In which we look at Northern organization and strategy
This is the second in a two part post on Northern mistakes in the first month of May.
Last week we looked at how mistakes in intelligence gathering and analysis led leaders of the Northern war effort to coalesce behind a likely enemy course of action that ended up being drastically different from the one actually pursued by their Southern opponents. But history is full of poor intelligence gathering and analysis that nevertheless ends in victory. So this week, we'll look at the mistakes those same leaders made in their own planning--mistakes that allowed Stonewall Jackson to execute his brilliant Valley Campaign.
Central to our discussion is what are known in modern military doctrine as the "levels of war." The concept goes back to ancient times, when it was recognized that some leaders needed to tell individuals where to stand and who to fight, while others needed to decide where the battle should occur. The "general" officer was created precisely to make those sorts of general decisions. By the time of the American Civil War, it was already long understood that even among general officers there were further levels of responsibility, with some moving groups of men in the field, and some deciding where to move armies several months hence. Today, we recognize roughly four levels of war: national-strategic, theater-strategic, operational, and tactical.
Prior to the American Civil War, there had never been a clear delineation of responsibility for military strategy in the United States--who to put where and when, in order to win a war. At the highest level, which we would call today "National-Strategic" and some 1862 contemporaries would have called "Grand Strategy", control depended on the personality of the Secretary of War. More aggressive secretaries would locate and direct men and materiel themselves, while secretaries selected more for their politics than their smarts would defer to the senior general in the U.S. Army, which, after 1841, meant Winfield Scott. But there was no clearly expressed distinction between the responsibilities of the general-in-chief and the Secretary.
Lincoln had started out with a very passive Secretary of War, the Pennsylvanian Simon Cameron. Cameron, though probably not crooked himself, spent most of his short tenure giving military contracts to his crooked friends (most famously, Brooks Brothers, who introduced the word "shoddy" into the English language by their contract malfeasance). During his tenure, Winfield Scott reined supreme, pushing even the Navy around. But Scott was undone by George McClellan, who replaced him as general-in-chief with responsibility for national-strategic planning thanks to Cameron's deference. But Cameron too was soon gone, replaced because of his corruption and McClellan's dithering. The new Secretary, the activist Edwin Stanton, had McClellan removed as general-in-chief and assumed the national-strategic planning entirely for himself (and, nominally, the President).
The next level down--that concerned with who to put where and when, in order to win in a geographic area of the war--we today call the theater-strategic level, and in the pre-war army this level of war was synonymous with the geographic departments. These departments were designed to be an area of responsibility in which troops could support each other for likely operations (in other words, a theater), and were changed from time to time to reflect that. Importantly, when units left one department, they no longer operated under the authority of their former commander, but reported to the head of whichever department they had gone into. On the frontier, these departments were well-established, but the War Department vacillated wildly in department make-up in the East while leaders tried to decide what the proper theater size was.
On the day of Bull Run, five different departments comprised the area of Virginia, Maryland, and the District, plus George McClellan's Department of the Ohio in the area that is now West Virginia.This split was key to the poor coordination between two of the departments--neither one in command of the other--that allowed the Southerners to win at Bull Run. Not surprisingly, when McClellan moved to Washington, he consolidated all of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, the District, and Virginia (except for a fifty mile radius around Fort Monroe) into a single theater with himself in charge--the Department of the Potomac. He envisioned a single 250,000 man army, operating along many different supply lines, closing in on Richmond.
It was not to be. By the time McClellan's Army of the Potomac took to the field in March 1862, Stanton had again broken it up into separate theaters--Nathaniel Banks' Department of the Shenandoah, Irvin McDowell's Department of the Rappahannock, John Dix's Middle Department, and John Wool's Department of Virginia. McClellan had authority only over the troops in the Army of the Potomac, but wherever they traveled, and his old Department of the Ohio had been resurrected as John C. Fremont's Mountain Department. Splitting up the Department of the Potomac, however, had resurrected the problem of lack of coordinated strategy that plagued the Bull Run campaign.
