Thursday, March 8, 2012

Not Much Choice Between Them

Wherein corps and cracks are formed

After the Two Weeks That Changed The War the two Armies of the Potomac began moving. Ron over at All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac has done some great stuff about the Confederate preparation and subsequent departure from Northern Virginia, which I will not attempt to duplicate, so make sure you stop over and read it.

 On March 8, 1862, Abraham Lincoln and his new Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, made a momentous decision--they would overrule McClellan's armies and establish four corps d'armee. French for "body of the army", the grouping of divisions in "corps" had been popularized by the phenomenal success of Napoleon. The units were designed to be armies fully capable of operating independently, but which worked in conjunction within the same theater. But since the 14 divisions of the Army of the Potomac were each larger than any American army previously in existence, the idea was anathema to many Northern leaders.

As usual, the general-in-chief, Maj. General George B. McClellan, lay at the center of what had become a controversial discussion fueled by the Joint Committee for the Conduct of the War. In McClellan's earliest days in Washington, he had stated his intention to form his army into corps. But as part of his systematic effort to remake the U.S. Army in his own image, he had held off on grouping the divisions into corps without explanation. In the meantime, the Joint Committee had caught corps fever, and on February 25 at 8:00 pm, had met with Lincoln in the White House to urge their creation. According to the Committee's report published in 1863:
They made known to the President that, having examined many of the highest military officers of the army, their statements of the necessity of dividing the great army of the Potomac into corps d'armie [sic] had impressed the committee with the belief that it was essential that such a division of that army should be made...The President observed that he had never considered the organization of this army into army corps so essential as the committee seemed to represent it to be; still he had long been in favor of such an organization. General McClellan, however, did not seem to think it so essential, though he had at times expressed himself as favorable to it. The committee informed the President that the Secretary of War had authorized them to say to him that he deemed such an organization necessary.

After the canal boat debacle at Harper's Ferry Lincoln seems to have made a decision in his mind that it was time to take control of McClellan. He could replace him, as the Joint Committee and their Radical Republican allies preferred, but he was still wildly popular with the men of the Army of the Potomac, was one of the few means left for Lincoln to secure buy-in from Democrats on the war effort, and had appointed such a large number of his own men to head divisions and brigades that a mass resignation of army leadership was a possibility. So instead, Lincoln and Stanton decided to surround him with lieutenants more loyal to the White House than to McClellan.

Irvin McDowell, 1st Corps
General War Orders No. 2 created four corps, and provided two other commands for the defense of the capital. The First Corps was assigned to the man that McClellan had replaced: Irvin McDowell. A career staff officer, McDowell had been thrust into command for the first time by the former general-in-chief, Winfield Scott. Scott believed in McDowell as someone who could execute his will in the field, while the aged and sick general-in-chief stayed in his office (or, sometimes, bed) in Washington. But McDowell had been in over his head, trying to piece together a command system while marching towards Manassas Junction, and while he had personally behaved bravely, had suffered a disastrous defeat at Bull Run.

McClellan had come to town at the height of McDowell's humiliation. But Little Mac had been generous to his predecessor, and argued to the War Department that he remain in the field to command one of the new divisions of the army. While the two men weren't exactly chummy, McClellan had extended his trademark courtesy and generosity for people he didn't consider a threat. But that began to change when McClellan got sick in the winter, and much of it revolved around the formation of corps.

On December 26, amid only thinly veiled criticism of McClellan to the Joint Committee, McDowell had been asked about the formation of corps. Responding to Senator Ben Wade's (R-OH) question about whether the organization of the Army of the Potomac was adequate, McDowell had opened up--whether deliberate or not is up for debate, though subsequent actions in Summer 1862 suggest he knew what he was doing.
Now, in regard to the higher commands, I do not think it possible efficiently and safely to operate so large a force as one hundred and fifty thousand. I assume the active moving striking force here to be that in thirteen divisions, under thirteen different commanders. They must be massed. They should be organized into corps de armiee. These corps ought to be from three to four divisions, each with a staff proportioned to such a command. There should be a head of the transportation department, a quartermaster, a head of the commissary department, a head of the ordnance department, a head of the medical department, and, of course, a head of the department of orders and correspondence, which we call an assistant adjutant general.
Whether this was the beginning of the Committee's mania about corps or they had already been well primed isn't recorded, but in this first mention of the idea in the transcripts released the association of McClellan with blocking the idea is already well established. Senator Zachariah Chandler (R-MI) asked McDowell if McClellan could implement them without legislation, and he said he could. "I have always understood it to be his intention to so organize the army. When General Scott was here, General McClellan said he could not do it because General Scott was opposed to it."

