Right now I’m reading Sherman’s Forgotten General, a biography of Henry Warner Slocum by Brian C. Melton. Slocum was the colonel of the 27th NY in Porter’s brigade of Hunter’s division at Bull Run, and Melton is an assistant professor of history at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. I had some misgivings about this book when I bought it and mentioned them here. So far, the book is more than fulfilling those expectations. But here I’m going to focus on the Bull Run section of the book.
Slocum’s father was born in Marietta, OH, and prior to settling in the Syracuse, NY area spent some time in New Port, RI. Apparently some Slocum roots were planted in the seaside community, but Melton is very vague. I don’t know if that’s because he couldn’t nail the family tree down, or if he felt it wasn’t that important. Dude, it’s a thread. Pull that sucker! This fact (or possibility) came into play at Bull Run when Slocum was wounded in the leg at Bull Run and the colonel of the 2nd RI, John S. Slocum (whom Melton also refers to as Joshua), was killed. Resultant confusion led to some tense, unsure moments for Henry’s wife back home in Syracuse.
I take issue with Melton’s assessment that McDowell’s plan for the battle was sound on paper and broke down in the execution. But I won’t take him to task for it: that is the conventional wisdom, after all. He does make some errors of fact, however.
On page 44, when summarizing the plan, Melton writes that [t]he army near Washington would march quickly south and west to engage Beauregard, while Patterson would keep Johnston busy in the Shenandoah. Each Union army significantly outnumbered its Confederate counterpart, so if McDowell could fall on Beauregard before Johnston could reach him, he might devour the Confederates in detail.
Despite conventional wisdom (again), the above is not true with regards to McDowell’s plan. Patterson’s actions were designed and directed by Scott, not McDowell. In addition, Melton’s analysis employs some hindsight. While it was true that McDowell’s force outnumbered that of Beauregard in June, his plan considered that the Confederacy would forward all available troops exclusive of Johnston to Manassas. McDowell’s plan can be found in War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (ORs), Series I, Vol. 2, pp 719-721. In this plan, written about June 24, McDowell uses some sound logic to deduce how many men the Confederacy might muster to face him, and at the same time give the lie to the notion that the rebels would need to rely on intelligence from folks like Rose Greenhow to track the movements of the enemy (see the whole plan here):
We cannot count on keeping secret our intention to overthrow this force. Even if the many parties intrusted with the knowledge of the plan should not disclose or discover it, the necessary preliminary measures for such an expedition would betray it; and they are alive and well informed as to every movement, however slight, we make. They have, moreover, been expecting us to attack their position, and have been preparing for it. When it becomes known positively we are about to march, and they learn in what strength, they will be obliged to call in their disposable forces from all quarters, for they will not be able, if closely pressed, to get away by railroad before we can reach them. If General J. E. Johnston’s force is kept engaged by Major-General Patterson, and Major-General Butler occupies the force now in his vicinity, I think they will not be able to bring up more than ten thousand men. So we must calculate on having to do with about thirty-five thousand men.
So as you can see McDowell had no plan to overwhelm Beauregard’s smaller force – he didn’t anticipate confronting a smaller force. In fact, his plan would be a turning movement, the favorite grand tactic of Winfield Scott’s smaller army in Mexico. McDowell expected to face 35,000 Confederate troops. As it turned out, once Johnston’s forces arrived from the Valley, that’s about how many men they would have on hand. A force roughly equal to that of McDowell.
I won’t go into detail on the rest of the book, other than to comment on its thesis, that Slocum was a dynamic version of Locke’s blank slate. That is to say, he was a reflector of light, and tended to absorb the characteristics of his commanding officers. Melton’s Slocum, in other words, was akin to Woody Allen’s Zelig (left): a human chameleon. It’s an interesting construct, but falls apart when facets of Slocum’s personality or actions appear at odds with the author’s preconceived notions of the characteristics of those Slocum was supposed to be emulating. Either he was a reflector, or he wasn’t. So far it’s looking like he only reflected what the author saw as his commanders’ negative attributes – any positive features were Slocum’s alone. But then, I’ve only read through McDowell, McClellan, Burnside & Hooker. Perhaps once Slocum comes under the influence of someone to whom history and historians have been more kind, like, say, Sherman, things will change in this book. I suspect they will.