At the operational level of war--the level concerned with who to put where and when in order to win a specific series of battles and movements, a level not recognized by U.S. doctrine until the mid-1980s--department commanders and commanders of specific units shared responsibility. In certain circumstances, districts might be carved out of departments in which a subordinate commander would be responsible for planning and executing campaigns (those series of battles and movements) with minimal guidance from the department commander.
The Confederate command in Virginia was a study in contrasts to the Union command. Whereas Stanton had effectively relegated his department heads to operational-level leaders, none of whom had a sufficient strategic responsibility, Jefferson Davis--who by all accounts had been a very good Secretary of War years before--had kept operational command and theater command separate. After Manassas, he had created the Department of Northern Virginia with Joe Johnston as its chief, stretching from the Allegheny mountains to the Chesapeake Bay, and from the Potomac to the Rappahannock. This gave Johnston an area of responsibility that covered all the likely threats to Richmond and all the likely ways to threaten Washington.
But it would have been too large for one man to control, so Davis created three districts: a Potomac District with the main army in it, an Aquia District on the right flank, and the Valley District on the left flank. Johnston could issue general orders to any one or all three of them to let them know what he needed to do to improve the situation in the Department, but leave it up to the District commander to design the operation and carry it out. And Davis had been flexible, adding the Departments of Norfolk and the Peninsula to Johnston's Department when he moved south to fight McClellan, but eliminating the Potomac and Aquia Districts since there were no longer Confederate forces there to coordinate.
Below that, at the tactical level, it was up to individual unit commanders to decide who went where and win in order to win in a specific battle or part of a battle. In the pre-war army these officers were largely captains and majors commanding several hundred professional men. But in some of the larger battles of the war, major generals commanding tens of thousand of men would be acting as tactical leaders.
In mid-May, 1862, Stanton's consolidation of all strategic authority in the Secretary's Office was beginning to show its limitations (again). Though the army of the chastised McClellan was moving and menacing Richmond via the Virginia Peninsula, as the all-powerful McClellan had never been able to make happen, the three principle Union commanders between Richmond and Washington were having trouble with Jackson's tiny force of the Valley District. Out in the Mountain Department, Fremont's men had been attacked by Jackson, but the seams created by the various coordinating departments and exacerbated by Stanton's distraction by national-strategic interests (mainly in the form of urging McClellan to press forward to Richmond) had led to a poor intelligence estimate.
Now Stanton had to figure out what to do with the armies, and if he was wrong the capital would be open to attack again.
Maj. General Irvin McDowell commanded the largest force, soon to be about 40,000 men in the Department of the Rappahannock. At Falmouth, he was rapidly repairing the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad and itching to march for Richmond in coordination with McClellan--perhaps before McClellan. On May 11, Assistant Secretary of War Peter H. Watson took a crack on getting the expedition started without as many resources as McDowell wanted.
Secretary of War not yet returned from Norfolk. Is not strength of the enemy's forces in front more imaginary than real? Would they not, on a spirited demonstration by you, retreat percipitately and destroy the Mattapony and Pamunkey Bridges?... Your chance for independent actions appears to be drawing rapidly to a close. These inquiries, friendly and unofficial, you need not answer.Watson had hit a nerve with McDowell, who feared the war ending without redemption for Manassas.
Thank you for your friendly telegram of this morning just received. The reason I do not advance is not the strength of the enemy. I know pretty nearly what it amounts to. You do not seem to be aware [of the President's orders barring crossing the Rappahannock]... When on a visit here the Secretary [Stanton] said that as soon as my forces should arrive the President would give me leave to go forward. I have been doing all I could to get them forward, feeling fully the force of all you have said...I have only means for supplying my force at this point from day-to-day. I am trying to improve this all I can. This is not brilliant I know, but it is all that I can do as things now are. I could now go against the enemy, and he will do as you say, retreat, and when he has retreated I would have to do the same in order to feed my soldiers.McDowell then indulged himself in blaming others, a move that at the time was relatively startling for the proper young officer, but years later would be recognized as his characteristic flaw under pressure.
