold and defend the valley, that object
must be pursued as to avoid the sacrifice of Jackson's army or the loss of the
arms in use there.
As has been my custom, I have only sought
to present general purposes and views. I rely upon your special knowledge and
high ability to effect whatever is practicable in this our hour of need. The
military paradox, that impossibilities must be rendered possible,
had never better occasion for its application.
yours and respectfully, yours.
How different, here, from Lincoln's, is the tone of the
President's communication with his most important general operating in the
Note: At this time Johnston's army at Manassas amounted to 40,000 men. This is the same amount Sidney
Johnston have at hand to prevent Hallick's horde from reaching Corinth.
General Lee Comes Home To Richmond
Just, then, in the middle of March, as Johnston was falling
back from Manassas, and Jackson was falling back from Winchester, in the face
of the advance of the enemy's masses, President Davis called General Lee to Richmond
from Charleston, and soon after his arrival at the Capital the following order
GENERAL ORDERS, NO 14 ADJUTANT
Richmond, March 13, 1862
General Robert E. Lee is assigned to
duty at the seat of government; and under the direction of the President,
is charged with the conduct of military operations in the armies of the Confederacy.
By command of the Scretary
of War: S. Cooper, adjutant General
At the same time President Lincoln is dumping McClellan
as the general charged to conduct the military operations of the Union armies,
President Davis is reaching out to Lee.
When General Lee arrived in Richmond and assumed his new
duties, the military situation was grim. The Confederate Government, like the
Lincoln Government, had had one year to mobilize the country's resources,
getting armies of armed men into the field in sufficient numbers to
successfully resist, if not overwhelm, the forces the enemy brought against it.
But the Confederate Government had fallen far short in the endeavor: The Gulf
States, including Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri, had produced only about half
the number of men that Lincoln's Government had produced from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kentucky and Missouri. Of this number of Confederates, at least 20% of the men were without any arms and
most of the remainder were using their farm rifles as weapons of war. The same
result fell to the East: In Virginia, there were less than half the numbers
available, compared to the numbers in Union uniform, to resist Lincoln's invasion.
At this time, too, Union gunboats were navigating the York
River, approaching the mouth of the Pampunkey River where the York River
Railroad begins its run toward Richmond at the White House, McClellan's first
troops were arriving in transport at Hampton Roads, and Nathaniel Banks's corps
was occupying Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley, with its advance division,
under James Shields, an Illinois politician, covering the valley turnpike at
Strasburg on the line of the Manassas Gap Railroad. Rosecrans was at Wheeling and Fremont was on his way to join him.
The Shenandoah Valley
General Lee set to work, making sense of the troop
deployments available to meet the contingency everyone knew was coming, sorting
out the confusion that existed among the various departments of supply,
assisting in the transition from one secretary of war, Judah Benjamin, to
another, William Randolph; and, finally, taking charge of the mustering of
30,000 young Virginians just drafted into the service of the Confederate Army.
They were coming to defend their country, and their lives were in his hands.
Stonewall Takes the Initiative
On March 20, Shield's and Williams's divisions of Banks's
corps—the one from Strasburg and the other from Winchester—began to march east,
to cross the Shenandoah River and pass out of the Shenandoah Valley to take up their
assigned positions east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Joe Johnston's army now
was behind the Rapidan River, near Gordonsville, with a detached force, under
Holmes, occupying Fredericksburg, waiting for McClellan's objective point to
become clear as his army corps were moving toward Alexandria. That night,
Turner Ashby, the dark cavalier, brought word of this to Jackson, who was then
camped near Woodstock.
Jackson immediately ordered the camp broken up and put his
division to marching north on the valley pike, and the night of the 23rd, after
marches of 18 and 22 miles, he reached Strasburg. The next day he marched on
toward Winchester, arriving in the suburbs at Kernstown about noon. As he arrived Ashby's cavalry was falling back in the front of one of Shields's
brigades supported by two artillery batteries. Jackson thought this brigade to
be the last of Shields's division, the rest he thought had marched to
Berryville, to cross the Shenandoah River and pass to Manassas through the Blue Ridge.
