Horatio C. (Horatio Collins) King.

The army of the Potomac, sketch; (Volume 2) online

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THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC

SKETCH

THE PHANTOM COLUMN

POEH



BY

HORATIO C. KING



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MajOR-CiRNERAL ("iKORCtK B. McCl.lU.I.AX, U. vS. A.



THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC.
By Gen. Horatio C. King, LL.D.

{Extract of Letter from Mrs. McClellan on reading the following article.)

Jefferson, " The Jeffersou," August 31, 1897.
Dear General King :

I must send you a line to thaak you for the beautiful article you have written
on my husband. It is one of the most satisfactory that has been written, and I
cannot tell you how touched I am that you have written it. So many cruel things
have been written about him that I appreciate this more than I can tell you, as
what you have said, you have said so well. ♦ * * *

Again thanlcing you for Arhat yon have done, I am, dear General King,
Yours very sincerely,

ELLEN M. McCLELLAN.

The ignorant and idiotic cry from the rear of " On to
Richmond !" had precipitated an engagement at Bull Run
between raw and undisciplined recruits. Both sides were
defeated, but the Union forces realized it first and with-
drew to Washington to commence the real study of war.
And the first requisite was a competent instructor.
Western Virginia had been attracting considerable atten-
tion, for there McClellan and Rosecrans had been carrying
on some warfare in a practical way as laid down by the
rules of war. McDowell having voluntarily relinquished
the command without dishonor, the young engineer from
Ohio was called to Washington the day after the battle
of Bull Run. The North, awakened to the fact that war
is not a picnic, responded promptly and lavishly to the
call for men and munitions, and McClellan began at once
the difficult task of organizing the mass of raw civilians
into a magnificent and cohesive army. Educated to the
profession of war, he exhibited at once his marvelous
ability for organization and discipline, and the hetero-
geneous mass which gave to Washington the appearance
of being in the hands of a uniformed mob, soon felt the
force of his genius. With rare skill he fashioned that
grand machine which was not changed in any material
detail until, fiushed with victory, it saw the beaten and
almost starved veterans of that seemingly invincible Army






of Northern Virginia lay down their arms at Appomattox
and melt away like snow under the influence of an April
sun. A third of a century has passed away, and with it,
happily, the passions which animated the critics of the
first commander, who lived long enough to witness a
great change in public sentiment, and to have his patriot-
ism and ability almost universally acknowledged. The
silly aspersions upon his loyalty are confined now mainly
to the generation of ill-read youths who were in their
swaddling clothes when he was standing as a wall against
the vast hosts which flaunted the " stars and bars " almost
in sight of the Capital, which he saved by his hard-won
victory at Antietam, One fact is universally conceded,
namely : that no commander of prominence ever had
more completely the devoted affection of his army. It
was the magnetic influence which Napoleon exercised,
and which gave to McClellan the loving sobriquet with
which he was always mentioned, "Little Mac." It accom-
panied him through all the vicissitudes of his active com-
mand ; it followed him into retirement and throughout
his life ; and when the sudden summons came, taps were
sounded and the lights were out, no man of that great
army who served under him but dropped a tear for
" Little Mac," the brave commander, the thoughtful friend
and the Christian gentleman.*

* A notable exhibition of this aflfection came under my personal
observation. The Society of the Army of the Potomac was organ-
ized in New York City in 1869. McClellan, Burnside, Hooker,
Meade, Sheridan and many other distingui.shed officers were present.
It was naturally expected and an effort was made to have the first
four presidents the four commanders of that army in the order of
their service.

Unfortunately, party feeling, so soon after the war, still ran high
and it made itself conspicuous when the nominations for president
were made. McClellan seemed to be the natural selection, and as
his name was most frequently mentioned, he, with characteristic
modesty, called General Burnside to the chair. McClellan, Meade,
Sheridan, Hancock, Pleasonton, Slocum, Humphreys and Burnside
were all placed in nomination. Sheridan asked to be excused as
he had nominated Meade, but his name was not withdrawn. On



The first call for seventy-five thousand troops seemed
preposterously large, and untried officers found them-
selves confronted with a difficult problem. Those were
fortunate who were not called upon to solve it until later

the first ballot the vote stood: McClellan, 164; Sheridan, 142; Meade,
III ; and Humphreys and Burnside, each i.

