Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Guarding the Bridges

The Aqueduct Bridge, looking from Georgetown towards Rosslyn (LOC)
In mid-June, Colonel Charles P. Stone had been dispatched with the District of Columbia militia, the 1st New Hampshire, and 1st Pennsylvania, some cavalry and two field pieces, on the Rockville Expedition in order to guard the river crossing points between Washington and Harper's Ferry and strengthen general-in-chief Winfield Scott's cordon defense. By July 11, the ferries were undefended, the DC Militia was licking its wounds at home, and Stone had joined the two three-month volunteer regiments with the army of Robert Patterson near Martinsburg. Scott had chosen to abandon the goals of the Rockville Expedition in order to better execute an attack under Irvin McDowell on Confederates defending Manassas Junction.

But the ferries were not the only Potomac River crossings in 1861, three bridges also existed (all of which are located at river crossings today). The first was the Long Bridge, extending from the intersection of Maryland Avenue (today subsumed on an expanded rail right-of-way leading to L'Enfant Plaza) and 14th Street to Arlington Heights (today the site is the 14th Street Bridge). The second was the Chain Bridge (yes, that Chain Bridge) which went from rural Alexandria County (it wouldn't be renamed Arlington County until 1920) to rural Washington County (DC at the time consisted of Washington City, Georgetown, and Washington County within its current boundaries). The third bridge was the Aqueduct Bridge, which was a bridge of water that brought the C&O Canal from Georgetown across the river, extending it to Alexandria City (just up-river from today's Key Bridge).

Scott planned forts to guard the bridges and placed Colonel John Barnard in charge of building them. Barnard had been in charge of guarding Scott's supply line during his Mexico City campaign in 1847 and was a well-regarded defensive officer by the general-in-chief. He started work immediately on the two most important bridges, building Fort Runyon to defend the Long Bridge at what is now the approach of I-395 to the 14th Street Bridge and Fort Corcoran on the grounds of an estate called Rosslyn (named for the Ross family that owned it) to guard the Aqueduct Bridge (and he added a third fort, Fort Albany, near today's Pentagon City when he realized cannon on Arlington Heights could shoot right into Fort Runyon).

Fort Corcoran (today at N. Ode St. and Ft. Myer Dr.) was named after the commander of the 69th New York Infantry Regiment who did much of the early work building it (the regiment of mostly Irish immigrants would earn together with its brigade the name "The Fighting Irish", which its chaplain Fr. William Corby would transfer to the small religious college he later was president of in South Bend, Indiana). But by the time Scott called off the Rockville Expedition, the fort was under the command of Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman (who, like all Civil War generals, preferred a nickname to his given name, in this case "Cump").

Officers of the 69th New York at Ft. Corcoran in 1861. Col. Corcoran is at the left
The other regiments stationed in the fort were no less colorful. The 79th New York was full of Scotsmen who called themselves "the Highlanders", were commanded by the James Cameron, brother of the Secretary of War, and wore kilts for inspections and parades (the Cameron tartan, of course). He had two other New York regiments, the 29th (of German immigrants, who called themselves the 1st German Rifles, in defiance of Federal nomenclature) and the 13th from Rochester (who did not get along with the NYC immigrant regiments). The final regiment based on Fort Corcoran was the 2nd Wisconsin under an incompetent colonel described by Sherman as a "good-hearted gentlemen who knew no more of the military art than a child" (though it would go on from their inauspicious beginnings to be part of the famous Iron Brigade).

These five regiments were the headache of Sherman, thanks to the patronage of his brother, Senator John Sherman (R-OH), and Winfield Scott. Sherman was every inch an officer: ambitious, disciplined, blunt, conservative. He believed that secession was the result of mob rule, and that a war was inevitable to restore the control of the educated elite over the passions of the crowd. He had little patience for the flamboyant, unruly troops that showed little interest in completing work on Fort Corcoran.

