In which rival strategic visions lead to the arrival of John Pope, good for no one
June 26 is best known as Robert E. Lee's first offensive with the Army of Northern Virginia, and the second day of the Seven Days, the spectacular offensive that reversed the war's strategic situation and began the legend of Lee. But for Maj. General Irvin McDowell, lately commanding the Department of the Rappahannock, it was another day when his dreams of rehabilitation and glorious military command were yanked from him.
The Confederate Maj. General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and his second-in-command, Maj. General Dick Ewell, had over the month of May upended all the carefully restored order from the banks of the Potomac to the Allegheny Mountains with a campaign that had made fools of the Union commanders he faced (all that had saved their careers thus far was that the size of Jackson's army remained greatly exaggerated). McDowell, with authority over all of northern Virginia, but only west to the Blue Ridge Mountains, had initially resisted having men from his department dragged into the affair, then pledged to solve the problem the other generals couldn't, then when it appeared clear the situation had been defused again tried to extricate his command from it. Jackson's twin victories at Cross Keys and Port Republic only further cemented in McDowell's mind that his men should never have been involved.
Where McDowell's men belonged, in McDowell's mind was not Front Royal, not Manassas Junction, not even Fredericksburg, but outside Richmond with the rest of the Army of the Potomac, from which his command had been carved. That's where the war was being one, he believed, and that's where he had the chance to redeem his name from the shame of the battle at Bull Run, which was really the fault of his subordinate commanders' inability to execute his plan. The nonsense with Jackson stood between McDowell and getting to Richmond.
McDowell had sent two divisions to the Valley, his First Division under Maj. General James Shields, and his Second Division under the temporary command of Brig. General James Ricketts after its former commander was transferred out West to remove him from his feud with McDowell. It was half of Shields' division that had been defeated by Jackson at Port Republic, but nonetheless McDowell was urging their return to Falmouth the day after the battle. From his headquarters in Manassas Junction he practically begged the commander of the Department of the Shenandoah, Maj. General Nathaniel Banks, to resume responsibility for the Valley. In McDowell's mind he had bailed out Banks, so Banks owed it to him to quickly relieve his men.
Banks had other ideas, though. While McDowell thought the Jackson calamity had occurred because the borders of the departments had been drawn in a way that seemed to give him some responsibility for the Valley, Banks believed it had happened because McDowell had taken away almost all of his troops, leaving him with only two brigades to defend a vitally important area. Both were right, in a way. The real problem was without an overall commander with a broad view of the situation, the individual commanders had set conflicting plans of operation into motion. McDowell could not march to reinforce McClellan while Banks also had sufficient forces to protect against a Confederate army moving up the Valley to threaten Maryland. One of the safety of Washington, the reinforcement of McClellan, or the Confederate army had to be eliminated before the others could happen.
There was a third person involved in the affair, Maj. General John Fremont, commander of the Mountain Department. Fremont had also been ordered into the Valley to bail out Banks, and his and McDowell's forces were supposed to have worked together to cut off Jackson and destroy his army. But McDowell had let Jackson get by him and followed him to Cross Keys, where he had been defeated.
Fremont, like McDowell, already had strikes against him, because of his time in Missouri. He had also become a rallying point for the Radical Republicans in Congress, who were not very happy at all with Abraham Lincoln's leadership. So Lincoln sent his personal friend and former ambassador to Spain, Brig. General Carl Schulz to investigate and report back. On June 12, he had issued his report, largely absolving Fremont of responsibility for his failures. Though Fremont might have attacked "with more promptness and vigor," Schurz wrote, if he had actually come between Jackson and safety, it would have been Fremont that had been destroyed.
Overall, Schurz advised Lincoln that "a great blunder was committed by not uniting the two corps [meaning "commands"] of Generals Fremont and Shields. Divided commands will in almost every instance lead to disaster." If only, he argued they had both been together at the battle of Cross Keys, they could have enveloped Jackson and trapped him against the swollen South Fork.
