Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ice on the Potomac

Wherein either Hooker exaggerates or global warming is real

The cold weather of December had brought a warming, rather than a cooling of tensions on the Lower Potomac. From the headquarters of the Department of Northern Virginia in Centreville, General Joseph E. Johnston was preparing his Southern army for a battle that he expected, even this far into the winter. While winter campaigning was something that no army enjoyed, it certainly wasn't unusual. Writing to his subordinate commanders about the situation, Johnston would have been well aware that Union forces were on the offensive in the Western Virginia mountains and that Brig. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was playing a cat and mouse game with two Union forces in what is today the West Virginia panhandle.

On December 5, Johnston had written to Brig. Gen. William H.C. Whiting, commanding his right flank at Dumfries about the eventuality of an attack by the Union army and his plans for a Confederate response.
My Dear General... I want to know precisely what roads are open and which closed. Please inform me The enemy's movements might be such as to tempt me to go in your direction first. It is necessary to be prepared to do so at all events... Should we go against your enemy it ought to be in two columns on those two routes. 
And, referring to the way he had tricked Union Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson before Manassas into thinking his army was at Winchester when it was in fact on the way to turn the battle's tide, he added a line that would have brought a shout of triumph to Professor Thaddeus Lowe: "The infernal balloon may interfere with such success as we had with Patterson."

Meanwhile, Johnston was also in a letter battle with Richmond over orders issued by Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin that he immediately create two brigades of only Mississippi troops, which Johnston scornfully refused to do in several hundred words, especially because two of his Mississippi regiments were with Whiting.
The forces as now arranged are perfectly familiar with their respective positions, officers and men have become accustomed to each other, are acquainted with the nature of the ground they occupy, &c. The execution of Orders No 252 would work a complete revolution in the organization of the army, and necessitate a change of position of all the regiments from Leesburg to Dumfries, and from this position to Dumfries and Leesburg. Should the enemy attack us whilst these changes of station are in process, an event by no means improbable, it would be almost impossible to avert disaster to our arms.
Benjamin, naturally, wrote back expressing President Jefferson Davis' "desire" that Johnston should simply send the 13th, 17th, and 18th Mississippi regiments from Leesburg (where they had been crucial at Ball's Bluff) to Whiting as reinforcements, "to whose brigade they belong". Johnston could then move any other brigade to take their place at Leesburg, never mind that the last major troop movement at Leesburg had prompted a battle.

The President further desires me to inform you that he can see no reason for withdrawing from General Whiting's command any of the force now there, even after sending him the three Mississippi regiments in accordance with the foregoing instructions, inasmuch as he considers the danger of attack on your right more imminent than on your center. But on this point he does not desire to control your discretion. He confines himself to directing that his repeatedly expressed wishes and orders about the Mississippi regiments be carried into effect.
Johnston shot back on December 13 that Richmond was meddling in the prerogatives of the commanding officer in the field and that, besides, the problem wasn't one that resulted from Johnston not wanting to put the Mississippi regiments together. He simply didn't have enough troops in his army to move them without risking either Leesburg or Dumfries.
In informing the Government that General Whiting's command needed re-enforcement, so far from intending to intimate that either the left or center could furnish the additional troops, I sought to impress upon it the fact that both are too weak.
All along, Beauregard was fantasizing about spies, deception, and being replaced by a general that the President liked much better. "I hear it suggested there is in some quarter a great desire to send Bragg to command this army. So far as I am personally concerned, they can do so if they please after our next battle, but not before."

By December 14, the situation had gotten serious enough in the mind of Johnston that he had even managed to focus Beauregard's thoughts. The Cajun had installed Brig. Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill in command at Leesburg, sidelining now-Brig. Gen. Nathan "Shanks" Evans, who, despite being a hero of Manassas and the hero of Ball's Bluff, had managed to isolate a good percentage of the officer corps with his brusque personality. Hill had been sent from Newport News to provide another senior brigadier to the Confederate Army of the Potomac, probably because he was a North Carolinian and Johnston was short on officers of a sufficient grade to command a North Carolina brigade. Johnston had sent him to be part of Beauregard's First Corps, which Richmond denied existed, and Beauregard had promptly stuck him in command of troops not from North Carolina.

