Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reinforcing the Lower Potomac

In which we swing by Budd's Ferry and Evansport

Not a long post today, just a quick stop by the opposite sides of the batteries on the Lower Potomac that were impeding traffic to Washington City. In Maryland, at Budd's Ferry, was the headquarters of Joe Hooker, nominally in command, but having a tough day, apparently:

Headquarters Hooker's Division, Camp Baker, Lower Potomac, Maryland, November 22, 1861. Brig. Gen. S. Williams, Assistant Adjutant-General, Army of the Potomac: 
 General: An animated fire was kept up from the rebel batteries on two or three schooners descending the river this afternoon with no better success than heretofore. The rebels will certainly abandon their purpose of claiming the navigation of the Potomac by means of the batteries now in position ere long. They must see that it is labor in vain. Of late a large number of vessels have passed and repassed at night, and no effort has been made to check them. Thus far their labor has been equally fruitless during the day.
Professor Lowe has not returned from his mission to Washington. I see no effort making to inflate the balloon on shore, as was intended by him at the time of leaving.
The two companies of cavalry dispatched to the lower part of the Peninsula have not returned.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JOSEPH HOOKER, Brigadier-General, Commanding Division. 
Hooker had been having trouble with his second-in-command, Dan Sickles, who would give orders without notifying him--if he was even present in Maryland. Thaddeus Lowe and his balloons happened to be Sickles' find, so it's probably not surprising that he was off on his own agenda. Hooker's mood would brighten the next day when McClellan announced that he would be adding a third brigade to his division, one of all New Jersey regiments that called itself the Second New Jersey Brigade, under Colonel Samuel Starr.

Across the river at Evansport, the Maj. General Theophilus Holmes, commanding the District of Aquia, desperately needed his own reinforcements. It had been almost a week since the big scare about an imminent attack by Hooker (partially triggered by Lowe's previous balloon ascensions), but still none had come. Part of the reason was the enthusiastic recommendation of Maj. General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson in Winchester.

On November 20, he wrote an enthusiastic letter to Secretary of War (officially, as of November 21) Judah P. Benjamin explaining how an attack on Union troops in Romney by his forces could collapse all of McClellan's right flank. All he needed were all the reinforcements at Staunton that were bound for Holmes.

For once, the top-ranking commander, General Joe Johnston, was tactful in his November 22 reply to Benjamin.
I have received Major General Jackson's plan of operations in his district for which he asks for re-enforcements. It seems to me that he proposes more than can well be accomplished in that high mountainous country at this season. If the means of driving the enemy from Romney, preventing the reconstruction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (and incursions by marauders into the counties of Jefferson, Berkeley, and Morgan) can be supplied to General Jackson, and with them those objects accomplished, we shall have reason to be satisfied, so far as the Valley District is concerned.
But Johnston wanted the troops for his own right flank.
The wants of other portions of the frontier - Aquia District for instance - make it inexpedient in my opinion to transfer to the Valley District so large a force as that asked for by Major General Jackson. It seems to me to be now of especial importance to strengthen Major General Holmes near Aquia Creek. The force there is very small compared with the importance of the position.
But Benjamin had already come to his own decision:
The Secretary of War is disposed to think, from the great difficulty in obtaining forage and the reported reduced condition of the horses of cavalry companies in the mountains, that you may dispense with a part of the cavalry force with you, retaining that portion of your cavalry which has been raised in Western Virginia, and therefore better able, on the part of both horses and men, to stand the climate. Cavalry is greatly needed in the region of country between the Potomac and Rappahannock, and if you can dispense with the services of Captains Hatchet's and Douglas' companies... and Major Lee's squadron, it is desired that you will at once order them to move down to Major General Holmes command, for duty upon the Rappahannock. If you have another company of cavalry, say Captain Richards, disposable, the Secretary would prefer its being also ordered to that point, three Virginia companies being required to complete a cavalry regiment to be organized, if possible, in the District of the Lower Potomac.
Less than three companies of cavalry guaranteed, with more concern about the obsession of having homogenous state units than defending the army.

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