Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sent to Humbug

Wherein we observe intelligence collection, Civil War style

For some of his very finest work, see All Not So Quiet on the Potomac's spectacular accounts of the Pennsylvania Reserves being left out and Alexandria during the boarding of the Army of the Potomac. Seriously, read the Alexandria piece, even if it means you don't read anything below.

Centreville (top) and Manassas Junction (bottom) in March 1862 (Harper's Weekly)
For over two weeks Brig. General James Ewell Brown Stuart--better known as Jeb--had provided invisibility to the Confederate Army of the Potomac under General Joe Johnston. Unlike 2012's March, the weather of 150 years ago had been more typical of the capital region, alternating frenetically between gorgeous, blustery sunshine and miserable, pounding rain. Throughout it, rain or shine, Stuart's Confederate horsemen had screened the army, allowing the Northerners only the ability to know for certain where Johnston was not.

But Stuart was concerned, because while his constant skirmishes with Union cavalry and occasionally infantry was denying information to his enemy, it was also making it impossible for him to gather his own information. Sympathetic citizens of Alexandria had steadily reported that the Northern generalissimo George McClellan (it's unclear whether the Southern leadership had yet confirmed McClellan's demotion) was boarding large numbers of men on transports. It was likely enough--after all they had already launched amphibious attacks that had seized Port Royal, South Carolina and Hatteras Island, North Carolina--but where was this next expedition headed? Pensacola? New Orleans? Galveston? [In fact, all three would be in Union hands by the fall]

Stuart and many of his loyalists would later claim that the famous cavalier predicted McClellan's intention to shift his Union Army of the Potomac to Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula and march on Richmond. But the contemporary record suggests that at best then Stuart kept the supposition close to the chest. More likely, the Confederacy's most famous horseman was preoccupied trying to determine whether or not their Army of the Potomac was marching in force right after his Army of the Potomac. If it was so, then Johnston needed to solidify his new defensive position south of the Rappahannock River and prepare for battle. If not, he could reinforce Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley and John Bankhead Magruder at Yorktown, both of whom were under pressure from advancing Union forces.

In other words, Stuart was the eyes and the ears of the army, and his commanding general was counting on him to tell him the location of the Northern army.


Edwin Sumner
Things were not quite working out the way "Bull" Sumner had assumed they would after President Abraham Lincoln had made him commander of the Second Corps. He was supposed to be the third most senior commander in the mighty Army of the Potomac, at last awakened from its slumber and marching on Richmond up the Virginia Peninsula in a brilliant flanking maneuver that would catch the Confederates completely by surprise. Sumner had spent over 40 years in the U.S. Army, entirely in field units (and almost exclusively in the cavalry). Fighting and leading men in fights was what he did and did well.

Probably no one was surprised when McClellan had asked Sumner to continue pressing Johnston's retreating army with his two divisions of the Second Corps (the third, under John Sedgwick, was near Harper's Ferry), while the rest of the Army of the Potomac boarded ships to head to the Peninsula. Under orders from the President, McClellan could not begin his Peninsula Campaign until the capital was safe and Manassas Junction occupied, which meant Sumner had to make sure the Confederates were across the easily defensible Rappahannock River. But what it meant was that other officers--Irvin McDowell, the staffer, Sam Heintzelman, the sometimes quartermaster, and Erasmus Keyes, the career brown-noser--would be the first to lead corps on the Peninsula and into the pages of history.

On March 24, the day one of McClellan's favorites, Brig. General William F. "Baldy" Smith, sailed off for the Peninsula from Alexandria, Sumner was camped with the unruly division of German, Polish, and Eastern European immigrants commanded by Luis Blenker at Fairfax Court-House. Sumner was itching to send Blenker's men back to Alexandria to meet up with Sedgwick's and have the preponderance of the Second Corps on the way to Fort Monroe, so he could go too. His final division, that of Brig. General Israel B. Richarson, would probably take a few days longer, since one of its brigades was as far away as Manassas Junction, with the other two at Union Mills Ford [halfway between VA28 and Hemlock Overlook, down Bull Run].

Blenker's division, though, only had to wait as long as it took for a division from the Fifth Corps of Maj. General Nathaniel P. Banks to arrive in Centreville from Winchester. It was to Banks that McClellan intended to leave the responsibility for defending Washington while he took the Army of the Potomac elsewhere, which meant that McClellan viewed fulfilling the President's order to control Manassas Junction as a problem for Banks, primarily. Fortunately, the famous "Stonewall" had proved a push-over, and it was decided that only one brigade would be needed to hold the Valley. Sumner's relief was on the way.

