Wherein Lincoln turns to McDowell to defend Washington...again
On Tuesday, April 1, 1862, Maj. General George B. McClellan had sailed away from Alexandria en route to the Virginia Peninsula. On Wednesday, April 2, 1862, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton moved to banish him from the capital region for good.
Stanton, like Winston Churchill, was a pedantic, obnoxious, arrogant, unlikable, borderline sociopath, without whom the world as we know it today would not exist. Like Churchill, Stanton's highest loyalty was to his own ideas, and the resulting wild shifts in political affiliations led to accusations of opportunism. Both men were beyond stubborn, and held no beliefs loosely, and had become fanatically devoted to ideas they had hatched that proved disastrously wrong. Both also got the most important question of their lifetime right, and their single-minded devotion to seeing it achieved saved democracy for their countries.
For Stanton, that idea was the primacy of the Union, which required the full efforts of a dominant Federal government to establish and sustain. Stanton was a lawyer from Ohio, who had dropped out of Kenyon College when his father died and completed his studies reading with a lawyer in his home town. He was relentless in his cases, and early on earned a reputation for ruthlessness or dedication, depending on which side of the court room one sat. He earned national fame when he defended then-Congressman Daniel Sickles from charges of murder when he shot District of Columbia U.S. Attorney Philip Barton Key (son of the author of the Star Spangled Banner) to death in Lafayette Park. Sumner argued successfully for the first time in an American court room that Sickles had become temporarily insane because of Key's affair with the Congressman's wife (in the opinion of this blogger the defense was a lie; Sickles was permanently insane).
In 1858, Attorney General Jeremiah Black sent Stanton to California, deputized to settle land disputes. Stanton's well-known anti-slavery Democratic politics made him appealing to the Buchanan Administration, which was trying to split the difference between its Northern and Southern wings. His popularity at getting the Democrat Sickles off in what had become a very political celebrity trial made his appointment a victory of sorts for Northern Democrats, who felt they were losing out by Buchanan's gentle treatment of Southerners. But in California, Sickles turned his formidable intellect and pit bull personality on the land disputes and uncovered a massive conspiracy to defraud the Federal government. On top of his celebrity, he had turned out to be useful.
In December 1860, Buchanan's Northern Democrat Secretary of State resigned in protest, because the President had refused to deploy the U.S. Army to defend Federal property in South Carolina after it announced secession. Buchanan quickly asked Black to serve in the position. Black advocated a less confrontational approach: reinforce Fort Sumter, but let the South Carolinians cool down and then reengage diplomatically. Stanton was appointed Attorney General to replace Black.
If Buchanan thought Stanton might support his administration's balanced approach to session, he was disastrously wrong. Stanton instead almost single-handedly dragged Buchanan to condemn secession, and thundered about the need for immediate military action. When it became clear Buchanan would not do so, and that Secretary of War John Floyd was secretly supplying information to the South Carolinians, whipping for secession votes in his home state of Virginia, and making it easy for secessionists to seize arsenals in the South, Stanton decided to begin supplying information to President-elect Lincoln and general-in-chief Winfield Scott. It's largely thanks to Stanton that the Lincoln Administration had even limited ability to respond to the secession crisis when it was sworn in in March.
The new Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, was clearly in way over his head, at best. At worst, he may have been a corrupt war profiteer. Either way, Lincoln asked Stanton to stay on as a special counsel at the War Department. In that role, Stanton befriended fellow Ohio Democrat George McClellan, who had come to the capital after Bull Run to make things right. Or so McClellan thought. Stanton, like the famous paraphrase of Lord Palmerston's remarks to Parliament, had no friends, only interests. When it became clear that Cameron was tragically inept, Stanton made use of McClellan (who at least could recognize good ideas) to push for the organization of an army strong enough to impose Federal will on the rebellious states.
When Lincoln told Cameron he was resigning, Stanton was brought in to root out the corruption at the War Department. With fanatical zeal he turned his brain to ungumming the bureaucracy and creating an efficient machine for the administration of what later generations of Americans would learn to call total war. But with himself in the driver's seat and able to depress the gas pedal fully, McClellan had become the impediment to reinstating the Union as quickly and thoroughly as possible. And so, Edwin Stanton turned his relentless talents towards destroying McClellan.
It was probably Stanton who was responsible for Lincoln's change of heart towards his role as commander-in-chief. During Cameron's time at the War Department, the President had believed war was best left to general-in-chief Scott and his replacement, McClellan. But since January, the President had issued orders for all armies to advance, had forced McClellan to step down as general-in-chief, had created corps for the Army of the Potomac, and had set conditions for McClellan to meet before his plans could receive approval. Stanton had probably convinced him that the first word of commander-in-chief had real meaning. At the very least, Stanton had empowered him to act on beliefs he had developed himself.
