Controversies & commanders : dispatches from the Army of the Potomac Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1999 Stephen W. Sears Hardcover. xv, 300 p. : ill. ; 22 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket and no underlining, highlighting or marginalia in text. VG/VG
Controversies and Commanders of the Civil War might well be the most intriguing book ever published about the Civil War, for it focuses on the people and events that one of our best historians has found most fascinating, including: Professor Lowe’s reconnaissance balloons; the court-martial of Fitz John Porter; the Lost Order at Antietam; press coverage of the war; the looting of Fredericksburg; the Mud March; the roles of volunteers, conscripts, bounty jumpers, and foreign soldiers; the notorious General Dan Sickles, who shot his wife’s lover outside the White House, and the much maligned Generals McClellan (justifiably) and Hooker (not so justifiably). The book follows the Army of the Potomac throughout the war, from 1861 to 1865, painting a remarkable portrait of the key incidents and personalities that influenced the course of our nation’s greatest cataclysm.
John Hennessy – Originally published by Civil War Times magazine
Stephen Sears has established himself solidly as the most versatile, wide-ranging historian of the Union war effort in the eastern theater. His well-regarded campaign studies of the Peninsula, Antietam, and Chancellorsville and his investigations into the murky persona of George B. McClellan all constitute major servings on the plate of written history. Controversies and Commanders: Dispatches from the Army of the Potomac, a compilation of 10 essays relating to the Army of the Potomac, is a pleasing complement to his larger works–a satisfying dessert after the main course, if you will.
Producing good history requires skill in writing, research, and thinking. The constant in these essays is Sears’s writing. Sears’s is not the prosaic verbiage of a Catton; rather, it is clever, pointed, and often artful (and argumentative, too).
The army of researchers swarming over Civil War topics has elevated the socially acceptable level of research to heights that are sometimes excessive; the emphasis is too often on the accumulation of sources rather than the analysis of them. Certainly, in this book Stephen Sears does not meet the exhaustive threshold that many hold dear. The research here is strongest in those areas where Sears has trod before: McClellan, the Antietam Campaign’s Lost Order, Hooker, and Chancellorsville. On these topics, his command of the source material, combined with his skill for argument and storytelling, yields formidable essays.
Elsewhere, the range of source material used is more limited. The essays on Dan Sickles and the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid, though artfully and skillfully composed, break little new historical ground. In his essays on the dismissals of Fitz John Porter and Gouverneur K. Warren, Sears failed to consult those officers’ massive collections of personal correspondence, instead relying on others’ analyses of those papers. These collections focus almost exclusively on the very controversies addressed in Sears’s book, and their startling omission is puzzling and regretable.
More important to Sears than the accumulation of source material is the way the material is used. Sears is a bright, creative (though not unarguable) thinker. He understands the Army of the Potomac as well as anyone writing today, and his selection of topics reflects that understanding. An unspoken underlying theme in these essays is the tension that existed between the Army of the Potomac and the government it served. Sears’s chapters on the unjust ordeal of Charles Stone–arrested but never tried–the court-martial of Fitz John Porter, and McClellan’s return to command after the Second Manassas Campaign reveal much of importance about the strain between the army and government, and the factors that caused it. Sears’s work on the “Generals’ Revolt” of 1862 through 1863 offers an important look at the army’s underside and an important point of departure for future historians.
Other essays fire salvos sure to stimulate response. Sears’s sympathetic views on Hooker at Chancellorsville are unique among modern historians–provocative, though at times overstated. Like William Marvel’s work on Burnside, Sears’s work on Hooker will give pause to historians inclined to be harsher, and will likely move history’s assessment of Hooker to more moderate (and, probably, proper) ground. Sears’s views on McClellan remain critical–even harsh. The essays here may again stir the defenders to action.
Controversies and Commanders is a mix of the important and the interesting, the last word and the first word. This is a book that should appeal to a broad range of readers–from general students looking for a stimulating bedtime book to historians seeking a target for scholarly rebuttal.
