Wherein Hooker misses out [but not really]
On April 11, Hooker's old brigade at last arrived in Hampton Roads and were treated to a sequel of March's paradigm-shifting battle. Martin Haynes of Company I, 2nd New Hampshire Infantry, and later the regimental historian, recalled:
As if it had been specially arranged to give the regiment a view of the whole outfit, it was not long before the Merrimack was seen coming down from Norfolk, accompanied by two large steamers and swarms of tugs. It was her first appearance since the famous combat in Hampton Roads, and all was excitement in anticipation of another big fight. Every vessel that could not fight struck out into Chesapeake Bay, while the war ships came in and took position to contest the passage of the rebel fleet.The whole thing turned out to be a bit of a dud.
As the South America went out, she passed the frigate Minnesota coming in--a gallant show, with her men at the guns and her decks cleared for action; yet, alone, she was no match for the rebel monster, and the hop of successful battle rested with that uncanny little raft and turret [the Monitor] which had once sent the Merrimack crippled, back to her den. A half-dozen shots, perhaps, were exchanged at long range between the Merrimack and the Riprap battery, when the rebel procession headed back for Norfolk and disappeared behind Sewell's Point.Though not entirely, since the ex-Merrimack captured three merchant ships, events that apparently were not memorable to Haynes, or were at least not in comparison to the lack of battle. The feeling of missing out was probably pretty strong among the New Hampshire men, and not just them but their fellow brigade members.
|Reconnaissance on the Potomac (Frank Lesley's Illustrated Newspaper)|
It hadn't taken long for Hooker to become disdainful of his assignment far on the army's right flank. "Hooker reported to the authorities at Washington," Haynes quipped in the official history, "that a vessel had about as much chance of being hit by the rebels as being struck by lightening." He wasn't far from the truth. Barely two weeks after arriving, Hooker had advised McClellan that "From what was witnessed to day and on previous occasions, I am forced to the conclusion that the rebel batteries in this vicinity should not be a terror to any one."
Haynes described the batteries that struck terror into the private rooms on Pennsylvania Avenue comically:
Nor was there any lack of amusements. Almost every day there was a free show out on the river, which the men could take in by simply going a few rods from camp. The blockade was only effective against large vessels, which from their great draft would be compelled to keep to the ship channel near the Virginia shore. Sloops and schooners, keeping well over to the Maryland side, ran up and down in broad daylight as boldly as they would have sailed into Boston Harbor. The rebels, as a matter of principle, always open fired on them and it was not unusual for one schooner to be the target for scores of shells before it got clear of the batteries. Thousands of shots were fired by the rebels during the winter, and the atrocious wildness of their gunnery is in evidence in the fact that, with the exception of the wood-laden schooner before mentioned, not a vessel was hit from the beginning to the end of the blockade.Nonetheless, Hooker was stuck monitoring the batteries by telescope and, thanks to Sickles, Professor Thaddeus Lowe's balloon, which he could have done without as well. His men did their best to entertain themselves, knowing that their compatriots in Northern Virginia were marching in grand reviews and embarking on daring skirmishes and raids in no-man's land. The 1st Massachusetts, also in Hooker's old brigade, started "a society for intellectual improvement" to host lectures and a small library, as well as a chess club that met once a week. The Massachusetts men and New Hampshire men alike hosted runaway slaves and were taken by their plight. Unlike most of the generals in blue, Hooker was inclined to turn a blind eye towards helping slaves escape, regardless of their origin.
And, of course, the men were obsessed with their living quarters. The 1st Massachusetts built their winter quarters as if they were constructing a town:
A lot of men were first sent into the woods to cut down the trees. They selected the straightest, felled them, trimmed off the branches, and laid them in piles for transportation to camp...The exact dimensions were then staked out, a bed dug for the foundation-logs all round; and then the rest placed one above another, the end of the lower being notched to receive that just above it, till the walls were complete. Some of the roofs were made of boards, but the majority were poles covered with straw, and that plastered with mud, or mud-plastered poles, covered with tarred paper... The houses were seventy-two feet long and twenty wide, containing four compartments each, with an open space in the centre, and bunks for sleeping fitted up round the sides, capable of accommodating twenty-five men. Some had stoves, and others large open fireplaces...[There is much, much more description. The obsession with living quarters was a universal experience in the American Civil War.]
Perhaps remembering his own struggle to obtain a commission, Hooker decided to spend his winter writing letters to his friends in Washington to secure a brigadier commission for the 1st Massachusetts' Colonel Robert Cowdin, who he had left in charge of his old brigade when he took on division responsibilities. But Hooker still feared he would be left to rot in Charles County, while the main offensive took place with the thaw.