No candidate having received a majority, a second ballot was
taken, with this result : Sheridan, 204 ; McClellan, 152 ; and Meade,
34. Sheridan was then conducted to the chair amid general
acclamations, while McClellan and many of his adherents quietly
left the hall. Sheridan, though very popular, had not commanded
the Army of the Potomac, and McClellan no doubt felt the slight
very deeply. But he made no exhibition save a continuous absence
from the reunions until the meeting in Washington, D. C, in
1883. On this occasion he attended the banquet and responded to
the toast of ' ' The Army of the Potomac. ' ' When he arose to speak
and his presence was then first made known, his old comrades, of
whom about four hundred were present, arose en masse, and for at
least five minutes an enthusiasm which beggars description en-
sued. At length, quiet being restored, he proceeded to make the
first public reply to his critics and detractors. He reviewed his
connection with that army from the time he took command in
Washington until his retirement. He spoke of them as " more to
me than mere comrades, more than brothers in arms, you were as
my very children. " The address, which occupies less than three
pages of the printed report, was calm, dispassionate, but full of
pointed and patriotic allusions. He was frequently interrupted by
cheers and wild applause, and no one present had any doubt after
that of the place he held in the hearts of the men who followed him
in the great struggle. In closing he said : ' ' That army which it
was my fortune to organize and create, which, under my command,
became an army of veterans, which under me first received its
baptism in that sea of fire and blood through which for four long
years it plunged with uplifted banners, and bearing on its bayonets
the life of the nation until it emerged at Appomattox — the Grand
Army of the Potomac — I, as its earliest and only living commander,
am proud to believe stands the equal of any of the historic armies
of the world, in efficiency, in valor and achievement. I was right
when in the beginning of our campaign I said to you that that man 's
measure of honor and glory would be filled to overflowing who
could say that he belonged to the Army of the Potomac. ' ' I be-
lieve this was his first and last appearance, for a few years after he
joined the ranks of the living on the ' ' other side of the water. ' '



in the war, when they had learned by experience how to
manage and maneuver large bodies of men. Some bril-
liant soldiers failed in their first efforts, who, had they
been summoned later to command, would have won un-
fading laurels. It is not necessary to name them. They
are known to all who are familiar with the history of the
war. McClellan is numbered as one of these. There
never was a nation before which contained so many
theoretical warriors, who, with pens dipped in gory ink,
fought grand battles in the retirement of their dingy
sanctums, or told how unsuccessful engagements might
have been grand victories had General This and That
only done thus and so ; and the merchant at his desk, the
lawyer in the forum, the preacher in his study, and the
schoolboy in his pinafore pointed out the mistakes of the
generals, and showed how easily they might have pierced
the center or doubled up the flanks, and bagged the entire
Confederate army on each and every occasion, when the
soldiers who were on the ground were unable to accom-
plish that very desirable result. The great trouble was
that these suggestions were in the nature of a post
mortem, which, while it may benefit science, is of small
importance to the corpse.

His first efforts were directed toward weeding out in-
efficient officers, and several hundred were sent to their
homes. Regiments were formed into brigades and brig-
ades into divisions. As few officers at that time were
competent to command a greater force than a division,
the organization of corps was deferred until later. In fact,
he directed every detail necessary to perfect the complex
machine which was to remain practically intact until the
close of the war.

Nor did he overlook the importance of fortifications
and intrenchments. It has been charged that McClellan
depended too much upon the pick and the spade, but the
country reaped the benefit of his foresight and skill as an
engineer and digger when Early's entrance into Wash-
ington was barred only by the magnificent line of fortifi-
cations which were built by McClellan's orders and under



