Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Dazzling Spectacle

Wherein the first division leaves Alexandria for Fort Monroe

"The morning of the 17th of March dawned bright and beautiful, with just enough coolness in the air to give vigor and make it a luxury to breathe the exhilarating atmosphere," the history of the 63rd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment poetically recorded when it was published by their heirs over half a century after March 17, 1862. The log of their fellow Keystone Staters in the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry corroborates their memory, but with a somewhat more jaundiced take on the crisp spring weather of the DC metro area: "Weather changeable, grounds drying rapidly."

1860 property boundaries superimposed on modern street map
The 63rd Pennsylvania woke up that morning in Camp Johnston, on the property of George Mason, today the location of the Route 1 Chuck-E-Cheese's. Mason was from the the same clan that had bred the Father of the Bill of Rights (unfortunately, since they all seem to be named George, your intrepid blogger cannot identify the precise relationship), and was an ardent secessionist who hadn't fled with his family quite fast enough and consequently ended up under house arrest by Union cavalry. The Pennsylvanians had spent the winter there, helping to construct nearby Fort Lyon (on the heights of Huntington, very close to today's Metro station) and gleefully customizing the property of their unwilling host to fit their needs.

The 63rd was led by a Mexican War veteran, and regular Army captain, Alexander Hays, who had quickly been readmitted to, and then immediately granted leave from Andrew Porter's 16th Infantry Regiment to take up a colonelcy in the Pennsylvania militia. His father had been a congressman and Pennsylvania militia general and still had enough sway in Pennsylvania politics to get Governor Andrew Curtin to notice his son. He was also, like his men, from Allegheny County in West Pennsylvania, and so not part of the glut of Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania men that filled Washington in early 1862.

The 63rd joined several other West Pennsylvania regiments in the brigade of Brigadier General Charles Davis Jameson, a Maine native who had lost the 1860 election for governor, and became one of the many Democratic political generals in the Army of the Potomac. It's not clear whether Jameson was one of McClellan's hand-picked men, but considering he had led the 2nd Maine at Bull Run as part of a brigade that McClellan generally disliked it appears unlikely that he was.

Jameson's brigade, including the 63rd Pennsylvania, had been assigned to the division of Brig. General Samuel Heintzelman, a general that McClellan did not have high regard for. So McClellan stacked Heintzelman's division with brigades commanded by officers he did not have a high degree of confidence in, assuming that in combat he would favor the divisions commanded by generals for which he had more esteem, such as William Franklin or Fitz John Porter.

But McClellan's plans for forming his army had been upset when Lincoln issued orders naming five commanders of corps, without consulting McClellan. Franklin and Porter were out, and Irvin McDowell, Edwin Sumner, Sam Heintzelman, Erasmus Keyes, and Nathaniel Bates were in. To make things worse for McClellan, he had only a few days to assign the divisions to his corps before embarking them for movement down the Potomac and to Fort Monroe on the Lower Peninsula, while simultaneously being required by Lincoln to chase the retreating Confederates all the way to the Rappahannock.

McClellan had decided to use Sumner to command the pursuit of the Confederates. Everyone in the army was in awe of the old cavalry commander, and McClellan deeply trusted his abilities, as well as his apolitical nature. On the opposite end of the spectrum was Keyes, for whom McClellan could only barely hide his contempt. The commanding general had summoned his corps commanders to his headquarters at Fairfax Court-House [City of Fairfax] on March 12 to obtain their approval for his planned move to the Peninsula, and Keyes had missed the meeting because he went to his house in Washington City instead. McClellan couldn't trust Keyes with either the pursuit or the movement.

McDowell, on the other hand, was capable but was the lead alternative to McClellan for commanding the Army of the Potomac, and would therefore not be trusted with any sort of independent command. But McClellan had taken a more shrewd route with McDowell, and recruited him to be his primary advocate with the Administration. McDowell, who weeks earlier had been undermining McClellan, was now arguing on behalf of his plans (though, not without his own minor embellishments), to the befuddlement of Secretary of War Stanton and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

With Banks occupied moving on Strasburg in the Shenandoah Valley, that left Heintzelman to be the vanguard of McClellan's vast army. On army politics and competency he was solidly middle of the road, in McClellan's mind, and so Heintzelman's old division would be the first to the Peninsula. Now led by the highly regarded Brig. General Charles S. Hamilton, fresh from commanding a brigade at Harper's Ferry (much to Banks' annoyance), the division was to assemble on March 17 at Alexandria for loading.