Building the Army of the Potomac By Stephen W. Sears – This article was first published in MHQ, Winter 2008
When Edwin M. Stanton assumed the post of secretary of war in January 1862, Joseph Medill, the fiery proprietor of the Chicago Tribune, spelled out the hurdles he would face in managing the Union military in Civil War America. “You have a Herculean work before you to penetrate thro’ the frauds and swindling that envelop the whole service,” Medill wrote. “You will discover scores of lukewarm, half secession officers in command who can not bear to strike a vigorous blow lest it hurts their rebel friends or jeopardizes the precious practice of slavery.” This indictment applied, he said, to “three-fourths of all the ‘West Pointers’ in the Army.”
To be sure, Joseph Medill was a Radical Republican, an ultra, who made it his life’s work to stamp out the Slave Power and who darkly suspected that any delay in reaching that goal was due to disloyalty and treason within the military. Still, in its ninth month the war seemed to be stalled on dead center. Congressman Owen Lovejoy of Illinois remarked on “this whole Army in this standstill position, and literally making it a standing army.” He too considered the professional military at fault: “I believe, on the whole, that the civilians are the best officers, and will prove to be the best officers; and that the men who have received a military education are more in the way of success of our arms than anything else.”
Criticism of this sort was directed primarily at the Union’s principal army, the Army of the Potomac, posted at Washington and therefore at the epicenter of attention, advice, commentary, and complaint. Very little is ever straightforward and clear-cut in a civil war, particularly so in 1861-1862, when the Army of the Potomac was being assembled. Historian Bruce Catton called the time the “Era of Suspicion.”
The Army of the Potomac’s roots lay in President Abraham Lincoln’s call, on April 15, 1861, for 75,000 militia from several states to suppress “combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.” The previous day those combinations, under the banner of the newborn Confederate States of America, had forced the surrender of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Lincoln’s call was for 90 days’ service, the maximum allowed by the Militia Act of 1795. Should this prove to be more than a 90-day war, however, some new arrangement would have to be made for an army, or armies, to put down the rebellion.
The state militias, North and South, were for the most part ill armed, ill trained, and ill uniformed—Sunday soldiers all. Yet simply by their very existence, they allowed the two sections to be at war with hardly a pause for mobilization, certainly before there was time for sober second thoughts about the wisdom of the nation going to war with itself. In Union and Confederacy alike there were initially far more volunteers than there were arms to equip them.
The U.S. Army, the Regulars, was exceedingly small, exceedingly scattered, and exceedingly unprepared to meet the sectional crisis. The end-of-year returns for 1860 showed only 16,367 officers and men on the rolls—with only 14,663 of them present for duty. Of the army’s 197 line companies, 179 were posted on frontier duty west of the Mississippi River. The Department of the East—east, that is, of the Mississippi—counted just 18 companies, all of them artillery. The army had but five general officers, headed by General in Chief Winfield Scott, a lieutenant general by brevet.
For Washington the immediate question was what kind of army would be needed to replace the 90-day militia. In the Mexican War of 1846–1848, Major General Scott had gained victory by using the Regular Army as the reliable core of his expeditionary force, with West Pointers in key officer roles. Volunteer units played necessary but generally adjunct roles.
In Mexico the rank-and-file volunteers were regarded as a work in progress. The Regulars derisively called them “Mohawks” for their undisciplined, wild-Indian ways, although they proved willing enough to fight if properly led. Their volunteer officers aroused universal contempt from the professionals. Lieutenant George B. McClellan, the future Army of the Potomac commander, wrote in disgust of a government that with “probably the best Military Academy in the world…goes behind the curtain, into county courthouses, & low village bar rooms to select her generals, her colonels & all the officers of her new regiments.”
For the Civil War, General Scott hoped to repeat the Mexican War pattern. He would enlarge the Regular Army by enlistment and by expanding its regimental base, with command by West Pointers and by promotion within Regular ranks. Volunteer units would be required, of course, just as they were in Mexico, but Scott wanted them primarily in adjunct roles and then only after lengthy training.
His Anaconda Plan, as it was labeled, called for a constrictive naval blockade of the South Atlantic and Gulf ports, combined with—in November 1861 at the earliest—an advance down the Mississippi to its mouth by an 80,000-man army, one column waterborne, a second column “to proceed as nearly abreast as practicable by land.” His scheme, Scott wrote, would “envelop the insurgent States and bring them to terms with less bloodshed than by any other plan.” Or, as the humorist Robert Henry Newell put it, victory was assured when the “great Anaconda has gathered itself in a circle around the doomed rabbit of the rebellion, and if the rabbit swells he’s a goner.”
