Chapter 17

 

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MILITARY REMINISCENCES OF THE CIVIL WAR

BY JACOB DOLSON COX, A.M., LL.D.

Formerly Major-General commanding Twenty-Third Army Corps

VOLUME I.

APRIL 1861--NOVEMBER 1863  

CHAPTER XVII

McCLELLAN AND POLITICS--HIS REMOVAL AND ITS CAUSE

 Meeting Colonel Key--His changes of opinion--His relations to McClellan--Governor Dennison's influence--McClellan's attitude toward Lincoln--Burnside's position--The Harrison Landing letter--Compared with Lincoln's views--Probable intent of the letter--Incident at McClellan's headquarters--John W. Garrett--Emancipation Proclamation--An after-dinner discussion of it--Contrary influences--Frank advice--Burnside and John Cochrane--General Order 163--Lincoln's visit to camp--Riding the field--A review--Lincoln's desire for continuing the campaign--McClellan's hesitation--His tactics of discussion--His exaggeration of difficulties--Effect on his army--Disillusion a slow process--Lee's army not better than Johnston's--Work done by our Western army--Difference in morale--An army rarely bolder than its leader--Correspondence between Halleck and McClellan--Lincoln's remarkable letter on the campaign--The army moves on November 2--Lee regains the line covering Richmond--McClellan relieved--Burnside in command.

 When I rode up with Burnside on the afternoon of the 15th September, in the group around McClellan I met Judge Key, whom I had not seen since we parted in the Ohio Senate in April of the preceding year. He was now aide-de-camp on the headquarters staff with the rank of colonel, and doing duty also as judge-advocate. When McClellan directed us to leave the ridge because the display of numbers attracted the enemy's fire, Colonel Key took my arm and we walked a little way down the slope till we found a fallen tree, on which we sat down, whilst he plunged eagerly into the history of his own opinions since we had discussed the causes of the war in the legislature of our State. He told me with earnestness that he had greatly modified his views on the subject of slavery, and he was now satisfied that the war must end in its abolition. The system was so plainly the soul of the rebellion and the tie which bound the seceded States together, that its existence must necessarily depend upon the success of the revolutionary movement, and it would be a fair object of attack, if doing so would help our cause. I was struck by the zeal with which he dashed into the discussion, forgetful of his actual surroundings in his wish to make me quickly understand the change that had come over his views since we parted at Columbus. He was so absorbed that even when a shell burst near us, he only half gave it attention, saying in a parenthetical way that he would change his position, as he would "rather not be hit in the back by one of those confounded things." We had been so sitting that in facing me his back was toward the front and the line of fire.

Colonel Key has been regarded by many as McClellan's evil genius, whose influence had been dominant in the general's political conduct and who was therefore the cause of his downfall. His influence on McClellan was unquestionably great,--and what he said to me is an important help in understanding the general's conduct and opinions. It accords with other statements of his which have been made public by Judge William M. Dickson of Cincinnati, who at one time was Colonel Key's partner in the practice of the law. [Footnote: I have failed in my efforts to find a communication on the subject in a newspaper, written by Judge Dickson, which he showed to me, reiterating his statements in it.]

General McClellan urged me to come to his headquarters without ceremony, and after the battle of Antietam I had several opportunities of unrestrained discussion of affairs in which he seemed entirely frank in giving me his opinions. It was plainly evident that he was subjected to a good deal of pressure by opponents of the administration to make him commit himself to them. On the other hand, Governor Dennison of Ohio, who was his sincere friend, took every opportunity to counteract such influences and to promote a good understanding between him and Mr. Lincoln. McClellan perfectly knew my own position as an outspoken Republican who from the first had regarded the system of slavery as the stake ventured by the Secessionists on their success in the war, and who held to John Quincy Adams's doctrine that the war powers were adequate to destroy the institution which we could not constitutionally abolish otherwise. With me, the only question was when the ripe time had come for action, and I had looked forward to Mr. Lincoln's proclamation with some impatience at the delay.