Or had been on the way, at least. In reality, on March 24 while McClellan was assuring his superiors that all was pacified, the Union forces in Winchester were counting bodies and collecting wounded from the largest battle in the east since Bull Run. Jackson had come roaring back the day before in an insane attack on a force twice his size just south of Winchester, in a village called Kernstown. McClellan was aware only that the commander at Winchester had asked for reinforcements and one brigade from the division being sent to Centreville had been ordered back to the Valley.

"On Sunday the enemy, who had returned towards Winchester, were engaged within three miles of that place by General Shields and completely routed..." McClellan wrote to Sumner on March 26, after he was finally briefed on the battle. Details of the battle were confused--in a large part deliberately by Shields, who puffed up the victory he had had no part in while lying wounded in a hospital bed, in order to promote his own legend--and McClellan reported Jackson's losses up to three times the actual number.
The rebels in full retreat. Banks in pursuit. Was last night 5 miles south of Strasburg. It is said that the rebels expect reinforcements near Mount Jackson to the amount of 30,000 men. This is not probably, but it will be well for you to keep well on the lookout in front and on your right, and be cautious, while vigorous.
Sumner probably didn't see it at the time, but he should have had a sinking feeling reading McClellan's communication. All the hallmarks are there: the overblown declaration of victory, the wildly inaccurate troop strengths (even though he doubts it, he passes it on as a possible course of events), the order insisting on caution with a contradictory lip-service to fighting. Perhaps the warrior did question his engineer superior. They would question each other soon enough.


"I am much surprised that I have not heard one word from you today," McClellan chided Brig. General Edwin Sumner from his new headquarters at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria [still on the corner of Quaker Lane and Seminary Road] on March 28.
Unless I have constant information from the commanders of all detachments and corps it is impossible for me to arrange general movements. My instructions to you were to report when you reached Warrenton Junction [Calverton]. I learn from other sources that you reached there at 8:30 am on the 27th, yet I have nothing from you. I must insist upon it that I have full information of everything that transpires.
McClellan had spent nearly every day supervising activity on the wharf at the Alexandria waterfront. His formidable brain had been pushed to its limits the day before when he loaded Darius Couch's division of the Fourth Corps, George Sykes division of regular U.S. Army infantry reserves, two brigades of Sedgwick's division, the reserve artillery, and a large amount of cavalry. It had been a herculean feat of logistics, and he had pulled it off.

It also had been a poor use of his time. As he already had for almost a year, and as he would for the remainder of his time in the army, McClellan had become absorbed in a task that would have better been left to one of his subordinates. Across the river in Washington, would-be usurper Irvin McDowell had the responsibility of securing the theater strategic support needed from the Administration and the Navy to make the Peninsula Campaign succeed. In the Valley, political crony Nathaniel P. Banks was chasing down Jackson, the man who had bloodied McClellan's nose and thrown a wrench in his departure schedule. On the Peninsula, middle-of-the-road Samuel Heintzelman commanded almost double the troops of his Confederate opponents, but was easily losing the fight to keep them from reinforcing behind their strong fortifications.

And somewhere near Warrenton Junction, Edwin Sumner sat with a single division of his corps, chasing the Confederates away from a place they could threaten the capital--the one thing that Lincoln had consistently asked McClellan to do.

McClellan was drafting up plans to load the next division as soon as the transports returned.


Sumner had indeed reached Warrenton Junction on March 27, and in addition to McClellan's "other sources" the Confederates knew it. Warrenton Junction was called such because it was where a rail spur leading from Warrenton joined with the main trunk of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Control of it would control Warrenton and the approaches to Front Royal and the lower Shenandoah Valley, as well as making Manassas Junction more secure.

It was only a matter of time, Jeb Stuart knew, before the Union forces advanced to Warrenton Junction, regardless of their plans, making it a great place from which to determine just how many forces McClellan was throwing after Johnston. So he stationed the cavalry regiment he himself had raised, the 1st Virginia, there. The short, rumpled, un-soldierlike man who commanded the pickets that would first come into contact with any advancing force was the regiment's adjutant, Lieutenant John Singleton Mosby.

John Singleton Mosby
Mosby was originally from Central Virginia, but he had moved to Albemarle County when young. He was starkly different from his peers, who were mostly West Point educated, or from genteel families. Mosby was a problem child. Always frail and small, he nevertheless regularly picked fights (he insisted to stand up for his or other bullied children's honor) and lost all of them that adults didn't break up first, according to his editor. He managed to attend the University of Virginia, but was expelled when he shot a notorious town bully during one of his many altercations. While in prison for crimes related to the shooting, Mosby kept up a steady correspondence with the prosecutor that had put him away, and, when he was released, was invited to study law under him in Charlottesville. And that's how Mosby became a lawyer.