But by January, McDowell had dropped all pretense of being a good subordinate and was briefing Lincoln on a plan of attack on Manassas Junction using corps with the implication that he himself would command the full army. Brig. General William B. Franklin, a division commander and close personal friend to McClellan, who had been included in the conversations based on his respected military prowess, had kept the commanding general briefed on his sickbed, and he had dramatically raised himself in order to fight back against the forces conspiring to replace him. McClellan had revealed he planned to move his whole army from Washington to the Rapphannock River to land at Urbanna, Virginia and come between the Confederate army and Richmond, forcing the abandonment of the Capitol.

The plan had bought Lincoln's silence for a few weeks until the canal boat debacle. The next day, Lincoln sent a promotion of McDowell to major general of volunteers to the Senate for confirmation. McClellan, who at last was right in believing people at the highest level of government were conspiring against him, saw the assignment of the McDowell to the First Corps, not so much as a recognition that he was the most senior division commander, as a sign that he was Lincoln's choice to lead the opposition to him.

Samuel Heintzelman, 3rd Corps
If that was the case, McDowell was doing a good job. Almost as soon as McClellan had returned from Harper's Ferry, he had summoned all of his division commanders to his headquarters at the Wilkes House on the corner of 19th and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. First to arrive was the commander in Alexandria, Brig. General Samuel Heintzelman, destined in just a few days to be named commander of the Third Corps. Heintzelman was the fourth most senior division commander in the army by rank, but he had been one of the last ones to be named to his position. His wounds from Bull Run had delayed his initial appointment, but McClellan, who viewed him as a basically harmless eccentric, had dragged his feet on giving him an assignment. While Heintzelman was no conspirator, he certainly felt he owed little to McClellan.

McDowell and Franklin soon arrived, and McClellan brought in his chief of staff and father-in-law, Brig. General Randolph Marcy, as well as his Chief Engineer, Brig. General John Barnard, and the Potomac Flotilla's commander, Lieutenant Robert Wyman. They discussed how to silence the Confederate batteries on the Lower Potomac to secure passage for troops, and when a mixture of snow and rain became worse, decided to suspend until the next day, so all the commanders could arrive.

On March 3, for the first time ever, nearly all of McClellan's division commanders assembled in one place. Only Joe Hooker was missing, still waiting for orders to cross the Lower Potomac, and represented by Brig. General Henry Naglee (possibly without his knowledge), one of his brigade commanders and a close friend of McClellan's. Showing a bit of the organizational genius that had so impressed Lincoln in summer 1861, McClellan excused himself from the meeting and left Marcy to moderate a free wheeling discussion of strategy by the brigadier generals. In the end, they couldn't decide on a single course of action, and McClellan, through Marcy, asked them to return on March 7 after they had had time to consider.

Erasmus D. Keyes, 4th Corps
One of the generals who made the most active effort to consider what to do was Erasmus D. Keyes. Keyes was number five on the seniority list within the Army of the Potomac, but, like Heintzelman, he had been excluded until late in the game from division command. Also like Heintzelman, he owed his rank to Winfield Scott, not McClellan, but Keyes was more eager than Heintzelman to support the army's commander. The desire to support was not reciprocated. Though Keyes was a West Point man and career Army, McClellan viewed him as a political crony, with too many friends in Congress to be trusted. The rotten performance of his brigade at the Stone Bridge over Bull Run confirmed in McClellan's mind that Keyes was not a man to be trusted with command. But General Orders No. 2 would place Keyes in charge of the Fourth Corps.

Unaware of McClellan's feelings, Keyes was busy carefully contemplating which of the three plans presented should be followed. Having taken part in the first direct march on Manassas Junction, Keyes knew well what McDowell favored. But the two variations of McClellan's plan--an attack from Urbanna, or a newly suggested route from Fort Monroe directly towards Richmond--each had serious questions associated with them. The biggest question was the rumored completion of the C.S.S. Virginia at Norfolk, an ironclad rebuilt on the hull of the unfinished U.S.S. Merrimac that had been insufficiently scuttled in Spring 1861. Such a ship could wreak havoc on a flotilla of slow-moving troop transports. On his own initiative and using his political contacts, Keyes asked the Navy Department if they could hold the Virginia in check and help break past the batteries on the York River. They assured him it would be easy.

On March 7, the day the division commanders were set to reconvene and the day before the corps would be formed, Randolph Marcy pulled Heintzelman aside and confided in him that unnamed politicians were conspiring to replace McClellan with Maj. General John C. Fremont or Maj. General Henry Halleck. Marcy didn't tell Heintzelman, but McClellan had been lambasted by Lincoln over the Harper's Ferry canal boats incident again. What he did tell him was that if one of McClellan's plans was not approved, one of those two men would replace the major general and the war effort would be set back months by the fallout.