The total impression left upon me by the general's conversation was that he agreed with Colonel Key in believing that the war ought to end in abolition of slavery; but he feared the effects of haste, and thought the steps toward the end should be conservatively careful and not brusquely radical. I thought, and still think, that he regarded the President as nearly right in his general views and political purposes, but overcrowded by more radical men around him into steps which as yet were imprudent and extreme. Such an attitude on his part made Governor Dennison and myself feel that there was no need of any political quarrel between him and the administration, and that if he would only rebuff all political intriguers and put more aggressive energy into his military operations, his career might be a success for the country as well as for himself. The portions of his correspondence with Burnside which have become public show that the latter also had, as a true friend, constantly urged him to keep out of political controversy. Burnside himself, like Grant and Sherman, began with a dislike of the antislavery movement; but, also like them, his patriotism being the dominant quality, the natural effect of fighting the Secessionists was to beget in him a hearty acceptance of the policy of emancipation to which Mr. Lincoln had been led by the same educational process.

At the time I am speaking of, I knew nothing of McClellan's famous letter to the President from Harrison's Landing, of July 7, but since it has come to light, I have interpreted it much less harshly than many have done. Reading it in the light of his talk during those Antietam days, I think it fair to regard it as an effort to show Mr. Lincoln that they were not far apart in opinion, and to influence the President to take the more conservative course to which he thought him inclined when taking counsel only of his own judgment. McClellan knew that his "change of base" to the James River in June was not accepted as the successful strategy he declared it to be, and that strong influences were at work to remove him. Under the guise of giving advice to the President, he was in fact assuring him that he did not look to the acknowledgment of the Confederacy as a conceivable outcome of the war; that the "contraband" doctrine applied to slaves was consistent with compensated emancipation; that he favored the application of the principle to the border States so as to make them free States; that concentration of military force as opposed to dispersion of effort was the true policy; that he opposed the rules of warfare which he assumed were announced in General Pope's much criticised orders; and lastly, that he would cordially serve under such general-in-chief as Mr. Lincoln should select.

Compare all this with Mr. Lincoln's known views. It was notorious that he was thought to be too conservative by many of his own party. He had urged a system of compensated emancipation for the border States. He had said that he held the slavery question to be only a part, and an absolutely subordinate part, of the greater question of saving the Union. He had disapproved of a portion of Pope's order regarding the treatment of non-combatants. However ill-advised McClellan's letter was, it may be read between the lines as an attempt to strengthen himself with the President as against Stanton and others, and to make his military seat firmer in the saddle by showing that he was not in political antagonism to Mr. Lincoln, but held, in substance, the conservative views that were supposed to be his. Its purpose seems to me to have been of this personal sort. He did not publish it at the time, and it was not till he was removed from his command that it became a kind of political manifesto. This view is supported by what occurred after the publication of the Emancipation Proclamation, which I shall tell presently; but, to preserve the proper sequence, I must first give another incident.

A few days after the battle of Antietam a prominent clergyman of Hagerstown spent the Sunday in camp, and McClellan invited a number of officers to attend religious services in the parlors of the house where headquarters were. The rooms were well filled, several civilians being also present. I was standing by myself as we were waiting for the clergyman to appear, when a stout man in civilian's dress entered into conversation with me. He stood at my side as we faced the upper part of the suite of rooms, and taking it to be a casual talk merely to pass the time, I paid rather languid attention to it and to him as he began with some complimentary remarks about the army and its recent work. He spoke quite enthusiastically of McClellan, and my loyalty to my commander as well as my personal attachment to him made me assent cordially to what he said. He then spoke of the politicians in Washington as wickedly trying to sacrifice the general, and added, whispering the words emphatically in my ear, "But you military men have that matter in your own hands, you have but to tell the administration what they must do, and they will not dare to disregard it!" This roused me, and I turned upon him with a sharp "What do you mean, sir!" As I faced him, I saw at once by his look that he had mistaken me for another; he mumbled something about having taken me for an acquaintance of his, and moved away among the company.

I was a good deal agitated, for though there was more or less of current talk about disloyal influences at work, I had been sceptical as to the fact, and to be brought face to face with that sort of thing was a surprise. I was a stranger to most of those who were there, and walked a little aside, watching the man who had left me. I soon saw him talking with General Fitz-John Porter, on the opposite side of the room, evidently calling attention to me as if asking who I was. I made inquiries as to who the civilian was, and later came to know him by sight very well. He was John W. Garrett, President of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company.

