Wednesday, October 12, 2011

On the Eve of Battle

Wherein George Meade prepares himself and his family for a Confederate attack

October 12, 1861 was a fairly quiet day in the Confederate Army of the Potomac. The promotions to major general had come in for James Longstreet and T.J. Jackson (who was being called "Stonewall" in the popular press after the story about his defense of Henry Hill had spread over the summer), who were assigned to G.T. Beauregard's First Corps and G.W. Smith's Second Corps, respectively. It would be a few more days before they were given multiple brigades to make up their divisions. At least in Longstreet's case, it would only be two brigades, preserving hope that the plan of creating multiple divisions under major generals might continue despite provisional President Jefferson Davis' recent attempts to kill it once and for all (Jackson's subordinates are not recorded in the Official Records, if they were even made).

But in the Union Army of the Potomac, things were aflutter. "I am at this moment looking after the enemy," its commander, Maj. General George B. McClellan wrote to his wife, Mary Ellen. He splurged to send the message by telegram, because that morning he had received a telegram from her announcing she had given birth to the couples fifth (and, as it turned out, final) child, Mary. "I thank God you are safe," McClellan had told her, before his words about seeing to an enemy attack. Despite being sure he would be "in the saddle all day" he encouraged her to telegraph him throughout the day with updates of her status.

McClellan had been at the camp of Fitz John Porter, in what is now Rosslyn, when he received word that the enemy was advancing on the divisions of Brig. Generals W.F. "Baldy" Smith at Lewinsville, Virginia and George McCall at Langley, Virginia. General Joe Johnston, as we have seen, had no intention of an offensive operation, but since Manassas he and his subordinates had actively deceived McClellan about their true intentions. Beauregard especially enjoyed dabbling in these schemes and had a willing partner in his signals and ordnance chief Porter Alexander. In an undated plot implied by Beauregard's biographer to be in August and by Alexander to be in the early fall (perhaps after the Evansport battery opened) the two took advantage of new technology Alexander had wheedled out of Richmond to unhinge the whole Union command structure. As Alexander recalled:
I had my signal stations scattered about on the high places, & of course under orders to report promptly all unusual occurrences. One night, I remember, about bedtime receiving a report that one or two or possibly more rockets had been seen over the Federal lines. I took the report to Gen. Beauregard & he asked me if I had rockets. I said yes, every station was provided, on which he told me to have every station send up one & during the night to have one or two more demonstrations of them. It took very few minutes to send the orders everywhere, & we soon had rockets apparently answering each other for a long distance right & left, & couriers were sent to shoot others, later, at other points. The next papers from the North brought the story above referred to It was said McClellan complained to Lincoln that only he and Gen. Scott knew of his plans, & yet they were allowed to become known to some one who must have betrayed us.

The rocket event seems to fit best with the abandoned attack plan of October 4-6, but is still a great example of how the Confederates employed deception to disrupt McClellan's plans. On October 12 he had been busy issuing the order to create a new division, a division of two brigades of German and Eastern European regiments under Brig. General Louis Blenker, a political favor to Lincoln who had carried the German-American vote handily in 1860, since he was number 40 on the list (for those keeping tabs). On October 11 he had elevated Brig. General Joe Hooker (number 16, jumping only the insufferable Phil Kearny on the list) to division, adding the Excelsior Brigade of New York regiments under the absentee Dan Sickles to his own brigade. For McClellan, the objective was finishing construction of his army (only a few brigades remained without divisions and most had just arrived), not dealing with an attack.

McCall's division, the Pennsylvania Reserves, had moved to Langley at the beginning of October (a good post at All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac summarizes the move to new camps for McCall and Smith) and Brig. General George Meade, commander of one of the brigades, was adjusting to life on the Virginia side of the Potomac. He had written to his son, Sergeant, on October 12, about the boy's visit to West Point while looking for colleges. "I was sure you would be delighted by the scenery, which is said of its kind to be unequaled," Meade wrote his son. "I agree with you that the student at West Point has every advantage in his favor in the regularity of the hours there and the absence of distraction." But undoubtedly thinking about his own biography, he advised his son that "without a mathematical turn of mind... no advantages such as above mentioned will allow a student to overcome all the difficulties in his path..."