Things changed at the end of January, when the president set a deadline for the Army of the Potomac to begin moving. Suddenly Hooker had the most to do since he was breaking up secessionist barbecues in the fall. McClellan had approved a plan by Hooker to land one of his brigades south of the Confederate batteries and sweep them from the Potomac in order to free the river for transport. The division commander threw himself into the planning, even learning to love Thaddeus Lowe's balloon.
Meanwhile, the men of Hooker's old brigade had a new occupation as well: undermining their new commander. Cowdin's nomination had gone nowhere, because McClellan had already decided to appoint one of his favorites, Lt. Colonel Henry Naglee to the post. In mid-February, his brigadier general of Volunteers commission was at last approved and he joined his new brigade, much to the displeasure of the 2nd New Hampshire: "The very next day [Naglee] had the officers of the day and of the guard of every regiment in the brigade under arrest on technical charges. Everybody, from highest to lowest, was soon arrayed against him."
The regiment's beloved Colonel Gilman Marston had returned, fully recovered from his Bull Run wounds. He split his time between leading his men in camp and representing them in the U.S. Congress, but had made sure to be in camp when Naglee arrived to make a good impression. But he quickly grew to hate Naglee as much as the rest of the regiment, except as a sitting congressman he showed less deference to military authority.
[Naglee] met his match in Colonel Marston. One day, in inspecting the regiment, he visited the guard house, a very comfortable log building used in common by the camp guard and the prisoners. He decided at once that it was altogether too palatial for prisoners, and ordered Col. Marston to have a dungeon built of logs. "Build it," he directed, "without a crack or an opening, so that it will be perfectly dark." His orders were obeyed to the letter. Within a day or two he was over again, and his eyes beamed with satisfaction as they rested on the gloomy structure. But after walking around it, he halted with a puzzled look and inquired of Marston where the entrance was and how he expected to get anybody in it. "Oh," replied the colonel, complacently, "that's not my lookout. I have obeyed orders strictly. How does it suit you?"Perhaps the 1st Massachusetts historian captured the dislike of the brigade commander best, by simply mentioning his appointment as a means to dwell on Colonel Cowdin's return to his regiment. Hooker disliked the man too, perhaps with equally good reason. During the councils of the division commanders following the two weeks that changed the war, Naglee appointed himself to represent Hooker's division. Hooker would always insist that he had done so without informing him that the council was even occurring.
On March 9, Hooker suffered a severe disappointment. He had been holding his men in the ready, drilling them incessantly with visions of glory dancing in his head. His (comparatively) simple movement to capture the Confederate batteries had ballooned into a plan to lead multiple divisions and seize Fredericksburg, but a negative review from McClellan's Chief Engineer had put everything on hold. In the meantime, the Confederates had withdrawn thanks to an offensive in the Shenandoah Valley.
The 1st Massachusetts recorded their surprise at the development:
On the afternoon of Sunday, March 9, during a gunboat reconnaissance, the rebel batteries, to the inexpressible astonishment of Union lookers-on, were suddenly evacuated. The whole country, for miles up and down the Potomac, and far back to the rear, seemed to be in a perfect uproar. Every thing burnable was set on fire, guns spiked, gunpowder blown up; and soon dense volumes of smoke arose from all the camps, showing that they too had been fired and deserted. For over two hours, loud explosions were heard in the direction of this burning property, indicating that magazines and barracks were sharing the same fate.The George Page, a captured steamer that had briefly terrorized river traffic bound for Alexandria, went up too, along with two schooners the Confederates had captured.
The Maryland shore of the Potomac was covered with an enthusiastic and delighted crowd of spectators; and many and loud were the cheers, as fire would break out in some fresh spot, or a magazine explode, or a gun or shells reached by the flames go off untouched.For Hooker, it was his latest dream of glory exploding to the cheers of the crowd. All he could do was send over men on the barges he had been stockpiling for his expedition to investigate what remained. Not surprisingly, Colonel Cowdin got several companies of his Massachusetts men over first.
Our men very soon covered the works like a colony of ants. They dived into the burning magazines; spiked one of the guns which had been left loaded; found three whose muzzles had been pointing at us in the Southern style of threatening (made of wood); visited the cook-houses, where was fresh meat just cut for somebody's dinner; and gathered up relics of every description in the way of shot, shells, bowie-knives, battery apparatus, culinary implements, &c., with which they loaded themselves.Hooker dispatched more men over the next several days to thoroughly examine the position for anything of value. They found more of the wooden decoy cannon (called "Quaker Guns"), some very disorganized regimental records, and, of course, a lot more loot. "Almost every man in camp had some little souvenir which 'our friends the enemy' had left behind," Private Haynes recorded of the 2nd New Hampshire's trip over the river. The Massachusetts men spent a great deal of time marveling at the Confederate camp construction ("one [hut] actually had green blinds").
Some of the men of the 1st came upon recently dug shallow graves while scouring the camps.
