Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Deadline

Wherein Lincoln sets deadlines, luckily for Hooker

Gen. Order No. 1, with quotation highlighted (LOC)
On January 27, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln decided it was time to stop waiting for his general-in-chief's report on how the nation's army would take to the field. Maj. General George McClellan had promised Lincoln such a document when he wrested control of the war strategy back following his sickness. But the report hadn't come. And so Lincoln issued an order to attack using his Article II power as commander-in-chief:
Ordered that the 22nd day of February 1862, be the day for a general movement of the Land and Naval forces of the United States against the insurgent forces.
The order didn't specify which movements, though, which Lincoln expected McClellan to fill in.

But McClellan's plan was probably not complete. Assuming that the Confederate forces around Centreville numbered at least 150,000 in fixed positions, he wanted to use the Rappahannock River to split his opponents off from Richmond and either take their capital or induce them to attack him in a strong defensive position. That much had been conveyed to Lincoln by his loyal surrogate, Brig. General William B. Franklin. But the actual plan of operations was still known only to McClellan, and it was this that Lincoln hoped General Orders No. 1 would elicit (as well as the plans for other theaters).

But even if McClellan wasn't providing plans to the President, plans were being made. On the same day, Brig. General Joseph Hooker responded to an inquiry from McClellan's adjutant general, Seth Williams, about his thoughts on the best way to attack. Hooker had been in Southern Maryland's Charles County since late October, suppressing the region's trade of goods and information with the Confederacy and keeping an eye on the batteries at Evansport [Quantico]. But Hooker was an ambitious man, and he had plotted how he could turn his lonely post on the extreme right of the army into a way to crush the Confederate army.

Hooker had shown in his Mexican War experience that he well understood the the politics of the army, but he had also shown an opportunism that led to miscalculations (and the wrath of Winfield Scott). Both habits would be on display again throughout the American Civil War. On January 10, while McClellan was still thought to be sick, Hooker had visited Washington and discussed operations from Maryland with him. It was this meeting that had led to Williams' request for the proposal Hooker wrote on January 27.

But his second in command, Brig. General Dan Sickles, had been cultivating a relationship with the Members of Congress behind the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, and through Sickles (who in early 1862 Hooker couldn't stand) it's possible that Hooker was put in touch with Brig. General Irvin McDowell, the man the members of the Joint Committee were beginning to coalesce around as a replacement for the Democrat McClellan. The link is that McDowell's plan proposed to the cabinet and Hooker's plan proposed to Williams are remarkably complimentary.

Hooker, like McDowell, proposed an attack across the Lower Potomac with men from his division. Hooker would split the difference between McDowell's landing on the Occoquan River and McClellan's on the Rapphannock, targeting Aquia Creek.
From the most reliable information received from others, and from my own personal observation, I am of opinion that the mode to attack the rebels productive of the greatest results will be to commence on the left of my line at Aquia Creek, with one brigade on the following morning to assault their batteries in front, with two columns of a regiment each, and the day following with as much of my division as I can cross; land at, or near, Powell or Neabsco Creek, advance on the Colchester road, attack in rear the rebel batteries planted to dispute the passage of the Occoquan, and open the doors for Heintzelman to cross that river.
The remarkable thing about Hooker's plan is that it could be the logical first step for either McDowell's plan to move several divisions across the Occoquan and march north from there to Centreville while pressing with other divisions from the north along the same paths as in July, or McClellan's plan of sailing a large force down the river to the Rappahannock, which would need the batteries eliminated to be feasible.

"The primary object in delivering an attack on my immediate front," Hooker wrote to mollify McClellan, "should be to destroy the batteries, in order to give us the free use of the river, and not to give battle; for there are other fields, equally accessible, affording greater advantages."

But in case Seth Williams would soon be reporting to a different superior, he carefully explained its utility to McDowell's plan as well, all the time playing dumb to preserve some plausible deniability.
With regard to the movement to relieve Heintzelman and its consequences, it is open to the objection of proximity to the rebels; but considering its advantages, as they are presented to one not at all acquainted with the views and intentions of the Major General Commanding, I have ventured to recommend it.
No matter who won the power struggle, Hooker's division could perform the first decisive action. Hooker provided a little pre-campaign spin to that effect:
The successful execution of all of these movements will call into exercise great secrecy, dispatch, resolution, and, indeed, all the brightest virtues of a soldier, but with the relative position of the two armies, as I understand them, to no greater degree than will be required for an advance anywhere along the whole line. The enemy have the advantage in position; they in the center, we on the circumference, with great natural and artificial obstacles between.
After consulting with Lieutenant Samuel Magaw, commanding the Lower Potomac division of the Potomac Flotilla, Hooker optimistically declared the project feasible, as long as he didn't cross more than 4,000 men at a time. And additional boats were supplied. And they traveled light. It must have sounded to Williams like Ball's Bluff on a larger scale, with Hooker in the role of his slain patron, Edward Baker:
As the vessels of the Flotilla have but limited capacity for transporting troops, and the most of them draw too much water, I recommend that canal boats be used, and have them towed across by one of the tugs. Enough of them should be employed to transport 4,000 men, and should be sent to Liverpool Point at a time not to excite remark. I shall take no horses or baggage. On board the Freeborn are two 12 pounder howitzers with light carriages that I wish to take along with a few artillerists. The men can haul them.
Also like Ball's Bluff, Hooker had a clear understanding of the fixed positions, but little knowledge of the actual troop positions of the Confederates. [Note Hooker slipping in a dig at Sickles' friend Thaddeus Lowe and his balloons.]

My balloon having failed me up to this time, I am unable to report the position of the rebel camps in the distance. From the smoke, I judge that two or three regiments are encamped behind the high ground in rear of Shipping Point batteries... With my glass I can see camps north of Dumfries, stretching off in the direction of Colchester. They occupy a position to dispute the passage of the Potomac or Occoquan, as may be needed. By referring to the sketch of Lieutenant Magaw, two batteries will be observed at the mouth of Potomac Creek. I learn that they are supported by about 300 men. These appear to invite capture.
Hooker's plan was submitted at the right instant. The arrival of General Order No. 1 had thrown him into the panic. There was no way to acquire the transport capacity needed by February 22 to launch his attack by the Rappahannock, and he was convinced he would annihilate his army against the phantom legions of Confederates defending Centreville. McClellan had to get his plan together quickly in order to convince the President to rescind his order, and Hooker's operation provided a prepackaged solution to one of its problems. Hopefully for the commanding general, one that would satisfy Lincoln.

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