Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Chance (Or A Good Friend) Has Placed Me In Command

In which feelings are hurt

I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of the Commission of brigadier General, which you are pleased to confer on me.

The opinion manifested by the Senate of the United States as to the incompatibility of the office of a Senator of the United States with the office of General compels me to decline the Commission. I do not feel myself at liberty to resign the position with which I am honored by the State of Oregon.

While nearly every man of even minor influence in the North and South was trying to get himself a commission in the growing armies, Senator Edward Baker was busy turning one down. True, he already held the rank of colonel in the lead of the 1st California Volunteer Regiment that he had dreamed up (recruited from New Yorkers and Philadelphians), and, as he observed in his letter of refusal to Lincoln "the government is pleased to allow me a command with my present rank", but everyone else around Washington was scrambling to command one of the divisions that Major General George McClellan was creating for his new, grand Army of the Potomac.

McClellan's first two picks for division command had been perfunctory, former commanders of the Departments of Northeastern Virginia and the Shenandoah, Irvin McDowell and Nathaniel P. Banks, respectively. Both had seen their commands folded into McClellan's new Army of the Potomac, so both had been given some compensation. But his next two picks, announced on August 28 and August 30, had been more surprising.

First, he picked William B. Franklin to leap-frog five of his seniors on the brigadier general of volunteers list and two on the regular army brigadier general list that were all part of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan would later write of Franklin that he was "a man not only of excellent judgment, but of a remarkable high order of intellectual ability." Franklin had fought in Mexico at Buena Vista with Zach Taylor, then gone on to a successful engineering career with the army. When the Civil War broke out, he was supervising two important projects in Washington, the new iron dome for the U.S. Capitol and the expansion of the Treasury Building on 15th Street.

Franklin had led a brigade at Bull Run, the one that had almost flanked Stonewall Jackson. It was Franklin that had ordered James Ricketts and Charles Griffin to move their artillery far forward, and Franklin that had failed to secure infantry defenders for that artillery. Franklin had been part of Samuel Heintzelman's division (first on the list of brigadier generals of volunteers, and actually a commander of troops in the peace time army), but Heintzelman was commanding only a brigade. More irritating to the older officers, while McDowell had only been given two brigades to lead, Franklin's division was given three, his own, a new one under John Newton (Robert Patterson's old chief engineer), and a New Jersey brigade under a one-armed general named Phil Kearny.

McClellan's second choice that week was Franklin's immediate senior on the list, Fitz John Porter. "He had excellent ability, sound judgment, and all the instincts of a soldier," McClellan wrote. Porter had graduated from West Point two years after Franklin and one year before McClellan. He had been the adjutant for the Department of Pennsylvania throughout Patterson's disastrous command, and stayed on for the brief time that Banks had held that position, rejecting McClellan's requests that he come serve as his own adjutant. When Banks lost his independent command, McClellan had been quick to put him in command of Cump Sherman's brigade when the Ohioan left the army around Washington for a new one being formed across from Kentucky. Porter's division was also just two brigades, his own and that of George Morell.

One officer that wasn't part of the rush was native-Tennessean Brigadier General William Harney, though unlike Baker it was pride that led to his declining a position. Harney had been one of four brigadier generals in the army before secession, having received his commission in 1858 (the others were John Wool, David Twiggs, and Joe Johnston, the latter two of which joined the Confederacy). He had joined the army in order to fight with Andrew Jackson in 1818, and led the 2nd Dragoons during the Mexican War. When the secession crisis occurred, he was in command of the Department of the West (and had established a reputation as something of a brute).

Missouri had unraveled quickly, with the state's legislature voting to stay in the Union while its governor vowed to secede. Rival militia formed and the commander of the St. Louis Arsenal, Captain Nathaniel Lyon led a mob of loyalists into a mob of secessionists with bloody results. A rump legislature voted to secede and the rival militia prepared for war. Harney eased the tensions, but Lyon had more friends in Washington and Harney was recalled. On the way, outside of Harper's Ferry, he was captured by Confederates and his fellow 2nd Dragoons commander emeritus, Robert E. Lee, unsuccessfully attempted to convince him to join the Confederacy.

Because McClellan was closer to the conservative Democrats that supported Harney rather than the Republicans that supported Lyon, he telegraphed the general on the morning of August 31 and offered him command of a division in his army. While McClellan's meteoric promotion meant that he technically out-ranked Harney, Harney's status as commander of a department had made him at least equal to McClellan in Army etiquette, perhaps senior since he had been in charge of the Department of the West longer than McClellan had had the Department of the Potomac. "I feel sure that in the present emergency ou will waive all considerations of previous rank," McClellan had said in his telegram, "& will cheerfully give to this army the prestige of your name & presence."

Harney had felt differently. "Your telegraph is just received," he responded mid-day. "I consider your conduct to say the least of it exceedingly impertinent."

A bewildered McClellan half-apologized by mail.

It is probably my misfortune that chance has placed me in command of the main army of the U.S.--supposing that you wished to serve in the field I embraced the earliest opportunity to offer you the highest position in my gift, and took no little trouble to accomplish this purpose...
I wish to say that I was guided by the kindest possible feelings towards you... You have chosen to pursue a very extraordinary course--your telegraphic message is, to say the least of it, difficult to explain... [I] have only to add that I do not feel that you have any longer any claim upon me as a fellow soldier--though I was this morning very anxious to see you.

Harney would not be offered another command.

But the scramble for rank and command wasn't limited to the Northern armies. In the South, August 31 was also a date for promotion drama, most notably at the highest levels. Jefferson Davis had decided to upend the American tradition of benign anti-militarism and appoint men to the grade of general (what we call four-star today, though the Confederates would confusingly wear the same insignia for all levels of general). He had chosen five men: Samuel Cooper, a New Yorker and close friend of Davis who had joined the Confederacy as the Adjutant and Inspector General, to date from May 16; Albert Sidney Johnston, a Kentuckian turned Texan, who had been that short-lived country's Secretary of War, commander of the Department of the Pacific in 1860, and now commander of Confederate troops in the West (he was also a close friend of Davis), to date from May 30; Robert E. Lee, Virginian and Davis' top military adviser, currently trying and failing to undue McClellan's gains in the western Virginia mountains, to date from June 14; Joe Johnston, in command of the Confederate Army of the Potomac at Manassas Junction, to date from July 4; and G.T. Beauregard, self-styled commander of the First Corps, Army of the Potomac, victor of Sumter and Manassas, to date from July 21, the date of the second battle.

The dates of their ranks would spark a controversy that would dog the Confederate high command throughout the war's length (and afterwards), since it would determine which generals were senior to the others. And it would be the beginning of the fracturing of Southern command in its largest army in the East that would lead to the ascension of Robert E. Lee to command.

No comments:

Post a Comment