his supervision. Later, our troops profited in every
engagement by improvised defenses of earth, stone, rails
and trees, and never lost an opportunity to work like
beavers and dig like moles when in the presence of a
wily, skillful, brave and powerful foe. A great marshal
of France once said that " Whoever has committed no
faults has never made war," and it is not claimed by any
one that McClellan was infallible ; but subsequent history
proved that his plans, in their general characteristics,
were the best, and especially the plan which made the
James River the base for the approach to and final cap-
ture of Richmond. It is true that the second great com-
mander chose the land route, but his famous and persistent
march by the left fllank finally brought him to the James
with the loss of a greater number than General McClellan
had under his command at any time on the Peninsula.
Grant had the men, and the hammering process was con-
sidered sufficiently disastrous to the Confederate army
to justify our sacrifice ; for it was said that at that time
the South had already robbed the cradle and the grave
to fill its depleted ranks. About one point there has
never been any dispute. When McClellan left Alexandria
for the Peninsula, the army of McDowell, near Fred-
ericksburg, some forty thousand men, was under his
command and was expected to co-operate with him. But
his force was scarcely landed at Yorktown before the
authorities at the Capital withdrew that force from
McClellan's control, lest by uncovering Washington the
Confederates might make a dash and capture it. It was
not until Grant took supreme command, with the positive
assurance from President Lincoln that he would not be
interfered with by the civil authorities, that they learned
the truth of McClellan's statement that the place to pro-
tect and defend Washington was in front of Richmond.

His original plan, known as the Anaconda plan, was the
plan adopted by his immortal successor as general-in-
chief, and indeed the only rational plan by which to con-
quer over so vast a territory.

It was undoubtedly McClellan's purpose to attack the



Army of Northern Virginia at Manassas, and to attempt
the capture of Richmond by the land route. The long
delay in front of Manassas aroused much dissatisfaction,
but the impracticability of following an enemy through
one hundred miles in his own territory, and keeping up
communication with a base of supplies, asserted itself.
McClellan thereupon surprised the country by quietly
transferring his entire army to a new base on the James
River, thus compelling the Confederates to return to the
protection of their menaced Capital. The withdrawal of
McDowell's force from active co-operation was a serious
blow. But the advance up the Peninsula was made.
Yorktown was evacuated, Williamsburg was won, and
soon the Union forces were encamped in sight of the
spires of Richmond. There is not space here to give the
movements and engagements in detail. The unchecked
advance, the subsequent reverses, the skillful retreats,
with the magnificent battle of Fair Oaks, and the terrific
repulse of the enemy at Malvern Hill, which are among
the most noted engagements of the war, can receive but
passing mention here. At Fair Oaks the enemy lost their
leader — Johnston — and seven thousand men, while our
loss was but five thousand, and it was learned subse-
quently that the people of Richmond momentarily awaited
the tramp of our forces in the streets of their Capital ; and
had our own army, after its terrible struggle of seven
days' continuous fighting, been reinforced and thus en-
abled to assume the offensive, it could even then have
marched into that stronghold. In the campaign, our loss
was a little over fifteen thousand, while the Confederate
loss was over nineteen thousand. Victory was on the
side of the Confederates, for the siege of Richmond was
raised, but the morale of our army was not destroyed, or
its confidence in its leader shaken. Had the army been
then reinforced, even if placed under another leader, it is
asserted by soldiers of acknowledged wisdom and experi-
ence, that ultimate success would have been reached
within a year — some say six months. Says Swinton, in
summing up the results of the campaign : '' For the com-



mander to have extricated his army from a difihcult situ-
ation, in which circumstances quite as much as his own
fault had placed it, and in presence of a powerful, skillful
and determined adversary, to have transferred it to a
position whence it could act with effect, was of itself a
notable achievement. For the army to have fought
through such a campaign was creditable, and its close
found inexperienced troops transformed into veteran
soldiers ; and, if alone from the appeal which great suffer-
ing and great sacrifices always make to a generous people,
the story of that eventful march and arduous retreat,
when, weary and hungry and footsore, the army marched
by night and fought by day through a whole week of toil
and never gave up, but made a good fight and reached
the goal, cannot fail to live in grateful remembrance."

The authorities at Washington, deeming further efforts
on the Peninsula useless, withdrew the army, leaving
McClellan practically without a command. A new com-
mander was called from the West to lead the discomfited
but not dispirited forces.

