Sunday, January 15, 2012

McClellan's Winter Offensive

Wherein Little Mac strikes back against his enemies

Long Bridge [14th Street Bridge] across the Potomac
"Your Excellency," Maj. General George B. McClellan, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, wrote President Abraham Lincoln on the morning of January 15, 1862, "I am so much better this morning that I am going before the Joint Committee. If I escape alive I will report when I get through."

McClellan was in the midst of a campaign to reassert his authority. Three weeks earlier, he had fallen sick, usually reported as typhoid fever. It couldn't have happened at a less convenient time, for the general. In mid-December there had already been grumbling about the lack of movement by the massive army he had assembled along the Potomac, and the disaster at Ball's Bluff and the winter campaign of Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley had stirred up the embers from the pre-Bull Run fire for rapid advance. Without McClellan's boundless energy for political wrangling to quash it, the fire had blazed up fiercer than ever in Washington, fueled by frustrated officers who had been slighted by McClellan's remaking of the army hierarchy.

The Joint Committee for the Conduct of the War was certainly the most prominent organ of dissent. Committee Chair Senator Benjamin Wade (R-OH) and member Senator Zachariah Chandler (R-MI) had interviewed almost all of McClellan's division commanders (the exceptions: Banks and Hooker, furthest away from Washington), attempting to establish a case that McClellan could attack at any time, and simply wasn't. Both men and a growing number of the so-called "Radical" wing of the Republican Party were becoming more and more convinced that this was because of treasonous beliefs among the conservative West Point officers in charge of the war effort.

McClellan was invited to a private interview with the Committee, rather than asked to testify, so no transcript exists. Like in the case of Charles P. Stone a week earlier, McClellan came away from the meeting pleased with the results, thinking he had set the Radical Republicans straight on the proper handling of an army. And like in the case of Stone, the Committee members came away convinced that the army was rotten to the core with Confederate sympathizers. Chandler's biographer wrote that after pleasantries, the Senator had bluntly asked McClellan why he didn't attack Manassas right away. Referring to the military concept of "lines of communication" (uninterrupted, protected pathways to a base of operations), McClellan pointed out that only two bridges (Chain and Long, he ignored the Aqueduct Bridge which had been converted for foot traffic) across the Potomac meant his army would be trapped in the event of disaster, explaining that every good general made sure there was plenty of room to retreat before making an attack.

"General McClellan," Chandler replied, "if I understand you correctly before you strike at the rebels you want to be sure of plenty of room so that you can run in case they strike back." Wade added: "Or in case you get scared."

McClellan, the account says, "manifested indignation at this blunt way of putting the case and then proceeded at length to explain the art of war and the science of generalship..." When the general finally departed, Wade asked Chandler what he thought of the science of generalship. "I don't know much about war," the biographer has Chandler answering, "but it seems to me that this is infernal unmitigated cowardice."

Whichever extreme the interview hewed more closely to, the very fact of its occurrence accomplished McClellan's objective. With the Committee momentarily satisfied, he could turn his offensive back on the Administration. Lincoln had been taking steps to mitigate the dissatisfaction at the war, starting with changing his top civilian adviser. Secretary of War Simon Cameron had officially stepped down in order to take up the post of Ambassador to Russia on January 14, the day before McClellan's interview. Behind the scenes, Lincoln had become politically vulnerable because of Cameron's mismanagement of War Department contracts (at best, he was foolish, at worst, engaged in profiteering) and because of a section of the Secretary of War's annual report to Congress where he had written that slaves of individuals in rebellion should be freed and drafted into the volunteer army.

Edwin Stanton
Cameron had written the segment with the help of his informal adviser, Edwin Stanton. Stanton was an Ohio Democrat, but also an opponent of the same Slave Power that men like Chandler and Wade hated so much. One of America's most controversial historical figures, Stanton probably despised the Southern Democrats that had witnessed tearing apart the nation firsthand as Attorney General to the Buchanan Administration, and was motivated in 1861 into an informal alliance with the Radical Republicans to prosecute the war more aggressively and brutally. He was supremely confident or a know-it-all, depending on your viewpoint, and had advised Cameron to cast his lot in with the Radical Republicans because of his belief it was the right move for victory. But he had persuaded Cameron by convincing him that it would protect him at a time when everyone was dissatisfied with the conduct of the war.

Instead, Lincoln had used it as a pretext for removing the politically powerful Pennsylvanian, and replacing him with someone that would bolster his own credentials with the radical wing of his party--Edwin Stanton. On January 15, the Senate confirmed Stanton in the position, a move that turned out to be surprisingly popular with even conservatives. "Everyone seems relieved at the change in the War Department," George Meade wrote to his wife. McClellan was through the roof with joy. "Stanton's appointment was a most unexpected piece of good fortune," he told his old boss at the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad (in the same letter he let him know he had finally gotten around to resigning as president of its Eastern Division), "and I hope it will produce a good effect in the North." Stanton had also been serving as an informal adviser to McClellan, helping the latter to clarify and improve his strategy for prosecuting the war. On January 15, Little Mac must have felt confident that he finally had his man in place at the War Department to at last implement the policies the general-in-chief saw fit.

So that just left the President himself as the final objective of McClellan's winter counter-offensive. If McClellan followed through with his promise to visit the President after his Committee testimony on January 15, it isn't recorded. But McClellan may not have deemed it necessary, since he felt he had put the President back on the defensive in the days before, and in dramatic fashion.

During the general-in-chief's illness, Lincoln had decided to form what might be called a working group today. On January 11, he had sent for Brig. General Irvin McDowell, the erstwhile commander of the defunct Army of Northeastern Virginia that had lost Bull Run, and now one of McClellan's division commanders. McDowell had been Winfield Scott's choice to lead the armies of the Federal government into the field, but had been cast aside for McClellan after the defeat. McClellan, however, had respected McDowell in the pre-war Army, and had stood by him when he was roundly criticized by all sides. McDowell had showed his appreciation when he had been very mild on McClellan during his testimony before the Joint Committee, saving his sharpest comments for the men that he believed had really lost Bull Run (chiefly Robert Patterson, a Democrat that the Committee already was convinced was a traitor, and Daniel Tyler)

McDowell and McClellan
When McDowell arrived at the White House on the evening of January 11, he found Lincoln alone, initially. But they were soon joined by another divisional commander in the Army of the Potomac, McClellan's close friend Brig. General William B. Franklin. Franklin was five years younger than McDowell, and widely regarded as intellectually superior to his corpulent senior, though some of that might have been the lingering prejudices of West Point. Franklin had gone into the engineers, while McDowell had only briefly served in artillery, before beginning a career as a staffer. Franklin had spent a great deal of time in Washington, supervising construction of several public buildings, including the Capitol dome and the Treasury Building.

The man he had replaced as the top engineer for public buildings in Washington was Montgomery Meigs, currently serving as Quartermaster-General, and who arrived shortly after Franklin did. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of State William Seward, and Assistant Secretary of War Thomas Scott all had followed. According to an account recorded by McDowell and later endorsed by Lincoln, the President was upset at the lack of progress in the war and that McClellan's illness made it unlikely to change anytime soon. McDowell recorded:
To use his own expression: If something was not soon done the bottom would be out of the whole affair, and if General McClellan did not want to use the army, he would like to borrow it, provided he could see how it could be made to do something.
McDowell had jumped at his chance to make a recommendation, perhaps a little too eagerly. First, he recommended grouping the divisions of the Army of the Potomac into four corps (he had told the Joint Committee several weeks earlier that only two corps would be needed, at most), and place three of them on the Virginia side of the Potomac, one centered on Vienna, one to the west of Fairfax Court-House [City of Fairfax], and one around Fairfax Station. These corps should advance along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad towards Manassas Junction steadily, keeping the Confederates occupied resisting them. The fourth corps would then sail down the Potomac River and land at the mouth of the Occoquan River, sweeping down to the Rappahannock River (and thus clearing the pesky batteries at Evansport [Quantico], and from there west to Manassas, hopefully cutting off the Confederate retreat. The whole advance would rely on the railroads to make up for the shortage of army wagons, so the B&O terminating in Washington [at today's Union Station], should be connected to the O&A terminal in Alexandria [at today's Masonic Temple].

Franklin had responded to the President's question more carefully. Unlike McDowell, Franklin only held a colonel's commission in the regular army, and while he was well-known around Washington, relied on McClellan's patronage if he wanted his generalship to extend beyond the length of the war. Franklin suggested the best move would be to complete the extensive fortifications of Washington and then sail approximately 150,000 men down to the York River and attack Richmond before the Confederates at Manassas had time to switch fronts. Thomas Scott criticized the plans, since they had had trouble finding enough vessels to transport a 12,000 man expedition under Ambrose Burnside, but Franklin insisted it could be done. Lincoln decided the group should continue meeting that week to discuss the two possibilities, and ordered McDowell's railroad connection to be built over the Long Bridge regardless of which came out on top [the tracks would eventually run along almost the same right of way they still do today, parallel to the 14th Street Bridge].

The discussions continued, especially between Franklin and McDowell, who did an awkward dance around each other. Neither had enough information about the actual condition of the army to argue their point, and so they continued to rope other officials and officers into the discussion. Burnside's expedition, they learned from Chase, had been sent by McClellan to capture Roanoke Island in North Carolina, but to what purpose was unclear. They also learned McClellan's plan for the Spring to sale to the Rappahannock River, cut off the Confederates at Manassas, and then  march on Richmond. Franklin wanted to tell McClellan their task, but McDowell insisted the President had asked them in private, which meant they couldn't tell him.

Someone had told McClellan, though: Stanton. The Secretary-to-be had found out from his network of sources (soon to be an infamous Stanton trademark move) and gone to the general-in-chief, who roused himself from his sick bed on January 12 and dramatically burst in on Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward conferring in the White House, without any warning. He gave a cursory speech about his military plans and then assured them he was quite well. Lincoln suggested he brief the war cabinet the next day and he left, then Seward hurried off to try to put the lid back on McDowell, interrupting the general's passionate attempt to win over Montgomery Meigs to his side.

On January 13, McDowell had found himself for a second time in the awkward position of briefing the cabinet while his boss seethed in plain sight. Lincoln, Thomas Scott, Chase, Seward, Meigs, Postmaster-General (and West Point graduate) Montgomery Blair, Franklin, and McClellan all listened as McDowell explained matter-of-factly how he had come to be usurping his authority and planning a major operation. He then outlined his plan to the extent it had so far been developed, and set a timeline he thought seemed plausible (four to six weeks, though Franklin chimed in that he thought it would take longer). McDowell wrote later:
I concluded my remarks by saying something apologetic in explanation of the position in which we were. To which General McClellan replied, somewhat coldly, if not curtly, "You are entitled to have any opinion you please!" No discussion was entered into by him whatever, the above being the only remark he made.
Franklin then reported, beginning with an assurance that his York River plan had only been proposed because he knew ahead of time that it was what McClellan had planned himself, which must have surprised McDowell, who felt necessary to add that he had acted entirely in the dark. A few weeks earlier, McDowell had defended McClellan's choice to not hold any councils of war to the Joint Committee, saying that the leader should know his own mind (in his testimony, Charles Stone had more acidly told the Committee that if a council of war was held plans would be in the press the next morning). Now it appeared that McClellan had been communicating plans with a few division commanders.

The whole meeting had played out rather poorly. After some additional comments by Lincoln, Chase asked McClellan plainly what he intended to do with the Army of the Potomac and when. Chase, as a former governor and senator from Ohio, had been McClellan's champion in the cabinet and helped secure his promotion to major general in the regular army. He had also been a driving force for dismissing the Virginian Winfield Scott and replacing him with McClellan. Now McClellan was embarrassing him and angering his Radical Republican political friends and he needed answers.

McClellan, McDowell recorded, let the silence hang over the room for a long time. Finally, he answered that movement of the army advancing in Kentucky under his friend Don Carlos Buell was to take precedence over the Army of the Potomac (and presumably any armies under McClellan's top rival, Henry Halleck, commanding from Missouri) and any move would be forced--alluding to McDowell's own accusation that Bull Run was lost because political pressure forced him to attack too soon.

McDowell takes up the story:
After another pause, [McClellan] said he must say he was very unwilling to develop his plans, always believing that in military matters the fewer persons who were knowing to them the better; that he would tell them, if he was ordered to do so. The President then asked him if he counted upon any particular time; he did not ask what that time was, but had he in his own mind any particular time fixed when a movement could be commenced. He replied he had. "Then," rejoined the President. "I will adjourn this meeting."
The meeting broke up, with McClellan still seething at McDowell, a treacherous turncoat in his eyes (McClellan's utter lack of vengeance against Franklin suggests either an unwavering confidence, or that the fellow former engineers had been communicating all along after all). Lincoln extracted from his general-in-chief a promise that he would return and brief him fully on his plans.

The next morning, McClellan had told Buell in a letter in which he urged him to make the stated advancement from Kentucky "you have no idea of the pressure brought to bear here upon the Government for a forward movement." And he forwarded on that same day letters from Halleck that he regarded to be impertinent and problematic to Lincoln saying they would "explain themselves."

"I worked until after midnight yesterday," he told Lincoln in the same letter, "and that with a good deal of work today has fatigued me so much that I will hardly be able to call upon you today." McClellan had added in a post-script: "I am rapidly getting matters in hand again & will carry out the promise I made to you yesterday."

And so January 15 had dawned, and McClellan had jotted his note to the President about surviving the Joint Committee's interview. Another day of McClellan's winter offensive, holding the forces gathering against him at bay.

Print Sources:
  • Sears, 152-154.

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