Monday, October 17, 2011

Their Absence Not Perceived

Wherein the beginning of the biggest story of October 1861 goes unnoticed

On the evening of October 17, 1861, Brig. General Charles P. Stone heard a remarkable report. The Confederates had left Leesburg. Since June, Stone had been responsible for soldiers based in Poolesville, Maryland watching the upper Potomac for signs of a Confederate crossing, save for approximately a week around the Battle of Bull Run. The size of their force had varied, but his opponents had never before abandoned Leesburg.

He carefully interviewed the scouts and peered across the river at their usual positions himself, before finally transmitting to the commander of his army the surprising news:

Stone's division of three brigades numbered about 12,000 men. His opponent on the Virginia side of the river mustered only 2,500 men by the more optimistic accounts. Colonel Nathan "Shanks" Evans, one of the heroes of Manassas, commanded the Seventh Brigade of General G.T. Beauregard's First Corps. It had one under-sized artillery battery, five companies of cavalry (numbering about 300 horsemen), three regiments of Mississippi infantry (about 600 each), and Colonel Eppa Hunton's 8th Virginia Infantry (at only about 450, probably due to the close proximity to the homes of its members).

Some of Evans' cavalry had close ties to the cavalry of Colonel Turner Ashby operating around Harper's Ferry (they either would eventually become part of his 7th Virginia Cavalry or already were, depending on the source) and were quick to report to the South Carolinian about a skirmish near there on the day before. The Seventh Brigade formed a salient, or a part of the line that sticks out and is surrounded on three sides, especially since the Union army had recently occupied Langley and Lewinsville. Continuing to hold Leesburg would put Evans at risk of being attacked from behind by a Union army.

So when Evans heard about the skirmish at Harper's Ferry and combined it with the occupation of Langley and Lewinsville, he assumed that the North was planning a push to secure Leesburg and Loudoun County beofre winter. So, without checking with anyone up the chain of command, he decided to move his little brigade to a safer line of defense at Goose Creek where it intersected the Old Carolina Road [today, the site of Oatlands Plantation].

That both subordinate officers were already being sucked into one of the greatest misadventures of the war is almost undetectable on October 17. Their reports and actions were certainly considered insignificant by their commanding officers, despite the long-lasting effect it would have.

The northern army's commanding general, Maj. General George B. McClellan, is always the easier target for hindsight. The night of October 16, while Evans was withdrawing, he was writing his wife about an interruption in his work by President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward. He said "they had nothing very particular to say, except some stories to tell, which were as usual very pertinent & some pretty good." In a more charitable, but still condescending, note about the president, he observed "I never in my life met anyone so full of anecdote as our friend Abraham--he is never at a loss for a story apropos of any known subject or incident."

And on October 17, when Stone's report on Evans' departure would have arrived, McClellan was taking the time to write an extensive telegram to Assistant Secretary of War Thomas Scott from the camp of "Baldy" Smith at Lewinsville, which he had been visiting more often of late. In it, he raged against the request of the War Department for two regiments to be sent from the Army of the Potomac to take part in an amphibious invasion of Port Royal, South Carolina. "It is the task of the Army of the Potomac to decide the question at issue," he lectured Thomas Scott via the world's most sophisticated technology. "No outside expedition can affect the result. I hope I will not again be asked to detach any body."

But Shanks Evans' commanding officer proved just as distracted. Beauregard had written to acting Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin on October 9 in a letter lost to history, apparently informing him that if Richmond wasn't going to bless the corps system that he and the Confederate Army of the Potomac's commander had settled on, then he would like to be removed from his position so he could return to New Orleans. For his trouble, he received patronizing letters back from both Benjamin and provisional President Jefferson Davis.

Davis was the more diplomatic of the two (after the standard several paragraphs on the importance of brigading troops by state that no letter from Davis in Fall 1861 is complete without):
If I had thought you could be dispensed with, it would have given me pleasure long since to have relieved the solicitude of the people of New Orleans by sending you there; but I cannot anticipate the time when it would seem to me proper to withdraw you from the position with which you are so intimately acquainted, and for which you have shown yourself so eminently qualified. Nor have I felt that to another could be transferred the moral power you have over the troops you have commanded. My appreciation of you as a soldier and my regard for you as a man cannot permit me willingly to wound your sensibility or to diminish your sphere of usefulness.
But still, separate corps were a bad idea for a small army, because they would create rivalries and the perception of favoritism. Besides, having too many generals separated the commander from the men, which could harm the fighting morale. Davis assured Beauregard of these points based on his own practical experience in the army of Zachary Taylor in northern Mexico.
This is not an ideal, but a sketch of Taylor when general of the little army, many of whom would no sooner have questioned his decisions, or have shrunk from him in the hour of danger than if he had been their father.
Whatever Davis might have done to tamp down the fire, Benjamin simply rekindled:
Sir: I have your letter of the 9th instant, in which you state that if you are no longer in command of an army cops, you request to be relieved forthwith from your present false position. In reply, I beg to say, in all kindness, that it is not your position which is false, but your idea of the organization of the army as established by the act of Congress, and I feel confident you cannot have studied the legislation of Congress in relation to the Army.
Beauregard's position was easy to understand:
You are second in command of the whole Army of the Potomac, and not first in command of half the army. The position is a very simple one, and if you will take the pains to read the sixth section of the "Act to provide for the public defense," approved the 6th of March, 1861, you will see that the President has no authority to divide an army into two cops d'armee, but only into brigades and divisions.
Worse, Beaureagard's misconception about the army's "true" organization was spreading. Benjamin explained that Davis "has informed me that he found the same error as to the organization of the army which you seem to entertain very generally prevalent." It was probably because in flagrant disregard of Richmond, that is how orders were issued, carried out, and addressed. Benjamin ominously told Beauregard not to worry, that in a few days he would transmit a general order from the War Department that would set everything straight.

He would indeed be working on those orders, Beauregard would be working on gaining the recognition he deserved, and McClellan would be working on fighting for ever more resources from his own government, over the next week. Meanwhile, events would be unfolding to lead to one of the biggest catastrophes of the war.

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