The 63rd Pennsylvania of Jameson's brigade, Hamilton's division, was 985 strong when they filed out of Camp Johnston in the morning, Colonel Hays on his favorite horse, Dan. Marching north on the Pohick-Alexandria road [US 1 for this stretch], the men were excited that after months of waiting something was finally happening. The history of the regiment, based on the writings of a soldier in Company A and the recollections of the remaining elderly members of the regiment, presents the newly minted men of the Third Corps as full of wonder at the sights.
When we reached the elevation above Hunting Creek, near where Fort Lyon stood, and gazed down on Alexandria, a most dazzling spectacle, such as is seldom seen in a lifetime, was presented to our view. The entire plain and hillside were covered with armed men coming from every direction, and from whose bayonets the sun was reflected in myriads of bright scintillations that made them glitter like diamonds. Column after column of infantry in blue came pouring toward a common centre; to the right were great bodies of cavalry assembling, the sabres and equipments reflecting the sunbeams like polished mirrors. On the left the artillery was gathering, their brass cannons almost dazzling the eye as they threw back the rays of the sun, while the large, heavy guns with their sombre look and dark muzzles, showed what death and destruction they could hurl from their black throats when occasion required.
Some of the men operating those black throats were Rhode Islanders from Battery E, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery. Like the Pennsylvanians, the men of Battery E had been among the troops rushed to the capital in the panic following Bull Run. When divisions had been formed, they had been attached to Heintzelman's division, since early in the war it was believed each division should have its own artillery batteries, to be commanded by the division commander in support of his infantry. They camped not far from today's Fort Hunt, and spent the winter drilling and responding to false alarms.

Thanks to the enormous wealth and even more enormous enthusiasm of Rhode Island's boy governor, the battery could boast four of the state-of-the-art 10-pound Parrott guns, rifled iron artillery with increased accuracy and distance. Only two of their guns were dazzling brass, however, their two Napoleons, smoothbore weapons ideal for close-range anti-infantry fighting.

Three sections of two guns each, comprised a Civil War battery. Captain George E. Randolph led Battery E, and his left, right, and center sections were led by Lieutenants Jastram, Arnold, and Sheldon, respectively. Randolph, unlike Hays, had fought at Bull Run, but had no military experience beyond that. His battery would be one of the very first on the Peninsula and would have to support Hamilton's division in fighting off any Confederate attacks while the rest of the army arrived.

The right and center sections, along with the officers and most of the men, were loaded onto a barge called the Walkill for transport, while the left section, under the watchful eye of the battery's first sergeant, was to travel on the St. Nicholas, probably with a section of guns from another battery, too, though that is not mentioned in the Rhode Island account. Both ships were leaky, stinky, and unreliable. They had been chartered by the government at the beginning of the war, and had already been put through far more than they had ever been designed for. The St. Nicholas would have particular trouble on the voyage ahead, never getting her screws to turn properly and needing towing to reach the Peninsula.

Meanwhile, the rest of the infantry units were arriving, including the 63rd Pennsylvania. Again, in the purple prose of the official history:
In the Potomac lay fully a thousand vessels of all kinds, each with the Stars and Stripes fluttering in the breeze. About noon our regiment reached the wharf at Alexandria and a portion of it was marched on board the steamer North America. The other vessels were rapidly filling with soldiers. During the embarkation General McClellan and staff rode down to the wharf and were greeted with deafening cheers.
McClellan had moved his headquarters to the Virginia Theological Seminary outside Alexandria [the Episcopal Seminary is still there today] and turned his focus to the embarkation of his army, leaving the Confederates wholly to Sumner, as he had planned. He had issued an order that morning to all generals that they had to live in the field like their men from now on, implying tents but leaving enough wiggle room for local houses as well. But no more would division commanders be allowed to keep a house in Washington City, far from their units.

Heintzelman undoubtedly visited the docks too. He would not be joining Hamilton's division as it left for the Peninsula, but would remain behind to ensure the safe embarkation of what would become the Third Corps' First Division, that of Fitz John Porter. McClellan had decided to overturn his previous policy and seed one of his favorites in each corps, perhaps with an eye to them taking command of it at the first opportunity. The Third Corps remaining division would be that of Brig. General Joe Hooker, currently across the Potomac in Charles County, but McClellan had also slated them as one of the last to be transported.

As with all things McClellan, the embarkation ran slow. "The embarking of Hamilton's division is progressing," he told Stanton at quarter til 5 in the evening, "but will not be completed until after dark."
There was a want of system throughout, probably indispensable from a first attempt. I will give my personal attention to matters tonight, and think that hereafter everything will go on very well. Even today there was very little confusion. The troops are in splendid spirits and delighted with the move.
Just before midnight, the loading complete, the North America pulled out into the River and dropped anchor. Along with the St. Nicholas and the Walkill and the rest of the transport flotilla, it waited for sunrise to begin its trip down the river and on to Richmond.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great account! I was just in Old Town this morning, and couldn't help but think back to what was happening in and around Alexandria 150 years ago. The movement to the Peninsula was one amazing feat to say the least, even with the glitches. (Re-post to correct typo!)

  3. Thanks! When you look at Old Town today, it's hard to think of it as a center of military mobility at all, much less one for the largest field army the United States had ever created up til that time. And this account is just one division of that army.