Monday, February 27, 2012

Two Weeks That Changed the War

Wherein the reverberations of the capture of Ft. Donelson spur action

After months of low-level activity between the two Armies of the Potomac that had resided in the Washington area since summer 1861, the last two weeks of February saw the beginning of a flurry of activity. Rapid-fire decisions led logically to other rapid-fire decisions that set the course of the war for long after both armies left the theater. This is a day-by-day look at those two weeks of decisions made in the Washington area that led to the beginning of the Civil War as we know it.

February 17, Monday

On the day Joe Hooker sat frustrated, waiting for general-in-chief George McClellan to provide the transports needed to make an attack from Liverpool Point in Charles County, Maryland, across the Potomac River to Evansport [Quantico], Washington City was electrified by the details of the surrender of Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland River. The fort had fallen the day before when its Confederate commander (and former U.S. Secretary of War) John Floyd and his second-in-command, Gideon Pillow, had fled on February 16, leaving a disgusted Simon Bolivar Buckner to surrender it that evening to the unknown Brig. General Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant could not say he was unknown on February 17, and all of Washington was titillated to learn that when Buckner had sent asking for terms of surrender, Grant had written back "unconditional and immediate surrender." For those in Washington already angry at Buckner's good pre-war friend McClellan for moving slowly, the contrast couldn't be starker. Grant's control of the fort made Nashville indefensible, McClellan's inaction kept the Confederates in Centreville. Lincoln sent Grant's nomination to major general of volunteers to the Senate that night.

February 18, Tuesday

McClellan may have consoled himself somewhat that Grant was still only a Volunteer--no more than a state militia man elevated to general officer grade while in Federal service so he could command other states' men--but it was Grant's boss, Henry Halleck, that really worried McClellan. Halleck had been elevated to major general in the U.S. Army on February 10, but to date from August 19, 1861, making him third most senior behind McClellan. The second, John C. Fremont, was the favorite of the Radical Republicans, which made him unpalatable to moderates and Democrats, but Halleck had been old Winfield Scott's choice to take over as general-in-chief. Known as "Old Brains" because of his highly regarded strategic mind, McClellan knew it was only a short time before the enthusiasm about Grant filtered up to a respect for the strategic brain that presumably crafted the successful campaign.

McClellan had spent Monday drafting a General Order to the Army of the Potomac telling them that their turn for glory was next, but did not issue it. Instead, he sent an order to Halleck at the direction of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, that he was not to release Buckner or any former U.S. Army personnel without explicit approval from McClellan himself.

Meanwhile, at Budd's Ferry, Brig. General Joe Hooker (Gideon Pillow's old adjutant) was also thinking of glories. He decided to modify the plan he and McClellan had agreed upon to cross his division to Aquia Creek and march north on Evansport and the batteries there. Instead, he wanted to land at Boyd's Hole, well down the Potomac and almost directly east of Fredericksburg. Hooker explained to McClellan's adjutant, Seth Williams, that it would "be productive of the same results as at Aquia, with this difference: it gives us a better country to campaign in."

Proving he had not missed the lesson of the impact of Grant's independent command on his success, he added:
The effect on the war in Eastern Virginia would depend very much on the strength of the column. If of three divisions, it would compel the enemy in the north to fall back without his railroads, enable us to take Richmond, or, if considered of more importance, capture Magruder's command [at Yorktown].
With division commanders now dreaming of stealing his glory, McClellan needed a win for himself.

February 19, Wednesday

Also needing a win was the Confederate government. Since Manassas, there had been almost an uninterrupted string of losses for the armies of the South and the massive Northern army parked outside of Washington hadn't even taken to the field yet. Now the Confederate 1st Congress was in session, the first day of the permanent legislature of the new nation, and the situation was bleak. Just a few blocks away, Jefferson Davis sat down to write Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Department of Northern Virginia and the man waiting for the next blow to fall on him.

"I am very anxious to see you," Davis concluded his letter. "Events have cast on our arms and our hopes the gloomiest shadows, and at such a time we must show redoubled energy and resolution."