It is frequently the case that the communication between the different armies is interrupted, as for instance when Shields was attacked and beaten by Jackson, and then it depends entirely on accident whether they learn of each other's movements or not. Hence many blunders and misunderstandings.Far from cooperating, McDowell spent the same day trying his best to get Shields the hell out of the Valley. There were wild reports that Jackson had been reinforced, which McDowell nonsensically argued meant that Shields and Ricketts needed to leave the Valley as quickly as possible so that Fremont and Banks could coordinate. But Ricketts had two brigades trapped on the north side of the Shenandoah by the high water, while Shields was refusing to move his men from out of Luray until they received full resupply, including new shoes.
McDowell received a message from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that made things even worse. Stanton had forwarded a telegram from George McClellan that included clippings from the Richmond Whig proclaiming the defeat of McDowell's men at Port Republic (no clips of Fremont's loss were sent). "General Jackson has given General Shields an awful whipping," one said. "Great victory over Shields today," said another. "Jackson pursuing Shields. Urge forward the reenforcements so that he may follow up this success." It was a rare moment when Stanton joined McClellan in preying on a third officer.
The Whig reports combined with other rumors turned the whole area upside down again. Once again the question was where was Jackson and where would he strike next? Someone, most likely Stanton (though he denied it), suggested breaking up McDowell's Second Division and giving the brigade at Front Royal back to Banks. McDowell dashed off a flurry of messages as soon as word reached him on June 15. The most pleading was to Lincoln himself, ignoring the military discipline that required all messages to be forwarded through the Secretary (who had his own version of the protest). He wrote:
So much has been said about my not going to aid McClellan and of his need for reinforcements that I beg the President will now allow me to take every man that can be spared. I make this request in view of what I just learned from Front Royal of an intention to have my Second Division broken up and Hartsuff's brigade transferred to General Banks' department. Fremont's and General Banks' commands are now superabundantly strong for all purposes in the valley.McDowell wasn't even above lying, claiming to have knowledge that Jackson had gone to Charlottesville and was on his way to Richmond, contrary to all the intelligence reports being filed by his own subordinates, an action not excused by the coincidence that McDowell's fantasy happened to be real, while the intelligence reports were wildly off-base.
Fortunately for McDowell, Shields finally obeyed the order to march to Front Royal on June 16, and Hartsuff's brigade of Ricketts' division was the first loaded onto the trains McDowell had had sent from Manassas Junction to bring it back. McDowell appears to have made the decision to present Stanton with a fait accompli to stave off the transfer of any of his troops. Naturally, it ran into trouble from James Shields.
On June 18, Shields sent one of his trademark pompous, preachy, and ill-informed missives to McDowell's headquarters assuring him that a force reported to have reinforced Jackson in the Valley was the division of James Longstreet, which he had erroneously predicted was being transferred there for several weeks.
[Longstreet's division] was in Gordon's Gap when we marched to Luray [ed.--fanciful at best]. I had to keep two brigades there to confront it [ed.--revisionist take]. It was then called away... and was come by way of Stanardsville [ed.--completely invented, no intel reports to this effect]... Jackson will not are, in my opinion, to entangle himself again here. There are positions on the route between here [Front Royal] and Luray where my division can wait and defeat them... Jackson, in my opinion, has gone to Richmond. He will never risk another raid here... If he comes I can select a position to fight him, and will only retreat by positive orders from the general commanding until I have avenged myself upon him, but he will not dare to come.Shields had somehow come to the same (inadvertently correct) conclusion as McDowell, based on even scanter intelligence than wishful thinking. But somehow his opinion about Longstreet made it to Banks, who sent it to Stanton and suggested Shields stay at Front Royal. To Banks' credit, he was working diligently to rebuild his department's ability to fight after so much of it had been sloughed off to build up McDowell's force, but he simply did not have enough troops. Naturally, McDowell was loathe to lose Shields, and when the War Department forwarded him Banks' request he redoubled his efforts to get Shields to move out of Front Royal.
Shields, meanwhile, had decided what his men really needed were furloughs. In a message bizarre even by Shields' standards he wrote directly to McDowell:
Our troops I find are like the Swiss troops (I speak of volunteer troops); if not allowed to go home and see their families they droop and die. I have watched this. It is a human feeling, and I venture to respect it. The men who are denied this permission cease to be of any use.Furloughs would, of course, delay the march on Richmond again.