Mr. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was published on the 24th of September, and within a very few days I was invited to meet General Burnside and General John Cochrane of New York at a camp dinner in McClellan's tent. General Cochrane was a "War Democrat" in politics, and had been active as a politician in his State. He was also the son-in-law of Gerrit Smith, the well-known abolitionist, and had advocated arming the slaves as early as November, 1861. McClellan told us frankly that he had brought us there for the purpose of asking our opinions and advice with regard to the course he should pursue respecting the Proclamation. He said that he was urged to put himself in open opposition to it by politicians not only, but by army officers who were near to him. He named no names, but intimated that they were of rank and influence which gave weight to their advice. He knew that we were all friends of the administration, and his object seemed to be to learn whether we thought he should say anything or should maintain silence on the subject; for he assumed that we would oppose any hostile demonstration on his part.

This naturally led to inquiries as to his actual attitude to the slavery question, and he expressed himself in substance as I have before indicated; repeating with even stronger emphasis his belief that the war would work out the manumission of the slaves gradually and ultimately, and that as to those who came within our lines as we advanced the liberation would be complete and immediate. He thought, however, that the Proclamation was premature, and that it indicated a change in the President's attitude which he attributed to radical influences at Washington.

There had been no previous understanding between us who were his guests. For my part, I then met General Cochrane for the first time, and had conversed with McClellan himself more freely on political subjects than I had with Burnside. We found ourselves, however, in entire accord in advising him that any declaration on his part against the Proclamation would be a fatal error. We could easily understand that he should differ from us in his way of viewing the question of public policy, but we pointed out very clearly that any public utterance by him in his official character criticising the civil policy of the administration would be properly regarded as a usurpation. He intimated that this was his own opinion, but, by way of showing how the matter was thrust at him by others, said that people had assured him that the army was so devoted to him that they would as one man enforce any decision he should make as to any part of the war policy.

I had so recently gone through the little experience on this subject which I have narrated above, that I here spoke out with some emphasis. I said that those who made such assurances were his worst enemies, and in my judgment knew much less of the army than they pretended; that our volunteer soldiers were citizens as well as soldiers, and were citizens more than soldiers; and that greatly as I knew them to be attached to him, I believed not a corporal's guard would stand by his side if he were to depart from the strict subordination of the military to the civil authority. Burnside and Cochrane both emphatically assented to this, and McClellan added that he heartily believed both that it was true and that it ought to be so. But this still left the question open whether the very fact that there was an agitation in camp on the subject, and intrigues of the sort I have mentioned, did not make it wise for him to say something which would show, at least, that he gave no countenance to any would-be revolutionists. We debated this at some length, with the general conclusion that it might be well for him to remind the army in general orders that whatever might be their rights as citizens, they must as soldiers beware of any organized effort to meddle with the functions of the civil government.

I left the Army of the Potomac before McClellan's general order on this subject, dated October 7, was published, but when I read it in the light of the conference in his tent, I regarded it as an honest effort on his part to break through the toils which intriguers had spread for him, and regretted that what seemed to me one of his most laudable actions should have been one of the most misrepresented and misunderstood.  [Footnote: The order is found in Official Records, vol. xix. pt. ii. p. 395, and is as follows:--

General Orders. No. 163. HEAD-QUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, CAMP NEAR SHARPSBURG, MD., October 7, 1862.

The attention of the officers and soldiers of the army of the Potomac is called to General Orders No, 139, War Department, September 24, 1862, publishing to the army the President's proclamation of September 22.

A proclamation of such grave moment to the nation, officially communicated to the army, affords to the general commanding an opportunity of defining specifically to the officers and soldiers under his command the relation borne by all persons in the military service of the United States toward the civil authorities of the Government. The Constitution confides to the civil authorities--legislative, judicial, and executive--the power and duty of making, expounding, and executing the Federal laws. Armed forces are raised and supported simply to sustain the civil authorities, and are to be held in strict subordination thereto in all respects. This fundamental rule of our political system is essential to the security of our republican institutions, and should be thoroughly understood and observed by every soldier. The principle upon which and the object for which armies shall be employed in suppressing rebellion, must be determined and declared by the civil authorities, and the Chief Executive, who is charged with the administration of the national affairs, is the proper and only source through which the needs and orders of the Government can be made known to the armies of the nation.