"General Johnston and myself are of the opinion that any demonstration, however strong, of the enemy against you will be made to cover an attack against the batteries blockading the Potomac," Beauregard wrote Hill on the 14th, explaining that the Northerners "are more interested in relieving themselves from the blockade than in taking possession of Leesburg". He told Hill that "however desirable it is for us to hold [Leesburg] we cannot send you any assistance without having to give up the plan of operations already communicated to you when you were here," namely Johnston's aforementioned plan to throw his army to defend Whiting.

But Beauregard was not going to give up on his schemes of operational deception in his instructions:
You can, however, spread the rumor that we are going to send you the division of E.K. Smith, say 10,000 men of all arms, in case of any serious demonstration against you, for which purpose you can say it has been ordered to Gum Spring. But in case you are attacked by overwhelming odds, which you would not be able to prevent from crossing the Potomac, you will act as already instructed. Full discretion, however, is allowed you as we have entire confidence in your judgment.
Johnston's confidence in an imminent Union attack at Dumfries to neutralize the batteries in the surrounding area was based on his assumptions about Northern priorities for supplying Washington by the Potomac River. But a part of him undoubtedly wished the Union army would just attack, because the high state of readiness was beginning to have a negative effect on more than just his personal relationship with Judah Benjamin.

A December 13 letter from the commander of the Aquia District, Maj. Gen. Theophilus Holmes, to the Confederacy's Adjutant General in Richmond expressed concern about the cost of readiness in the population of Virginia on the Lower Potomac:
I have, from time to time, received information from the lower Northern Neck that makes me apprehensive of danger in that quarter. I fear the inhibition of trade, the absence of necessaries, such as salt, coffee, &c, and the heavy stress on the women and children, incident to the absence of the men on militia and volunteer duty, are beginning to tell to the prejudice of our cause among the non-slaveholders. If the enemy do not attack our batteries in a few days, I think we may conclude they do not design doing so, and I respectfully submit whether it will not be better for me to withdraw a regiment from Evansport [Quantico] to replace Colonel Brockenbrough's very excellent regiment, which comes from that region, and send it there to substitute the militia, which should be disbanded. The regiment is in a high state of discipline, full of enthusiasm, and its presence would not fail to have a powerful moral effect on the people, and at the same time give the protection of property they are so clamorous for.
Was all this angst justified? On the Maryland side of the Potomac, Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker commanded a division of men with orders to watch. The ambitious general (who was still several months away from accidentally earning his sobriquet "Fighting Joe Hooker") had to devote his time to whipping his three brigades into shape and sending almost daily missives back to Washington in the hopes that Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan would order some sort of offensive. McClellan, still convinced that Johnston's army had several hundred thousand men, refused to issue such orders.

On the same day Holmes worried about the non-slave holding Virginians on the Northern Neck switching sympathies, Hooker was limited to writing about the latest Confederate build-up:
The commander of the Second Brigade reported to me this morning that the rebels had established a battery opposite to Maryland Point, where the channel makes in close to the Virginia shore, which promised to give our transports and other vessels some little annoyance in ascending the river.
(It's interesting that Hooker almost exclusively refers to Dan Sickles as "commander of the Second Brigade" in his many reports. I'm not sure if it's part of the early testy relationship between the two men that would reappear disastrously at Chancellorsville, or if Hooker is covering for the frequently absent Sickles.)

Hooker's frustration is easy to read as he irritably muses about his inability to cross the river without attracting attention.
But for the broad river, I might possibly surprise them, but to do that with steamboats is almost an absurdity. I have more confidence in being able to whip them than I have in being able to surprise them, or even of capturing their battery.
The implication is a demonstration needed to be made elsewhere along the line, perhaps Leesburg, which would pull enough troops away that Hooker could force his division across the Potomac by force -- precisely the scenario Johnston and Beauregard were expecting.

But December 15 found Hooker no closer to that attack. In fact, he was actually further away. In addition to reporting more details about the new battery (whose gunners he is, typically, skeptical of), he was forced to note his concern about being supplied by the short boat trip that was drastically more efficient than the third-rate roads in Charles County.
I desire to call the attention of the Major-General Commanding to the hazards of my position from the closing of the river by ice. From the present time until the 1st of March, the navigation is liable to be interrupted from this cause, and in 1855 it was continuously suspended for a period of six weeks. It is not an unusual occurrence for the Potomac to be frozen over to its mouth.
The attack would have to wait.

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