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Dicey, Edward. Six Months in the Federal States, Vol. II . London: MacMillan and Co., 1863. [format: book], [genre: travelogue]. Permission: Newberry Library
I HAVE made it my rule, in these pages, to allude as little as possible to the passing incidents of the military campaign. With regard, however, to the great battles of the Chickahominy, I am obliged in some measure to depart from my rule, because these battles mark a most important crisis in the period of my visit to America. From the time when McClellan sailed for the peninsula, down to the period of Banks' defeat in the Shenandoah Valley, the universal expectation of the North was that the capture of Richmond was a mere question of days. Anybody who expressed doubt of this conclusion would have been set down as a Secessionist, and I think that there were very few persons who even entertained any doubt upon the matter. Since the event, the adherents of General McClellan have attributed his failure to the interference of the Government with his plans. For my own part, from what I heard at the time, I believe this defence not to have been valid. As far as McClellan's strategy has ever been understood, his original idea seems to have been to march the army of the Potomac in three
converging lines on Richmond. If you connect Washington, Yorktown, and Richmond on a map by three straight lines, you will find that you have formed a very nearly right-angled triangle the right angle being at Yorktown, and the side between Richmond and Yorktown being about a third of the length of the side between that place and Washington. McDowell's division, according to this plan, would have been the centre of the attack, McClellan's own division the left, and Banks' division the right. The army of the Potomac, therefore, under the Commander-in-Chief, formed the main attack, and from its proximity to the enemy occupied the post of danger. By the time the Federal army was established on the peninsula of Yorktown on the high road to Richmond, McClellan believed, with or without reason, that the enemy had resolved to contract his line of defence, and instead of resisting the advance of the three armies separately, was determined to concentrate the whole of his forces in defence of Richmond against the advance of the main army. In consequence, McClellan changed his plan of operations, and issued orders for McDowell's division, which was then marching towards Richmond by Manassas, to come and reinforce him on the peninsula. These orders were objected to by the War-office, on the following grounds: If the enemy was to be crushed by sheer weight and force of numbers, the army at McClellan's disposal was amply sufficient, as he had already more
soldiers, and some fifty more pieces of artillery, than Napoleon had under his command at the battle of Solferino. In the second place, in the event of a defeat on the peninsula, the army would have no available means of retreat, and any extension of its already unwieldy size would only increase the possibility of a disastrous rout. In the third place, Washington would be left defenceless against an advance of the enemy, in case the Confederates should be able to detach a force of any size from the army before Richmond. Of these considerations, which were laid before the President, the last was the one which weighed most with him, and on his own authority he countermanded the execution of McClellan's orders. A compromise, as usual, was arranged between the Secretary of War and the General commanding in chief. General Franklin's division, forming part of McDowell's army, was sent to the peninsula; McDowell himself was retained in front of Washington, and was reinforced by troops drawn from Bankes' army. Like most compromises in war, this arrangement proved a blunder, and each of its authors considers the other was to blame for its subsequent failure. Bankes' force, left isolated and weakened in the far-away Valley of the Shenandoah, was defeated without difficulty by Stonewall Jackson. This, however, was a minor evil. The chief damage occasioned by this compromise occurred on the peninsula itself. The President is reported to have said to Wendell
Phillips, "General McClellan's main fault is that he thinks to-morrow is always better than to-day." This interference with the plan of the campaign furnished McClellan with an excuse for resuming the policy of "masterly inaction" to which, either by temperament or conviction, he was always inclined. The design of taking Richmond by a sudden dash was abandoned, and the army was allowed to waste its time and strength before the fortifications of Yorktown. What was the real force of the army despatched to the peninsula, is a much-disputed question. Two hundred and thirty thousand men were officially stated, at the time, to be the strength of McClellan's army at Yorktown, but his own friends declare that he had never more than a hundred thousand effective troops under his command. A large percentage of his force was on paper, and on paper only; but whether it was one hundred or two hundred thousand, it proved ineffective for the Anaconda strategy he now resolved to pursue. Instead of pushing forward with the whole force of his army against Richmond, he determined to surround and crush the Confederate army. To do this he had to extend his lines round Richmond to the extent of fifteen to twenty miles, and, in consequence, his line of attack was straggling, feeble, and ineffective. The pursuance of this plan necessitated long delay and inaction, and meanwhile his army dwindled away by desertion, and still more by sickness. The unhealthy climate of the