This was fine as a long-term strategy, but there was scarcely a chance the Lincoln administration, or the Northern public, would wait quietly through six months of training before attempting to suppress the rebellion. This was especially so after the Confederates massed a threatening army at Manassas Junction, just 25 miles west of Washington. Assembling an army of whatever sort to defend the capital became the priority.
General in Chief Scott was wedded to his slow-acting Regular Army scheme, and Secretary of War Simon Cameron, a Pennsylvania politician in his post because of a political bargain, was overwhelmed with the militia call-up and had no thoughts on the matter. It fell to other hands to shape the form the army would take, notably those of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. A former senator and governor of Ohio, Chase eagerly plunged into the vacuum in the military hierarchy.
He proposed a call for a 65,000-man army of nonmilitia volunteers. The president asked him to develop the idea, so Chase convened a three-man military board—Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas and two duty officers in the capital, Major Irvin McDowell and Captain William B. Franklin—to advise him on forging what amounted to a new army. Thomas had many other duties in this hectic time, so the actual planning fell to McDowell and Franklin.
They first presented a simple, direct solution—a major enlargement of the Regular Army by means of volunteers, with its “national” structure of numbered regiments. Chase insisted this was politically inexpedient, and he would have none of it. The states were providing the men, and state pride and state rights would have to be accommodated. He said he “would rather have no regiments raised in Ohio than that they should not be known as Ohio regiments.”
The Regular Army would indeed be expanded, but parallel to it would be raised an all-volunteer army of state-named regiments whose men were enlisted for three years. Chase was right: The politics of the case ruled. The Regulars never achieved their enlistment quotas, while the framework for the North’s future armies was built of state-sponsored three-year volunteers.
This decision was at base a political one, tacit acknowledgment that the United States in 1861 was a loosely woven compact of the states, so loosely woven that in the South secession rent the fabric, while in the Northern states a one-dimensional national army would not be tolerated. When the Army of the Potomac went to war on the Virginia Peninsula in the spring of 1862, it contained only two brigades of Regular infantry and four regiments of Regular cavalry. (Regular batteries were well represented, however; Regular artillery would always be a major force in the Potomac army.) It was a volunteer army in fact as well as in spirit.
The volunteer regiments pouring into Washington were grouped into brigades, and when half a dozen brigades had gathered, it was determined that this was men enough to start an army. Therefore, the War Department organized one. On May 27, 1861, a new department was carved out of the Department of the East and called the Department of Northeastern Virginia. An army was then designated for the new department and called, logically enough, the Army of Northeastern Virginia—which in due course, rising from the fire like the phoenix, became the Army of the Potomac.
Elections frequently decided command in these early regiments, following long-standing militia practice. Companies elected their company officers, who in turn elected the regimental officers. This did not tend to bring the best men to the top, only the best crowd-pleasers. The cynical William T. Sherman wrote his wife, “Our adversaries have the weakness of slavery in their midst to offset our Democracy, and tis beyond human wisdom to say which is the greater evil.”
Congress soon changed the practice so that the state governors appointed company and regimental officers. This was simply bowing to reality, for in practice governors had often done the appointing right from the start. If the states had to provide the men, so the reasoning went, the governors reserved the right to appoint their officers. This could—and would—become a matter of political patronage. It was merely a matter of self-interest, an observer noted, to appoint those who “would produce the more agreeable consequences at the next election-time.”
“We are gathering a great army,” Secretary of State William H. Seward remarked to General Scott. “What I do not foresee is how it is to be led. What are we to do for generals?” That was indeed the burning question, said Scott. “Unfortunately for us, the South has taken most of those holding the higher grades.” So it seemed.
Scott was 74 and in poor health, and his first choice for field command of the great army gathering at Washington was Colonel Robert E. Lee. Scott once told a friend that if a president should ever ask his advice about a commander for some great battle “to be fought for the liberty or slavery of the country…I would say with my dying breath, let it be Robert E. Lee.” Lee rejected the command, saying he could not turn his hand against his native Virginia, and one week after President Lincoln called out the militia, Lee accepted command of Virginia’s forces.