Discussions by officers and soldiers concerning public measures determined upon and declared by the Government, when carried at all beyond temperate and respectful expressions of opinion, tend greatly to impair and destroy the discipline and efficiency of troops, by substituting the spirit of political faction for that firm, steady, and earnest support of the authorities of the Government, which is the highest duty of the American soldier. The remedy for political errors, if any are committed, is to be found only in the action of the people at the polls.

In thus calling the attention of this army to the true relation between the soldier and the government, the general commanding merely adverts to an evil against which it has been thought advisable during our whole history to guard the armies of the Republic, and in so doing he will not be considered by any right-minded person as casting any reflection upon that loyalty and good conduct which has been so fully illustrated upon so many battle-fields.

In carrying out all measures of public policy, this army will of course be guided by the same rules of mercy and Christianity that have ever controlled its conduct toward the defenceless.

By Command of Major-General McClellan, JAS. A. HARDIE, Lieutenant-Colonel, Aide-de-camp, and Act'g Ass't Adj't Gen'l."]

I have always understood that the order was drafted by Colonel Key, who afterward expressed in very strong terms his confidence in the high motives and progressive tendencies of McClellan at the time he issued it.

General Cochrane, some time after the close of the war, in a pamphlet outlining his own military history, made reference to the visit to McClellan which I have narrated, and states that he was so greatly impressed by the anti-slavery sentiments avowed by the general, that he made use of them in a subsequent effort to bring him and Secretary Chase into more cordial relations. [Footnote: The War for the Union, Memoir by General John Cochrane, pp. 29-31.] It is possible that, in a friendly comparison of views in which we were trying to find how nearly we could come together, the general may have put his opinions with a liberality which outran his ordinary statements of belief; but I am very sure that he gave every evidence of sincerity, and that none of us entertained a doubt of his being entirely transparent with us. He has since, in his "Own Story," referred to his taking counsel of Mr. Aspinwall of New York at about the same time, and there is evidence that General W. F. Smith also threw his influence against any opposition by McClellan to the Emancipation Proclamation. [Footnote: Nicolay and Hay's Lincoln, vol. vi. p. 180.] McClellan's letters show that his first impulse was to antagonism; but there is no fair reason to doubt that his action at last was prompted by the reasons which he avowed in our conversation, and by the honorable motives he professed. He immediately sent a copy of his order to Mr. Lincoln personally, and this indicates that he believed the President would be pleased with it.

The reference which he made to suggestions that the army would follow him in a _coup d'e'tat_ is supported by what he formally declared in his memoirs. He there tells us that in 1861 he was often approached in regard to a "dictatorship," and that when he was finally removed many in the army were in favor of his marching upon Washington to take possession of the government. [Footnote: Own Story, pp. 85, 652.] It would seem that treasonable notions were rife about him to an extent that was never suspected, unless he was made the dupe of pretenders who saw some profit in what might be regarded as a gross form of adulation. He must be condemned for the weakness which made such approaches to him possible; but we are obliged to take the fact as he gives it, and to accept as one of the strange elements of the situation a constant stream of treasonable suggestions from professed friends in the army and out of it. An anecdote which came to me in a way to make it more than ordinarily trustworthy was that in the summer of 1861 McClellan was riding with an older officer of the regular army, [Footnote: General McCall.] and said to him, "I understand there is a good deal of talk of making a dictatorship." "Ah!" said the other, "Mr. Lincoln, I suppose." "Oh, no," replied McClellan, "it's me they're talking of." Bits of evidence from many sources prove that there had been from the first too much such talk about Washington, and whilst McClellan cannot be held responsible for it, there is no proof that he rebuked it as he should have done. It was part of the fermenting political and military intrigue which is found at the seat of government in such a time, if anywhere, and I take satisfaction in testifying that away from that neighborhood I never even heard the thing mentioned or referred to, that I can recollect. Washington would be spoken of in a general way as a place of intrigues, but I never knew this to have a wider meaning given to it than the ordinary one of political schemes within lawful limits and personal ambitions of no criminal character.

