More on the So-Called “Army of Northeastern Virginia”

25 10 2008

You’ll notice in Col. Pratt’s report that he uses “Army N. E. Va” in the closing.  As I’ve discussed here and here, I’ve never been able to find any documentation creating or formally recognizing an Army of Northeastern Virginia.  Pratt’s report is one of only three references to such an organization in the Official Records.  The other two are Porter’s endorsement (dated August 19, 1861) of Burnside’s report, and Robert E. Lee’s reference to his own army in a September 3, 1862 letter to Jefferson Davis (OR, Series I, Volume XII/2, p 559).  Pratt’s report is exceptional in that it contains the first reference to the army that is contemporary to the battle, as the report is dated July 22.  Pratt was a judge before and after the war, so maybe he was predisposed to timely record keeping.  Or maybe he pre-dated the report.  I honestly don’t know.

I don’t want to belabor this point.  McDowell was in command of the Department of Northeastern Virginia, and the federal troops within that department.  But every reference I’ve found to the Army of Northeastern Virginia, with the exception of Pratt’s report, was written after McDowell’s army was broken up.  I can’t find any mention of the Army of Northeastern Virginia in the New York Times for 1861.

Davies’ Reports

22 10 2008

A couple of interesting things in Davies’ reports (or is that Davies’s reports?  I can’t decide): as you can see at the end of the first report, Davies was led by some captured Confederates to believe that the troops he faced at Blackburn’s Ford were under the command of Robert E. Lee.  In case you didn’t know, they weren’t.  Davies squared off against Longstreet, mostly, though Bonham and D. R. Jones were also in the area.

In the second report, Davies requested a court of inquiry over the perceived slight to his command by McDowell in his report.  I wasn’t aware of this, and have to look into this more.

I have thus far refrained from posting reports pertaining to the fight at Blackburn’s Ford on July 18th.  I’ll post them once I get all the Bull Run reports up.

Photo from

Mark Grimsley on the Impetus for the Advance on Manassas

3 06 2008

The Hard Hand of War - Mark GrimsleyMark Grimsley has been discussing his book The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians 1861-1865 over at Civil Warriors (see here and here).  I read the book recently after it sat on my bookshelf for a few years, and I’m one of the folks who sent the emails to which Prof. Grimsley referred in his post.  I won’t go into all the reasons why The Hard Hand of War is one of the most important books on the American Civil War of the last 25 years.  But I’ve been meaning to mention something covered in it, as it directly deals with First Bull Run.  I just hope I can do it justice.

A component of the traditional narrative of the campaign is that the Federal advance on Bull Run was prompted by pressure from the Northern public as expressed via the press.  While some historians have removed the President from the equation by saying that the army was prompted to advance by this pressure, or that Winfield Scott was induced to advance by it, or even that McDowell was compelled to advance by it, to me it has always seemed obvious that the moving force behind the advance was Abraham Lincoln.  I think Lincoln himself sought to distance himself after the fact, if the story of his reaction to Scott’s post battle lament about Scott’s allowing himself to be pressured to send the army to the field before it was ready is to be believed (AL basically said “surely you’re not blaming me for pressuring you” – Scott’s response, interpreted by most as backing down, was to me delightfully sarcastic and probably not lost on a sharp wit like Lincoln’s).  But that’s neither here nor there as far as Grimsley’s book is concerned, and I’ll discuss the Scott-Lincoln exchange more fully in a post some other time.

Grimsley’s work does not run counter to the idea that the primary force behind the advance on Manassas was Lincoln.  Where he differs with the accepted story line is in the influence on Lincoln of a supposedly unified, howling Northern press.  This discussion is in Chapter 2, Conciliation and its Challenges.  It begins (italics are extractions from the text):

Conciliation formed the dominant Union policy for the first fifteen months of the war.  It not only characterized the way in which Federal forces were to deal with Southern civilians, it also shaped the Federal strategy to defeat the Confederacy.  Northern officials instinctively grasped the truth of Treitschke’s statement that “Again and again, it has been proved that it is war that turns a people into a nation.”  The slave-holding aristocrats had made a rebellion; they must not be allowed to make a nation.  Conciliation on the one hand, and a sweeping military effort on the other, seemed the keys to preventing this.  Together these two approaches would sap Southern resistance and make possible an early victory.

(One of the great things about this book is that it was written by that rarest of birds in Civil War literature, an honest to God military historian – see here for what I mean by historian)

Winfield Scott was on board with the idea of a combination of conciliation and military effort.  As Grimsley points out, tact and patience characterized Scott’s behavior over the years in things military and diplomatic (if not personal).  Concerns in the early days of the rebellion were for the promotion of pro-Union sentiment in the southern states, and Scott was of the opinion that this could best be done through the adoption of a policy that might defeat the Confederacy without the bloodshed, devastation, and bitterness that would accompany a major offensive.  In May of 1861 these thoughts manifested in Scott’s overall strategy for victory, dubbed by the press The Anaconda Plan.  Note that Scott’s plan was born of experience and not, as has been stated by some, of his fondness for his native South.

