Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Campaign Continues

Wherein the fighting of Fall 1861 continues, over policies and tents

As the sun rose higher in the sky on October 13, George McCall's Pennsylvania Reserves waited for a Confederate attack that wasn't coming. Other than driving in of the pickets on the evening of October 12, there was no hostile activities by the Southerners. In all likelihood some Confederate cavalry had been ordered to ride up to the picket line around the newly created camps to get an idea of the new position. The pickets had followed their orders and retreated back to tell their commanders the Confederates were testing their lines and commanders itchy for a fight had seen the signs they wanted to see.

One of these commanders had been the commander of the Army of the Potomac, George B. McClellan. By the time of his daily letter on October 13 to his wife (who had just given birth), he was back at his headquarters at the Wilkes House on 19th and Pennsylvania, NW, after having spent the night in anticipation with the division of "Baldy" Smith in Lewinsville, nearby the Reserves. McClellan was on to other things already. He wrote Mary Ellen:
I am firmly determined to force the issue with Genl Scott--a very few days will determine whether his policy or mine is to prevail--he is for inaction and the defensive, he endeavors to cripple me in every way--yet I see that the newspapers begin to accuse me of want of energy. He has even complained to the War Dept of my making the advance of the last few days [of McCall and Smith's divisions]. Hereafter the truth will be shown & he will be displayed in his true light.
But while McClellan was off to other battles, the Pennsylvania Reserves and Smith's Division had to keep waiting for theirs, as the sun continued to creep across the sky.


No stranger to bureaucratic wrangling himself, the head of the other Army of the Potomac had finally received a response to his inquiry about supplies for constructing winter quarters. General Joseph E. Johnston had written the Confederacy's Adjutant General on October 7 to find out if supplies could be sent that would help his men construct winter quarters. Though the weather is tolerable for tents in northern Virginia three seasons out of the year, winter is cold enough that the men would need thicker walls than canvas. Armies slowed operations almost to a crawl during winters, because of the difficulties of moving men and materiel, so commanders typically allowed the construction of crude huts that would keep out some of the worse elements.

The adjutant general, Samuel Cooper, had passed on the message to acting Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, perhaps Johnston's least favorite person in the Confederate government in October 1861. Benjamin had thrown himself into a response and dispatched it with James Hunter and Dr. John P. Hale, two men that he wanted Johnston to use to build winter quarters. After the one-sentence explanation of Cooper's forwarding, Benjamin launched right into the passive aggressive second-guessing that so infuriated Johnston.
It is a source of deep regret to the Department to be brought face to face with this necessity. I had hoped almost against hope that the condition of the army would justify you in coming to the conclusion that some forward movement could be made, and that the roofs to shelter the troops during the approaching winter would be found on the other side of the Potomac; but our destitute condition so far as arms are concerned renders it impossible to increase your strength, whilst your recent report to the Adjutant-General develops the painful fact that nearly one-third of your numerical force is still prostrated by sickness.
Nevertheless, Benjamin insisted it was up to Johnston to choose whether to build huts and where to build them.
It is evidently impossible that I should undertake to decide for you on the proper locality of your winter quarters, as this is a question dependent on many considerations, such as fuel, water, defensive works, &c, involving a minute knowledge of the topography and resources of the country, familiar to you and unknown to me.
It evidently was not too impossible, though, for him to enlist the help of the Confederate Secretary of State, Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter, "whose intimate knowledge of the resources of his native State and whose zeal and patriotism have rendered him an invaluable counselor in this emergency."  Secretary of State Hunter possibly was related to the James Hunter (who shared a name with Robert's father) and certainly knew him as far back as 1850 based on a land deal they had worked out in modern-day West Virginia. And it was the Secretary of State that helped Benjamin find James Hunter and Dr. Hale, and together they all four "devised a scheme--the only practicable one that has suggested itself--by means of which our men can be furnished with comfortable shelter in huts, to be built at a rate which will supply about 800 men per diem, beginning on the 21st instant." Benjamin noted for Johnston that his army "would be under cover by 10th December at furthest, and I hope even by the 1st of that month" if he listened to Hunter and Hale. "I know I can rely on your zealous co-operation," he told Johnston.

James Hunter appeared to be in the construction business, since he also volunteered to procure "1,000 laborers" (probably hired out slaves) to build trenches and defenses for Johnston's wall in addition to building their huts. Benjamin's letter has all the marks of a sweetheart deal being imposed upon the Army of the Potomac. And to add just one extra bit of insult, Benjamin closed his letter by turning around the situation and writing as if it was he who was urging Johnston to prepare the men for winter quarters: "I need not urge on you the absolute necessity of prompt determination of those questions, which are to be decided by you before Mr. Hunter and his associate can commence active work."

If Johnston responded, it was not preserved for history.

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