Another Scott favorite, Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of the Department of the Pacific, also went south. The commander of the Department of Texas, David E. Twiggs, also threw his lot in with the South, and in the process surrendered nine companies of Regulars to the Texas secessionists. The army’s quartermaster, Joseph E. Johnston, followed Virginia out of the Union.
The Department of the West’s William S. Harney and the Department of the East’s John E. Wool both remained with the Union, but Harney was a Southerner and dubious command material in any case, and John Wool at 77 was even older than General Scott. Thus all the general officers of the Regular Army had either gone over to the Confederacy or were unsuited for the responsibilities of field command.
Scott told Seward ruefully, “We have captains and lieutenants, that, with time and experience, will develop, and will do good service.” Experience and time were both in short supply. Except for Scott and Wool, not a single Union officer had led as much as a brigade, in war or in peace.
All these defectors except for Twiggs were West Pointers. They were the most prominent, the tip of an iceberg of defectors. Very nearly one quarter of the West Pointers on active duty in 1861 joined the Confederacy. Among all the West Pointers in the classes of 1830 to 1861 who served in the Civil War, just under 30 percent went south. Of the 239 cadets at the military academy at the time of the secession crisis, 88 (almost 37 percent) took up the cause of the Confederacy. As these statistics gradually became known, an army of critics rose up to condemn the military establishment, and in particular the military academy, for spawning traitors.
General Scott’s immediate problem was selecting a commander for the new army gathering at Washington. He settled on Colonel Joseph K. F. Mansfield, a white-bearded old-timer (West Point class of 1822) who had been three times brevetted for gallantry in the Mexican War.
Nevertheless, Scott’s choice was promptly overridden in a charge led by Secretary of the Treasury Chase. The president’s call for 75,000 militiamen provided for general officers to be parceled out among the states that answered the call. Ohioan Chase “recommended” (as he modestly put it) Ohioan Irvin McDowell for the post. Already knee-deep in army matters, Chase wielded far more political leverage than poor Joseph Mansfield of Connecticut, and McDowell gained confirmation by the Senate and assumed command of the Army of Northeastern Virginia on May 28.
What had brought McDowell to Secretary Chase’s attention was how efficiently he, along with Captain Franklin, had worked up the plan for a volunteer army. His appointment was an object lesson in how things got done in these early months of civil war.
A field army was hurriedly cobbled together, for the 90-day terms of the militia would start to expire in late July. McDowell’s infantry was 40 percent militia, 60 percent volunteers. “Raw” best describes the manpower of the Army of Northeastern Virginia. Of the 16 division and brigade commanders, 13 were West Pointers. Only five (not including McDowell) had experienced an actual war, in Mexico.
Scott’s determination to fill high command slots with Regulars and ex-Regulars did not extend to regimental and company postings. Indeed, he was adamant about not doing so. He firmly believed the war’s decisive battles would be won by an invigorated Regular Army, with only assistance from the volunteers.
He opposed “seeding” experienced junior officers transferred from the Regulars into the volunteer units, and made it difficult for Regulars to resign to take rank with the volunteers. Nor could the invaluable experience of Regular noncoms and qualified enlisted men be transferred to leadership rolls in volunteer companies. In his past wars, the old general had found volunteers (and particularly their officers) a constant trial, and he was unable to envision a major role for them in this conflict.
The trial of the new army, the battle at Bull Run on July 21, 1861, ended in a Union rout, although in its combat phase it was a close-run battle. In killed and wounded, the Confederate loss exceeded the Federal loss by 18 percent. Leadership decided the day. General McDowell got his raw army to the battlefield in one piece (no small accomplishment). On the ground, he recognized the impracticability of his first attack plan and changed it on the fly to a soundly conceived second plan. His flank movement forced the Rebels out from behind their defenses.
He did almost everything right until trapped in the white-hot glare of battle. Then, due to his inexperience, his decisions began to miscarry. To make matters worse, of his four division commanders, two were incompetent and one was drunk. Only Samuel P. Heintzelman pulled his weight. The final blow was the arrival in the nick of time of a trainload of Confederate reinforcements under Joseph E. Johnston (the former U.S. Army quartermaster) from the Shenandoah Valley, where they had slipped away from the bumbling militia general assigned to keep them in check. McDowell’s army, untrained and lacking the discipline to overcome sudden adversity, stumbled back in defeat that fell into rout.