You gentlemen do not seem to appreciate the question of supplies and the difficulties in getting them forward. I see McClellan reports himself in advance of his supplies, and my enthusiastic general of division, Shields, is in the same trouble...Pardon this long explanation, but I am anxious you should continue to think well of me. Colonel McCallum [the commissar] does not take very good care of us.The entire discussion ignored Jackson, who while it was occurring was chasing Maj. General John C. Fremont's forces in the Mountain Department. Near the tiny town of Franklin, one of Fremont's two brigade commanders that had been hounded by Jackson for three days wrote a scathing telegram to his superior officer:
In consequence of the non-arrival of your forces, as expected, and of our indefensible position, 1 mile above here, our two brigades are moving into town to take position around it...The enemy's scouts are around us, and occasionally fire into our pickets. We are getting a strong position here, and will hold it until further orders... Every interest of duty and humanity requires that the loyal citizens on [this] line who have taken sides with the Union, trusting in our ability to hold the country, should not be abandoned to the fury of the infernal devils who will overrun their country... I hope we will be able to take the offensive on back track soon again.But, aside from Fremont's long delayed reinforcements from his own Mountain Department, there was no cooperation in Maryland or Virginia to help bail out the beleaguered brigades, which meant it was unlikely the offensive would be gotten back on track. Not that Fremont or his subordinates would be able to know though, since they weren't privy to the needs of the other departments.
On May 12, in the Department of the Shenandoah, the force under Maj. General Nathaniel P. Banks that should have been threatening Jackson's rear with a march on the city of Staunton, was instead marching north to take up a defensive position.
Our column moved this morning--my division for Strasburg, General Shields' for Catlett's Station. The enemy is still in position. Jackson and Johnson united near Staunton. Ewell on Gordonsville road. Three late deserters from American Army were taken prisoner yesterday... They report rumors in rebel camp of contemplated attack on Washington...Despite being wrong about Jackson and Johnson's location (Jackson was near Franklin, and "Allegheny" Johnson was fighting for his life in Staunton after a severe wound to his leg), Banks had passed on a possibility for which the North had no plan. If Jackson consolidated his forces with the division of Richard Ewell and marched on Washington who would defend the capital? Not Banks, since one of his two divisions (Shields') had just been sent to McDowell and of the one that remained only two of the three brigades were actually in the Valley under his command. He alluded to his frustration in a message to Fremont directly that afternoon (while also passing on bad intel):
My command reached [Woodstock] at noon, and it, under orders, will be at Strasburg tomorrow. Jackson with his force is at Harrisonburg; Ewell this side of Blue Ridge, as before. Nothing of importance to report except our movements, which is great grief to us.Despite confessing his true feelings, Banks, who had played a role in getting Fremont nominated by the Republican Party in 1856, still tweaked the Pathfinder about his coding of his messages: "Your cipher, being hastily written, is sometimes difficult to interpret. Please allow me to solicit attention to this."
Banks was losing a division because McDowell had been taking regular trips to Washington to confer with the cabinet (and they had been traveling to Aquia Creek Landing to visit him) and had persuaded them to replace a division sent to McClellan in April, when the erstwhile general-in-chief had protested that without McDowell's three divisions he had no hope of success. One division was sent to mollify him, but that left McDowell with just two.
McDowell had first tried to get Blenker's Division back from Fremont, but Stanton would have none of it, since his Radical Republican friends would see it as a slight to their favorite general. But Stanton had seized upon a different plan, one that was supported by McDowell and the collection of high-ranked officers that had not gone with McClellan to the Peninsula--a combination of incompetents and mortal enemies to Little Mac.
By empowering McDowell with a strong force, Stanton reasoned, he could then threaten Richmond from the north, and any troops in Culpeper County or the Valley would necessarily have to retreat in order to properly defend Richmond. Jackson and Ewell would have no choice but to take the train to Hanover Junction [Doswell, right next to King's Dominion], once McDowell started moving south. Any sane person would do that.
