Thursday, June 7, 2012

Nothing But A Panic

Wherein the race to cut off Jackson is on

In case you missed it, check out Tuesday's post on the beginning of Jackson's Valley Campaign, as viewed from the Piedmont. In short: McClellan counted on the forts surrounding Washington to defend the city, but the Lincoln Administration wasn't so sure, so it kept McDowell behind. After months of waiting, McDowell was ready to go to Richmond, but on the day he was supposed to kick off, Jackson surprised and captured Front Royal. McDowell's orders to march were cancelled by the President himself.

"This is a crushing blow to us," Maj. General Irvin McDowell telegraphed Edwin Stanton on the evening of May 24 from his headquarters at Falmouth.

On orders from the Secretary of War, the commander of the Department of the Rapphannock was preparing to depart to meet Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase at Aquia Creek Landing at midnight for full oral orders from the President. Chase had been sent for two reasons: first, Stanton was preoccupied with theater-strategic concerns because Jackson's offensive threatened three different too-narrowly-drawn departments; and second, as a fellow Ohioan Chase had been McDowell's patron in the capital in the spring of 1861 and helped get him his star(s) in the first place. Since McClellan looked like he would be at the gates of Richmond within the week, Chase might help soothe McDowell's agony at being excluded from the grand campaign to conclude the war.

Lincoln was certainly bending over backwards to ease McDowell's disappointment. At 8:00 pm, two hours after McDowell's crushing blow telegram had been received, the President himself, not the Secretary of War, telegraphed a reply.
I am highly gratified by your alacrity in obeying my order. The change was as painful to me as it can possibly be to you or to any one. Everything now depends upon the celerity and vigor of your movement.
Confederate Maj. General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was loose somewhere north of Front Royal with between 7,000 and 10,000 men from his division and that of Maj. General Dick Ewell, and the main Union defender, Maj. General Nathaniel P. Banks, was at least as far north as Winchester, with the remains of only two brigades amounting to, at most, 4,000 men. McDowell was supposed to send two divisions of his department (about 20,000 out of over 40,000 men) to Front Royal as fast as possible, while Maj. General John C. Fremont of the Mountain Department sent as many of his as he could spare to Staunton.

At 9:30 pm, Lincoln received another bitter, but this time more loquacious, reply from McDowell.
I obeyed your order immediately, for it was positive and urgent, and perhaps as a subordinate there I ought to stop; but I trust I may be allowed to say something in relation to the subject, especially in view of your remark that everything now depends upon the celerity and vigor of my movements. I beg to say that cooperation between General Fremont and myself to cut Jackson and Ewell there is not to be counted upon, even if it is not a practical impossibility.
McDowell had tried to explain his objections to Stanton earlier in the day and now he tried again with Lincoln. "I am entirely beyond helping distance of General Banks," he protested, "no celerity or vigor will avail so far as he is concerned."
Next, that by a glance at the map it will be seen that the line of retreat of the enemy's forces up the valley is shorter than mine to go against him. It will take a week or ten days for the force to get to the valley by the route which will give it food and forage, and by that time the enemy will have retired. I shall gain nothing for you there, and shall lose much for you here.

"It is therefore not only on personal grounds that I have a heavy heart in the matter," McDowell unburdened himself, "but that I feel it throws us all back, and from Richmond north we shall have all our large masses paralyzed, and shall have to repeat what we have just accomplished."

He would send Maj. General James Shields with his division, ironically just from the Valley after a laborious march, in the morning and follow with another division in the afternoon. But first he promised to see Chase and "express myself more fully to him."