He met a girl from Tennessee and married her, and the two moved to Bristol, which he figured was a fair compromise between their two states since the line ran down the middle of town, and in which he happened to be one of only three lawyers. After very publicly backing Stephen Douglas in the election of 1860, and starting more than a few feuds with Bristol secessionists, Mosby reversed himself and signed up with William E. "Grumble" Jones' Virginia Volunteers mounted unit as a private. He arrived in time for Manassas, but really shown throughout the winter, when he discovered yet another unpredictable talent: scouting.

It was in this capacity he had met Jeb Stuart. Throughout the winter, the dashing cavalier had taken a shine to the scruffy Virginia lawyer, and instructed Mosby in the art of scouting. Combined with Jones' (who had taken over Stuart's 1st Virginia) sensible cavalry tactics, Mosby was becoming the peculiar blend of military prowess and daring innovator that would eventually make him the most famous partisan of the war.

The little man who loved a fight had been made adjutant by Jones in part to keep Stuart from stealing him for his staff. On March 27, he had volunteered for picket duty--unusual for every other adjutant in the army, but standard for Mosby--and so he and about a dozen men of the 1st Virginia sat on the south bank of Cedar Run, half way between Catlett's Station and Warrenton Junction.

The Virginians were dismounted and behind cover when a dozen or so Union cavalry pickets (probably from the 8th Illinois Cavalry) splashed across Cedar Run. Mosby waited until they dismounted to give their horses a break and wait for the rest of their squadron before ordering his men to open fire. In a panic, the Union men jumped back on their horses and raced across the creek. "We ceased firing, threw up our caps, & indulged in the most boisterous laughter," Mosby told a friend in a letter.

Mosby probably didn't stop laughing, but undoubtedly some of the other Virginians did. Pricked, Sumner deployed his infantry in line in the field on the other side of Cedar Run, including artillery that opened fire on the rest of the 1st Virginia behind Mosby's pickets. Jones had done his job. By deploying his men into their battle lines, Sumner had lost time, time that would be doubled when he had to shift them all back into columns for marching again. In that time, Jones could count their wagons and guns, and Stuart could make decisions about what to do next. The 1st Virginia let Sumner's gunner throw several shells, then rode off south of Warrenton Junction.

Stuart was writing Johnston about his decisions later that evening when Jones arrived and described the skirmish at Cedar Run. Stuart diligently passed it on, along with a more skeptical assessment of a report he had forwarded earlier from a captured drummer boy who said McClellan was planning to move with most of his army to attack Johnston wherever he stood to make a fight south of the Rappahannock.
Colonel Jones' has arrived, but brings nothing but confirmation of previous reports. He says the enemy seemed disposed to make a display, and marched so as to give him a review of 10,000 men at least. The circumstances of the drummer's arrest, since brought to light, throw some suspicion on his information, and it ought therefore to be received with allowance. He may have been sent over to humbug us.
So he could confirm there was at least a division following him, but Stuart still didn't know how many Union troops were behind them.


Brig. General Oliver Otis Howard was again the tip of Sumner's spear. A week earlier he had led a reconnaissance (like a scout, but bigger and with the intention of starting a fight) to Gainesville that had ascertained Jackson was not there or coming there (now a more ominous finding, since it meant he was preparing to strike back at Kernstown). When Richardson's division, with Sumner, had arrived in Warrenton Junction the day before after the delay at Cedar Run, Old Bull had asked Howard to lead a large force all the way to the Rappahannock, and ensure that the bridges were burned to keep the Confederates on the south bank.

According to Howard's somewhat self-serving memoirs, he was undermined by a fellow brigade commander, who had been senior than him in the old Army, but had been eclipsed when McClellan plucked the very young Howard up from obscurity to command a brigade.
In the morning General French told Sumner that he ran too great a risk, that my detachment by going so far from support would be captured, and surely that it was not wise to let one like me, with so little experience, go with raw troops so far away from the corps as the Rappahannock. Sumner called me in and said that he feared to let me make the reconnaissance. Instantly I begged him to try me. I showed my night work, my preparation, and my safe plan, and said: "General, you will never regret having trusted me."
In Howard's account, Sumner is passionately won over and declares "go! go!" to him. Sumner and French were both long dead when it was published (French was probably portrayed fairly, but the genteel Sumner probably did not exclaim much of anything outside of battle), but whatever the actual course of events, Howard did go, taking with him the 5th New Hampshire, 81st Pennsylvania, and 61st New York from his own brigade, as well as one additional infantry regiment from Thomas F. Meagher's Irish Brigade, the 8th Illinois Cavalry, and Battery C, of the 4th U.S. Artillery. The biggest problem was that it was almost noon before this large force stepped off.