I was on duty in the defenses south of Washington
when General Pope fought and lost the second battle of
Bull Run. Only those who were present can realize the
consternation, amounting almost to panic, which existed
in that city when the stragglers from that arm}^ hatless,
shoeless and ragged, swarmed by thousands in the streets
of the Capital. It was the darkest period in the history
of the war. Demoralization ran riot, and the authorities
were wild with excitement and fear. All eyes were
turned toward the little commander whose army had but
recently been taken from him. Had he been less a man
and a patriot, he would have rejected the offer to resume
command of his army ; but he did not. His reassignment
acted like magic. Immediately out of chaos came order;
the nation once more breathed freely, and courage took
the place of despair. Active traitors, cowards and mal-
contents who had been stirring up sedition and opposition
in the rear, and who were more dangerous to the safet)^
of the Union than the open and avowed enemies with



arms in their hands, were again cowed and dared not
carry on their schemes for dissolution in the light of day.
With scarce two weeks to equip and rehabilitate a dis-
pirited army, he met the exultant enemy at Antietam,
and defeated and drove them across the Potomac. He
has been censured for not following up this victory, and
so was the gallant Meade because he did not capture or
drive the enemy into the river after the grand repulse at
Gettysburg. On both occasions the great and glorious
Army of the Potomac had been sorely pressed by three
days of most terrible fighting, and the commanders,
uninformed of the demoralization of their foes, were un-
willing to risk a pursuit which they feared might deprive
them of the immeasurable benefit of their victories. But
both had accomplished great results : they had driven
back the invaders of the North and saved the nation.

The enemy crossed the Potomac, and sought rest in
the Shenandoah Valley. Of the seventy thousand men
with which Lee entered Maryland, thirty thousand were
killed, wounded or prisoners of war. The invasion had
utterly failed of its purpose in rallying Marylanders to
the Confederate standard, for the people were apathetic,
and, instead of receiving a welcome as friends, they found
themselves under the disadvantage, which confronted
our troops almost always during the war, of campaigning
in an enemy's country. After a month spent in replen-
ishing supplies and putting the army in condition for an
advance, McClellan, by a skillfully concealed movement,
reached Warrenton, completely severing the Confederate
army, a part of which had been detached to Culpeper,
while the rest remained in the Shenandoah Valley. Here
was McClellan's opportunity, and it was his purpose to
fall upon each wing and beat it in detail, when the order
came from Washington relieving him from the command
of the army. The order was summary and brief : " By
direction of the President of the United States, it is
ordered that Major-General McClellan be relieved from
the command of the Army of the Potomac, and that Major-
General Burnside take command of that army." No




MaJOR-CtKXKKAI. a. E. Bl'RNSIDK, U. vS. A.



reason was assigned, and the order fell like a thunderbolt
upon the troops, who loved this commander as they never
loved one before or after. The scene was memorable,
and characteristic of the man. It is related that Burnside
was in McClellan's tent when the order was received.
McClellan opened the dispatch, and reading it, passed it
quickly and without any manifestation of emotion to
Burnside, saying: "Well, Burnside, you are to command
the army." Burnside, who felt his inability and shrank
from the responsibility, was almost overcome with emo-
tion. But I have not space to prolong the interview.
McClellan withdrew in a few days, and his active career
as a soldier was ended. Of this sudden and arbitrary
removal Swinton, in his history of the Army of the
Potomac, says : " Having accomplished his work of ex-
pelling Lee from Maryland, he entered, after a brief
repose, on a new campaign of invasion, and it was in the
midst of this and on the eve of a decisive blow that he
was suddenly removed. The moment chosen was an in-
opportune and ungracious one, for never had McClellan
acted with such vigor and rapidity, never had he shown
so much confidence in himself or the army in him. And
it is a notable fact that not only was the whole body ot
the army, rank and file as well as officers, enthusiastic in
their affection for his person, but that the very general
appointed as his successor was the strongest opponent ot
his removal."

