Saturday, July 30, 2011

The General and the Congressman's Wife

In which the score is Chestnut 1, McClellan 0

East Front of the Capitol in 1861 (AOC) The Senate
Chamber is closest to the camera.
On July 30, Major General George McClellan visited the Senate for his first time since being named commander of the Military Division of the Potomac. During that day the Senate failed to end debate and take action on a tariff bill, a bill on the "suppression of insurrection", a bill on armored ships (soon to be known by the nickname "ironclad"), and the perennial resolution approving Presidential acts before Congress came into session. They even failed to vote in favor of adjourning at the end of the day (then did so automatically when they lost a quorum).

McClellan found none of this worth noting to his wife, Ellen, but did relate that "it seems to strike everybody that I am very young."
When I was in the Senate Chamber today and found those old men flocking around me; when I afterwards stood in the library looking over the Capital [sic] of our great Nation, & saw the crowd gathering around to stare at me, I began to feel how great the task committed to me.
He left her with the closing anecdote that "I learn that before I came on they said in Richmond, that there was only one man they feared and that was McClellan."

It may very well be true, but if it was it was one of the few bits of gossip among the Richmond elites that Mary Chestnut did not capture. She pointedly noted the politics of praising victories generals ("Kirby Smith is our Blucher... and now we are the British, who don't remember Blucher."), the contrary whispers that the victory at Manassas wasn't as grand as thought ("It lulls us into a fool's paradise of conceit at our superior valor, and the shameful farce of their fight will wake every inch of their manhood. It is the fillip they need."), and skeptically assessed outlandish Northern articles and what they might hint at for Southern papers ("It ought to teach us not to credit what our papers say about them.").

She did, however have many thoughts on the Army of the Potomac, the band of Confederates now under Brigadier General Joe Johnston with his second-in-command, Brigadier General G.T. Beauregard, based at Manassas Junction. Specifically, "why did we not follow the flying foe across the Potomac?" By the morning of August 1, she would have an answer that greatly displeased her (though she can't help but mock her fellow outraged citizens). "They say that Beauregard writes that his army is on the verge of starvation. Here every man, woman, and child is ready to hang to the first lamp post anybody of whom that army complains."

The culprits were "rain, mud, and Northrop", referring to the Comissary General of the army, one of provisional President Jefferson Davis' very good friends. Mary indignantly went off at dinner that "we stopped to plunder that rich convoy [of the Union army], and somehow, for a day or so, everybody thought the war was over and stopped to rejoice." Her dander was up after James Mason (George's grandson) had patronizingly told her that there simply hadn't been enough supplies to attack Washington. He laughed at "this headlong, unreasonable woman's harangues and female tactics and their war ways", as she quoted him. Mary has the last word in her diary, snidely observing that
The freshet in the autumn does not compensate for the spring. Time and tide wait for no man, and there was a tide in our affairs that might have led to Washington, and we did not take it and lost our fortune this round. Things which nobody could deny.
Beauregard was, in fact, spending a great deal of time complaining to Richmond from his headquarters at the Manassas area plantation called Liberia [just off Liberia Avenue in Manassas, coincidentally] complaining about his lack of supplies. And the latest recipient of his missives, coincidentally, was Mary's husband James the night before her dinner conversation with Mason. Mary doesn't reveal whether James - a congressman and erstwhile aide-de-camp for Beauregard - showed her the letter, but she certainly might have been reading off of it at dinner.
The want of food and transportation has made us lose all the fruits of our victory. [he complained to James] We ought at this moment to be in or about Washington, but we are perfectly anchored here, and God only knows when we will be able to advance; without these means we can neither advance nor retreat... Cannot something be done towards furnishing us more expeditiously and regularly with food and transportation?
Of course, Beauregard had several ideas that an enterprising Congressman might propose. To be fair, he had complained through the proper channels as early as July 23 before attempting an end run around the Davis administration. But it was still a ticking time-bomb in the relationship between the two men. Sooner or later (sooner) Davis would find out and there would be trouble. Beauregard was too wrapped up in his own myth to think of it however, pledging that if his men had to go more than twenty-four hours without food again "I shall join one of their camps and share their wants with them; for I will never allow them to suppose I feast while they suffer."

To the extent that Mary thought about the new Union commander rather than the bungling of her own side, it had to do with the way he seemed to have usurped the previously un-usurpable Winfield Scott.
McClellan virtually supersedes the Titan Scott. Physically, General Scott is the largest man I ever saw. Mrs. Scott said, "nobody but his wife could ever know how small he was." And yet they say old Winfield Scott could have organized an army for them if they had had patience. They would not give him time.

Also occurring, in Washington and Alexandria Counties [DC and Arlington], McClellan has his adjutant general issue very tactfully an  unpopular order as his second general order, this one about a very spicy topic: he banned soldiers from bars and brothels.

Print Sources:
  • McClellan, 71.

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