Mr. Lincoln visited our camp on the 1st of October, and remained two or three days. I was with the party of officers invited by McClellan to accompany the President in a ride over the route which Sumner had followed in the battle. We crossed the Antietam in front of Keedysville, followed the hollows and byways to the East Wood, and passed through this and the cornfields which had been the scene of Hooker's and Mansfield's fierce fighting. We visited the Dunker Church and then returned to camp by Bloody Lane and the central stone bridge. The President was observant and keenly interested in the field of battle, but made no display of sentiment. On another day he reviewed the troops which were most accessible from headquarters. As my own corps was among the first on the list, I did not join the escort of the President at the general's quarters, but was with the troops attending to the details of the parade. We were ordered to be under arms at eight o'clock, but it was more than two hours after that when the reviewing cortege came on the ground. The officers were very hilarious over some grotesque story with which Mr. Lincoln had seasoned the conversation, and which seemed to have caused some forgetfulness of the appointment with the troops. We were reviewed by divisions, and I met the party with my staff, riding down the lines with them, and answering the inquiries of the President and the general as to the history and the experience of the different organizations as we passed them. The usual march in review was omitted for lack of time, the President contenting himself with riding along the lines formed in parade. I had missed seeing the President in Washington when I paid my respects at the White House, and this was my first meeting with him after his inauguration. His unpretending cordiality was what first impressed one, but you soon saw with what sharp intelligence and keen humor he dealt with every subject which came up. He referred very pleasantly to his knowledge of me through Secretary Chase, showing the kindly instinct to find some compliment or evidence of recognition for all who approached him.

This geniality in Mr. Lincoln made him avoid personal criticism of the campaign, and gave an air of earnest satisfaction to what he said of the work done by McClellan. There was enough to praise, and he praised it heartily. He was also thankful that the threatened invasion of the North had been defeated, and showed his sense of great relief. He had adopted the rule for himself to limit his direct influence upon his generals to the presentation of his ideas of what was desirable, often taking pains even in his written communications to say that he made no order, and left the definite direction to General Halleck. McClellan gave the most favorable interpretation to all that the President said, but could not ignore the anxiety Mr. Lincoln showed that an energetic campaign should be continued. He wrote home: "I incline to think that the real purpose of his visit is to push me into a premature advance into Virginia." [Footnote: O. S., p. 654.]

The President had coupled his earliest telegraphic congratulations with the question, "Can't you beat them some more before they get off?" and McClellan's private correspondence shows that he, on his part, chafed at every suggestion of haste. As early as the 22d of September, the general had written that he looked upon the campaign as substantially ended, and intended to give some time to the reorganization of the army before beginning a new one. The vicinity of Harper's Ferry or Frederick seemed to him the proper place for the camp meanwhile, and he wished for a rise in the Potomac River which should make it impracticable for Lee to ford it again. He delayed in the neighborhood of Sharpsburg, waiting for this. To those of us with whom he talked freely, he spoke of the necessity of incorporating into the Army of the Potomac at least a hundred thousand of the new levies to make it really fit for an aggressive campaign, and argued that it would save time in the end to use some of it now in the work of reorganizing.

Mr. Lincoln was plainly troubled with the apprehension that the delays of 1861 were to be repeated, and that the fine October weather of that region would be again wasted and nothing done till the next spring. There were men enough about him at Washington to remind him of this in irritating ways, and to make him realize that as he had personally restored McClellan to the command he would be personally responsible for keeping him moving. McClellan rightly understood Mr. Lincoln's visit as meaning this. He did not refuse to move; on the other hand, he professed to be anxious to do so at the earliest moment when it should be really practicable. His obstinacy was of a feminine sort. He avoided open antagonism which would have been a challenge of strength, but found constantly fresh obstacles in the way of doing what he was determined from the first not to do. The need of clothing for the men and of horses for the cavalry was a fruitful subject for debate, and the debate, if sufficiently prolonged, would itself accomplish the delay that was desired.

