Monday, October 3, 2011

Beginning to Move

Four vignettes of the beginning of October

As the weather changed in October 1861, the stagnation that had characterized summer around the nation's capital began to break up. At the end of September, the Confederates evacuated their advanced position at Munson's and Mason's Hills, and the picket war around Bailey's Crossroads and Falls Church died down. The Confederacy's Army of the Potomac, under General Joseph E. Johnston, was falling back to a stronger defensive position, in light of the conclusion that they would be unable to launch an offensive anytime soon.

For Maj. General George McClellan, commanding the Union's Army of the Potomac, it was a time when command of his army was coming together. For McClellan, though, the passing of the imminent threat of Confederate attack (not that he didn't still believe it might come, he just felt prepared for it) seems to have given him full time to worry about his personal battles. "I am becoming daily more disgusted with this administration," he wrote to Mary Ellen on October 2, "perfectly sick of it."
If I could with honor resign I would quit the whole concern tomorrow; but so long as I can be of any real use to the nation in its trouble I will make the sacrifice. No one seems able to comprehend my real feeling--that I have no ambitious feelings to gratify, & only want to serve my country in its trouble, & when this weary war is over to return to my wife...


Serving with Edward Baker had to be particularly confusing. Baker was U.S. Senator from Oregon, and colonel of the 1st California Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and brigadier general of volunteers. He had declined the last title on the Floor of the Senate, saying it could not be held concurrently with elected office, but his friend Lincoln had appointed him at that rank and the Senate had confirmed it anyway. Baker refused to use it, but others sometimes did.

Baker had brought his regiment to Washington shortly after Manassas, and encamped it at Meridian Hill. Baker was trying to drill them and teach them the ways of war, but his own zeal was ahead of his soldiering abilities. He tended to rely on his lieutenant colonel, Isaac Wistar, who (like most of the "California Regiment") was from Philadelphia. Over the course of the summer Baker was most often found in Philadelphia, recruiting more men for a "California Brigade" that Lincoln had authorized him to create.

He was usually only with the 1st California for reviews, including one he held in honor of his Senate nemesis, Kentucky's John C. Breckinridge. The men had lustily booed Breckinridge, and Baker had loudly chastised them and apologized to Breckinridge. The former Vice President and Lincoln presidential opponent made light of it. It was becoming a familiar story for Breckinridge, though, and on October 2 he decided to flee to the Confederacy. In a month he would be commanding a brigade in Kentucky on behalf of the South.

On September 28, the California Regiment, under Wistar, suffered its first casualties. It had been attached to Brig. General "Baldy" Smith's brigade at Chain Bridge, in Virginia, and marched out to meet a rumored Confederate offensive. In the confusion of its first action, the regiment opened fire on the 4th Michigan, who returned fire. The Confederates got away (if they were ever there) without losses, but the Northerners suffered around a dozen casualties.

The same day, McClellan made Smith commander of a new division, once again jumping in line ahead of many more senior officers (from a shocking 50th on the rank list). The brigades would be Smith's old Vermont Brigade, a brigade under Isaac Stevens, who had gotten a great deal of attention for the action at Lewinsville, and a brigade under the ambitious young officer Winfield Scott Hancock.

McClellan had planned the division in advance, so the friendly fire incident didn't play into the decision to exclude the Californians. Instead, Baker was assigned with his new California Brigade to the division of Charles P. Stone, to bring it up to full strength of three brigades. And so the Philadelphia men packed up their camps and marched for Poolesville.


Brig. General Henry Slocum, recently promoted to command the brigade of William Franklin when the latter had been elevated to lead the division, sent the 26th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment to surprise some cavalry in the vicinity of Pohick Church, and gather whatever information they could about the new Confederate position. Slocum hatched a plan, and explained it to the 26th's colonel verbally, then quickly wrote him some orders and sent him out to ambush the cavalry.

In early afternoon, Joe Johnston received a telegram from the acting Secretary of War, Judah P. Benjamin informing him that a northern force was landing on the Occoquan. Benjamin had received a telegram from Brig. General W.H.C. Whiting, a brigade commander in Johnston's own army. Johnston testily telegrammed back that he had received a report of half an hour earlier from Whiting as well, saying that the enemy was advancing down the Pohick Road towards Occoquan, not landing by boat. "We have no information of such movement," he pointedly noted. He omitted to correct Benjamin's confusion of rank (saying Whiting had given an order to his superior, Theophilus Holmes), which was probably the extent of Johnston's generosity towards the Secretary of War.

But instead of a daring victory that would help Slocum justify his promotion to permanent brigade commander, the action fizzled into little more than a skirmish of pickets. The Confederates dutifully fell back over the course of the morning and when the 26th New York reached position, they gave away the surprise. Slocum vented in his official report:
The expedition proved an entire failure, and this result I am informed and believe is to be attributed to the fact that my orders relative to the manners of the execution were not obeyed; and what is still more annoying to me and disgraceful to my command, is the fact that instead of being marched back to the camp in good order, a large portion of the command was allowed to disband beyond our line of pickets,  and, as might have been anticipated from such a proceeding, this force sent to operate against the force of the enemy was converted into a band of marauders, who plundered friend and foe alike.

Meanwhile, a few miles away at Springfield Station, another regiment in Franklin's Division (one in the brigade of John Newton, Robert Patterson's former head engineer) had a more productive day:

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