Initially the press was unanimously behind Scott, because he was Winfield Scott, after all; because they were patriotic, of course; because many believed the idea that victory could and should be won with as little loss of life and property as possible; and because rumors also circulated that Scott’s deliberation would extend no further than mid-July at the latest.  Criticism came not from people who thought Scott was wrong about the potential of pro-Union sentiment in the South, but rather from those with different ideas concerning the best way to tap it.  To them, only quick action could ignite Southern Unionists; delay would leave them correspondingly discouraged.

Within Lincoln’s cabinet, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair was one whose thoughts on the best way to encourage Southern Unionists opposed those of Scott.  Blair felt that the regular army officers grossly overestimated the strength of secessionist spirit in the South.  “This,” he declared (in a mid-May 1861 letter to Lincoln), “is a fundamental and fatal error and if our military movements are predicated on it & we fail to go to the relief of the people of the South they will be subjugated and the state of consolidation now falsely assumed will be produced.”  Immediate, offensive action was what was needed to best encourage Southern Unionists, and it could be accomplished by a very small portion of the army. Blair wasn’t questioning Scott’s patriotism, just his ability to grasp the true state of affairs.  He recommended that the President should adopt a policy independent of the General-in-Chief.

Despite Blair’s advice, Lincoln decided to bear with Scott’s policy for awhile.  But as time dragged on (and we’re talking mere weeks here – the definition of dragging time would change dramatically by 1865) without any significant offensive action, elements in the Northern press began to express opinions more similar to those of Blair.  Then, on June 26, Horace Greeley’s Republican paper New York Tribune declared:

Forward to Richmond!  Forward to Richmond!  The Rebel Congress must not be allowed to meet there on the 20th of July!  BY THAT DATE THE PLACE MUST BE HELD BY THE NATIONAL ARMY!

The Chicago Tribune jumped on the bandwagon the next day, echoing Blair’s sentiment:

The Union men of the South, to whose relief the loyal army is marching, will be crushed out, or forced into cooperation with the rebels, long before the anaconda has got the whole country enveloped in its coils.

But a number of Northern newspapers were still backing Scott’s plan, and their editorials ridiculed the “Forward to Richmond” cries of the two Tribunes.  The New York Times reported on June 27 that the General was still committed to the conciliatory plan, concluding that By January, he [Scott] thinks that the rebellion will be entirely defeated, and the Union reconstructed.  On July 1 that paper responded to a letter critical of Scott it had printed two days earlier, stating:

The South must be made to feel full respect for the power and honor of the North: she must be humbled, but not debased by a forfeiture of self-respect, if we wish to retain our motto – E pluribus unum – and claim for the whole United States the respect of the world.

Grimsley points out that:

With public opinion on its efficacy still divided, the popular notion that Lincoln was somehow forced to launch an immediate offensive is untenable.  It is much more likely that the President himself embraced the Blair thesis that an early offensive offered the best way to encourage the Southern Unionist sentiment that, he hoped, would then overwhelm the slaveholding aristocracy.  

Fully embracing Blair’s thesis required the adoption of a policy that was independent of Lincoln’s General-in-Chief.  It wouldn’t be the last time the President would make that choice.

At a meeting with his cabinet, Scott, and Irvin McDowell on June 29, Lincoln directed – despite Scott’s objections – that an advance be made within a few weeks.  He issued positive orders to that effect to McDowell on July 8.  On July 16, McDowell put his army in motion.

Grimsley concludes that the repulse of McDowell’s offensive ended any hopes of a rapid Confederate collapse.  It also destroyed whatever promise the Anaconda held out, for the South had been further united by the nationalistic pride generated by the victory.

Talk about a turning point.

Why McDowell?

29 11 2007


winfield-scott.jpg  salmon-chase-2.jpg  irvin-mcdowell.jpg

Some thoughts have been bouncing around in my noggin regarding Winfield Scott (above, left) and his cranky behavior in the days leading up to Bull Run.  It seems to me he was giving some inconsistent direction to his commanders in the field, Patterson and McDowell.  I know the popular notion is that Patterson alone was to blame, but Scott alternated in his ideas of which man’s force was going to be the focus of the action in Virginia, and he failed to make sure everyone was on the same page.  And McDowell complained that he wasn’t receiving much cooperation from Washington, particularly when it came to getting wagons for his army.