With the exception of Hooker who was still waiting to attack, and the three divisions (Banks, Shields, and Sedgwick) engaged in the Shenandoah Valley, all the division commanders were present. McClellan joined them and briefly outlined his plan to move the army somewhere else. Saying that when Maj. General Nathaniel P. Banks captured Strasburg the Confederate flank would be turned, McClellan advocated for moving the army to Fort Monroe. In his mind only three questions existed, and he asked his generals to consider them. First, should the army move to Fort Monroe within the week, second, should the army first make a stab at Manassas Junction to ensure the Confederates retreat, and third, should the army destroy the Potomac River batteries or should they leave that to the Navy. Then he and Marcy departed.
Edwin Sumner, 2nd Corps

Again without McClellan so they could be free to talk, the generals came to order under the direction of Edwin Vose Sumner. Destined to be named the head of the Second Corps in a day's time, Sumner had been the second-most senior general in the Army of the Potomac just a few days' earlier, until McDowell's promotion let the corpulent general leap-frog him. Sumner held his star in the regular army, unlike all the other generals present except McDowell, and had been a senior leader in the pre-war military establishment in his own right, not beholden to Scott or anyone else. An old story held that while leading a group of the 2nd Dragoons at Cerro Gordo during Scott's march in Mexico a musket ball had bounced off his head, leading to his nickname of "Bull Head" or "Ol' Bull". Of all the corps commanders  foisted upon him by Lincoln's order, the only one McClellan would be appreciative of was Sumner--but that would change.

Henry Naglee, again representing Hooker, appointed himself note-taker as the most junior officer. Naglee's notes show that McDowell and Keyes dominated the conversation, only challenged by the opinionated engineer, John Barnard. Finally, the generals decided to vote on moving to Fort Monroe. McDowell, Sumner, Heintzelman, and Barnard all voted no, the other eight voted yes, including Keyes.

On the second question, whether to advance on Manassas first, everyone except Naglee voted for, but the McDowell insisted it be modified according to a plan he had thought up. Again he was on the losing side 4-8, but this time Keyes had joined him, along with--for whatever reason--avowed McClellanites Fitz John Porter and Andrew Porter (unrelated). Sumner proposed a follow-up question of when to move, which McClellan hadn't, and the group spent a long time arguing about it, with Barnard fiercely insisting the road were unfit for speedy travel in Virginia's rainy months.

On whether to take the batteries by land, Barnard was insistent that the river had to be free from Confederate batteries. Heintzelman and McDowell both insisted it was not necessary militarily, but they could understand the moral necessity for the capital city. Keyes tried to compromise by suggesting they not move the army until the navy had seized the batteries, but when the vote came down to it, only McDowell from among the future corps commanders voted with the minority to take the batteries by land before the army left.

The generals adjourned at 5:00 pm, and headed over to the White House with Marcy to present their support of McClellan's plan to a stunned Lincoln and Stanton. The Secretary of War quizzed the generals on the details of various points of the plan, as well as of their opinion on the formation of corps (Heintzelman recorded that all were in favor). The morning of March 8, still wondering over the night's proceedings, Lincoln announced himself warily supportive of the plan, because the generals had voted in favor of it. Stanton objected, claiming that all eight yes votes owed their sudden seniority to McClellan, and so of course supported him (he was wrong only about Keyes).

Nathaniel P. Banks, 5th Corps
Lincoln trumped his Secretary of War, but that afternoon issued two General Orders. The first (No. 2), was the order for the creation of corps, and in addition to the four main corps of the Army of the Potomac, would add a Fifth Corps for operation in the Valley under the army's senior division commander, Maj. General Nathaniel P. Banks, of his division and Shields'. Sedgwick's would be returned to McClellan for use in his grand operation. It also named rabid anti-McClellanite Brig. General James Wadsworth military governor of Washington and commander of its defenses.

The second (No. 3), ordered the Army and Navy to cooperate to eliminate the Confederate batteries on the Potomac, and said that no more than two of the four army corps destined for McClellan's operation could depart until they had done so. Furthermore, it set March 18th as the earliest day the army could move out of the DC area, and only if McClellan certified for the President that the capital had enough troops to secure it from the Confederates, and only if his corps commanders approved of the certification.

Lincoln and Stanton's mistrust was evident, but McClellan saw McDowell's conspiring. His moment of triumph--the approval of his plan--had been soured by the usurping of his authority. From now on McClellan would be facing adversaries above and below.

"Public opinion in this country is so wayward and whimsical," George Meade, a McClellanite, lamented to his wife after relating to her the story of the unwanted corps commanders which had already made its rounds by March 9, "that I should not be surprised to see the same people who the other day called McClellan a demi-god, to-morrow applauding his removal."

As to his hopes for the corps placement of the division he was part of, he was less than optimistic: "I don't think there is much choice between them."

Print Sources:
  • Beatie, 32-61.

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