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CHAPTER VII of Recollections of a Private by Warren Lee Goss

The removal of the Army of the Potomac from its new base on the James, and the setting aside of McClellan from its command, has been a prolific source of discussion and recrimination. There is much that can be said both in favor of and against its removal, which a dispassionate man might assent to as pertinent and just. On one hand it is claimed that the unhealthy situation in which the army would be placed while inactive amid the low and marshy land on the north of the James during August and September, made its removal expedient. While on the other hand it is certain that the months following would be no more fatal than those which had preceded, and that the sanitary condition of the army would compare favorably with that of any other in the field. It is again urged that it was advisable to concentrate the military forces then in Virginia into one army.


It is generally admitted by military critics that if the Army of the Potomac was not to be reinforced while on the James, it would be better to remove it and consolidate with the other forces in Virginia. McClellan urged that it was cheaper and easier to reinforce him on the James, and less demoralizing, than to remove the army to Acquia Creek; that the army on the James was practically within ten miles of Richmond, with water transportation within twelve miles during its whole contemplated advance; while at Acquia Creek the army would be seventy miles from Richmond with difficult land transportation all the way.

Halleck’s memorandum of his visit to the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, July 25th, discloses the intention of McClellan “To cross the James at that point, attack Petersburg and cut off the enemy’s communications by that route south.”

To this plan Halleck objected, and in his memorandum says: “I stated to him very frankly my views in regard to the danger and impracticability of the plan.” Two years afterwards Grant found the true defence of Washington to be on the James (a position gained by immense and disproportionate loss to that of the enemy), and then adopting the plan McClellan proposed, took Richmond, and destroyed Lee’s army.

The situation was not materially different so far as Washington was concerned, except that in 1862 there would have been a much larger number left for its defenses than in 1864.

All questions of this nature should be determined by military rules rather than by prejudice. It is an accepted maxim in war never to do that which your enemy wishes you to do. From this well grounded maxim let us consider the withdrawal of the army from the James.

Lee’s report of the operations of the Army of Northern Virginia shows what he desired by his saying: “In order to keep McClellan stationary, or, if possible, to cause him to withdraw, General D. H. Hill, commanding on the south side of James River, was directed to threaten his communications by seizing favorable positions below Westover, from which to attack the transports on the river.” We have in this report the authority of Lee himself as to what he considered desirable, and it is a curious fact that Halleck’s wishes were in perfect accord with the Confederate commander s in a desire to remove the Army of the James, and that he finally achieved, by reason of his high official position, that which Lee failed to attain by strategy. No more sarcastic presentation of his want of wisdom could be offered than this fact. Again, upon the advisability of reinforcing Jackson on reaching Gordonsville, Lee in his report says, “Jackson ascertained that the force under General Pope was superior to his own, but the uncertainty that then surrounded the designs of General McClellan rendered it inexpedient to reinforce him from the army at Richmond.”

It was not until the movement from Harrison s Landing was fully disclosed that Lee ventured to reinforce Jackson.

Halleck, while holding his exalted position, thus showed his greatest ability in anticipating and acting in unison with the designs of the enemy, and was a stumbling-block in the path to success of every general who succeeded McClellan in command of that army, until Grant’s high position and strong will finally excluded him from its management.

One of the most potent causes of the removal of the army from the James, no doubt, was want of accord in political sentiment between its commander and the administration.

If McClellan had preserved that modest reticence in regard to political affairs which afterwards characterized Grant, it would have been wiser for him and better for the country. No doubt his letter to President Lincoln, written July 7th, from Harrison’s Landing, offering advice on the slavery question, stirred up a deep sentiment against him among the friends of the administration, who thenceforth brought great pressure upon Mr. Lincoln for his removal. The subjects discussed by that letter, however correct its views may have been, were not military, and might justly have been considered by Mr. Lincoln as impertinent.

General John Pope, whose successes in the West had commended him to the administration, was appointed to command the scattered forces under Banks, Fremont, and McDowell, and had wisely consolidated them into one army.

Some of Pope’s characteristics are revealed by his answers to questions, while before the committee on the conduct of the war, just after his appointment, June 26, to the command of the army before Washington. In expounding to the committee his military views, he said: “By lying off on their flank, if they should have forty or fifty thousand men, I could whip them. If they should have seventy or eighty thousand I would attack their flank and force them, in order to get rid of me, to follow me out into the mountains, which would be what you would want, I should suppose.”

Committee: “Suppose you had the army that was here on the first day of March last, do you suppose you would find any obstacle to prevent your marching to New Orleans?” “I should suppose not.”

Having astonished and delighted the committee he proceeded to electrify the army by an address in which military rules were revolutionized or set aside.

In that address he says: “I have come to you from the West where we have always seen the backs of our enemies where the policy has been attack and not defence. I presume I’ve been called here to pursue the same system. I desire you to dismiss from your minds certain phrases which I am sorry to find much in vogue among you. I hear constantly of ‘taking strong positions and holding them,’ of ‘lines of retreat, and bases of supplies.’ Let us discard such ideas. The strongest position a soldier should desire to occupy is one from which he can most easily advance against the enemy. Success and glory are in the advance, disaster and shame lurk in the rear.”

Fate, in interpreting Pope’s military principles, was decidedly ironical. His forces, numbering nearly fifty thousand men, were concentrated into one body, lying along the line of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, in front of Washington and in the direction of Gordonsville.

This disposition threatened Lee’s communications with southwestern Virginia, which the Confederate commander was quick to perceive. To prevent it Lee sent forward Jackson’s force of twenty-five thousand men towards Gordonsville where they arrived July 19. But because this force was too weak to risk aggressive movements, he was reinforced by A. P. Hill’s division, and August 8, crossed the Rapidan, moving towards Culpeper.

