Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Crushing Blow

Wherein Jackson's Piedmont Campaign kicks off

This Saturday marks the 150th Anniversary of the stunning conclusion of Jackson's Valley Campaign, an epic feat of operational warfare genius that can only be rivaled in American history by Patton's Winter '44-'45 campaigns and Washington's New Jersey campaign (with the caveat that tactically, Jackson was by far the inferior of either). Last month, we took time to examine why there was a Valley Campaign, noting the failures of Union intelligence gathering and analysis and the failures of Union planning and organization that allowed Jackson to perfectly exploit his foes.

While less exciting, Jackson's campaign was paradigm-changing for concepts of security around Washington, DC. Over the course of three weeks in early summer the plan for defending the nation's capital shifted from one based on stationary fortification to one based on a campaigning army, and in doing so sealed the fate of George McClellan. In that sense, Jackson also achieved the primary objective of warfare in the mind of a 4th Century BC Chinese strategist he had never heard of: disrupt your enemy's strategy.

While it is most exciting to study the operational masterpiece from the viewpoint of the man who commanded both sides and the men who marched themselves ragged, to appreciate the deep strategic significance it is best to look at the story from the perspective of those in the Piedmont of Virginia, specifically one sitting on the banks of the Rappahannock River. There, in Falmouth, was the headquarters of the Department of the Rapphannock, commanded by Maj. General Irvin McDowell, rehabilitated loser of Bull Run.

The Lincoln Administration had quietly--almost apologetically--stood by McDowell the turmoil of the post-disaster outrage, and, in the Spring, rewarded him with promotion to major general of volunteers, making him one of the most senior generals in the Army. They believed McDowell had been a victim of circumstances, irrational public zeal, and poor subordinates, and retained Winfield Scott's initial high confidence of his abilities--a great deal more confidence, in fact, than they had in Maj. General George McClellan, who was leading the marquee army for Union, the Army of the Potomac, in a march on Richmond up the Virginia Peninsula from Fort Monroe.

McDowell should have been leading the First Corps of the Army of the Potomac under McClellan's supervision, but, at the last minute, the Lincoln Administration had withheld him until the defense of the capital was settled. McClellan's scheme for defense relied on an impenetrable system of forts that he had constructed over the winter that had turned the District of Columbia into the most fortified city on earth. A small mobile corps was to operate in the area, making sure that any enemy couldn't get too comfortable in Northern Virginia again, but it was the futility of attacking the string of fortifications that McClellan counted on to convince strategists in Richmond that their men were better used in different theaters.

But McClellan had violated his own strategy in the opinion of the Administration, particularly Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. An analysis conducted by two veteran generals at Stanton's request found that McClellan had shortchanged the defenses and the mobile corps in manpower and so McDowell's corps had been retained until the problem could be corrected. To better maintain control over the capital's defense, Stanton had created new Departments over which McClellan had no authority for McDowell and other commanders in the Shenandoah, the western Virginia mountains, the District, and Maryland.

But McDowell, now an independent commander, still believed that McClellan's strategy to shift to the Peninsula and take Richmond from its soft underbelly was sound. And he wanted to be part of it. Over the first two weeks of May he continued to lobby as heavily for the plan as he had when McClellan was his superior and on May 17 had finally received his orders to join the march on Richmond. He retained two divisions of the original First Corps, added a newly created division, and was given a division from adjacent Department of the Shenandoah, over 40,000 men all told.

James Shields in Mexico
McDowells's men were forming around Falmouth, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg. They were already calling themselves the Army of the Rappahannock, though the proper staff officer McDowell would have rejected that name since no authority had bestowed it (Scott had once bitterly complained about McClellan using the title "Army of the Potomac" when he had been assigned to a Department). The original two divisions were already there, Brig. General George McCall's Pennsylvania Reserves and Brig. General Rufus King's division, which had been commanded by McDowell himself before his promotion. The third, under newly minted Maj. General Edward O.C. Ord, was nearly completely assembled as well.

All that remained was that of Brig. General James Shields, after which McDowell had authority to cross the Rappahannock and meet up with McClellan at the gates of Richmond. Better yet, Stanton had assigned them to coordinate, but insisted McDowell would retain independent command. It was less about Stanton's support of McDowell than his bottomless distrust of McClellan when it came to defending the capital, but it had the effect of bolstering McDowell. The only problem was Shields, who was high-maintenance to say the least.

