Friday, October 7, 2011

After the Stampede

A boring day leading an army

With history of warfare, it's easy to write about the fighting, the things before the fighting that led to it, and the things after that resulted from it. But real-time life in warfare is full of insignificant events that appear monumental, and significant events that go unnoticed. Both occurred in the first week of October.

"I have not written you since the few lines the day we expected to have a fight," Brig. General George Meade wrote to his wife on October 6 from his new camp in present-day McLean, referring to his last letter dashed off at 3:00 pm on September 30. "The stampede lasted for thirty-six hours." In his characteristic fashion, the mild cynic related to her the rumor going through the Union Army of the Potomac that its commander, Maj. General George McClellan, had planned a trap that would be slammed shut by the Pennsylvania Reserves, the informal name for the division to which Meade's brigade of four regiments belonged. "There is no doubt [the Confederates] were appraised of it, though McClellan asserts he did not tell even the generals who were to share in it till the very moment of action, and he is now convinced it is impossible to do or attempt anything without their knowing it."
At the present all is quiet, the enemy having withdrawn to his old lines at Manassas [Meade was off, they had only retired to Fairfax Court-House]. His threatening Washington was a bravado, hoping to draw McClellan out. Failing in this, he has fallen back, thinking we would rush after him, and thus give them a chance to get us at a disadvantage. They are, as Woodbury said, great on strategy, but I guess they will find after awhile that our movements are not to be governed by theirs, and that McClellan is not going to move until he is ready, and then not in the direction they want him.

The day before, McClellan had taken one more step to being ready to move - he had formed another division. And at long last, he had appointed Brig. General Samuel Heintzelman to command it. Heintzelman was the most senior brigadier general of volunteers, number one on the list of rank. Fitz John Porter (5), William Franklin (6), Charles P. Stone (8), Don Carlos Buell (9), George McCall (12), and William F. "Baldy" Smith (49), all commanded divisions already in McClellan's army. David Hunter (2), W. Tecumseh Sherman (7), Thomas Sherman (10), and John Pope (11) each commanded division-level or greater units in other theaters. Andrew Porter (4) was McClellan's provost general, in charge of security for the Department of the Potomac. But Heintzelman and Erasmus Keyes (3) had remained slighted as mere brigade commanders.

Heintzelman was not McClellan's ideal of a soldier. New York Artillery officer Charles Wainwright described him thusly:
A little man, almost black, with short coarse gray hair and beard, his face one mass of wrinkles, he wears the most uncouth dress and gets into the most awkward positions possible. He talks way down in his throat too, having lost his palate, so that one can hardly understand him. I was much disappointed in him; could not see any signs of a great man.
He was a career army man, who had celebrated his 56th birthday just a week before McClellan gave him the position. He had fought in Mexico with Scott's army, and was a veteran of frontier wars against Native Americans. When the Civil War broke out, he returned east and was promoted to colonel to command the new 17th U.S. Infantry Regiment. Before it could be recruited, though, he took charge of a brigade and led it from Washington City across the Long Bridge into Alexandria (here, the normally reliable Eicher and Eicher insist he was captured and imprisoned for a week, but I can find no more details).

Heintzelman had led on of Irvin McDowell's divisions at Bull Run, making the final Union push on top of Henry Hill. Like most of the division commanders, he had gotten too involved in the action and was severely wounded in the arm. He refused to leave the battle and instead had a surgeon remove a bullet from his arm on Henry Hill, an action that left his right arm paralyzed. After the retreat and McClellan's coming, McDowell's divisions had been dissolved and Heintzelman had waited since for another command. The brigades assigned to him were those of Brig. Generals Israel Richardson (whose difficulties at Blackburn Ford had not dissuaded McClellan from admiring his grit), John Sedgwick, and Charles Davis Jameson.

The formation of McClellan's army continued.


At the headquarters of the Confederate Army of the Potomac, its commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, was also trying to group the many brigades of his army together as divisions. He had decided that Maj. General G.W. Smith, assigned to him by Richmond as a division commander, would command the long non-existant Second Corps of his army. He and General G.T. Beauregard had spent the end of September drafting a list of future major generals and brigadier generals to fill that new army organization in response to a request from acting Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin.

Benjamin and Johnston already disliked each other a good deal, and Benjamin's October 7 reply to the two generals made it worse.
I have had a conference with the President since his return on the subject of the organization of the Army of the Potomac, as recommended in your letter of the 28th ultimo, and not received till after his departure for your headquarters. The President cannot persuade himself that the number of generals of all grades recommended by the joint letter of yourself, General Beauregard, and Major-General Smith can be necessary for the number of troops now forming the Army of the Potomac.
Provisional President Jefferson Davis had long been opposed to the formation of corps, which he believed to be an unnecessary European innovation to warfighting. And he certainly didn't want corps formed by subordinate generals without his explicit permission. For an excuse, Benjamin suggested that the other armies would also claim for more generals and the vast number of total generals would then dilute the meaning of the rank. He would agree to the promotion of James Longstreet and Thomas Jackson to major general, but otherwise only a few additional brigadier generals.
The whole number of general officers will thus be about twenty-two in an army of ----- [sic] thousand men. I will not state the number as a matter of prudence, but you can make the calculation, and I feel sure you will admit that it is thus as fully officered as armies generally are, and certainly more fully than any army we have in the field.
As Benjamin dispatched his letter, Johnston was putting the finishing touches of one of his own to the Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General, General Samuel Cooper (whose seniority Johnston was still angry about).


Print Sources:
  • Taafe, 11-12.

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