Friday, October 28, 2011

Miserable Marksmen

Wherein Hooker is sent to end the "blockade" of Washington

Scene of Northern ships running the gauntlet on the Lower Potomac, from Harper's Weekly

Brig. General Joe Hooker must have been gratified. After months of trying to join the army despite an old grudge held by general-in-chief Winfield Scott, followed by months of parades and organizing under the finicky eye of the Union Army of the Potomac's George McClellan, he had finally embarked on some real soldiering. His division had been tasked with defending a mighty bend of the Potomac River, stretching clockwise from Port Tobacco to Pomonkey Creek, on the Maryland side.

McClellan's primary concern was the battery at Evansport [Quantico] and its companion across Quantico Creek at Shipping Point, that had recently shut down river traffic to the capital. The channel of the Potomac at that point in the river winds close to the Virginia side, which put any ships sailing for Georgetown or Alexandria City right under the guns of the Confederates, including, according to the historian of the 1st Massachusetts, a state-of-the-art 7-inch Blakely muzzle-loading rifled cannon purchased from England. The weapon could fire a 120-pound projectile with stunning accuracy, assuming its operators could use it correctly. In the opinion of the New Englanders, they weren't:
High hills on the Maryland side afforded the troops an excellent observatory wherefrom to watch the firing; and, as the rebels, it seemed, had plenty of powder and ball to expend, twenty-four hours seldom passed but they afforded observers an opportunity to observe what miserable marksmen they were.

However poor the Confederate gunners were, the possibility that they might improve forced Secretary of War Simon Cameron to take them seriously, which meant McClellan (who by the end of October was brazenly acting like general-in-chief, despite Scott still holding the post) took it seriously, too. The U.S. Navy's Potomac Flotilla could not operate freely as long as the batteries were there. In fact, its commanding officer had been killed in a skirmish with batteries off Mathias Point [opposite Port Tobacco] in July, underscoring for everyone the danger when large caliber guns were fired from a stable platform at wooden ships.

The inability of the flotilla to operate meant that a 410-ton, sidewheel steamship that had ferried people up and down the river from Washington before the war, could be a first-class marauder. The Confederates had captured her at Evansport, outfitted her with two miserably small cannon, dubbed her the George Page, and sent her to work raiding commerce on the Potomac, while hiding out in Aquia Creek when the Flotilla came by. She had sustained damage in July, shortly before the battle on Bull Run, and been more cautious for a short time. But when the batteries at Evansport were open, she was back to operating with impunity.

Hooker's first mission was to find a way to silence or at least challenge the Confederate batteries, which was a task that inspired him with all sorts of ideas for daring raids and crafty generalship. If he could, he was also to find a way to help the Navy eliminate the Page. This was more difficult than today, since the concept of "joint" operations between two services was one based on mutual agreement, rather than a unified command structure. The Army and the Navy were wholly separate entities, even split at the Cabinet level where they were represented by the Secretaries of War and the Navy, respectively. Finally, while seeking the first two objectives, Hooker was to crack down on the smuggling of supplies and information from the very pro-South communities in his area of responsibility. Though it wasn't yet revealed, Charles County was the route that Rose O'Neal Greenhow's messenger had followed carrying news of the Union advance on Manassas Junction in July 1861, and it would be the same path John Wilkes Booth tried to escape down after assassinating Lincoln in 1865.

The intelligence Hooker had said that the Confederates had between 10,000 and 20,000 troops opposite him (it was really less than 5,000), commanded by Maj. General Theophilus Holmes. Hooker led the smallest division in the Army of the Potomac, consisting of only two infantry brigades, but numbering 10,000 men of all arms when you counted his eight companies of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry and battery from the 1st U.S. Artillery.

The first infantry brigade was Hooker's original command from Bladensburg, temporarily led by Colonel Robert Cowdin of the 1st Massachusetts. Cowdin had led his regiment at Blackburn's Ford during the battle that prefaced the Battle of Bull Run. His men had fought averagely during the battle, but Cowdin had kept working on them through the summer and fall, and Hooker had come to trust his ability to lead. The brigade also had two other Bull Run regiments: the 2nd New Hampshire, whose colonel, Gilman Marston, had fully recovered from his wound on Matthew's Hill and was back in command; and the 11th Massachusetts, who had taken a heavy beating on Henry Hill as part of Franklin's Division. The 26th Pennsylvania was a new regiment, but well drilled by Hooker.

