Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Gradually Carried Into Effect

Wherein we take stock of the belligerents at an early turning point

November 1861 saw the realization of plans for change in both Northern and Southern armies that had been percolating since July, changes that when completed over the winter would shape the next two years of warfare. The most immediately obvious was the removal of Bvt. Lt. General Winfield Scott in favor of Maj. General George McClellan as general-in-chief of the U.S. Army and thus the Northern war effort, but changes in the South had equal impact.

McClellan had already put an indelible touch on the North's Army of the Potomac through his careful shepherding of young officers of his own military and social persuasions through the process of nomination to and confirmation of the grade of brigadier general of U.S. Volunteers. These were men that believed in a professional, European-style army, were socially and politically conservative, and for the most part had not been senior officers in the pre-war Army (and therefore had not been hand-picked already by Winfield Scott).

Among the division commanders, the senior leadership of McClellan's new army after his own staff, five of the 11 commanders named by November 9 could safely be called McClellan's men: William Franklin, Fitz John Porter, Charles P. Stone, Don Carlos Buell, and "Baldy" Smith. Only Irvin McDowell was truly Scott's man, though Sam Heintzelman was also from the Old Army leadership promoted by Scott. Nathaniel Banks, Louis Blenker, George McCall, and Joe Hooker were the President's political picks.

Among the 32 brigades commanded by those generals collectively, 15 were led by men who can safely be called McClellanites, with a few more sympathizers additionally. Strategically, McClellan tended to group the brigades of his people together under a divisional commanders that were also his people. McClellan's appears to have already been thinking of divisions as "trustworthy" and "suspected", a separation that would grow in his mind until it became a major problem in the spring.

Much is made about the impact of political generals on the Army of the Potomac, but that may be a function of how many McClellanites served in the army that were around to complain about them for years after the war. Of the three subsequent commanders of the army, two would be fully disciples of McClellan and two would also be ousted by coups engineered by senior leadership cabals consisting of McClellan disciples. Long after he ceased commanding the army, the men that McClellan had put into command positions by Fall 1861 would direct the course of battles and campaigns.

In the first week of November, McClellan hoped to remake the Union war effort in his image as well. In the East he had waged war against Winfield Scott for months to create a Department of the Potomac that met his approval (that is, it contained almost any troops that might have a role in a battle in the vicinity of Washington). He also was satisfied with Brig. General William Rosecrans' leadership of the Department of Western Virginia, the mountainous area that McClellan himself had commanded at the beginning of the war. Two amphibious operations were under way over which he had no control (one at Hatteras, North Carolina, and the other at Port Royal, South Carolina), but a third that was being planned for Roanoke, North Carolina was under his old friend Brig. General Ambrose Burnside.

In the West it was a different matter, and McClellan was having more problem asserting control. The good news for him was Maj. General John C. Fremont, the number 2 ranked officer in the U.S. Army and a radical Republican with his own political base, was out of Missouri, sacked by Lincoln for disobeying orders (specifically, freeing all rebellious Missourians' slaves and then arresting the Postmaster General's brother when he was sent to tell Fremont to countermand the order). The bad news was that a new expanded Department of the Missouri that included Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, and Western Kentucky was to be led by the number 3 ranked officer, Maj. General Henry Halleck, who Scott had specifically asked Lincoln to put in charge of the war effort instead of McClellan. It guaranteed that McClellan's plan to hold all other armies static while the Army of the Potomac went on the offensive with maximized resources would not come to pass.

But McClellan would still be able to expand his influence westward in the form of the new Department of the Ohio, covering Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee, and East Kentucky. Brig. General W. Tecumseh Sherman, who was to command the department, asked to go on personal leave instead, and so McClellan took the opportunity to name his good friend Don Carlos Buell to the position. He had spent nearly a month ranting about Scott's decision to send Buell west to help Fremont, and his success at keeping him in the Army of the Potomac had been one of the things that precipitated Scott's resignation. But now McClellan sent him off with instructions to push to Nashville, saying "I regard the importance of the territory committed to your care as second only to that occupied by the army under my immediate command."

As a bonus, McClellan elevated Buell's senior brigade commander, McClellanite Brig. General Darius Couch, to lead Buell's Division over more senior officers.


In the Southern Army of the Potomac, General Joseph E. Johnston was having a considerably more difficult time building the command of his strategic vision. Here's how he saw his army: he, Joe Johnston, commanded the Army of the Potomac, with General G.T. Beauregard commanding its First Corps, and Maj. General Gustavus W. Smith commanding its Second Corps. The First Corps consisted of the divisions of Maj. Generals Earl Van Dorn and James Longstreet (a third division had been planned, but aborted when it was obvious Richmond would provide no more men or promotions). The Second Corps consisted of the divisions of Maj. Generals Thomas Jackson and E. Kirby Smith. The reserve division of Maj. General Theophilus Holmes reported directly to Johnston.

Unfortunately, that tidy structure was not how Johnston's superiors saw his army, and the struggle over that definition had consumed most of the late summer and fall. Jefferson Davis prepared for his election to the Presidency of the Confederacy in the first week of November (he had been serving as provisional president until formal elections could be held, which the southern states scheduled for the same day they had always had elections), by having the adjutant general issue General Orders No. 15, mandating the structure of Johnston's army.

General Samuel Cooper (who Johnston already disliked over a rank issue) ordered the creation of a new geographic command, the Department of Northern Virginia, with Johnston as its commander. Three districts comprised the new department: the Valley District, to be commanded by Jackson, to stretch from the Alleghenies to the Blue Ridge Mountains; the Potomac District, commanded by Beauregard, and stretching from the Blue Ridge to Powell's Creek; and the Aquia District, commanded by Theophilus Holmes, and covering the ground from Powell's Creek [Montclair] to the Chesapeake Bay, as far south as the Rappahannock River.

But Cooper didn't stop, revealing Davis' hand in the order. It outlined the dividing and brigading of the army occupying the Potomac District. The divisions were to be commanded (in order) by Van Dorn, G.W. Smith, Longstreet, and Kirby Smith, which would once again make Davis' Mississippi friend Van Dorn the third most senior leader in the Army of the Potomac, despite Johnston and Beauregard's preference for Gustavus Smith. Further, the order specified which brigade commanders would be part of each division, and then, of course, how many regiments from each of a single state would be part of each brigade.

For instance, Longstreet's Division was to consist of:
First Brigade: Brig. Gen. D.R. Jones, to consist of four South Carolina regiments; Second Brigade: Brigadier General Bonham, to consist of four South Carolina regiments; Third Brigade: Brigadier General Wilcox, to consist of four Alabama regiments; Fourth Brigade: Brigadier General Bodes, to consist of four Alabama regiments; Fifth Brigade: Brigadier General Taylor, to consist of five Louisiana regiments.
Cooper specified that "The arrangements will be gradually carried into effect as soon as, in the judgment of the commanding general, it can be safely done under present exigencies." Johnston regretfully dispatched Jackson to the Valley to take command of the motley assortment of militia there, but determined to himself that the present exigencies made safe implementation of General Order No. 15 likely to occur never. The order and its disregard would set the shape of the South's most famous army for the next two years.

Print Sources:
  • Sears, 125.

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