On May 18, McDowell, in Washington consulting with the President and War Department, received a irritated telegram from his chief of staff in Falmouth.
General Shields, through a staff officer, who telegraphs from Manassas this morning, inquires where he is to post his division and take up his headquarters--by selecting grounds either at Warrenton Town or Warrenton Junction [now Calverton]? He appeared not to know. He is expected to move as soon as possible on this point [Falmouth]. I have told him to do so. Telegrams of the 7th, 8th, and 15th May contained directions to that effect.
Shields was as colorful as he was short. An Irish immigrant, Shields is the only man in history to serve as a U.S. Senator from three different states. By 1862 he had already notched Illinois and Minnesota (where he originated the position, earning him a statue that still stands in the U.S. Capitol), and had been thrown out of office both times (in Illinois for failing to meet the Constitution's citizenship requirements). In the mid-1840s the then-State Auditor had challenged an obscure Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln to a duel for a vicious piece he supposedly published in the local paper. It had been Lincoln's future wife who wrote it, so Lincoln accepted and chose broadswords for the weapon. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

Shields had been wounded twice in Mexico, commanding a brigade of volunteers in Scott's Mexico City campaign, so he seemed like a natural fit for an army in need of Democrats with stars that could unify the war effort. It seemed like it had worked out well, too, since Shields had told everyone that he had defeated the famed Stonewall at Kernstown while being treated for injuries miles away. Unfortunately for the people who put their trust in him, Shields had more accurately nearly lost the battle, which only was won when he was completely sidelined. But it would be many more months before that truth was known.

On May 19, McDowell, having made it back to Falmouth himself, reported to Stanton that Shields had made it to Catlett's Station [Catlett] and would join the army in two days, but a day later Shields wrote McDowell still at Catlett's announcing he would leave the following morning at 6:00 am. That meant that McDowell's final division didn't arrive until May 22 ("Major-General Shields' command has arrived here." McDowell tersely telegraphed Stanton). Finally, the offensive against Richmond could begin.

The first sign to the War Department that something was wrong on May 23 came from the small brigade of Brig. General John Geary. A physically huge man with an intimidating presence, Geary had been converted to the Republican Party while serving as territorial governor of Kansas during the worst of the Bleeding Kansas crisis. As a Pennsylvania war hero in the Mexican War, Geary had been among the marquee names Governor Andrew Curtain managed to snag to command a regiment during the heady days of 1861, and he had done a good job of it, leading to his promotion to general officer. But while he had the grade, he didn't have the men, and his "brigade" consisted entirely of his 28th Pennsylvania and a battalion of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, strung along the Manassas Gap Railroad from Haymarket to Linden to guard ten bridges.

John W. Geary
Something had gone subtly wrong with Geary while stationed alone, though, perhaps inspired by his time on the frontier. He began to see guerrillas everywhere. At first, the War Department and McDowell, to whom he reported since he was operating in the Department of the Rappahannock even though he properly belonged to the Department of the Shenandoah, responded with encouraging words and recommendations, but the alarms kept coming, while the attacks never did.

So it must have been a challenge to Assistant Secretary of War Paul H. Watson when a telegram arriving at 9:50 pm from Geary's headquarters at Rectortown read:
We have heard firing since 1:30 this afternoon from the direction of Strasburg, and apparently between that place and the river, as near as I can judge. Our communication by telegraph is cut off both with Strasburg and Front Royal at some point near the latter place. There are still bodies of rebel cavalry south of us, and I have no doubt they are supported by infantry. If my position be attacked, I will hold it to the last extreme.
Only ten minutes later, Watson received another from Geary, indicating the general had made up his mind:
We have information that the enemy design attacking various points of this [rail]road in large bodies, and that they intend to attempt to seize Thoroughfare Gap and hold it. It is a very strong point also for the purpose of cutting off the retreat of the troops now upon this line. I think that point should be strongly reinforced without delay.
Stanton was out for the evening and there was no other leader with responsibility for strategy across the theater, so Watson had to make do the best he could. Fortunately for Watson, the commander of the Department of the Shenandoah, Maj. General Nathaniel P. Banks, had kept a cooler head, despite being in a much more dangerous position. He had telegraphed Watson just before Geary to alert him that the 1st Maryland defending Front Royal had been overwhelmed, but that the cool head of their colonel had allowed them to hold long enough that he could evacuate his vastly outnumbered two brigades from Strasburg and the vicinity and was falling back on Winchester.