The day after the Bull Run debacle, President Lincoln called in George B. McClellan to take command of what would now be called the Army of the Potomac. McClellan had been a rising star in the antebellum army before resigning his commission in 1857 to enter the railroad business. He returned to the service in 1861 as head of the Department of the Ohio.
While Scott and McDowell labored to assemble an army at Washington, McClellan had won several small but well-publicized victories in western Virginia. Both Scott and Secretary Chase were his patrons. What was needed just then (as Chase put it) was a general “having the prestige of victory as well as undoubted military talents.” George McClellan met both requirements.
McClellan quickly demonstrated his talents as an organizer and administrator, and he soon had the military bureaucracy oiled and adjusted and in running order. He sent the militia home, rejuvenated the Bull Run regiments, fit new ones into the expanding army structure, and largely recast the high command.
William Howard Russell, the noted British war correspondent sent to cover the American war, gained an introduction to the new army commander. “A short stout young man,” he entered in his diary, “dark haired, clear blue eyes, rather a Napoleonic head…dark moustache, close hair, dark complexion—very kind, our talk was of all sorts of things in war.” The press characterized McClellan as the “Young Napoleon.”
The young general’s constant preoccupation was the Potomac army’s high command. As he wrote his wife on his fourth day as commanding general, “I have been employed in trying to get the right kind of Genl. officers.” He retained his Mexican War scorn for politically favored volunteer officers. Of the Army of Northeastern Virginia’s 16 division and brigade commanders, just seven found places in the new Army of the Potomac.
The former army commander, McDowell, stayed on to lead a division. Militia and politically appointed officers were among the departed. Only “instructed officers,” nearly all West Pointers, were welcome in what McClellan began calling “his” army.
Still, gaining a posting in the high command was dependent on whom one knew, and how one manipulated the contact. Fitz John Porter, a friend of McClellan’s from the antebellum army, was languishing in the army’s adjutant general’s office when the war began. “Dear Mac,” he wrote. “Can you help me up a peg or two—I have done much for [Secretary of War] Cameron but a politician is not to be relied upon.” On reaching Washington, McClellan summoned Porter to the Potomac army, where he became a confidant and unofficial second-in-command.
The much-respected John F. Reynolds was another officer McClellan pursued, stealing him out of General Scott’s grasp by appealing over Scott’s head to President Lincoln and Cameron. Captain Winfield Scott Hancock, fated to be one of the army’s best fighting generals, was headed for the War Department and quartermaster duty when McClellan’s chief of staff intercepted him and hid him at Willard’s Hotel until his rank and a brigade could be quietly arranged.
George Gordon Meade, the future Army of the Potomac commander, needed both private and political help to gain a posting with that army. The outbreak of war found Captain Meade in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, pacing impatiently in Detroit, conducting a survey of the Great Lakes. “If I had been in Washington for the last year,” he complained to his wife, “ready at the right time to maneuver & push matters I might now be a Col. or Brig. Genl….I mean that these things are obtained not on merit, but on influence.”
His own appeal to fellow Pennsylvanian Simon Cameron went for naught, but his wife had better luck. Margaret Meade was a veteran army wife who knew which strings to pull on her husband’s behalf. She had a family friend, the state’s attorney general, write Pennsylvania’s Senator David Wilmot in praise of Captain Meade, and six weeks later Meade had a commission as brigadier general of volunteers. Five days after that he headed one of McClellan’s brigades.
Another future Army of the Potomac commander had to go outside regular channels to obtain rank and position. Joseph Hooker, West Point 1837, had the best Mexican War record of any future Union general officer, with three brevets for gallantry and service as chief of staff for five volunteer generals. He reached Washington from the West Coast after Fort Sumter and lobbied Oregon’s Senator Edward Baker, a close friend of the president’s, and the congressional delegation of Massachusetts, his native state.
Lincoln endorsed his application for a brigadier generalship, but when it reached General Scott’s desk it was pigeonholed. Hooker had run afoul of Scott in testimony before a court of inquiry in Mexico, and the old general had a long memory.
Joe Hooker was not daunted. He persuaded one of the generals he had served in Mexico to present him to the president. Hooker ran off the highlights of his résumé and brashly concluded, “Mr. President, I want to say one thing more, and that is, that I was at the battle of Bull Run the other day, and it is neither vanity or boasting in me to declare that I am a damned sight better general than you, Sir, had on that field.”