But Johnston had already made clear that without significant reinforcements he could not hold the fortifications at Centreville. Seizure of either Harper's Ferry and Winchester or of Occoquan and Dumfries would leave him unable to defend against an attack from Manassas Junction on Centreville, without weakening Centreville so much that it would be vulnerable to a head-on attack.

The question for Johnston was not whether to withdrawal, but when--and his suspicion was soon. He was attempting to remove the heavy artillery at Evansport and Centreville, but the lack of adequate rail was making it impossible to do in a timely manner. But as early as Sunday he had been seeing signs of an impending attack:
I have just received information from General Whiting [reinstated at Dumfries] that the enemy's forces near Evansport have just been considerably increased, both on land and water, and from General Jackson [at Winchester] that from Moorefield the enemy has a graded road to Strasburg, passing a good deal to the south of Winchester.

February 20, Thursday

"At present," McClellan telegraphed Assistant Secretary of War Thomas Scott, no troops will move from the East. Ample occupation for them here. Rebels hold firm at Manassas Junction."

Scott was traveling with the army of Brig. General Don Carlos Buell in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and had telegraphed McClellan to get Buell immediate reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac. Buell was in a race with Grant, now a major general after Wednesday's Senate vote, to get to Nashville. Halleck, based in St. Louis and nominally commander of both men, had ordered McClellan's man Buell to send reinforcements to his own man Grant, to tip the scales on the race. Scott just wanted to see Nashville fall. McClellan wanted Buell there first, but not at the expense of himself and his action around Washington.

McClellan had two more days before he was required by the President's General Orders No. 1 and Special Orders No. 1 to put his army on the offensive. The transports from the Burnside Expedition to seize Roanoke Island in North Carolina still hadn't returned to Annapolis, Maryland, so his grand plan to move his army to Urbanna, Virginia, on the Rappahannock River couldn't be executed yet.

So McClellan had decided to buy time by combining Hooker's original plan to attack Evansport with the seizing of Winchester. The move was just what Joe Johnston had feared, but with considerably less forethought, since it was at best only a way to get Stanton and Lincoln off McClellan's neck. Maj. General Nathaniel Banks would concentrate his division on Point of Rocks, where he would be joined in a few days by the division of Brig. General John Sedgwick (formerly that of Charles P. Stone), and a few days after that by the division of Brig. General Erasmus Keyes. The division of Brig. General Frederick Lander, already at Moorefield, would cross the mountains and enter the Shenandoah Valley to meet them.

As for Hooker's part of the plan, the general was confidant, as always:
My observations from the balloon satisfy me that the batteries in my front can be stormed and carried in the manner I have already communicated, whenever a suitable night presents itself for that service; or, if that should not be deemed the most satisfactory mode of destroying them, I now have the means, with the aid of the [Potomac] Flotilla, of landing three brigades of my division on the rebel shore and of demolishing the batteries regularly.
 In the White House, Lincoln's beloved youngest son, Willie, died of typhoid. One of his remaining two sons, Tad, appeared likely to follow him shortly.

February 21, Friday

It wasn't enough for Joe Johnston to be denied needed reinforcements, the Administration in Richmond was meddling with his command structure too. Though Whiting had been reinstated in Dumfries, giving him someone he trusted (probably too much) on his right flank, Johnston's nemesis, Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, was still calling away senior skilled leaders from the army. This time it was Maj. General Edmund Kirby Smith, who had been with Johnston since the earliest days of the war and whose men had turned the tide at Manassas shortly after he went down with a seemingly fatal wound. But Smith had recovered, and been slated to command Johnston's Fourth Division until Benjamin ordered him to East Tennessee.

Johnston had actually heard rumors that his second-in-command, Maj. General Gustavus Washington Smith, was the one bound for Tennessee, and begged Davis to rescind the decision. Davis had assured him G.W. Smith was going nowhere, while simultaneously arranging to move Kirby Smith. With Beauregard gone to West Tennessee, Maj. General Earl Van Dorn gone to Missouri, Maj. General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson on semi-independent duty in the Valley District, and the next-to-useless Maj. General Theophilus "Granny" Holmes also in the semi-independent Aquia District, Johnston had only G.W. Smith and Maj. General James Longstreet as suitable division commanders in his army.

If the hammer were dropped on February 21, Johnston did not have men he could trust in places he could trust them.