The Union front extended on both sides of the valley pike:
on the right the line ran over a broad expanse of rolling grassland and on the
left it occupied a knoll, crowned with a clump of trees. Looming slightly
behind the front was a long ridge covered with dense woods behind which lies Winchester. Not having men enough to advance across the rolling grassland, Jackson decided to attempt to seize the wooded ridge on his left, the idea being to force
the defenders to improvise a new position to counter his attack. Hesitation and
confusion might ensue, giving Jackson's force a chance to turn the enemy's
flank and induce them to fall back into Winchester.
The rebels get
to the wall first.
As one of Jackson's biographers tells the story, the rebel
infantry, about 2,000 in number, the rest having not yet come up, crossed
fences, marshy ground, running through a sheaf of shells thrown at them from
the knoll, reached the wooded ridge and began to press eastward to get behind
the Union front. Suddenly, there was heard a great crashing volley of rifle
fire, and a mass of blue emerged from a woods farther to the north and thronged
up the ridge against the 21st and 27th Virginia regiments, the men of which ran
forward to a stone wall and returned fire full in the face of the Union men. A
heavy fire, at the closest range, blazed out in the face of the charging men
and in a few moments the approach to the wall was littered with dead and wounded
men. A Pennsylvania regiment, leaving a color on the field, gave way in panic
and a mad blue rush commenced to reach again the protection of the woods.
Still, more and more blue coats appeared in masses, though; advancing, falling
back, advancing again against the thin gray line that held the ridge, until, finally,
after two hours of fighting, with dusk falling, Jackson ordered the retreat,
realizing by this time that he was engaged with fully 9,000 men of Shields's
an able officer, who had commanded a brigade in Mexico, had learned from previous
experience with Jackson how aggressive he was and, anticipating that he would
be eager to attack, had ordered the greater part of his division, which had
countermarched as he advanced, to remain concealed. Only after his lead brigade
had grappled with Jackson and had him fixed in a fight, did Shields feed the
main body of his division into the battle, breaking Jackson's back.
Jackson was watching the progress of the battle,when,
suddenly, to his astonishment, he saw the lines of his old brigade falter and
fall back. Galloping to the spot he shouted orders, "Stop, hold your
front!" Seizing a drummer by the shoulder, he dragged him to a rise of
ground, in full view of the troops, and screamed, "Beat the rally!"
The drum rolled at this, and with his hand on the trembling boy's shoulder,
amidst a storm of sipping bullets, he tried to check the flight of his defeated
troops. He looked in vain for Garnett to come up, but his lines were shattering,
it was too late, the men were running, it was impossible to stay the rout.
Wildly upset, Jackson left the field shouting orders as he
passed through the ranks of the men; getting two fresh regiments—the 5th and
42d Virginia regiments—into compact lines of battle on either side of the pike;
putting batteries into action on their flanks as his men passed up the road
toward Strasburg. On came against this front, the 5th Ohio, 84th Pennsylvania, and 14th Indiana regiments, and Jackson's second line was compelled to give
way. Again the heavy volleys blazed fire and coughed long strings of blue smoke
and the sound of whizzing bullets filled the air. Jackson's men fell back three
miles to where their trains were parked, utterly worn out, famished, thirsty,
many wounded; they had reached the limit of their endurance, the fierce three
hours of fighting had left them panting for breath, desperate for a cup of
water. Yet they were proud to be Jackson's hard core.
when the last sounds of battle died away, followed his troops.
At the War Department in Richmond, sitting at a desk stacked
with papers in a cubby-hole of a room, General Lee studied the reports coming
in about Jackson's movement and the ensuing battle and knew he had found a
soldier that saw eye to eye with him, the necessity to try and make impossibilities
What Happened in March 1862
The War In The West March 1862
Civil War Trust
The Official Records of the Rebellion, volumes
5 and 11.
Colonel G.F. Henderson, Stonewall Jackson and the
American Civil War 1919 Longmans, Green & Co.
George McCellan, McClellan's Own Story 1885
Charles L. Webster & Co.
Allan Nevins, Fremont, Pathfinder of the West 1939 University of Nebraska Press
Admiral David D. Porter, The Naval History of the
Civil War 1886 The Sherman Publishing Co.
James G. Hollandsworth, Jr., Pretense of Glory: The
Life of General Nathaniel Banks 1998 Lousiana State University Press
Battles and Leaders, Vol. 2
Robert W. Winston, Robert E. Lee 1934 Grosset