Refreshing candor often gained Lincoln’s attention. On July 31, Hooker’s name, endorsed by the Massachusetts delegation, was on a list of nominees for brigadier general of volunteers sent to the Senate. Confirmation came on August 3 and command of a brigade in the Army of the Potomac soon after.
Secretary of State William Seward tried his hand at solving command problems by attracting to the Union cause the celebrated revolutionary soldier Giuseppe Garibaldi, so instrumental in the recent unification of Italy. There was some confusion over the offer, however, and Garibaldi got it in his head that he would replace Winfield Scott as general in chief. He said if he were granted such powers as to enable him “to effect some good,” his first action would be to abolish slavery. He seemed disappointed when it was explained that such a grant of powers was not possible, and his command would be “a large corps d’armée” in the Potomac army. He could effect no good without full powers, Garibaldi concluded, and negotiations broke down.
In his memoirs, McClellan recorded with relish the proposal from another famous revolutionary hero, György Klapka of Hungary. General Klapka’s terms were a $100,000 advance plus an annual salary of $25,000; he would act as McClellan’s chief of staff until he learned the language, then take over the army command. “He failed to state what provision he would make for me,” McClellan wrote, and with hindsight added, “tho’ it is not improbable that I would have fared better with him than with my own government.”
General officer candidates from Europe descended on Washington in a steady stream, wrote war correspondent Russell: “Garibaldians, Hungarians, Poles, officers of Turkish and other contingents…remainders of European revolutions and wars, surround the State Department and infest unsuspecting politicians with illegible testimonials in unknown tongues.”
McClellan displayed only limited innovation in organizing his army. He grouped some regiments in brigades by state (the usual Confederate practice, for morale purposes), but it was not a matter of policy. McClellan admitted the need for a corps organization in such a large army, but he intended to enter the Peninsula campaign with divisions only, until experience in action allowed him to pick the best corps commanders. Lincoln and his advisers would not permit this, and imposed corps (and their commanders) on him.
It was in the artillery that McClellan was most innovative. Training and experience were vital in that arm, so in the Potomac army a Regular battery served as core of the four batteries attached to each division. The Regulars spread a leavening of discipline, organization, and training to the volunteers, and the Regulars’ captain was divisional chief of artillery.
The army chief of artillery, however, was only an administrative post. Tactically, the guns were under control of the divisional infantry commanders. Only in 1863, under the brilliant brigadier general Henry J. Hunt, would the arm be reformed tactically into artillery brigades.
When it came to his cavalry, McClellan was actually a reactionary. Troopers were scattered through the army, wrote a disgusted Regular. They were “at the disposal of generals without experience, who still further divided it so that each brigade, almost, was provided with its troop or squadron whose duty it was to add to the importance of the general by following him about.” They were also called on, he wrote, “to provide orderlies for dashing young staff officers and strikers for headquarters.” The chief of cavalry, like the chief of artillery, was an administrative post only. Jeb Stuart’s Rebel cavalry literally rode rings around McClellan’s army, and here again the needed tactical reforms were not made until 1863.
McClellan’s army building all during the fall of 1861 was galvanized by his fear that the Rebels were about to attack him in overwhelming force. On August 8, to Lincoln and Cameron, he first laid out his apocalyptic vision: The Confederate army at Manassas, 100,000 strong, was poised to sweep across the Potomac to strike the Army of the Potomac, which force, he claimed, “is entirely insufficient for the emergency.” He demanded plenary powers to meet the crisis and reinforcements from everywhere. General Scott scoffed. He was satisfied that the estimate of 35,000 for the combined Confederate force at Manassas was accurate. Furthermore, he refused to accept that the Rebels had made good their Bull Run losses and tripled the size of their army in a mere 18 days.
Still, McClellan continued cranking out wildly exaggerated counts of the enemy. On September 13, he wrote Cameron that the Army of the Potomac had 81,749 men, and added, “The enemy probably have 170,000!” (Confederate returns for its Manassas army for October counted just over 44,000 men.)