Unsurprisingly, Chase came to ensure the President's orders were carried out, not revise them. He returned to Falmouth with McDowell, who, evidently brought Shields into the conversation as well. Chase stood firm with the generals, but in his telegraphs back to Stanton showed that they had made an impression on him. At 10:15 am, he sent the Secretary of War a long telegram:
Shields' division is moving toward Catlett's. King will follow as soon as the advance of Shields will permit... Would not time be saved by bringing General Shields to Washington for consultation? His information and judgement are excellent, and his coming would not delay the movement of his division.
Unable to persuade the Administration to outright cancel the movement, McDowell and Shields had changed tactics and convinced Chase that the best option was to march Shields to Charlottesville and strike Jackson's presumed supply depot, instead of going after his army in Front Royal. The Charlottesville plan had the advantage that it had a railway that ran all the way back east to several dozen miles south of Fredericksburg at Hanover Junction [near today's King's Dominion]. Presumably the generals thought that once the foolish worry about Jackson was done with in a few days, Shields' division could rejoin McDowell there and the march on Richmond would only be delayed by a few days.

Working against their efforts, albeit inadvertently, was Brig. General John Geary, stationed with a small command of the 28th Pennsylvania Infantry and a battalion of the 1st Michigan Cavalry. Geary had originally been responsible for guarding the Manassas Gap Railroad from Linden to Haymarket, but over the previous twenty-four hours had panicked, and steadily withdrawn his men further and further to the east until they now only protected from White Plains [The Plains] to Haymarket. At each interval, he sent a frantic telegram to Edwin Stanton about phantom Confederate armies.

On May 25, he was no better. Half an hour before Chase proposed Shields go to Washington himself, Stanton had received another report from Geary, this time adding a third Confederate force to the ones from north and south of the day before.
A large force from Ashby's Gap was menacing me [yesterday afternoon] on the north, and similar on the south, moving evidently with a view to outflank me by the Salem road. A force on the railroad was in front of me, coming from Front Royal. I therefore deemed it prudent to concentrate my scattered forces at this place, and am now engaged upon that work.
The report admitted that "all seems quiet this morning," but by midday Geary was telegraphing that "the enemy's force at Ashby's Gap appear to have the intention of advancing on Leesburg to occupy the forts there with artillery and infantry." By that point, Geary was already personally reconnoitering defensive positions at Thoroughfare Gap, to the east of his morning position at White Plains.

Lincoln himself telegraphed Geary at 1:45 pm, asking him to give his best information about the number of Confederates north of Front Royal and how many may have crossed over the mountains and were headed towards Washington. Geary gave his answer, based on personal speculation and the accounts of escaped slaves that were coming into camp that morning.
The enemy are passing up from Front Royal... to Ashby's Gap, at which place I have heard the firing of their guns. This fact is also corroborated by contrabands, who say their force intends crossing by Snickersville to Leesburg, there to seize the fortifications and maintain a position in that section. My information shows the enemy to be in full possession of the country between Front Royal and Ashby's Gap between the mountains and the river. My impression is that the number thus traveling cannot be short of 7,000 or 8,000, who I understand are supported by large forces at Front Royal, of which I can form no correct estimate, but they are reported to be large...Forces have crossed at Manassas Gap and are now in front of me. Contrabands have told me that they have heard letters read in families of secessionists in which they belong stating that 10,000 cavalry are about passing through this valley from the direction of Warrenton.
It was pure fantasy. It's unlikely that there were much more than 10,000 horsemen in the entirety of the Confederate army, and there was certainly not an additional force of 7,000 men to Jackson's large force, which wasn't even at Front Royal anymore. But all Edwin Stanton knew was that Banks was now north of Winchester and being hotly pursued, and that the capital had far fewer men than he thought it should.

"Intelligence received this morning shows that Banks has been attacked in force at Winchester and is retreating toward Harper's Ferry," Stanton telegraphed McDowell at 10:20 am. "The movement orderes [to Front Royal] yesterday should be pressed forward with all speed. The president thinks your field of operations at the present is the one he has indicated."