I think there were at least two factors affecting Scott at this time.  First, he was suffering from chronic gout.  I get gout attacks about once a year, and as anyone who has experienced them can tell you they make you miserable with a capital M.  Every change in position is accompanied by pain, literally from your toes to the top of your head.  You can’t imagine that your condition will ever improve.  Your judgement is clouded, to say the least, and friends and family learn pretty quickly to keep their distance.  I can’t imagine how Scott dealt with the pain over an extended period.  I have to think that gout alone would have impaired his decision making.

Also, as I read more and more about the antebellum army I find that the most important thing to regular officers was rank and seniority.  As I recounted here, John Tidball noted that [p]romotion is the lifeblood of the soldier and anyone who disregards it is not worthy of the name.  Based on my reading, I know that Scott was no exception to this rule, and I think this was another contributor to his foul mood.  He must have been pretty hacked off that a brevet major, who had only attained the regular rank of 1st lieutenant, had been elevated over his objection to command the largest army ever assembled on the continent.  And I imagine he couldn’t have been too happy about who was behind Irvin McDowell’s (above, right) rise to prominence.

While Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, was Scott’s superior on the org chart, it became apparent early on that he was in over his head.  But the war department was nonetheless being run, and the man doing much of the running was Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase (above, center).  During these days he was known as General Chase.  Chase was a former Ohio governor and senator, and it was during this time that many of Ohio’s native sons, including McDowell, became high ranking officers (see here and here).  I’ve understood that McDowell was tight with the Chase family, but I never realized just how tight.  While some historians have theorized that McDowell came to Chase’s attention during the early days of the war as an effective member of Scott’s staff, Irvin came from a family prominent in Ohio politics – his father was once mayor of Columbus.  And Peg Lamphier describes McDowell as a “family friend” on page 26 of Kate Chase & William Sprague, notes on page 62 that the cost of Kate’s Tiffany bridal tiara rose from $5,500 to $6,500 as a result of modifications made to it by family friend General McDowell, and says on page 73 that an ill Kate Chase-Sprague recovered at the McDowell home in Buttermilk Falls, NY in March 1864. 

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think McDowell possessed a good deal of common sense, as demonstrated here in his assessment of the situation in his plans for the advance on Manassas, and later in his perceptive understanding of the consequences of the proposed redeployment of his 1st Corps to the Shenandoah Valley in the Spring of 1862. But it sounds like there is more to the appointment of McDowell to the command of the Dept. of Northeastern Virginia than serendipity or noteworthy performance as a staff officer.

So, Scott is pretty much bed-or chaise-ridden with gout, and he’s witnessing not only the disregard for his own staffing preferences but the violation of the sanctity of seniority by political forces outside the army and even the War Department.  How did these factors influence his thought processes and his decision making during these critical days? 


26 11 2007

I’m back from a long Thanksgiving weekend in the Philly/Delaware vicinity.  We attended a family wedding in Wilmington (that DuPont Country Club is pretty darn swanky).  I took a stroll in the Wilmington and Brandywine cemetery, and stumbled on a little Civil War section tucked back by the on ramp to I-95. We also hit some of the sites in Philadelphia, including the standards (Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Betsy Ross House, you get the picture), and the new National Constitution Center, which you should make time to see.

Rene over at Wig-Wags is doing a nice job documenting her journey through the Civil War and academia, so I’m adding her to the blogroll.  Check it out.

David Woodbury has some interesting stuff up on Irvin McDowell at his blog that is worth your time; be sure to read Drew’s comment.  It’s sure to raise the hackles on those hypersensitive Grant fanboys (you know who you are).

In the workout room at the Sheraton Suites they had a few extra copies of a Newsweek magazine with a cover story on those fancy (and expensive) e-book readers.  The one being marketed by is featured.  I think I’ll have some comments on this phenomenon later.

I had an unusually high number of hits on the blog on Monday, considering I really haven’t made a new post in awhile.  It looks like my page with links to online books and articles gets a lot of activity.  Check out this link to an article from Military Images Magazine about the March, 1862 photos of the battlefield taken by George N. Barnard.  The article was co-authored by Manassas Museum Specialist Jim Burgess, who has been a good friend to this blog.

Sherman’s Forgotten General

30 10 2007


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.

zelig.jpgI 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.

#4 – McDowell’s Plan

30 10 2007



O.R.– SERIES I–VOLUME 2 [S# 2] — CHAPTER IX pp 719-721


Arlington, June(*) –, 1861

 Lieut. Col. E. D. TOWNSEND,

Asst. Adjt. Gen., Headquarters of the Army:

COLONEL: I have the honor to submit the following plan of operations, and the composition of the force required to carry it into effect, in compliance with the verbal instructions of the General-in-Chief:

The secession forces at Manassas Junction and its dependencies are supposed to amount at this time to–

Infantry          23,000

Cavalry          1,500

Artillery           500

Total               25,000

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.