McClellan’s delusional picture of the Rebel army he faced—a picture abetted now by his inept intelligence chief, Allan Pinkerton—would continue unchecked through to the last day of his army command. It dominated virtually all his decisions—strategically, tactically, and administratively—as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
McClellan’s delusion was a primary cause for his growing dispute with General in Chief Scott. As he explained to his wife, “I do not know whether he is a dotard or a traitor!…He understands nothing, appreciates nothing, & is ever in my way.” On another occasion he wrote, “I am here in a terrible place—the enemy have from 3 to 4 times my force—the Presdt is an idiot, the old General in his dotage—they cannot or will not see the true state of affairs.” McClellan rudely pushed Scott into retirement and assumed the post of general-in-chief on November 1.
The imagined inferiority of his army also led McClellan to avoid confronting the enemy host that fall and winter. When Rebel batteries closed navigation on the lower Potomac, when Stonewall Jackson harassed the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal along the upper Potomac, Washington found itself in the humiliating position of being partially blockaded. Only the railroad through Baltimore from the north remained open.
Attorney General Edward Bates condemned the blockade: “It isolates the Capital…and thus makes the impression upon both parties to the contest, and especially to foreigners, that we are both weak and timid….We absolutely need some dashing expeditions—some victories, great or small, to stimulate the zeal of the Country.” When McClellan did at last attempt a dashing expedition, it left an ugly, indelible stain on the Army of the Potomac.
On October 21, 1861, an ill-conceived, ill-planned advance was made at Leesburg, Virginia, a Confederate outpost on the upper Potomac. After crossing into Rebel territory, the Federals were trapped atop Ball’s Bluff, overlooking the river, and routed. There were nearly a thousand casualties, two-thirds of them prisoners. Among those killed was the leader of the attacking force, Colonel Edward Baker, who also happened to be a United States senator.
The Ball’s Bluff debacle, three months to the day after the Bull Run defeat, roused the press to paroxysms of rage. One editor, echoing Lord Alfred Tennyson on Balaklava, demanded to know who had sent Baker into the “jaws of death” and insisted that “History furnishes no parallel to such insanity, and…the ignorance or incompetence which directed the attempt is without excuse.”
The actual fault lay equally with Baker and McClellan, but the former was dead and the latter deflected all inquiry. Instead, blame fell on Brigadier General Charles P. Stone, commanding that sector of the Potomac. The newspapers fanned the issue into heat until Congress convened on December 2, when it took over the debate and widened it considerably.
Congress had last met, in special session, during the summer. By December, its members were champing at the bit. In the matter of the Army of the Potomac, impatience had replaced expectation. General McClellan fed that impatience by staging widely reported and ever-larger troop reviews. At the largest of these reviews, seven divisions, some 65,000 infantrymen, went through their paces, and there were blaring bands and parading cavalrymen and 15 batteries firing salutes—all this before an audience estimated at 20,000. If ever an army looked fit to fight it was this one. Instead, there were rumors of winter quarters and the episode of Ball’s Bluff.
The lawmakers set up the Committee on the Conduct of the War, dominated by Republican radicals Benjamin Wade, Zachariah Chandler, and George Julian. Lincoln’s secretary John Hay labeled these ultras the Jacobin club, for their whiff of French Revolution politics. The Jacobins made it their first task to get to the bottom of the Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff disasters—especially Ball’s Bluff, since it had taken the life of Senator-Colonel Baker, one of their own.
McClellan was to be the committee’s first witness, on December 23, but he was too ill to appear. The diagnosis was typhoid fever, and for some three weeks he was hors de combat. This proved a great misfortune for him, and for his army. Had he been able to testify, investing his arguments with the authority of his position, laying out his ideas in general terms, he might have defused the committee’s prospective hostility.
Instead, the committee delved into the Army of the Potomac and zeroed in on General Stone. It took testimony impugning not only Stone’s military conduct but also his loyalty. A parade of witnesses claimed he had trafficked with the enemy, exchanged sealed packages under flags of truce, communicated with Confederate officers, and was held in high repute by known secessionists.
This testimony, all of it hearsay and all of it rigged, was trumped up by several renegade officers Stone had charged with serious military crimes. The committee was untroubled by the witnesses’ motives. It had made up its collective mind: General Stone was an apologist for secession, and at Ball’s Bluff Senator-Colonel Baker had been sacrificed to his disloyalty.