Pope had promptly hurried forward Bank’s corps, which met the enemy near Cedar Mountain, August 9. The force under General Banks numbered only about eight thousand men. They acted under written instructions from a member of Pope’s staff, which were, “to deploy his skirmishers, if the enemy advances, and attack him immediately as he approaches.” Although his force was but little more than one-third that of his antagonist, Banks attacked him with great impetuosity, and defeated him.

After the action of Cedar Mountain the army, under Jackson, fell back to Gordonsville; being there reinforced by Longstreet’s division, it advanced to the Rapidan, and on the 20th of August crossed that river.

Pope, much more judicious in his movements than his exposition of military principles would suggest, forgot to “lie off” on Lee’s flank, and, also heedless of his great maxim that “strong positions and lines of retreat were to be disregarded,” prudently retired beyond the Rappahannock. He evidently found Jackson unaware that he had a flank for him to lay off on, or was singularly obtuse to the fact that his antagonist was likely to bring out this horrible strategic spectre.

Lee now began to make it lively for the western general. Leaving Longstreet as a blind at the ford, covered by Pope, who was absent-mindedly guarding it and thus neglecting his vast opportunities of “lying off on Lee’s flank” and of putting in force his western usage “of seeking the enemy and beating him when found,” Lee sent Jackson up the south bank of the Rappahannock, which he crossed, August 22d, at Warrenton Springs. At the same time Stuart’s cavalry made an expedition to cut the railroad communications in rear of Pope’s army and thus give a new reading to that general’s famous maxim that “disaster and shame lurk in the rear.” They thus succeeded in giving a new and vigorous interpretation to Pope’s address. The army supplies which they captured at Catlett’s Station were immense.

Jackson, meanwhile, turned Pope’s right and by forced marches of thirty-five miles a day continued the flank march. Turning east towards Salem, he crossed the Bull Run Mountains through Thoroughfare Gap, and at sunset on the 26th had reached Bristow Station on the railroad. This he destroyed and at the same time hurried Stuart’s cavalry to Manassas Junction, seven miles nearer still to Washington. Here several hundred prisoners and immense stores of army supplies were captured.

While Jackson, without reference to his flank or communications, was illustrating Pope’s address to his army, that general determined to bag him, and he was not modest in proclaiming the fact. Jackson might be called the great Confederate Flea, for when Pope put down his military hand where he was, he wasn’t there!

Lee must have had a settled contempt for his adversary or he never would have attempted this daring raid in our rear. He evidently did not appreciate Pope’s “lying off on his flank!”

It is greatly to be regretted that during the entire campaign Pope did not find time to spring upon the Confederate leader this terrible “Jack in the box.” It would certainly have marked a new era in military strategy.

Why didn’t he do it? Would the results have been too dark and terrible even to inflict upon an enemy?

On the 27th Hooker with his division was sent out from Warrenton Junction, and after marching nine miles he encountered, at Bristow’s Station, Ewell’s division en masse, and attacked them with his characteristic skill and bravery. His attack was sudden and the enemy fled. They must have been making themselves comfortable, since good things in process of cooking were left behind them; bread was found baking in Dutch ovens, dough in pans, while in the houses their sympathizers had been making ready to entertain Confederate guests. One of our men came out of a house with two bags of peanuts, a Confederate substitute for coffee, and said to a comrade, “Hey! Jim, here’s peanuts enough to set up a circus!

“The civilians, who were not anxious to entertain the Yanks, had, as one of the boys after wards explained to me, been laying themselves out for the Confederates and had “killed the fatted calf.” At one house there were found two or three barrels of cakes which the mistress protested were for family use, but which, notwithstanding, were speedily converted to the use of Uncle Sam’s wayward children in blue.

One squad of Hooker’s men introducing themselves into a house, found three females sitting on a box. They were politely assisted to their feet by our gallant and hungry patriots, and the box examined. It was found to contain chickens all cooked.

The skies were now darkened by the smoke of burning trains which Jackson had left in his track. At the close of the skirmish, which had been short and sharp, General Pope arrived and learned, for the first time, that Jackson was in front of him with his whole corps.

Banks was ordered to take Porter s place at Warrenton Junction, while Porter was sent to bring up his forces, and Kearny, five miles distant at Greenwich, was ordered up. This would have been a brilliant move and sufficient to oppose Jackson and separate him from Lee’s army, thereby preventing a junction of his forces. But in addition Pope ordered Reno’s division and also Sigel’s and McDowell’s from Greenwich to Manassas. Ewell, when he modestly retired from Bristow’s Station, burned the bridge across Bull Run, thus intimating that he did not care for Hooker’s company.

Jackson did not care to stay at Manassas waiting for Pope, his command being separated from the rest of Lee’s army; he therefore retired, without asking leave of Pope, on the night of the 27th, to the old battle ground of Bull Run, where he first showed his ability as a commander, and where he gained the sobriquet of “Stonewall.” At daylight, August 28, his whole corps was reunited at Manassas.

On the 28th Pope did not know, practically, where his own forces were, or those of the enemy who had so manoeuvred as to mislead, elude, and confuse him. His divisions, scattered by contradictory and confusing orders, were held so loosely in hand, and were so isolated from each other, that so far as exercising control over them was concerned, it would almost have been as well for him to have been in the West, where he came from, as in Virginia. By the morning of the 29th he began to get clearer views of the situation.

Jackson is said to have claimed that one of the elements of his military success was the mystery with which he shrouded his movements.