The objective point in our plan is the Manassas Junction. This is covered by the enemy’s troops stationed at Centreville, Germantown, Fairfax Court-House, Fairfax Station, a place between Fairfax Station and Sangster’s, and on the Occoquan. The position at Manassas may be reached by four routes: First, by the Leesburg stone road, Georgetown turnpike, and Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad, via Falls Church and Vienna; second, by way of the Little River turnpike and Fairfax Court-House; third, by way of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad; fourth, by way of the road south of the Orange and Alexandria road.

There is a fifth approach, from Dumfries or Evansport, by way of Brentsville, a march of about twenty-two miles, but the starting point is too far from the main direct approach to admit of its being used in the first instance without a superabundance of force. The country lying between the two armies is mostly thickly wooded, and the roads leading across it, except the turnpikes and railroads, are narrow, and in places sunken by the wear of travel and wash of rains. This makes it necessary to have the fewest possible number of carriages of any kind, and our forces, therefore, though the distance is short, will have to move over several lines of approach in order to get forward in time a sufficient body to operate with success. The Loudoun and Hampshire road is in working order as far as within five miles of Vienna, and no doubt could soon be repaired to that place. The Orange and Alexandria road, which I propose to look to as the main channel of supply, is now in working order some seven miles out of Alexandria, and from Manassas Junction to within fifteen miles of Alexandria. In the intermediate space the road has been destroyed as effectively as possible, and a long deep cut filled in with trees and earth. Nevertheless, all these obstacles can soon be removed with plenty of force and an adequate supply of proper materials.

Leaving small garrisons in the defensive works, I propose to move against Manassas with a force of thirty thousand of all arms, organized into three columns, with a reserve of ten thousand. One column to move from Falls Church or Vienna (preferably the latter), to go between Fairfax Court-House and Centreville, and, in connection with another column moving by the Little River turnpike, cut off or drive in (the former, if possible) the enemy’s advanced posts. The third column to move by the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, and leaving as large a force as may be necessary to aid in rebuilding it, to push on with the remainder to join the first and second columns.

The enemy is said to have batteries in position at several places in his front, and defensive works on Bull Run and Manassas Junction. I  do not propose that these batteries be attacked, for I think they may all be turned. Bull Run, I am told, is fordable at almost any place. After uniting the columns this side of it, I propose to attack the main position by turning it, if possible, so as to cut off communications by rail with the South, or threaten to do so sufficiently to force the enemy to leave his intrenchments to guard them; if necessary, and I find it Can be done with safety, to move a force as far as Bristoe, to destroy the bridge at that place.

I cannot learn that the enemy has any magazines at the Junction, and I am under the impression he receives his supplies, except fresh beef, from the south by the railroad. I am told that on most of the approaches abatis have been made and other preparations to obstruct the advance of our troops, and, as the roads are mostly through woods, and are narrow, it will be necessary the Army should go, in the first place, as free from baggage as possible-no tents; provisions only in the haversack; the only wagons being those necessary for carrying axes, spades, and picks, and ammunition for the infantry, and ambulances for the sick and wounded. A subsistence train should be ready in Alexandria to go by the Little River turnpike in case the Orange and Alexandria road cannot be repaired, and another should be ready at Vienna, under the guard to be left there, for the use of the column moving from that point, in case it should fail to reach in time the Orange and Alexandria road or the Little River turnpike, or the latter should not in time be cleared of the enemy.

Believing the chances are greatly in favor of the enemy’s accepting battle between this and the Junction, and that the consequences of that battle will be of the greatest importance to the country, as establishing the prestige in this contest on the one side or the other–the more so as the two sections will be fairly represented by regiments from almost every State–I think it of great consequence that, as for the most part our regiments are exceedingly raw and the best of them, with few exceptions, not over steady in line, they be organized into as many small fixed brigades as the number of regular colonels will admit, these colonels commanding brigades to be assisted by as many regular officers as can be collected for the purpose, so that the men may have as fair a chance as the nature of things and the comparative inexperience of most will allow.

If the three companies of artillery in this department are furnished with batteries, we shall have with the three regular and three volunteer batteries here and in Washington a sufficiency of artillery; though, if the nature of the country did not make it embarrassing, I would, on account of the confidence it gives new troops, have still more. Fortunately, the country is so wooded that our deficiency in cavalry will be the less felt. We shall need all we have for the ordinary work of escorts, advance pickets, &c. I think every arrangement should be made, that when the columns take up their line of march no step be taken in retreat, but that they should press forward to the ultimate point steadily and determinedly. If they are well led I think they will do so, and with every chance of success.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Brigadier-General, Commanding

* About June 24, 1861