So Shields' Division was ordered from the Department of the Shenandoah into the Department of the Rappahannock, and the missing brigade from Banks' First Division stationed at Catlett's Station [Catlett] was joined with a brigade of new infantry regiments (led by the recently returned hero of Henry Hill, James Ricketts), and a brigade of cavalry regiments under Pennsylvanian Brig. General George Bayard, to make a "Flying Division" for McDowell too, to be commanded by recently-promoted Maj. General Edward O.C. Ord (a promotion George Meade was delightfully cynical about).
On May 17, Stanton received the President's blessing for the plan, and with the ubiquitous Army Quartermaster Brig. General Montgomery Meigs and several other anti-McClellan generals wrote out the order:
General: Upon being joined by General Shields' division, you will move upon Richmond by the general route of the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad, cooperating with forces under General McClellan now threatening Richmond from the line of the Pamunkey and York Rivers.The Northern war planners were convinced that their planned course of action would compel the Confederates to withdraw from other parts of Virginia. Still, they added to McDowell's mission defending the capital from any forces that might try to slip past him:
While seeking to establish as soon as possible a communication between your left wing and the right wing of General McClellan, you will hold yourself always in such position as to cover the capital of the nation against a sudden dash of any large body of the rebel forces.This confidence in their course of action was present in the more conversational set of orders Stanton sent to McClellan informing him of the new plan too:
The President is not willing to uncover the capital entirely, and it is believed that even if this were prudent, it would require more time to effect a junction between your army and that of the Rappahannock by the way of the Potomac and York rivers than by a land march. In order, therefore, to increase the strength of the attack upon Richmond at the earliest moment General McDowell has been ordered to march upon that city by the shortest route. He is ordered---keeping himself always in position to save the capital from all possible attack---so to operate as to put his left wing in communication with your right wing, and you are instructed to co-operate, so as to establish this communication as soon as possible, by extending your right wing to the north of Richmond. It is believed that this communication can be safely established either north or south of the Pamunkey River. In any event you will be able to prevent the main body of the enemy's forces from leaving Richmond and falling in overwhelming force upon General McDowell. He will move with between 35,000 and 40,000 men.At the end, Stanton added: "The President desires that General McDowell retain the command of the Department of the Rappahannock and of the forces with which he moves forward." Again, there would be no theater-strategic level commander, but two operational commanders that relied on Stanton to put them together. What McDowell had to do to fulfill his mission and what McClellan had to do to fulfill his mission were not identical, and their troops, supplies, and intelligence-gatherers weren't either.
So what did this have to do with Jackson? Well, McDowell's orders were to cover the capital in the case of a sudden dash, but two of the routes from which through which the dash could be launched were not in his department, so McDowell made not preparations to protect against them. When Jackson did march on Banks' two brigades at Strasburg, rather than obligingly moving to Hanover Junction or at least Culpeper Court-House, Union troops in the valley were outnumbered over two-to-one. And Fremont was no help either, because he had been worried about defending Franklin, in his Department, and not the Valley, which was Banks' job. The Northerners would be caught entirely unprepared.
But not unwarned. On May 18, one day after Stanton committed to his course of action, John W. Garrett, President of the B&O Railroad, wrote Stanton a letter from his headquarters in Baltimore.
The aspect of affairs in the valley of Virginia is becoming very threatening, and grave apprehension again exists of the destruction of our [rail]road... The enterprise and vigor of Jackson are well known, and the great importance attached by the enemy to the destruction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad accounts for his movement. Under the circumstances will it not be most judicious to order back General Shields to co-operate with General Banks? Such a movement might be accomplished in time to prevent disaster.Stanton's reply does not show up in the Official Records, but it can be guessed by the results. Four days later, on May 22, Shields at last made it to Falmouth. On May 23, Jackson handily won the Battle of Front Royal.