The official correspondence shows that the President went back to Washington determined to cut the knot in a peremptory way, if he was forced to do so. McClellan could not have been blind to this. His private letters show that he thought it not improbable that he would be relieved from command. His desire for military success was a ruling one with him on both public and private grounds. We are forced, therefore, to conclude that he actually lacked faith in success, and regarded the crossing of the Potomac as too perilous until he should reorganize the army with the additional hundred thousand recruits. In this we see the ever-recurring effect of his exaggeration of the enemy's force. We now know that this over-estimate was inexcusable, but we cannot deny that he made it, nor, altogether, that he believed in it. It constituted a disqualification for such a command, and led to what must be regarded as the inevitable result,--his removal. The political questions connected with the matter cut no important figure in it. If he had had faith in his ability to conquer Lee's army, we should never have heard of them.

Whilst I mean what I say in speaking of McClellan's exaggeration of his enemy as constituting incompetence for such a command, it has reference to the necessity in which we were that our army should be aggressively handled. Few men could excel him in strictly defensive operations. He did not lack personal courage, nor did his intellectual powers become obscured in the excitement of actual war. He showed the ordinary evidences of presence of mind and coolness of judgment under fire. His tendency to see his enemy doubled in force was, however, a constitutional one, and no amount of experience seemed to cure it. Had it not been so he would have devised checks upon the reports of his secret-service agents, and corrected their estimates by those more reliable methods which I have already spoken of. McClellan was, even in those days, often compared to Marshal Daun, whose fair ability but studiously defensive policy was so in contrast with the daring strategy of the great Frederick. The comparison was a fair one. The trouble was that we had need of a Frederick.

It may seem strange that his subordinates so generally accepted his view and supported him in his conduct; but it was a natural result of forces always at work in an army. The old maxim that "Councils of war never fight" is only another way of saying that an army is never bolder than its leader. It is the same as the old Greek proverb, "Better an army of deer with a lion for leader, than an army of lions with a deer for leader." The body of men thus organized relies upon its chief for the knowledge of the enemy and for the plan by which the enemy is to be taken at a disadvantage. It will courageously carry out his plans so long as he has faith in them himself and has good fortune in their execution. Let doubt arise as to either of these things and his troops raise the cry "We are sacrificed," "We are slaughtered uselessly." McClellan's arts of military popularity were such that his army accepted his estimate of the enemy, and believed (in the main) that he had shown great ability in saving them from destruction in a contest at such odds. They were inclined, therefore, to hold the government at Washington responsible for sacrificing them by demanding the impossible. Under such circumstances nothing but a cautious defensive policy could be popular with officers or men. If McClellan's data were true, he and they were right. It would have been folly to cross the Potomac and, with their backs to the river, fight a greatly superior enemy. Because the data were not true there was no solution for the problem but to give the army another commander, and painfully to undo the military education it had for a year been receiving. The process of disillusion was a slow one. The disasters to Burnside and Hooker strengthened the error. Meade's standstill after Gettysburg was very like McClellan's after Antietam, and Mr. Lincoln had to deal with it in a very similar way. When Grant took command the army expected him to have a similar fate, and his reputation was treated as of little worth because he had not yet "met Bobby Lee." His terrible method of "attrition" was a fearfully costly one, and the flower of that army was transferred from the active roster to the casualty lists before the prestige of its enemy was broken. But it was broken, and Appomattox came at last.