Howard put out skirmishers in front and on his flank, in textbook fashion, showing off all the wisdom expected of a general who had graduated fourth in his class at West Point. The same year, Jeb Stuart had graduated thirteenth, though, and in textbook fashion he used his cavalry to confound the movements of his good friend from school in the same way Jones had at Cedar Run.
At about 2 miles' distance from this place the scouts of the enemy appeared a mile ahead. As we pressed on they discharged their carbines at my scouts and retired. My scouts and skirmishers returned their fire. Being beyond effective range, no harm was done on either side. As soon as the Parrott guns under Lieutenant Rundell reached a fair position, I had him open fire on about a company of the enemy just in the edge of some woods. They fled toward our left. This operation was repeated constantly during the march. Sometimes one squadron and sometimes as many as three squadrons appeared and disappeared on our front and flanks.
Meanwhile, back at Second Corps headquarters, Sumner was chomping at the bit to advance on the guns he could hear throughout the day. But McClellan had very explicitly forbid him from taking Richardson's division any further than Warrenton Junction, and a combination of the delay in transit of communications and McClellan's preoccupation with loading transports was preventing Old Bull from getting the permission he needed to support Howard. It must have occurred to him that the entire point of creating a corps was to have a force that could sustain itself independently, but McClellan's decision to assign divisions to corps nearly at random had deprived Sumner of a self-sufficient force for the semi-independent mission he had been assigned.
I should have much preferred to advance [on the Rappahannock Bridge] with my whole command... but as your orders of March 24 expressly directs me not to proceed beyond this place with the mass of my command I shall await here your further orders. I can take Warrenton without difficulty. Shall I do so?
Sumner chose to obey, so Howard carried on alone.


Jeb Stuart was watching Howard's slow advance from Bealeton Station, only a few miles from where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad crossed the Rappahannock. It was the fall-back position for the 1,100 cavalrymen he had alternating fighting and fleeing Howard's brigade and it contained 300 infantry men from the division of Fauquier County native Brig. General Richard Ewell.
I made disposition for defense, determined not to leave till his approach was so near as to make his intention to march to that point unmistakable. From the open ground about Bealeton, I commanded a fine view of the column advancing slowly, but steadily, using a caution very characteristic of the enemy, and which greatly facilitated a close observation of his movements, which opportunity I did not fail to improve. When within about a mile of Bealeton they formed a line of battle, and having delayed there as much as practicable by a show of resistance, I dispatched the infantry first slowly to the rear and kept part of the cavalry menacing his front, sending Colonel Robertson on the right and Colonel Jones on the left to threaten the enemy's flanks, with orders to carry it as far as compatible with safety, and then retire diagonally toward the railroad bridge.
But Stuart still didn't know if the brigade in front of him where the beginning of an army, or just part of the division Jones had observed across Cedar Run. And once he fell back across the Rappahannock there would be far fewer opportunities for Johnston to plan his defenses before he was threatened by a Union crossing on his flank--such as the one that had almost won the day via the undefended Sudley Ford at Manassas.

Stuart sent for Mosby. As Mosby remembered it long after the war, Stuart had been very formal, perhaps reluctant to send him on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines.
As we met that morning, he said to me very earnestly--he seemed puzzled--"General Johnston wants to know if McClellan's army is following us, or if this is only a feint he is making." Evidently Stuart wanted me to find out for him, but did not like to order me. I saw the opportunity for which I had longed and said in a self-confident tone, "I will find out for you, if you will give me a guide."
Stuart did, along with two additional men for security, and the little scouting party rode north towards Warrenton [along today's US17], to get around Sumner's forces.