Hooker's Area of Responsibility on the Lower Potomac, End of October 1861.

In contrast to the relatively veteran soldiers of Hooker's old brigade, the Excelsior Brigade under Brig. General Daniel Sickles was a madhouse. Composed of the 70th, 71st, 72nd, 73rd, and 74th New York regiments, the brigade had been recruited from the heavily Democratic immigrants of New York City. Not a few papers and wags had cracked that during the first battle the brigade would turn around and fire on the rest of the Union army. Sickles himself was a Democratic politician, who had been elected to represent parts of Brooklyn and Queens to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1857 after a scandalous campaign focused on his insistence on treating his favorite prostitute as his wife, while leaving his 20 year-old wife at home pregnant.

He was the worst kind of political hack while in office, but things really took a turn for the weird in 1859 when he discovered his wife was having an affair with Philip Barton Key, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, son of Francis Scott Key and nephew of Chief Justice Roger Taney. When Key next showed up to woo, Sickles rushed outside into Lafayette Park and shot Key multiple times at point blank range (he was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown). Sickles employed the best team of lawyers he could find, including one named Edwin Stanton, who persuaded him to make an argument previously unheard of in U.S. jurisprudence: temporary insanity. It worked and Sickles went free, but did not return to Congress. When the war broke out, he decided glory on the battlefield was his route to regaining his prominence and raised funds to arm an entire regiment.

Fortunately for Hooker, Sickles was rarely in camp, spending most of his time with Members of Congress trying to boost his own image. But when he was around, he spent a great deal of time trying to get Hooker to score him a meeting with two of the senior general's patrons, Senator Williams of Massachusetts and Senator Nesmith of Oregon, since neither Senator liked Sickles and may have been trying to block him from further promotion. Unfortunately for Hooker, nobody had bothered to instill discipline in his brigade or his officers, and the colonels of the New York regiments were many times worse behaved than their unruly men.

Hooker set up his headquarters six miles from Budd's Ferry, where he and his Navy counterpart, Commander Thomas T. Craven, agreed a Union battery should be created. They also planned one at nearby Indian Head, figuring that between two Union batteries at the very least the Page would no longer be able to operate on the river, even if the flotilla still couldn't. Hooker also had a supply depot set up at nearby Rum Point, where ships from Georgetown and Alexandria could drop off supplies without coming under fire from the batteries and saving a long, arduous journey by road back to the capital.

Hooker had also been requested to keep in touch with McClellan every day, orders similar to those given to other units stationed on the wings of the defenses of Washington, like those of Charles P. Stone and Nathaniel P. Banks. Stone sent his typical daily professional reports, and Banks usually ignored the order, but Hooker took advantage of a captive audience to describe everything in great detail.

In a 750-word report only for October 28 (obscenely long for a daily report), Hooker carefully details the Confederates firing at a ship (he could not tell if there were hits), the lack of an appearance by the Page, his spotting of some Confederate troops (he had no idea how many), his confidence that they planned no offensive attack (with the caveat that he had no knowledge of what their camp looked like), the use of a boat with a white flag to drop a buoy in the river (he couldn't figure out what it was for and it was still there), his picket's patrol of the shore (followed by: "It is now 10 o'clock p.m. Captain Williamson has just come in from an examination of Indian Point. His report will reach me in season to forward to-morrow morning."), a meeting with Commander Craven (who told him about three additional camps of Confederates), the importance of arresting the relative of a prominent Confederate sympathizer from Charles County (who was also the foreman painter at the Capitol), the extent of his food supplies (for two more weeks), and that he was receiving mail for a regiment that had been detached from his command (where should he send it?).

Consistent with the reoccurring theme of Joe Hooker's career, it's hard to tell whether he was underscoring what a great general he was, or trying to irritate his superior to have a burdensome requirement lifted. Either way, he was now the extreme left of the Army of the Potomac with a mission that could make or break it.

Print Sources:
  • Hebert, 54-62.

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