Perhaps catching wind that McDowell was trying to withdraw his men as fast as possible, Stanton demanded that McDowell travel through the night to Washington for consultation. It was at this point that McDowell became injured, according to his chief of staff, but his injuries are never described. The only thing that was certain was that he couldn't travel to Washington to see Stanton.
The day McDowell should have been in Washington, his chief of staff spent telegraphing Shields. "The hour every train starts from Front Royal should be communicated," he told Shields, and he continued McDowell's old logical inconsistency that the reports of reinforcements meant Shields had to move to Manassas Junction as fast as possible.
Meanwhile Banks, who had gone to Washington, was surprised to learn Shields was leaving in such a hurry. "I thought it was determined when I left Washington that he would remain," he helplessly protested to Stanton on the night of June 20. "It would add much to the security of the valley, and in my judgment it is necessary to the successful issue of your plans. I hope he may yet remain a few days at least."
McDowell obfuscated while Shields continued to withdraw. He insisted that there was immediate danger from the force he had lately claimed was on its way to Richmond, and so Shields had to be removed because his men were too used up from the Valley Campaign and unfit to fight, though he clearly meant to use them to fight outside Richmond.
"We know of no immediate danger from enemy which requires Shields' division to move," Banks implored Stanton.
If McDowell has information which renders this sudden and general movement of General Shields' force--the withdrawal of railroad power and everything, operator and all--necessary (which the railroad superintendent informs me is ordered), we, who are subject to the same dangers, ought at least to know what it is.Stanton was most concerned about fifty miles of telegraph wire that was supposedly left behind at Front Royal for the Confederates to seize. "If you have any information affecting General Banks' security," he noted as an after thought to McDowell, "you will, of course, inform him."
Apparently the admonition about the lost telegraph wire set off McDowell, who seemingly had recovered enough to send out a lengthy pedantic reply to Stanton, dissecting all of Banks' arguments and attempting to portray him as an ineffectual moron. "If General Banks has now means satisfactory to himself of getting over the river he can occupy Front Royal whenever he sees fit," McDowell snapped.
The [rail]road hence to Front Royal is by the orders of the War Department under his control, and General Geary, also under his orders, reoccupies the line. There is a telegraph operator at Rectortown. The whole matter is now entirely, it seems to me, with General Banks.At 5:30 pm on June 23 the deed was done, and the last of Shields' division arrived at Bristoe Station. The excitement beginning to build for McDowell, he sent orders for his Fourth Division that was stretched between Catlett's Station and Falmouth, to reconstitute at Falmouth in preparation for beginning their march. The hapless Banks, meanwhile, tried to recall the brigade guarding the Manassas Gap Railroad to the Valley and dump that important task on McDowell, who quickly quashed the plan. Fremont's command remained useless in its torpor at Mount Jackson.
But for all McDowell's victories in the army bureaucracy over his superiors, he was helpless before the weather, and a harsh Virginia thunderstorm on the evening of June 23 swept away the railroad bridge at Fredericksburg he had spent so long rebuilding before Jackson upended everything, along with severely damaging his other crossings. It might be a week before he could rebuild sufficient crossings to sustain his army, and McDowell went to work trying to determine if transporting his three divisions by boat would get him to the fight faster.
He was just deciding that it was unfeasible when the crushing news of June 26 yanked his dream of glory away. An order signed by "A. Lincoln" arrived creating the Army of Virginia, consisting of Fremont's Mountain Department, now the First Corps, Banks' Department of the Shenandoah, now the Second Corps, and, junior to them all, McDowell's Department of the Rappahannock--no longer an independent command, but now the Third Corps of an army led by Maj. General John Pope.
And not only would McDowell be robbed the glory of commanding the movement of his men on Richmond, but the whole activity was only fourth in the Army of Virginia's priorities after "protecting Western Virginia and the national capital from danger or insult" and "in the speediest manner attack[ing] and overcom[ing] the rebel forces under Jackson and Ewell, and the newly added "threaten the enemy in the direction of Charlottesville."
Worst of all, though unknown to Irvin McDowell at the time, the arrival of John Pope to Virginia set into motion the events that would lead to his own undoing.