Howard continued to press on Bealeton throughout the afternoon, fighting his way through the pesky cavalry. At some point during the afternoon, he became aware of the infantry, though his account of their retreat differed from Stuart's.
Here a force of infantry was reported advancing at double-quick. I formed in order of battle; ordered the advanced guard forward into a good position. I soon ascertained that the remnant of the enemy's infantry on this side of the river was running for a train of cars nearer to me than themselves. As soon as possible Lieutenant Rundell fired in the direction of the train. As soon as this train had passed the Rappahannock bridge I heard a heavy explosion, much like the blasting of stone.
Howard moved Rundell's guns forward, protected by the 5th New Hampshire, whose aptly named Colonel Cross would later criticize Howard for not being more aggressive before the bridge was blown, saying "This was the instant we should have pushed on. If we had done so and made a vigorous attack, we might, with small loss, have cut off a train of cars and five or six hundred of the enemy." Rundell's guns engaged in a sharp exchange of fire with Ewell's batteries on the other side of the river, but the fighting was done for the day. The Confederates were across the Rappahannock, and the Second Corps' mission was complete. Howard moved all but a few of his men beyond cannon range and let them bed down for the night.

Not long after midnight, a messenger from Howard reached Sumner and gave him a full explanation of the day. Delighted, Sumner sat down and wrote McClellan's headquarters immediately. In his hurry, he failed to pass on the intelligence Howard had provided, and had to follow up with a 2:00 am addendum that two of Ewell's brigades occupied the south bank of the Rappahannock.

Dawn brought a return of bad weather and a return to marching for Howard's men, this time back to Warrenton Junction. But first, he dispatched scouts from his cavalry to check the other river crossings in the vicinity and ensure that they too were destroyed (they were, and what was left of the railroad to Warrenton Junction Howard's cavalry destroyed themselves). Sumner, meanwhile, again petitioned McClellan to let him advance on Warrenton itself, and this time managed to at least draw a curt reply from the adjutant that the commanding general would "in the course of the day instruct you on your dispatch."

The course of the day, though, brought no orders about Warrenton. Instead, McClellan instructed Sumner to send Blenker's division back to Manassas Junction in preparation for moving to the Peninsula, as well as instructions for handing over protection of the junction and the railroad to the one brigade from Banks' command (a second had been also ordered back to Winchester after the full extent of Kernstown became clear). Only at 9:00 pm did McClellan finally assent to the no-brainer mission of seizing Warrenton, and only then with the stipulation that it occur on March 30.

Still, northern Virginia was clear, and Sumner was clear to go to the Peninsula.


Mosby returned on the morning of March 29 through a fog and a steady drizzle, with a tale that delighted Stuart that he recounted again for his memoirs.
As we were behind the enemy, we soon discovered that an isolated body was following Johnston, and that it kept up no line of communication with Washington. It was clear that the movement was a mask to create a diversion and cover some operation. Of course, I was proud to have made the discovery, and I rode nearly all night to report it to Stuart. When we got near the river, we halted at a farmhouse, for there was danger of being shot by our own pickets if we attempted to cross the river in the dark. As soon as it was daylight, I started, leaving my companions asleep... I went on at a gallop and found Stuart with General Ewell... I told Stuart that there was no support behind the force in front and that it was falling back... In the rapture of the moment Stuart told me I could get any reward I wanted. His report confirms this statement about the information that was obtained--but I got no reward.
Howard had left the bulk of the 8th Illinois Cavalry behind as a screen for his brigade returning to Warrenton Junction. Excited by Mosby's news, Stuart ordered his horsemen forward to chase after Howard's, but only the 1st Virginia managed to catch up with the enemy, Mosby among them despite his adventurous night. Stuart explained to Johnston:
Believing the enemy to be already in retreat, I ordered all the cavalry to horse and proceeded immediately to follow in pursuit. Colonel Jones, First Virginia Cavalry, led the way and pressed the pursuit with great vigor and success--capturing about 25 officers and men, mostly cavalry, and wounding several--to the near vicinity of Warrenton Junction, where the enemy was encamped for the night.
Stuart was always a generous superior, and seemed to take a special pleasure in praising his subordinates--officer and enlisted alike--in his reports, an honor that would help them gain promotion and rewards. But the praise in Stuart's report of the actions in the retreat to the Rappahannock are extreme, with 16 different individuals listed. The cavalier is clearly delighted at Mosby's unraveling of the intelligence puzzle that had plagued him to find that Sumner wasn't backed up by McClellan's army, mentioning him and his guide by name:
Adjutant Mosby and Principal Musician David Drake, of the First Virginia Cavalry, volunteered to perform the most hazardous service, and accomplished it in the most satisfactory and creditable manner. They are worthy of promotion and should be so rewarded.
Johnston was undoubtedly pleased too. But answering one question only gave rise to another. Where was McClellan going, if not across the Rappahannock?

Print Sources
  • Ramage, 43-45.
  • Beatie, 211-214.

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