Sunday, September 4, 2011

Aiming Too High

In which the troops no one wanted are bombarded at Great Falls

Governor Andrew Curtin (Matthew Brady)
At approximately 8:30 in the morning of September 4, the attack came. Confederate cannon opened up on the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves stationed at Great Falls, just like Colonel Elisha B. Harvey had been warned.

Harvey had been preparing for the attack since August 24, when a message from the commanding officer of the Army of the Potomac, Major General George McClellan, had been transmitted to his brigade commander that a Confederate attack was imminent at Great Falls. The general - Brigadier General George A. McCall - had immediately sent Harvey to Great Falls with his regiment of infantry, a company of cavalry and a few artillery pieces to make sure a crossing couldn't occur without him knowing about it. Since then, Harvey had waited for the attack to begin.

McCall was part of a cordon McClellan had established along the Potomac River, reaching from Washington City to the division of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks at Harper's Ferry. Fittingly, the general commanding the most upstream brigade of the cordon was Charles P. Stone, the beleaguered then-colonel who had tried to cover the entire length of that distance during the Rockville Expedition with less than an eighth of the soldiers now assigned to the task. Back in Poolesville, Stone now only had to cover the distance from Point of Rocks down to Seneca Mills. To the east, the cordon was connected to the defenses of Alexandria County by a brigade under Brigadier General William Farrar Smith, better known as "Baldy" Smith, headquartered at the Chain Bridge.

McCall's brigade was responsible for everything in between. Based out of Tenallytown (as it was then spelled) so he would have good roads that would let him reinforce either Stone or Smith quickly, McCall commanded a massive brigade of 10,465 men on September 2, divided among 12 regiments, three artillery batteries, and one squadron (or company) of cavalry. With the exception of the horsemen, they were all Pennsylvanians, and called themselves the "Pennsylvania Reserves" because they weren't supposed to be part of the army.

Pennsylvania's governor was the 44-year old Andrew Curtin, a Dickinson College graduate that had ridden a tide of anti-Southern sentiment to the governor's mansion, at the expense of his more conservative political rival, Simon Cameron. A Whig late to convert to the Republican Party (he held on until 1860), Curtin managed to paint the 1856 Republican convert Cameron as an opportunist, since he had been a Whig, a Know-Nothing, and a Democrat, as well. Cameron's politicking to be the Republican presidential nominee in 1860 also helped distract him and allowed the insurgent Curtin to win out. But Cameron had still had enough pull to deliver the Pennsylvania delegation for Lincoln at the Chicago nominating convention, leaving Curtin with the top-slot in the state, but giving Cameron the position of Secretary of War.

As the secession crisis widened, Curtin strove to be ahead of the Federal Government in preparations, advocating fiercely for the administration to look to Andrew Jackson for inspiration (Jackson had dealt with South Carolina's last attempt to overthrow Federal authority by dispatching Winfield Scott with the U.S. Army to occupy the state). Lincoln issued his call for volunteers on April 15, two days after the fall of Fort Sumter. By April 18, Curtin had set up the first functioning training camp for those volunteers in Harrisburg, named Camp Curtin, after himself.

But Curtin's zeal was causing heartburn in Washington. Of the 75,000 men Lincoln had called for on April 15, Pennsylvania was asked to contribute 12,500., or roughly twelve regiments. But the commander of the Department of Pennsylvania, Major General Robert Patterson (of the Pennsylvania militia and an influential Pennsylvania Democrat) had written Curtin on April 16, asking him to furnish 25 additional regiments. After learning of it, Cameron withdrew the request on April 30, but the damage was already done - Curtin became absolutely convinced that the administration wasn't asking for enough men to get the job done.

George A. McCall
On May 15, the Pennsylvania legislature gave Curtin approval to form a Reserve Volunteer Corps of the Commonwealth and floated a $3 million bond ($71.9 billion today) to pay for it. The next day he named McCall (a Mexican War hero and the retired U.S. Army Inspector General) a major general in the militia and put him in charge of the Reserves. After Curtin sent 20,175 men into 90-days Federal service (Cameron used the surplus Pennsylvanians to make up for the states that refused to contribute, all of which besides Kentucky also seceded) he was still easily able to fill the ranks of his Reserves.

