Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hooker's On Parade

In which McClellan, et al., review the new Army of the Potomac

The old Bladensburg dueling grounds
Since he had secured his U.S. Volunteers brigadier generalship in the most dramatic way possible, Joe Hooker had set to work proving that he was a "damned sight better general than [Lincoln] had on that field" on the banks of the Bull Run. Hooker was in command of a brigade stationed at Camp Union, just shy of Bladensburg on the B&O Railroad line, where the Bladensburg Road passed outside of the boundaries of the District of Columbia.

It was a historic area, even in 1861. Named after a pre-Revolution governor of Maryland, it developed as a port on the Eastern Branch of the Potomac (today called the Anacostia) for Maryland tobacco crops. On August 24, 1814 American briefly occupied the same territory as Camp Union, before they ran from British soldiers and marines at the Battle of Bladensburg in one of the most shameful defeats in U.S. history (part of the flight was in terror from the new Congreve rocket employed by the British, which would also give its red glare to the Baltimore sky a month later, inspiring Francis Scott Key). The British had a free pass into Washington City, and burned most of it that night.

After the war, the river silted up and tobacco had to be taken down river, but the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad replaced it as the town's lifeline. It terminated in Bladensburg, forcing passengers to travel by coach the rest of the way to Washington City, at least until an extension was built in 1835 to a new station near the Capitol (today it is the site of Union Station). It was also a popular dueling ground, especially after the 1820 mortal wounding of the famous Commodore Stephen Decatur (its final duel wouldn't occur until 1868).

The area of Camp Union is known today as Fort Lincoln, named after the fort that Hooker's men began construction on in the final day of August 1861. The brigade and the fort it was building were part of the new defensive scheme for Washington envisioned by Major General George McClellan in the early days of August. He had had 37,000 men and less than five full forts to defend the capital then, but now he had 59,000 men and the beginnings of a ring that would grow to the heaviest defensive perimeter until modern times.

McClellan was building a massive, European style army with great success, despite his constant turmoil with the U.S. Army's general-in-chief, Winfield Scott. On August 17, the Departments of Washington (under Brig. General Joseph Mansfield), Shenandoah (Maj. General Nathaniel P. Banks), Northeast Virginia (Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell), as well as all of Virginia north of the James River and Maryland and Delaware from the Department of Pennsylvania (Maj. General John A. Dix) were combined into the new Department of the Potomac, with McClellan at its head and a mission to subdue one capital while defending the other.

On August 20, McClellan issued his General Orders No. 1 from the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, establishing his 16 top staff officers and promising to organize the many brigades of the new army into divisions soon. Hooker eagerly anticipated his assignment, but when McClellan came by to review his men on August 27, only two divisions had been announced, and they were no surprise. The first belonged to McDowell, who had found himself with nothing to do when his department was taken from under him. The loser of Manassas had to content himself with only two brigades rather than the eight of a week earlier, those of Erasmus Keyes (who had led it at Bull Run) and James Wadsworth (who had been an aid to McDowell during the battle). The second belonged to Banks, who had his department simply renamed a "Banks' Division." (the third department head subsumed, Mansfield, had been gotten rid of by attaching him to an invasion bound for Cape Hatteras).

If McClellan was impressed in his review of the men stationed in Bladensburg, he didn't write it down in his journal and he wrote no letter to his wife that night. It would have disappointed Hooker, who had been working hard for a month to bring his four disparate regiments into perfect military shape. Only one, the 28th Pennsylvania out of Philadelphia, had missed Bull Run entirely. The 11th Massachusetts from Readville had been on top of Henry Hill, but had been routed and needed a strong hand to restore confidence. The 1st Massachusetts from Boston had been part of Israel Richardson's clumsy skirmish at Blackburn Ford a few days before the battle. The 2nd New Hampshire had fought in Ambrose Burnside's brigade and were still under the temporary command of Lt. Colonel Francis Fiske and still refused to trade in their grey uniforms for blue ones (Fiske recounted in his version of events at Manassas years after the war that he had seen Hooker in civilian dress observing the battle on Matthews' Hill).

Hooker hoped to meld them into a fighting force through discipline, which he believed was sorely lacking at Bull Run. Warren Cudworth, the chaplain of the 1st Massachusetts recalled the typical day:

Every morning, before breakfast, the companies might be seen in various parts of the field, marching, countermarching, wheeling, double-quicking, going through the manual of arms, practicing the bayonet exercise,  &c.; and every officer was obliged to be up and dressed at roll call, which was immediately after reville or be reported delinquent by the officer of the day.
In the opinion of McClellan, Hooker, Cump Sherman, and most of the professional military men in the new army, much of the volunteers problems stemmed from the antiquated system of electing officers, which tended to rest on popularity. It was believed these company and regimental officers would not be tough enough on the men, to keep in their good graces. Hooker intended to be even tougher on the officers than the men.
After breakfast came another drill, usually of the entire regiment, and another of the regiment or the brigade at four in the afternoon. Dress parade was at six o'clock; always concluded with a short passage of Scripture and prayer by the chaplains.
Hooker also followed McClellan's order to tighten camp security with zeal. He closely guarded Camp Union's perimeter and allowed only the four colonels (or acting colonels, in Fiske's case) to issue passes to leave the grounds and go into town. He leaned heavily on them to make sure these passes were scarce. At night, men couldn't even wander camp without being regularly challenged for the "watchword", an agreed upon signal to tell friend from foe.

But rather than become a resented disciplinarian like Sherman, Hooker was quickly admired by his new men. He made time to chat with officers and men about their concerns, and let them know he was raising hell about their supplies or food if they were late or deficient. Cudworth summed him up: "[He] showed himself to be a thorough disciplinarian, a careful observer of everything that went on, and a generous and friendly officer in all his intercourse with the men."

Between drills, there was work on Fort Lincoln to continue, and a visit by the President himself to review the men. Cudworth summed up the intermittent reviews by important persons en route to Bladensburg for its famed spring water:
There was considerable curiosity throughout the ranks to see men of such prominence... but these reviews were by no means popular, inasmuch as they were long, tedious, lacked spirit and action, and did not seem to accomplish anything, except to make a grand display.
But this was something that the men, for once, were ahead of the professional military men on. It would be six long, wasted months before the White House caught up with the sentiment.

Print Sources:
  • Hebert, 50-53

1 comment:

  1. The Pennsylvania Regiment in the Brigade was the 26th PA, not the 28th PA.