Watson asked Geary to add his force to Banks, but Geary responded hysterically at midnight with a listing of his stretched command and the trouble he faced. "I could not send re-enforcements without deserting the posts I am now guarding with but indifferent strength," he chastised Watson, before again demanding reinforcements. Watson alerted McDowell of the trouble, and tried his best to prepare for reinforcing Banks at Harper's Ferry, the next natural defense. Fetched from wherever he was (almost certainly not sleeping, Stanton was a workaholic), Stanton spent the rest of the night into the morning sending troops from north of the Potomac wherever he could find them to Harper's Ferry to reinforce Banks.

Geary was back at the next morning. Received at 6:50 (therefore sent an hour or two earlier): "A messenger from Linden reports the rebels in position off Front Royal with 7,000 under Ewell and Loring...The guard between Linden and Markham being greatly exposed, I have ordered them to fall back to the latter place."

At 9:40 am: "Considerable bodies of the enemy are moving through the mountain passes, threatening my advanced pickets at Linden, Markham, and Peidmont... I am also informed that considerable force is south of me, but have not yet learned its location. In view of these circumstances I have ordered the pickets at the above-named places to report here [Rectortown].

At 11:15 am: "I am reliably informed that the enemy are approaching from Front Royal with cavalry, infantry, and artillery. Will you favor me with a knowledge of the condition of affairs at Strasburg and vicinity?"

By 1:50 pm, after reading Banks' reports to the War Department forwarded by Stanton, Geary had regained enough of a grip to at last give an almost accurate intelligence report: "The force described is Ewell's division... an aggregate of over 7,500 men. General Jackson is reported to have 7,000 men on the west side of the Shenandoah." But he persisted in believing there was a large force south of him bent on seizing the railroad.

By 3:20 pm, Geary had made up his mind:
Finding that bodies of the enemy are moving north of me and others in the south, to cut me off on the flanking road, I have ordered my command back to White Plains, a distance of 10 miles--only practicable method of preventing them and securing a position I shall be enabled to hold.
Geary's paranoia was not without significant consequence. With such inadequate information, even a professional analyst would have been unable to piece together what Jackson was trying to do. For an amateur like Stanton, however brilliant, Geary's updates had the dual effect of magnifying the threat and increasing the urgency. And after the previous evening's robbery of men from the other Departments, he now turned his sites on McDowell's 40,000 in Falmouth.

The first noise about diverting his men that were finally ready to march came from Washington itself, in the form of requests from Brig. General James Wadsworth, military governor of the city. McDowell protested Wadsworth's suggestions that some of one of his new brigades that hadn't yet departed for Falmouth should go out to Banks, pointing out simple truths of geography:
It is idle to think of taking any force from this point to go after any force which may be supposed to be in Banks' rear. If they are not there, it will be of no use; if they are really in his rear, nothing from here cna get there in time to afford him any help... I beg I may not be further disorganized [have troops taken from me], and I trust you will do what you can to sustain me and quiet the cry of danger to General Banks.
Shields had caught wind of the situation and, naturally, also had an opinion on it. At 3:00 pm, Stanton received that opinion, approved by McDowell to pass on, probably freely given since it recommended using Maj. General John C. Fremont's Mountain Department troops to solve Banks' problem, freeing up McDowell to march on Richmond:
With the permission of the general commanding I beg leave to make the following suggestions: If Jackson and Ewell have moved against Banks they have placed themselves in a position to be caught by [Fremont's Mountain Department troops]... They have but one thing to do: cross to Waynesborough [sic], seize Charlottesvilel, and destroy the railroad; then with one body and another follow the turnpike to Strasburg, and the enemy will be caught.
Shields offered "if I knew a few facts I can divine the rest" and asked a series of questions while suggesting it was all just a "panic" in Front Royal and "a panic there ought not to paralyze this movement [to Richmond] just now prepared on the eve of execution."  He assured Stanton that "Banks has enough of troops, if well handled, to defend himself against everything that can by any possibility be in the valley of the Shenandoah."

The expert's opinion not withstanding, Lincoln himself telegraphed McDowell at 5:00 pm with his conclusion:
You are instructed, laying aside for the present the movement on Richmond, to put 20,000 men in motion at once for the Shenandoah, moving on the line or in advance of the line of Manassas Gap Railroad. Your object will be to capture the forces of Jackson and Ewell, either in cooperation with General Fremont or... to accomplish this object alone.
Stanton quickly followed with orders to start Shields for Catlett's Station again the next morning, and informed McDowell that Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase would arrive at Aquia Creek Landing at midnight with verbal orders and explanation. McDowell telegraphed back bitterly: "The President's order has been received and is in the process of execution. This is a crushing blow to us."

Stay tuned on Thursday for the second part of how Jackson's Valley Campaign played out in Northern Virginia.

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