And at 1:00, he asked McDowell to send a brigade to Manassas Junction and a brigade back to Washington City. And that was before Geary's fanciful intelligence report was received. After, Stanton became frenzied himself. He telegraphed to McDowell, who had marched his two remaining divisions south a few miles to make a demonstration (and make it easier to station them at Hanover Junction) to try to find out where the 5,000 or so Confederates that had been opposing him had gone to. To make matters worse, McDowell didn't know and didn't appear to care.
I hope soon to be able to tell you more precisely where the enemy is. One thing is certain, that whether they left here to join Jackson or not they have not done so yet, and that all the grand masses Geary reports must come from some other place than here. They left here by stealth and with dread of being attacked. [According to deserters] they went at night, and for a distance by by-roads. They thought I had 60,000 men.
At some point, Stanton appears to have decided to cancel the planned interview with Shields, though the telegram to Chase revoking permission to bring him to Washington City is not listed in the Official Records. Most likely by the time Chase got to Aquia Creek Landing, Stanton had orders waiting there confirming that movement of the division to Front Royal was the only acceptable scenario. By the time the men in McDowell's apartment flopped down to sleep, they could no longer be considered a single force.

The four brigades of Shields' division were bivouacked south of Catlett's Station. The following division, that of Maj. General Edward Ord, had one brigade on a transport anchored in the Potomac for the night on the way to Alexandria, and the other on the way to Washington, while its third brigade had been detached to assist Geary. And the remaining two divisions, that of Brig. General Rufus King and the Pennsylvania Reserves of Brig. General George McCall, were a dozen miles north of Hanover Junction, so close, yet so far, from Richmond.

The next day proceeded much the same as the one before for the leaders in the Department of the Rappahannock. During the night, Geary had been reinforced with another battalion of cavalry, and the third brigade from Ord's division was nearing. At some point in the late afternoon or evening Geary had pulled his infantry back to Thoroughfare Gap, though when he reported his position midmorning to Stanton he had "about 350 men scouting south of Haymarket and Gainesville and toward New Baltimore." That number accounted for nearly half his force--quite a large scouting party.

Stanton had spent most of the morning communicating with Nathaniel Banks on the status of his small force, now safely across the Potomac River, with Jackson still in hot pursuit. Stanton was trying to get as many regiments from Baltimore to Harper's Ferry as possible to prevent an invasion of Maryland--an already questionably loyal state. But at 12:40 pm, his efforts were distracted by a telegram that arrived from Geary.
Drummer-boy of First Maryland Regiment, taken prisoner at Front Royal, made his escape, and has walked in; and he reports that 14,000 of the enemy were at Front Royal at the time of the attack upon the First Maryland. On the day after about 4,000 men went through Front Royal and marched toward Winchester.
The implication was the rest were headed for Geary. Within minutes Stanton replied, ordering, "if threatened, as you report, by superior forces, you should fall back on Manassas..." to unite with the brigade from Ord's division. It took less than thirty minutes for Geary to decide: "Upon consultation with all my officers, they have, in consideration of the hopeless circumstances surrounding us, concluded to attempt to march to Manassas."

Lincoln recalled a skeptical McDowell to Washington to discuss moving his two remaining divisions back to Manassas Junction and abandoning Fredericksburg. The troops he had already sent to Washington, McDowell argued back, "added to that under General Geary, makes an effective force of 21,000 men" on top of the forces already in Washington and the forts. McDowell declared it "an adequate force to meet that of the enemy" but departed for Washington all the same.