Sherman had started his military career at West Point, after a childhood marked by alternating tragedy and luck. His father had died unexpectedly and his mother had sent him to be raised by family friend Thomas Ewing, who became the Senator from Ohio as a Whig. Senator Ewing got him into West Point and he graduated sixth in his class in 1840 (along with his roommate, George Thomas, and Thomas Jordan, Beauregard's assistant adjutant general in July 1861). He joined the U.S. Third Artillery Regiment and fought in the Seminole War and guarded Charleston Harbor. When war broke out with Mexico, he joined an expedition hoping to land in California by sea, but got there well after the capture was complete and instead took on a staff job.

In 1848 he confirmed the presence of gold in California that set off the gold rush, and a few years later laid out the streets of what would become Sacramento, but by 1850 he was on his way back east (replaced by Joe Hooker as assistant adjutant general). In his absence Senator Ewing had been named the first Secretary of the Interior by President Zachary Taylor, then lost the post when Taylor died of indigestion (Sherman was just in time to serve in the funeral procession). He went to pay his respects to his foster father and ended up falling in love with his daughter, Ellen, a devout Roman Catholic whose intense spirituality made an odd match with the atheistic Sherman. He moved his wife to St. Louis to take on a series of staff jobs, but nothing stuck, so in 1853 he resigned from the U.S. Army.

Sherman spent the next five years bouncing between jobs: managing a failing bank back in San Francisco, then it's failing New York branch, then a failing law practice in Kansas. He finally settled down in the South, where he felt most at home, taking on the job of the first president of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy (today LSU) in 1859. Then the secession crisis hit.

On January 26, Lousiana seceded and the Federal arsenal was surrendered to the state government. They chose to store it at their very own military academy under Sherman, who believed secession to be rebellion (in fact, they stored many of the crates in Sherman's office for lack of other space). They increased Sherman's pay as commander of the state arsenal, but it was too much for him and on February 19 he resigned, to the great regret of the state and the school's board. He left by train for St. Louis on January 30.

W.T. Sherman, after 1862
Over the next two months, he corresponded with his brother John, the Senator-elect, frequently about positions in the army, waffling as to whether he would prefer a staff job or a major command, or just remain a civilian after all. In early March, John arranged a meeting for the brothers with the newly sworn in President, Abraham Lincoln. Cump came away so disgusted by the revelry surrounding the president barely in officer 48 hours that he swore to sit out the war and went home to work for a St. Louis railroad, though he offered frank military advice to John by mail (McClellan was "the best man", McDowell spent too much of his career in a "smooth office chair".

In the end, John and Ellen conspired to push the unhappy Cump Sherman into swallowing his pride and prejudices and requesting a commission from the Lincoln Administration. On June 6 it was confirmed that he would be colonel of the new U.S. 13th Infantry Regiment being formed, an expansion of the professional army rather than a unit of militia volunteers. He would, however, only command the regiment on paper, instead being asked by Winfield Scott to act as his personal inspector for forces around Washington. He did so until the end of June, when he was selected to command Fort Corcoran and the brigade of five ninety-day militia regiments based there.

Already they had tested his patience. Few of the officers had any idea what their jobs were, much less the jobs of their subordinates, putting the work of training officers on top of the other work Sherman and his small staff had to do. One of his earliest decisions was to get rid of the 2nd Wisconsin's useless colonel, which he did by promoting him to a staff position where he couldn't cause too much trouble. Next he had to deal with the owner of Rosslyn, who submitted to Sherman a bill for property he claimed had been destroyed by his brigade. A careful staff officer, Sherman responded with his own detailed itemization of the damage for considerably less, as well as the barbed observation that the owner was "selling vegetables to our mess from the garden charged for as destroyed and milk from the cows charged for as lost."

But most dangerous for Sherman was the unhappy state of his ninety-day regiments. The 69th New York had rushed to answer Lincoln's call to arms immediately after the surrender of Fort Sumter, and mid-June would be the end of their three months with nothing but half-finished ditches and walls to show for it. The men were disenchanted and fed up and looking forward to going home, but according to the War Department their ninety days hadn't started until they were accepted by the Federal government, pushing their terms until the first week of August.

The men were furious and it took the harsh discipline of Sherman with the help of the other regiments to avoid a mutiny. Of course, those other men were eying the calendar as well. It was clear if McDowell wanted to attack Manassas Junction he was going to have to put an end to the red tape that was delaying it, or he wouldn't have an army to fight with.

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