They were laid out in streets, carefully labelled, and contained pathetic remonstrances against disturbing the repose of the dead, and violating the sanctity of the tomb, so that suspicions were engendered that the sacred dead might be brought to life again, and made to see a little more service under the sun. Spades and shovels were accordingly brought into requisition; and speedily were exhumed, not the bodies of departed Confederates, but numbers of nice new tents, packages of clothing, mess-chests furnished with all appliances of modern cookery, trunks of various articles, tools, &c. The grave-diggers were complimented for the success of their first sacrilegious experiment, and recommended to try again.But while his men continued their macabre spree, Hooker stewed at Budd's Ferry. The batteries cleared, already a dazzling spectacle was unfolding on the river as the Army of the Potomac loaded for the Peninsula. Hooker was jerked back and forth between good and bad news. His division would join the Third Corps, the first to depart for the Peninsula. But Hooker would not depart with them. He should send his baggage to Washington and have the men break winter camps for movement. But he could not move until a regiment arrived from the Military District of Washington to take over for him.
Meanwhile, two divisions of his corps were already on the Peninsula and already advancing on the Confederates at Yorktown. After a winter spent isolated from the army, Hooker and his men felt they would be confined to a back seat of history. At last, on April 4, while McClellan was deciding to abandon the dramatic rush up the Peninsula that he had advertised in favor of a siege of Yorktown, Hooker's division received orders to embark at Budd's Ferry. At 4:00 am, the men were up and breakfasting, and by 6:00 am on their way to the transports.
Naglee's brigade boarded, the men and supplies on five steamers, and the horses and artillery on several schooners. The 1st Massachusetts boarded the Kennebec, the 2nd New Hampshire the South America. Remembers the Massachusetts historian:
The men were packed in and stowed away without much regard to comfort or cleanliness; but, as it was supposed that twenty-four hours would prove the limit of their stay, no complaint was heard. The day passed, however, and the boat had not stirred. Night came. What was left of Widow Budd's house was set on fire and burned to the ground in the darkness. Sunday dawned and passed; Sunday night passed also. It was not until Monday forenoon, two days after we embarked, that the anchor was weighed and the engines put in motion.It seemed like even the weather was conspiring against Hooker. The Jersey brigade had actually gotten off alright, embarking at Rum Point and being driven by a storm to Fort Monroe by the afternoon of the following day. But a sudden March snowstorm down river had cut off Naglee's brigade from travel. The Excelsior Brigade had not even boarded their transports yet, keeping the men on dry land while it blew through.
Finally, the weather appeared clear and Naglee's brigade began its journey, only to be interrupted again that afternoon. The wind had picked up again and it was evident another storm was coming. It was weather that a creaky, leaking converted steamer should avoid on the Chesapeake. On the South America, which Private Haynes called a "crazy old river boat" the men of the 2nd New Hampshire (and three companies of the 26th Pennsylvania) got a break from the ordeal thanks to their colonel.
When the boat arrived at the mouth of the Potomac, a wild spring gale was blowing up Chesapeake Bay, and Colonel Marston would not permit the shaky and overcrowded boat to proceed. "I brought my men out here to fight," he said, "not be drowned like rats." So the boat ran in to the pier at Point Lookout, and most of the men were landed.At the time, Point Lookout was an abandoned summer resort, not too different from its modern day use as a fishing get-away. It was still several months before it became a bustling Union supply depot, and a year before it became one of the largest Union prison camps. The men were comfortable, but hungry, since they had only been allowed to cook three days' rations before boarding at Budd's Ferry.
The rain poured, the wind howled, and the men went hungry for nearly three days, when a relief expedition reached them from Washington, and on the afternoon of April 10th the South America pulled out from "Camp Starvation" and proceeded down the bay.While Naglee's brigade was battered on Point Lookout and the Excelsior Brigade sat at Rum Point waiting for their turn, the men were indeed missing out on glory--but not with McClellan's army. On April 7, twin victories had been won in the west. One was at Pittsburgh Landing, near a little church named Shiloh, where Maj. General Ulysses S. Grant had survived a two-day onslaught by Confederate forces (on the second day, because of an unfortunate bullet, commanded by none other than General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard) until relief forces under McCelellanite Brig. General Don Carlos Buell allowed him to turn the tables. The other was on a massively fortified sand bar near New Madrid in the Mississippi River called Island No. 10, where Brig. General John Pope orchestrated a joint army-navy attack to capture 7,000 Confederates and open up the river to Union gunboats all the way south to Memphis.
Most likely the men would not have heard the news until they landed on the Virginia Peninsula, but the Excelsior Brigade, which did not sail until April 10, may have known before they departed. Either way, when Hooker's division finally fully assembled on the Virginia Peninsula on April 12--a day after Fort Pulaski had fallen into Union hands, effectively closing Savannah harbor and providing yet another Southern port for the blockade fleet to resupply at--it was joining the one Northern army not engaged in significant offensive operations. There would be plenty of time for Hooker to make his name.