February 22, Saturday

In Richmond, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the first president of the Confederate States of America.
On this the birthday of [Washington,] the man most identified with the establishment of American independence, and beneath the monument erected to commemorate his heroic virtues and those of his compatriots, we have assembled to usher into existence the Permanent Government of the Confederate States. Through this instrumentality, under the favor of Divine Providence, we hope to perpetuate the principles of our revolutionary fathers.
In Washington City, the celebration of its namesake's birth was more muted because the President did not attend. Instead, Lincoln and the First Lady spent the day in mourning and caring for the ailing Tad.

His general-in-chief noticed his absence, and sent him a condolence note.
I have not felt authorized to intrude upon you personally in the midst of the deep distress I know you feel in the sad calamity that has befallen you and your family--yet I cannot refrain from expressing to you the sincere & deep sympathy I feel for you.
So far, so good for McClellan, and he continued with a paragraph he must have believed was gracious and sincere:
You have been a kind true friend to me in the midst of the great cares and difficulties by which we have been surrounded during the past few months--your confidence has upheld me when I should otherwise have felt weak. I wish now only to assure you and your family that I have felt the deepest sympathy in your affection.
But McClellan just couldn't help himself. With less deftness than he must have imagined, he turned to the troublesome special order that should have put the army in motion that day:
I am pushing to prompt completion the measures of which we have spoken, & I beg that you will not allow military affairs to give you one moment's trouble--but that you will rest assured that nothing shall be left undone to follow up the successes that have been such an auspicious commencement of our new campaign.
McClellan hoped that by the time Lincoln returned his gaze to the war the double flanking movement would be begun. Banks reported that his men were ready, despite the heavy rain falling in the area.
In relation to the subject considered in the interview with General McClellan, I am able to report that the troops of this division are ready for immediate movement. The quartermaster and commissary are completing their arrangements for transportation and supplies. As soon as the additional troops which were spoken of by General McClellan can be designated and put in communication with us, the General can put us on the march.
Banks didn't know it yet, but McClellan planned to lead that march personally.

February 23, Sunday

While the Confederates abandoned Nashville as Buell's troops approached, the noose also tightened around Johnston. The heavy artillery the president asked him to save was a lost cause and even the field artillery might prove problematic because of the rain, he told Davis.
In the present condition of the country the orders you have given me cannot be executed promptly, if at all. Well mounted officers from the neighborhood of Dumfries report that they could travel no faster than at the rate of 12 miles in 6.5 hours.
Worse, according to Jackson Lander's Division appeared determined to head for Winchester and the reconstruction of the B&O Railroad meant that it had full communications with Banks' Division at Frederick. Johnston knew the attack was coming soon.

Banks knew it too.
If the pontoon train [for a temporary bridge] arrives tomorrow, we shall occupy Harper's Ferry tomorrow nigh,t and be on the road to Charlestown in the morning. It is expected Colonel Geary will seize the heights tonight. If the bridge is thrown across by Captain Duane, we shall cross at night with 6,000 men, one regiment of cavalry, and 10 pieces of artillery.
And so did Hooker, and he wanted to make sure more of McClellan's delays didn't scuttle his side of the operation. "I consider a favorable morning for landing of more importance than the presence of the Ericsson," he told headquarters, referring to McClellan's latest plan to sale the newly commissioned U.S.S. Monitor up the Potomac to cover Hooker's landing. But the Monitor was still at sea, being towed south to Hampton Roads, and it would be almost a week before it reached there.

"I would not wait for her," Hooker added, to make clear his impatience. Again he floated his idea for a three division attack, one at least equal to the size of Banks', and continued his telegraph as if the plan had been accepted. In Hooker's mind, it might even involve him commanding more senior division commanders:
Please advise me what post Heintzelman will take. If the plan should embrace Fredericksburg, I should have a regiment of cavalry, in order, by a night movement, to destroy some of the bridges on the rebels chief line of communication. Will endeavor to cross over one or two light batteries for the same object.
Within just a week of the fall of Ft. Donelson, all of McClellan's subordinates appeared to have given in to their delusions of grandeur. The time for action was clearly at hand, but would McClellan be the one directing it?

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