•O^General Burnside reluctantly assumed command, and
after remaining ten days at Warrenton formed the six
corps of the Army into three grand divisions of two corps
each, placing the right, the center and the left grand divi-
sions under Generals Sumner, Hooker and Franklin
respectively. In spite of the opposition of the authorities
at Washington, General Burnside changed the line of
maneuver and on November 15, 1862, moved toward
Fredericksburg. On the 17 the advance reached Fal-
mouth, and the army in a few days took up a position on
the north side of the Rappahannock. On the i ith and
1 2th of December the troops crossed over, and on the



13th commenced the disastrous battle of Fredericksburg.
The Confederates were fully prepared, the character of
the ground being most favorable to the defense. The
action of that day was sufficiently convincing to the prin-
cipal corps and division commanders of the necessity of
recrossing the river, but Burnside determined to renew
the conflict on the following day. Preparations were
accordingly made, but, yielding to the entreaties of
Sumner, Burnside desisted. The troops remained in
position on the 14th and 15th, and on the night of the
15th, in a violent storm, they retreated to their camps on
the north side of the Rappahannock, completely outwit-
ting Lee, who still awaited a renewal of the onslaught.
The Army of the Potomac lost twelve thousand, three
hundred, in killed, wounded and missing, and the Army of
Northern Virginia five thousand, three hundred and nine.
This battle has been fitly described as the "most bloody
and the most useless of the war."

On the 19th of January, 1863, Burnside essayed another
crossing above Fredericksburg, but a heavy rain came on,
and the celebrated abortive " mud march " was aban-
doned. No other movement of importance was or ccjuld
be made under Burnside, in whose ability to command so
large a force the army had lost confidence. Both Generals
Franklin and Smith wrote the President advising against
the advance to Richmond by that route and recommend-
ing a return to the Peninsula. President Lincoln, while
refusing to accept this suggestion, relieved the situation
by retiring Burnside and placing General Joseph Hooker
in command. It is notable that Burnside never lost the
respect and affection of the army, and his subsequent
career served to endear him still more closely to his
troops and to the country.

Hooker had gained a great reputation as a corps com-
mander, and much was hoped for. The army at this time
numbered about 120,000 artillery and infantry, 12,000
cavalry and 400 guns. It comprised seven corps — the
First (General Reynolds), Second (General Couch), Third
(General Sickles), Fifth (General Meade), Sixth (General



Sedgwick), Eleventh (General Howard), and Twelfth
(General Slocum). The reorganization left out several
most valuable officers whose loss was greatly felt and de-
plored. Hooker awaited the return of good roads and
better fighting conditions, and on the 27th of April the
movement began which culminated in the bloody and
disastrous defeat at Chancellorsville. Concerning this, I
shall not enter into particulars, but will commend the in-
quirer to the published account of Colonel A. C. Hamlin,
who has made an exhaustive examination and study ot
this field and conflict. His work will serve, to some ex-
tent, at least, to set at rest many disputes, and in the
minds ot some, at least, to place the blame for the failure
of this brilliantly planned but badly executed battle where
it properly belongs. The death of Stonewall Jackson
was an irreparable loss to the Confederate army, and
from this time on the cause of the South began to wane.

The army, not knowing why it was beaten, was again
on the north side of the Rappahannock, strong in its abil-
ity to overcome the rebellion, but distrustful of its leader.
Flushed with victory, Lee took up the offensive and de-
termined to carry the war again across the border.
Hooker had no alternative but to follow him on interior
lines and endeavor to head him off. There were spirited
cavalry engagements at Beverly's Ford, Brandy Station
and Aldie, in which the cavalry showed their mettle and
developed Lee's intentions. The Confederate force
pushed along into Maryland and Pennsylvania, its ad-
vance raiders levying contributions on York, and threat-
ening the capital of the Keystone State. Hooker finding
himself embarrassed by the refusal of General Halleck to
comply with his request for more troops and the evacua-
tion of Harper's Ferry, asked to be relieved on the 27th
of June, and on the following morning General Meade
was placed in command. He at once commenced to con-
centrate the army to meet Lee, and the various move-
ments finally brought the two great forces face to face at
Gettysburg. Here the war reached high-water mark.
After three days of desperate fighting, a new emphasis



14

was given to the nation's birthday, for the 4th of July
found the beaten Confederates in full retreat, no more to
return to Northern soil, except as peaceful citizens of a


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Online LibraryHoratio C. (Horatio Collins) KingThe army of the Potomac, sketch; (Volume 2) → online text (page 1 of 2)