Stanton had also decided to balance McClellan's dominance of the new upper echelon of the Army created by the promotion of his favorites to brigadier generals of U.S. Volunteers, by elevating prominent members of the old pre-war Army. At the operational level, four were now McClellan's corps commanders, much to his irritation. At the national-strategic level, Stanton pulled Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas out of the dusty corner he had been confined to by McClellan, and reinstated as a major general Ethan Allen Hitchcock, to be a special advisor to the Secretary. Both men had been born around the turn-of-the-century, and both men had had senior roles in the army before the Mexican War. They were perfect for Stanton's scheme of pitting experience against the youthful "genius" of McClellan.
On April 2, Stanton turned to them to exorcise the ghost of McClellan from the capital. He submitted a request to the two men to review five papers he provided and "report to me whether the President's order and instructions have been complied with in respect to the forces to be left for the defense of Washington and its security and at Manassas."
First up was the President's General War Order No. 3, issued on March 8, which forbade shifting the base of operations of the Army of the Potomac until McClellan and all four corps commanders certified Washington was safe. The second document was that certification, with the Fourth Corps' Erasmus Keyes, the Third's Sam Heintzelman, and the First's Irvin McDowell, all further stipulating that if all the forts on the Virginia side of the Potomac were garrisoned, then only 25,000 men would be needed. The Second Corps' Edwin Sumner calculated differently, saying a total force of 40,000 men would be needed, but still agreed the city was safe under McClellan's plan. The unanimous agreement had shocked and irritated Stanton, who believed the capital needed a significantly larger force to defend it.
Third, was Stanton's own concurrence with the plan approved by the corps commanders, further stipulating that not only must Washington be secure, but Manassas Junction must be secured for the duration of the war. It's unclear how much Stanton did this to secure the line of communication that had caused disaster in July 1861 when the Valley Confederates and the Northern Virginia Confederates were able to support each other, and how much Stanton did this to move the goal posts on McClellan. It managed to accomplish both.
Fourth was McClellan's own report written on board the Commodore on April 1 as he was departing. It left under the military governor of Washington, Brig. General James Wadsworth, 18,000 men for the forts and the city, as well as under Maj. General Nathaniel P. Banks 55,456 men for defending the Valley, Warrenton, Manassas, and Charles County on the Lower Potomac.
Finally, the April 2 report from Wadsworth that precipitated Stanton's request from Thomas and Hitchcock, showing 20,000 men under his command, but complaining that he had, in fact, far less, since McClellan had ordered him to send nearly half to places Banks was supposed to defend. Stanton would have had McClellan's report, which Wadsworth did not, and know that the defense scheme called for Banks to replace Wadsworth as soon as he was done finally putting an end to Stonewall Jackson in the Valley, but it was Wadsworth's other charge that the troops under him were untrained and the worst of the regiments brought in during the winter that angered him and gave him an opportunity to eliminate the deliberate, limited war waging McClellan.
I deem it my duty to state that, looking at the numerical strength and character of the force under my command, it is my judgment entirely inadequate and unfit for the important duty to which it assigned. I regard it very improbably that the enemy will assail us at this point, but this belief is based upon the hope that they may be promptly engaged elsewhere and may not learn the number and character of the force left here.Hitchcock and Thomas made a reply the very same day. On examining the documents they determined that 55,000 men would be necessary total to accomplish, with 30,000 men manning the forts (every fort, unlike McClellan's scheme to man only the Virginia forts) around Washington and 25,000 in a mobile corps, that could engage launch counterattacks. So far, so good, for McClellan. He even received unexpected support when they declared Stanton's order about Manassas Junction unnecessary, since "as the enemy have destroyed the railroads leading to it it may be fair to assume that they have no intention of returning for the reoccupation of their late position...."
But when comparing Wadsworth's report to McClellan's, Thomas and Hitchcock struck the coup de grace. McClellan had double counted a brigade of Wadsworth's men as defending Washington and defending Manassas Junction. Since the men couldn't be in both places, no matter what their quality, McClellan's report was inaccurate. An argument can be made that the commanding general was exhausted from the long hours loading his army for transport and simply made a mistake, but Stanton was happy to claim perfidy.
Thomas and Hitchcock gave him the conclusion he needed:
In view of the opinion expressed by the council of the commanders of the army corps of the force necessary for the defense of the capital, though not numerically stated, and of the force represented by General McClellan as left for that purpose, we are of opinion that the requirement of the President that this city shall be left entirely secure, not only in the opinion of the General-in-Chief, but that of the commanders of all the army corps also, has not been fully complied with.It took until April 4 for Stanton to take action, he first had to convince Lincoln to interfere with the plan McClellan had made and that all his corps commanders had approved. But finally the president agreed, and Lorenzo Thomas issued an order by telegraph the day that McDowell's First Corps had been scheduled to board transports in Alexandria: "By direction of the President, Gen. McDowell's army corps has been detached from the force under your immediate command, and the general is ordered to report to the Secretary of War."
It would take several days for the letter Thomas also mailed explaining that the detachment was because of the insufficiency of forces to defend Washington, but by that point McDowell's First Corps had been officially turned into the Department of the Rapphannock, with authority from its namesake river to the Patuxent River in Maryland, and west to the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the new Department of the Shenandoah under Nathaniel Banks picked up. Both former subordinates of McClellan now reported directly to Stanton, and McClellan's authority was at last confined only to the troops within his army.