swampy peninsula during the first summer-heats told fearfully upon the Northern troops. I have heard it estimated by persons, who had some means of knowing, that during the tardy advance from Yorktown, the Federal army lost men at the rate of nine hundred a day. No doubt this estimate was exaggerated, but still the mortality amongst the troops was fearful, and every day many hundreds of the Federal soldiers were placed upon the sick-list. Eye-witnesses at the time told me that the scenes of suffering amongst the troops encamped in the low levels were terrible to witness. The sick, when once struck down with fever, seemed to lose all power of rallying. By the time the sun had arisen for an hour, it was found impossible to induce the men to exert themselves in any way. Their vital energy was paralysed, and, strange to say, the strong Western men were much more affected by the fever than the puny-looking town lads of the Eastern cities. Under these circumstances, it was deemed necessary to change the position of the army. McClellan was unable or unwilling to advance on Richmond, and therefore the only thing to be done was to contract the lines of attack. The right wing, under General Porter, owing to some strange blunder, was encamped in a swamp, and was almost decimated by fever. Yet the advanced posts of this wing occupied the high ground to the left of the Chickahominy, from which Richmond was most open to attack. Unfortunately, General McClellan was
unable to move the bulk of the army towards the high ground, because by so doing he would have broken off his communications with the James River, on which he relied for his supplies, and he considered that he had not troops enough to keep the communication open if the main force of his army had been moved inland. He, therefore, resolved to withdraw his right wing altogether, and move his whole force upon the James River, to the position occupied there by his extreme left. This resolution, wise or unwise, involved the surrender of all the advantages gained hitherto in the campaign before Richmond, and the withdrawal of the invading army from within five miles of the besieged city to nearly five times that distance. In other words, it was the relinquishment of the attack. As a military operation, it was not even successful. Somehow or other the enemy got scent of the plan, and while McClellan was withdrawing his right wing, they succeeded, with great ability, in getting to the rear of his retreating columns, and attacked them with murderous effect. For four days, during which the fighting continued almost without pause, it remained doubtful whether the Federal army would succeed in reaching the shelter of the gun-boats on the James River before it was cut to pieces; but at last, when the battle seemed well-nigh lost, either the courage or the ammunition of the Confederate army became exhausted, and the Federals made good their retreat.
Without professing that this account is strictly correct in a military point of view, I believe it to be a fair statement of the real history of the disastrous peninsular campaign. It was only very slowly that the truth oozed out; and the retreat of the Potomac army fell like an unexpected blow upon the North. From the time of Bankes' defeat there was, indeed, a general feeling of anxiety about the progress of the war, though it did not assume any definite character. Nobody doubted as yet whether McClellan could take Richmond, but doubts were expressed as to how long he would be in taking it. The defenders of the General's strategy used, at this period, to assert that its merit consisted in being incomprehensible. No doubt, if Richmond had been taken, everybody would have discovered the wonderful ability of the General; but already people were beginning to doubt whether McClellan, like a military Ali Baba, might not have forgotten the "open sesame" himself. Meanwhile, why the Federal army should be encamped in a swamp, why the best equipped and the most numerous army of modern times should always happen to be outnumbered, why the longest of all the many routes to Richmond should have been chosen purposely, were all questions that the public was growing uneasy at not having answered. Moreover, general uneasiness was increased by a conviction which then, for the first time, began to force itself on the public mind, that there was a want of resolution in the
direction of the war at Washington as well as before Yorktown. The exaggerated confidence which the whole of the North had been disposed to place in Mr. Lincoln gave place to an undefined distrust. Instances of vacillation of purpose on the part of the Government occurred constantly. Who was to blame it was hard to say, but it was felt that somebody was to blame somewhere. There was, amongst many others, the case of General Benham. This officer was placed under arrest some six months before on a charge, widely circulated among his own subordinate officers, that he had deliberately allowed General Floyd to make his escape with his army. Time passed on, the General was never brought to trial; he was allowed to live at New York on parole; and, finally, without being either acquitted or condemned, and without even having the charges against him investigated, he was appointed to a command in the Federal army, which was then attacking Charleston. Naturally enough, being anxious to restore his blemished reputation by some signal exploit, he resolved to make a dashing attack, exceeded, if not disobeyed his orders, and failed lamentably. No other result could have been expected from a General resting under the stigma of an uninvestigated accusation. The Pope and Fremont affair, again, was eminently unsatisfactory to the thinking public. General Fremont had been removed from his command in Missouri by order of the Government, accused of offences for which, if
they could have been proved, he deserved to have been cashiered at once; and then, without inquiry as to his guilt or innocence, was reappointed to an important command in Western Virginia. One of two conclusions was obvious: either he was infamously ill-treated by his recall from Missouri, or else he was utterly unfit to hold a command in the mountain district of Virginia. During his second command he gave no cause for complaint. On the contrary, he showed his wonted ability as a commander, and, with very scanty means at his disposal, rendered great services to the Federal cause. Yet, on a sudden, because General McClellan and the War Department had made a blunder between them, Fremont was virtually deposed, and Pope, an old personal enemy, placed over him. Whether Fremont would not have done more wisely to remain in a subordinate position than to throw up his commission in disgust is a question on which opinions differ; but the whole management of the affair was eminently discreditable to the Government. A series of incidents, of which the above are specimens, began to open the mind of the public to the conclusion that the Government, if not deficient in personal ability, had no distinct notions of its own policy, and no head to guide it.