One of the companies of militia that flocked to Camp Curtin was the Wyoming Bank Infantry from Luzerne County (wyoming being an Algonquian word for "large prairie near a river"). The militia company was led by local lawyer and military enthusiast Elisha Harvey. Though he had no military experience (having skipped the Mexican War to open a law practice), when McCall grouped his company with nine others, his local stature won him the votes to become colonel of the new 7th Pennsylvania Reserves. With enthusiasm, Harvey went to work training and equipping his regiment.

As soon as the first of the regiments were readied, Curtin had McCall move them to southwest Pennsylvania on various maneuvers. But with McClellan's early easy victories in western Virginia, people in-state were beginning to doubt the wisdom of Curtin's private army. He would not be dissuaded. When Curtin heard that Irvin McDowell was leading a march to Manassas, he again offered the service of his Reserves to Cameron, and was again rebuffed. A few days later, the persistent Curtin won a small victory when Cameron agreed that he could position four regiments on the rail line in Hagerstown and move six more towards Baltimore. But Cameron was mostly trying to get Curtin to leave him alone.

Everything changed on July 21. First, Assistant Secretary of War Thomas Scott (another Pennsylvanian) sent a telegraph to Curtin saying, "get your regiments... ready for immediate shipments, lose no time in preparing." Then the general-in-chief, Winfield Scott (unrelated), asked him to send a Wisconsin regiment that was in Harrisburg to Baltimore and "send all other regiments to Harrisburg and elsewhere to Baltimore." Then Thomas Scott sent another: "forward all you can tonight... press forward all available forces." Curtin didn't yet know it, but things had gone spectacularly bad at Bull Run.

In response to pressure for an update from the assistant secretary, Curtin sent back a pedestrian reply complaining about the quality of Federal supplies from his other units in the field and assuring that the Reserves would be moving by the next day. "Tomorrow won't do for your regiments," Thomas Scott replied. "We must have them tonight. Send them tonight. It is of the utmost importance." And to be sure he followed with another telegram that ended "do not fail."

When the Reserves did arrive in Washington two days later, Lincoln himself turned out to greet them. On August 2, four of the regiments (including the 7th) were marched to Tenleytown, and mustered into Federal service. McCall, now a brigadier general of volunteers, set to work building a fort at Tenleytown (Fort Pennsylvania, later renamed Fort Reno) and arguing with Simon Cameron about whether or not to split up the Reserves. McCall won, and so ended up with the massive brigade.

And it was to this brigade that Colonel Harvey sent a request for reinforcements on the morning of September 4. The Confederates on the Virginia side of Great Falls had opened fire on his advanced guard. A historian of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves records the artillery bombardment as from "two twenty-four pound howitzers and three rifled cannon", which would have been some of the best pieces that Colonel Nathan "Shanks" Evans had available to him. Evans report doesn't survive, so it's unclear which unit carried out the bombardment or what the objective was.

Harvey replied with the section of Captain Cooper's battery that was with him, two six pound Napoleons, smoothbore cannon that turned out to not have enough range to reach the Confederates bombarding them. Harvey shut-down the battery section, since it was doing little more than making itself a target. He had his men hunker down and wait for the reinforcements McCall was sending; Cooper's other two (rifled) guns, and the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves. The cannon arrived, but the 8th was pulled back on orders for McClellan, who believed the bombardment might be a feint to trick the Northerners into moving their men from the real attack. But even if it was the real attack point, the 7th would have plenty of time to warn McCall that the Confederates were crossing.

At 1:00, McCall decided to exercise his prerogative as commander on the ground, and sent the 8th to Great Falls anyway. Colonel George Hays arrived with his men to find a disappointed 7th. The Confederates had stopped firing at 11:00 am (before even Cooper's guns arrived), and had not resumed any firing. The men of the 8th had nothing to do but turn around and march back, while Harvey's 7th went back to waiting. McCall excused his decision to send the 8th the next day in his official report: "I afterwards learned that the enemy, after throwing up 50 shells and shot, mostly too high, ceased firing at 11 am..."

It turned out to be another of the multitude of false alarms. Still, McCall's brigade was "kept ready to move during the day and night." Not one to waste an opportunity, McCall spent most of his official report informing McClellan that Fort Pennsylvania was completed and asking for a 20-pound rifled gun and the rest of his artillery to be sent to Tenleytown. The war for manpower and equipment was still raging strong.


For a wryly amusing account of a lawyer's sensibilities crashing into the military's sensibilities, check out the linked to account by Elisha Harvey of his transit day in Baltimore on the way to Washington.

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