The committee presented its case to Edwin Stanton, who had just been appointed secretary of war in place of Cameron. On taking office, Stanton made the immobile Army of the Potomac his target. “This army has got to fight or run away,” he told a newspaper editor; “the champagne and oysters on the Potomac must be stopped.”
With no more respect for the truth than the committee, Stanton set about turning Charles Stone (allegedly soft on slavery and secession, and a Democrat) into an object lesson. He was arrested and sent to Fort Lafayette on New York Harbor. He remained in military prison, without charge or trial, for 189 days.
Stone’s arrest cast a dark shadow over the Army of the Potomac. The high command was shocked and alarmed. General Heintzelman entered in his diary, “It is the greatest outrage since the times of the French Revolution or the Council of Ten”—the notorious tribunal of the Venetian republic. An officer who survived Ball’s Bluff wrote that to question Stone’s capability was one thing, but to doubt his loyalty “is simply ridiculous. I wouldn’t send a private to the guard house on such absurd charges as have been trumped up.”
Of Stone General Meade wrote, “I must believe he is the victim of political malice.” Meade saw the arrest as part of a larger pattern. The ultra element in the Congress and the press “is becoming more violent & open in its attacks on McClellan & all Regular officers.” The era of suspicion was in full bloom.
A measure in Congress to enlarge the cadet corps at West Point raised a storm. The Jacobins were vehement in their opposition to the “nursery of treason” on the Hudson. Zach Chandler raged that “West Point has produced more traitors within the last 50 years than all the institutions of learning and education that have existed since Judas Iscariot’s time.” Ben Wade saw no reason to continue the Military Academy. “There is not doubt,” he declaimed, “if the war continues, that you will have men of genius enough, educated in the field, and infinitely better educated than they possibly could be in this institution.” The bill was voted down by a two-to-one margin.
By March 1862, as the Army of the Potomac prepared at last to go to war full time, the air in Washington was thick with controversy and poisoned by suspicion. The Committee on the Conduct of the War directed a figurative vote of no confidence at General McClellan by promoting General McDowell as his replacement. The press sniped at a do-nothing Potomac army that marched only in reviews, and at the commanding general as well. “I do not believe McClellan’s heart is in the right place,” wrote one editor.
McClellan found that Secretary of War Stanton, whom he once assumed was a friend, was in fact a constant thorn in his side. Moreover, all the while McClellan waged a bruising battle with Lincoln over his plan to change the army’s base from Washington to the lower Chesapeake for his proposed march on Richmond. Perhaps the low point was reached at a meeting between the president and the general on March 7.
McClellan’s is the only account of the meeting, and it is self-serving, but it appears that Lincoln spoke frankly and bluntly with his general. He raised what he described as “a very ugly matter” concerning the army’s proposed move to the lower Chesapeake. Some in the government, said the president, believed it was McClellan’s “traitorous” intent to leave Washington weakly guarded and subject to capture by the Rebels. In McClellan’s account, he bristled and demanded a retraction of the charge. It was not his view, said Lincoln; he was simply reporting others’ views. He was also attempting to pin McClellan down to a concrete plan for defending the capital when the army left.
Seven months had passed since George McClellan had been greeted as the savior of the republic, and in that time, he had shaped a great army very much as he wanted it. Now, as he prepared to lead that army to battle, he and it were under a cloud. On March 17, a Senate vote to censure him and recommend his dismissal was only narrowly defeated. A friendly senator warned him, “The fire in the rear is a terrific one.” The president relieved him as general-in-chief, leaving him only as the Potomac army’s commander.
On March 17, the first elements of the Army of the Potomac set sail for the Virginia Peninsula. “I shall soon leave here on the wing for Richmond,” McClellan wrote a home front friend, “which you may be sure I will take. The Army is in magnificent spirits, & I think are half glad that I now belong to them alone.”
At the same time, his alienation from Washington and everyone in it was complete. “Officially speaking,” he told his wife as he set off for the Peninsula, “I feel very glad to get away from that sink of iniquity.”
This dichotomy marked the Army of the Potomac all during its coming of age—girding to face what McClellan insisted was a superior army in front while simultaneously enduring the fire of a shadowy army of accusers and naysayers in the rear. Yet beneath the surface scrim the mettle was there, only waiting for the right generals—finally, George Meade and U.S. Grant—to lead it to victory.