Still, this sort of indefinite anxiety had not prepared the nation for the disasters of the Chickahominy. The reports allowed to proceed from the army were unaccountably meagre, barren indeed of anything except
vague statements, that the fall of Richmond was close at hand, and that everybody reposed implicit confidence in McClellan's strategy. Little therefore was known of the actual state of affairs. There were unpleasant rumours, though nothing more than rumours, of great mortality in the army before Richmond; still, I do not believe that the public was aware of there being any cause for serious apprehension. There was a feeling of impatience about the continued delays, but there was no doubt felt, and certainly none expressed, as to Richmond falling whenever the army did advance. The idea that the Federal forces would be repulsed was barely admitted as a contingency. It was on the last day of June the first tidings were received that the battle had been fought. It was vaguely described at first as the greatest contest ever witnessed in either hemisphere. It came out, however, at the same time, that for four days the nation had been kept in ignorance of the fact that the Federal armies were fighting for life or death. People grew uneasy at the news having been kept back so long; but the general idea was that a decisive, though dear-bought, victory had been won. On the following day, intelligence came to the cities of the North that the fighting was still going on; and the telegrams, though ominously indistinct, admitted that the general result of the movement consisted in the retreat of the Federal army. With the next morning there was no news of a decisive kind,
but the President's call for three hundred thousand more troops was in itself a confession of reverse, and for the first time the words, "Defeat and repulse of the Federal army," began to be mentioned in the papers. And then, on the morrow, there came intelligence that the battle was still raging, and that McClellan had had to retreat before the overwhelming forces of the enemy, and had spiked his guns. I happened to be in New York when these tidings arrived. Throughout the day the depression was terrible. The city, deserted as it is during the sultry summer weather, looked as though some calamity had befallen it. The flags were taken down. There were crowds all day loitering about the newspaper offices. Lots of people hurried feverishly about the streets, and stocks went up and down with fluctuations almost unknown even in that most changeable of markets. The Secessionists were triumphant, and openly expressed their confidence that the whole of McClellan's army would be swept off the peninsula. Amongst Union men, a fear was very prevalent lest this might prove to be true; and I observed no greater evidence of how deep the dejection had been than how, when the news came at last that the fighting had ceased, and that McClellan had made good his retreat to the James River, and had reached the protection of the gun-boats the city seemed to breathe again.
To me the most striking symptom connected with the
whole matter was the manner in which the news of this disaster was received throughout the North. No attempt whatever was made to conceal it. The Government made a feeble trial to retard the publication of the news, but in this, as in other respects, they seemed to me to underrate the resolution of the people. The Northern press admitted the facts of the case and the anxieties of the public mind, as fully and as freely as English papers would have done under like circumstances. "Repulse of the Federal Troops" was stuck up on the posters of the newspapers, and shouted about the streets by the news-boys, as boldly and as openly as if intelligence had been received of a great Union victory. The North felt strong enough to know the truth and there is no better evidence of real strength. The defeat of the army was not apparently so great a mortification to the people as the manner in which the Secretary of War had attempted to hoodwink the nation. Even at the darkest moment, I heard no cry of despair or disheartenedness as to the ultimate result. Other generals might have to be found, more troops supplied, more precious lives sacrificed, and more sufferings endured, but of the final victory there was as yet neither doubt nor question.
It was strange, too, to witness how the result of this defeat was to stimulate the anti-slavery feeling of the public. True or false, the conviction that the Union and Slavery could not any longer exist together seemed
to impress itself more and more deeply on the public mind with every successive delay and disaster. There was a young lad, of whose family I knew something, who was killed fighting in the Federal ranks at the battle of Ball's-Bluff. He had been wounded before, and had returned home on sick leave. On his departure to rejoin his regiment, he told his mother that he knew he should not return. "It needs the lives," he said, "of ten thousand such as me to awaken our people to the knowledge of the truth." The knowledge has been learnt, not, I trust, too late.
Dicey, Edward. Six Months in the Federal States, Vol. II . London: MacMillan and Co., 1863. [format: book], [genre: travelogue]. Permission: Newberry Library
Persistent link to this document: http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/file.php?file=dicey2.html