Shields was even more skeptical. Telegraphing Stanton directly from Catlett's Station, he told him:
Five thousand of my division are within 5 miles of Manassas this moment; also thirty pieces of artillery... [They are] instructed to enter Manassas at early light tomorrow morning, open communication with Colonel [sic] Geary, support him, picket railroad, &c.... There is no danger of Manassas now, even if there are 18,000 as Geary says; but my opinion is that the force is small and that this is a panic. Tomorrow will show. If Jackson is here we will give him a bloody reception. It will be worse than Winchester, and will avenge Banks.
Unsurprisingly, the next day held no bloody reception. Not long after dawn, Shields' First Brigade reached Manassas Junction. But Shields had already come to conclusions at Catlett's Station. "I think there is no force before General Geary except the cavalry of the mountains," he wrote McDowell in the morning.
I think the whole is a panic. I don't think there is 10,000 of the enemy at any one point in the Shenandoah Valley. I will send on my cavalry and scour the country in advance toward Front Royal as far as possible today. I want no assistance. My own division is sufficient for present emergencies. General Geary was not, in my opinion, in the slightest danger.
Shields was already thinking of making the most of the false crisis.
I beg General McDowell to tell the President and Secretary of War that I will clear the valley of the Shenandoah of the enemy as far as I advance. I regret the panic that has been created in Washington--that the force that created it was an insignificant one. Tell him that I hope to return to Fredericksburg as soon as I drive the enemy out of the valley of the Shenandoah.
By the afternoon he had arrived in Manassas himself and confirmed his suspicions. "I have seen General Geary, who is here," he telegraphed McDowell. "The whole panic is causeless. I am ashamed of it." Jackson had sent a few hundred men into Manassas Gap to screen his movement north and Geary had run as soon as they had opened fire. Shields pledged to fix it. "Everything as it was," he promised, "except the commanders, who ought to be replaced to save us from disgrace."

But Shields took it a step further and telegraphed Stanton directly:
The whole thing here was a shameful panic. There were only a few hundred of the rebels ever seen, and yet the railroads and telegraph lines were abandoned at their approach. General Geary is here. I have seen him, and this is my summing up: send no more men... If you will send me supplies and forage I will do the work myself. The others will be of no use to me. The whole was a stampede.
Stanton immediately telegraphed Geary, demanding the location of the enemy forces in front of him. Geary's reply was curt and defensive, and Stanton must have concluded Shields was right and authorized him to continue on to Front Royal, because a telegram he received at 3:10 pm from Shields is enthusiastic and full of bravado.
Just in time to save us from a disgraceful stampede... All is confusion here. It is a painful spectacle. No force of the enemy worth speaking of. They ran at the sight of rabble cavalry. I can retake the valley and rejoin General McDowell, but you must send new men to keep it. The women will take it if we don't.
McDowell, who arrived at Manassas Junction that night, made sure to pile on by forwarding a report from Shields' lead brigadier who had moved on to Haymarket that Geary had burned 1,000 new Enfield rifles and 700 new carbines, along with tents and clothing.

The disposition of the opposing force cleared up, all that was left was the race to Front Royal to cut Jackson off from his avenues of retreat. McDowell had originally predicted that there was no way to do so in time, but Jackson's aggressive threatening of Harper's Ferry and much smaller numbers seem to have given him hope. First, though, he ordered Geary to take directions from Shields from now on, and to "report to General Shields frequently, and to these headquarters, and nowhere else." There would be no more reports to panic the Secretary of War.

The change in situation had also reanimated McDowell, who was now fully behind the effort. He had received news that McClellan's army had seized Hanover Junction, so if he could crush Jackson, he could take the railroad from the Valley to join them without needing to coordinate the advance of his other two divisions. He just had to move quickly, a fact the President reminded him of throughout the day.

Writing quickly, McDowell would send the briefest situational updates to Stanton possible, who inevitably pestered him for more information. "General Geary reports this a.m. that his scouts find nothing of the enemy this side of the Blue Ridge," he dashed off at one point mid-afternoon. "Nothing else of importance." Frustrated at hours of similar reports and days of poor intelligence gathering, Abraham Lincoln himself replied at 4:00 pm.
You say General Geary's scouts report that they find no enemy this side of the Blue Ridge. Neither do I. Have they been to the Blue Ridge looking for them?
Chastised, McDowell sent a more thorough accounting of his intelligence activities. The day was also full of micromanaging by Stanton, who was intent on withdrawing some of the cavalry loaned to Geary. McDowell, naturally, was opposed to any such attempt. "I have thought, and think, there is no military necessity for any greater cavalry force in the city than is sufficient for police purposes," he argued, "and that the capital would be better and more satisfactorily protected by horsemen patrolling the country in front and keeping us informed as to the enemy than by anything they might attempt to do in the city itself." For once, McDowell won the argument, but it took most of the day.