At 9:00 pm, Meade was back at his desk, dashing off a letter to his beloved wife. In the intervening period, scouts from the cavalry or, less likely, pickets from McCall's or Smith's division, had picked up what they believed was a Confederate movement and reported it to McClellan in modern-day Rosslyn. McClellan had sounded the alarm, a Confederate movement confirming his long-held suspicion about an attack between the Aqueduct [Key] Bridge and Leesburg, and ordered McCall and Smith to be ready to hold off the brunt of it. Then he had ridden to Smith's headquarters personally, with the intention to spend the night there in order to greet the attack that he expected at dawn.

"The enemy have appeared in our vicinity," Meade wrote to his wife in what he believed might be his last communication with her, "and we have as much reason to believe they are going to attack us as we ever can have with an enemy as alert as they are and whose movements are wrapped in such mystery." Either too shrewd or too cynical to take the order to prepare for battle on faith, Meade notes that the latest movement may be just another feint by the Confederates, but explains that because McClellan had only very recently moved McCall's and Smith's divisions to their new positions in Virginia their defensive works are not sufficient to defend against a concentrated attack. The Confederates surely knew this, and also would know that every day those defenses would become stronger.

"For my part, I hope it is so," Meade observed. He believed a decision by Johnston to attack might make more sense now at any point in the future, but that the natural defenses were strong enough and support was close enough, that the Pennsylvania Reserves had all the advantages they needed. "The whole question," Meade told her, "turns upon the behavior of our men."
If they stand up to their work like men, and really fight with a determination to do or die, I think there is no doubt of our triumphant success. Of course, if they cannot be brought to this point, all plans and calculations must fail. You will doubtless be anxious to know what is my private opinion of the force, and I would not hesitate to tell you if I had a decided opinion... If we are successful in the beginning in repelling the attack, I think they can be kept up to the work; but if by any accident the fortune is against us in the commencement, I fear they will become demoralized.
Like most of his regular army peers in the days after Bull Run, Meade was skeptical about the fighting abilities of his volunteers:
They do not any of them, officers or men, seem to have the least idea of the solemn duty they have imposed upon themselves in becoming soldiers. Soldiers they are not in any sense of the word. Brave men they may be, and I trust God they may prove themselves; but at this very moment, when we have every reason to believe by tomorrow's dawn our lives may be imperiled, if not taken from us, I doubt if any of the living beings around me realize to the slightest degree what they may have to meet.
Meade's men would have been putting out fires, picking up arms, moving to pre-planned defensive positions, sending out pickets to be the early-warning system for the brigade or perhaps the whole division. And in the first war where the majority of the participants were literate, they would have been scribbling passages in diaries or notes to family or loved ones in preparation for their death. Just like Meade, who concluded with a message for his family implying how he would like to be remembered:
For myself, I await calmly the decree of an over-ruling Providence. I am here from a sense of duty, because I could not with honor be away, and whatever befalls me, those of my blood who survive me can say, I trust, that I did my duty.


Bonus fun, for all you G.B. McClellan haters who overrun my blog whenever I indulge in the worst of my McClellan bashing: on the eve of the birth of his fifth child, when Mary Ellen was deep into her third trimester, what did George choose to spend his time writing her about?
I can't tell you how disgusted I am becoming with these wretched politicians--they are a most despicable set of men & I think [Secretary of State William] Seward is the meanest of them all--a meddling, officious, incompetent little puppy--he has done more than any other one man to bring all this misery upon the country & is one of the least competent to get us out of the scrape. The Presdt is nothing more than a well meaning baboon. [Secretary of the Navy Gideon] Welles is weaker than the most garrulous old woman you were ever annoyed by. [Attorney General Edward] Bates is a good inoffensive old man--so it goes--only keep these complimentary opinions to yourself, or you may get me into premature trouble. I believe I have choked off Seward already--& have strong hopes that he will keep himself to his own business hereafter...

Print Sources:
  • Sears 106-107

1 comment:

  1. View a facsimile of McClellan's message to Lincoln about the coming attack here: