In which we reconnoiter Occoquan
On February 3, Abraham Lincoln took the time to respond to his general-in-chief. Almost a week earlier the President had taken control of the war effort by issuing General Order No. 1, requiring all armies loyal to the Federal government to begin offensive movements. Maj. General George B. McClellan tried immediately to get Lincoln to countermand it, since the plan he was contemplated involved sailing his army down the Potomac, then up the Rappahannock and landing behind the Confederate position based at Centreville.
He would not be able to gather enough transport ships in that time period, though, which would make a plan supported by the Radical Republicans in Congress of a direct move towards Centreville the only plausible option. McClellan didn't like that plan because he believed the Confederates had too many men, that his own men weren't yet ready to fight, and because somebody else had thought of it. Lincoln was alright with the plan, and so issued Special Order No. 1, requiring the Army of the Potomac to seize Manassas Junction.
But McClellan kept working on Lincoln and on February 3, Lincoln signaled he might be persuadable.
Lincoln also included a separate memorandum with questions geared towards the other plan, one of the keys to which was crossing the Occoquan River near its mouth where the Confederates were thought to be weak, in order to keep them from forming a strong defensive line behind that river and its tributary, Bull Run, just as they had in July 1861.
Suppose the enemy in force shall dispute the crossing of the Occoquan? In view of this, might it not be safest for us to cross the Occoquan at Colchester rather than at the village of Occoquan? This would cost the enemy two miles more of travel to meet us, but would, on the contrary, leave us 2 miles farther from our ultimate destination.
Not surprisingly, McClellan's response (which he claimed to draft before Lincoln's note and memo, though he addresses all of Lincoln's questions nearly in order) opposed the crossing of the Occoquan envisioned by the Radical Republicans as part of a new attack on Manassas Junction.
Should we place a portion of our force in front of Centreville while the rest crosses at Occoquan, we commit the error of dividing our army by a very difficult obstacle and by a distance too great to enable the two parts to support each other, should either be attacked by the masses of the enemy while the other is held in check.McClellan had been using the "masses of the enemy" excuse for several months already, which he claimed was confirmed by his own intelligence service headed by Allan Pinkerton. So it probably wasn't coincidentally that while Lincoln was querying McClellan on the feasibility of part of the army crossing the Occoquan that one of the dissenting generals ordered a reconnaissance of the proposed route.
Brig. General Samuel Heintzelman had been repeatedly slighted by McClellan for command of a division, despite being one of the senior colonels in the pre-war U.S. Army. Heintzelman hadn't impressed McClellan with his martial prowess, either in the time they served together or in reports of his actions at Bull Run, where he was wounded when he got caught up in the action and led a charge personally instead of commanding his unit as a whole.
Once McClellan had finally given in and made Heintzelman a division commander, he then filled his division with what he regarded to be inferior brigades and brigade commanders, including the brigade of Brig. General Israel B. Richardson (who McClellan was ambivalent about, as opposed to hostile to). While McClellan thought of this as creating a certain few crack divisions in his army (specifically, Franklin's, Porter's, and Smith's), what he didn't realized was that he had also created concentrated centers of dissent.
It was from one of those centers that Colonel Stephen Gardner Champlin saw off his men on February 3 to determine the plausibility of crossing the Occoquan in force. Champlin was a veteran of Blackburn's Ford, where he had been a major caught in the clumsy prelude to Bull Run. His unit, the 3rd Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment, had been ordered by then-Colonel Richardson down near the ford to sure-up the wavering Union line.
Champlin was a county prosecutor from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who had been inspired in the ramp up of militarism pre-war to join the militia, where he rose to the rank of major. He was elected to that same rank when the 3rd Michigan formed up and proved far more adept than his colonel or lieutenant colonel at military life. Within a few months after Bull Run, he leap-frogged the regiment's second in command to replace the retiring colonel, and within a few more he had earned the praise of McClellan himself for his leadership during a skirmish at Hunter's Mill.
But Champlin wanted to fight badly, and had joined the growing chorus of field officers second-guessing their superior for their unending preparations. At the end of the December, he had testified about Blackburn's Ford before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, probably using connections to Michigan Republican Zachariah Chandler. He criticized the lack of aggressiveness on the part of his commanders, specifically division commander Daniel Tyler (who had briefly served as an aide-de-camp to Committee enemy Robert Patterson).
If we attacked the batteries at all at Blackburn’s Ford we should have taken them and held them, for that was their centre at that time. They never could then have fought the battle at Stone Bridge, for we could have marched over the bridge and captured every man there.The reconnaissance party set out early in the morning, led by Chamblin's good friend from Grand Rapids, Captain Stephen Lowing of Company I. Lowing was assisted by a Lieutenant Ryan of Company H, both of whom brought 44 men from their respective units. "They took the road leading by the Millstead," Champlin reported to Richardson, "and went as far as Burke's station and then pass over to brimstone hill, returning by way of old Ox road."
But the weather turned bad.
The storm was so severe that the captain did not think it advisable to continue farther, so turned off to the left, and passing the house of Williamson, went down to Occoquan village. The river side was reached through a ravine through which the road passes.Lowing sent a lieutenant form his own company forward with ten men to creep into Occoquan and make sure it was safe. It wasn't.
He saw but few men in the streets of the village on his arrival, and those men appeared to be squads of unarmed recruits drilling. The scouting party was soon discovered by the enemy and the alarm give, when Captain Lowing then came up and ordered the fire to be returned.Chamblin continued with his report of the story his friend had related to him:
Owing to the difficulty of getting men under cover Captain Lowing did not deploy his men, but brought them through the ravine in sections of eight men abreast, delivered his fire in this order, retiring from the right and left to the rear, thus exposing the head of the column, the balance being hid in the ravine through which they approached the river. The men delivered their fire deliberately and filed to the rear without confusion, acting with coolness and courage throughout.In reality, the confusion probably affected the Union men as well, since they were only able to get off three rounds before Lowing ordered them to fall back, but Chamblin asserted that it was because the had been "too much exposed" to the driving snow, and that they had accomplished their mission anyway. They returned by way of Pohick Church, which their brethren in the the 2nd Michigan had destroyed in November (to the consternation of the locals even today), with the snow covering their tracks.
The men spent a miserable night on the move.
On the return, four of Captain Lowing's men becoming so exhausted, that they could travel no farther; he directed search to be made for horses on which to mount them. He found two horses in a barn near a deserted house. The owner of the horses could not be ascertained, so he took these horses and mounted the exhausted men on them and they rode them in.Chamblin's explanation for the confiscation of the horses seems fishy, especially given the following sentence in his official report, written after the men stumbled back at 3:00 pm on February 4: "He now inquires as to what disposition he shall make of the horses, whether to hand them over to the brigade quartermaster or to return them to the place from whence taken."
Whatever the status of the horses, Chamblin was able to submit a detailed report on the area and the dispositions of the enemy in the region to Richardson, who would give it to Heintzelman, who would give it to McClellan, and might leak it to any number of McClellan's enemy. Mission successful.