After 11:00 pm, McDowell made the decision that he would commit a third division, as reserves. Brig. General Rufus King had carried out a reconnaissance from Fredericksburg and determined that there was a chance a small force was moving towards Charlottesville. If Jackson were to abandon Harper's Ferry and go there immediately, the two might be able to thread the gap between Fredericksburg and Front Royal and march on Manassas. It was directly at odds with the sorts of movements McDowell had been arguing for for days, but the exhaustion and non-stop pestering from the President to hurry--McDowell protested that he was "doing everything which legs and steam are capable of"--clouded his judgment.

To make it happen, McDowell ordered King to take all the supplies of the Pennsylvania Reserves, who were left with little food and none of their wagons and head for Catlett's Station. King, however, took too much, including a very large herd of cattle, and became immediately bogged down. And he wasn't the only one.

In the morning, Lincoln had telegraphed McDowell that John Fremont would have his Mountain Division men in Strasburg by noon the following day. "Try to have your force in the advance of it at Front Royal as soon," the President had admonished. McDowell immediately telegraphed Shields the message, advising him that "we must not disappoint the expectations of the President, if extraordinary exertions will enable us to fulfill them."

"I can be there before the hour designated," Shields advised him, by marching two brigades at night and putting the rest on the Manassas Gap Railroad.

But the railroad was the problem. In the rush to resupply and transport Shields division, there had been an accident, with an engine and several cars falling cross-wise on the tracks. It was unusable, which meant that Shields was stopped without sufficient forage for his horses, and that Ord's division--reunited at Manassas Junction--could not follow him. It was sunset before the track was cleared and trains could get started again.

Jackson, at least, was being cooperative. His men were marching as close as they dared to Union fortifications at Harper's Ferry, trying to draw Banks' tiny force out into a fight. Every hour he spent demonstrating outside of Harper's Ferry was another opportunity McDowell had to make Front Royal and cut him off, saving Washington from the threat. Briefly during the night Stanton feared that Jackson might outright assault the town and cross the Potomac, but he telegraphed McDowell in relief on the morning of May 30 to let him know the Union still held the crossing.

McDowell was granted until 10:00 am before the pestering telegrams from the President began. Again, he was worried about McDowell not living up to Fremont's abilities.
I somewhat apprehend that Fremont's force, in its present condition, may not be quite strong enough in case it comes in collision with the enemy. For this additional reason I wish you to push forward your column as rapidly as possible. Tell me what number your force reaching Front Royal will amount to.
"I am pushing everything to the utmost, as I telegraphed the Secretary of War last night," McDowell wrote back. But Shields thought he might not make Front Royal until the evening, and the weather was hot and hard on his men, who were strung out from Rectortown to Catlett's Station as guards or stragglers.

As the day dragged on, McDowell heard nothing from Shields, and began to lose his cool. He decided to ride to Front Royal himself, and set off headed toward Thoroughfare Gap. At noon, he found Edward Ord in Piedmont, only five miles from where he had camped his division the night before. "I reproached General Ord," he telegraphed Stanton, using harsh language for McDowell, "for the condition of his command and for its not being farther ahead."
He pleaded sickness, and that he had not been well for several days, and was now unable to hold a command, which he turned over to Brigadier-General Ricketts. I have told General Ricketts to have his division at Front Royal by tonight.
At 7:30 pm, McDowell had reached Rectorville, to the east of the pass that leads to Front Royal, and had turned on Shields to the Secretary of War.
I have not heard from General Shields since he left this morning. his command is in front... This place is filled with stragglers and broken-down men from every brigade. We are little by little getting things in order. Cannon firing has been heard from the front during the day. Nothing has been heard from General Geary, who is to the north of us. General Shields has not as yet sent back word of his progress. Half of his provision train is still here.
James Shields, in actuality, was on his own in Front Royal with his two lead brigades, the first of which had arrived an hour before noon. And he was waiting to defeat Jackson.

Our series concludes on Saturday, make sure to come back.

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