It will not do to say that the Confederate army in Virginia was in any sense superior to their army in the West. When the superior force of the National army was systematically applied, General Lee was reduced to as cautious a defensive in Virginia as was General Johnston in Georgia. Longstreet and Hood had no better success when transferred to the West than the men who had never belonged to the Army of Virginia. In fact, it was with Joseph E. Johnston as his opponent that McClellan's career was chiefly run. Yet the Confederate army in the West was broken at Donelson and at Vicksburg. It was driven from Stone's River to Chattanooga, and from Missionary Ridge to Atlanta. Its remnant was destroyed at Franklin and Nashville, and Sherman's March to the Sea nearly completed the traverse of the whole Confederacy. His victorious army was close in rear of Petersburg when Richmond was finally won. Now that we have got rid of the fiction that the Confederate government gave to Lee an enormously larger army than it gave to Bragg or to Joseph Johnston, we have to account for the fact that with much less odds in their favor our Western army accomplished so much more. As a military objective Richmond was in easier reach from the Potomac than Nashville from the Ohio. From Nashville to Chattanooga was fully as difficult a task. The vulnerable lines of communication multiplied in length as we went southward, and made the campaign of Atlanta more difficult still. Vicksburg was a harder nut to crack than Richmond. We must put away our _esprit de corps_, and squarely face the problem as one of military art with the Official Records and returns before us. Our Western army was of essentially the same material as the Eastern. Regiments from nearly all the States were mingled in both. Wisconsin men fought beside those from Maine in the Army of the Potomac, as men who had fought at Antietam and at Gettysburg followed Sherman through the Carolinas. The difference was not in the rank and file, it was not in the subordinates. It was the difference in leadership and in the education of the armies under their leaders during their first campaigns. That mysterious thing, the morale of an army, grows out of its belief as to what it can do. If it is systematically taught that it is hopelessly inferior to its adversary, it will be held in check by a fraction of its own force. The general who indoctrinates his army with the belief that it is required by its government to do the impossible, may preserve his popularity with the troops and be received with cheers as he rides down the line, but he has put any great military success far beyond his reach. In this study of military morale, its causes and its effects, the history of the Army of the Potomac is one of the most important and one of the gravest lessons the world has ever seen.

I have to confess that at Antietam I shared, more or less fully, the opinions of those among whom I was. I accepted McClellan as the best authority in regard to the enemy's numbers, and, assuming that he was approximately right in that, the reasonable prudence of waiting for reinforcements could not be denied. I saw that he had lost valuable time in the movements of the campaign, but the general result seemed successful enough to hide this for the time at least. My own experience, therefore, supports the conclusion I have already stated, that an army's enterprise is measured by its commander's, and, by a necessary law, the army reflects his judgment as to what it can or cannot accomplish.

Mr. Lincoln had told McClellan during his visit to the army that his great fault was "overcautiousness." He had intimated plainly enough that he must insist upon the continuance of the campaign. He had discussed the plans of advance, and urged McClellan to operate upon Lee's communications by marching south on the east side of the Blue Ridge. He had disclaimed any purpose of forcing a movement before the army was ready, but saw no reason why it should take longer to get ready after Antietam than after Pope's last battle. Soon after his return to Washington, Halleck sent a peremptory order to McClellan to cross the Potomac. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xix. pt. i. p. 10.] It was dated October 6th, and said: "The President directs that you cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him South. Your army must move now while the roads are good. If you cross the river between the enemy and Washington, and cover the latter by your line of operations, you can be reinforced with 30,000 men. If you move up the valley of the Shenandoah, not more than 12,000 or 15,000 can be sent to you. The President advises the interior line between Washington and the enemy, but does not order it." It also required him to report immediately which line he adopted. Halleck, as General-in-chief, ought to have given his own decision as to the line of operations, but his characteristic indecision was shown in failing to do so. He did not even express an opinion as to the relative merits of the two lines, and limited himself to his concurrence in the order to move in one way or the other.

McClellan replied on the 7th, [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xix. pt. i. p. 11.] saying that he had determined to adopt the Shenandoah line, though he wished to "state distinctly" that he should only use that line till the enemy should retire beyond Winchester, as he did not expect to be able to supply his army more than twenty or twenty-five miles beyond a railway or canal depot. If the enemy retreated, he would adopt some new and decisive line of operations. He objected to the interior line because it did not cover Maryland and Pennsylvania from a return of Lee's army, and because (as he said) the army could not be supplied by it. He indicated three days as the time within which he could move. At the end of that time he complained of still lacking clothing. On the 12th he found it "absolutely necessary" that the cavalry should have more horses. The discussion over these things ran on till the 21st.

Mr. Lincoln made a strong effort to save McClellan from the effects of his mental deficiencies. He exhausted advice and exhortation. He even ventured upon mild raillery on the idleness of the army. On the 13th he had written a remarkable letter to McClellan, in which he reminded him of what had occurred between them at the Antietam and argued in favor of the interior line of movement. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xix. pt. i. p. 13.] He showed that Lee at Winchester supplied his army twice as far from his railway depot as McClellan thought possible for the Army of the Potomac. He urged the recognized advantage of operating by a line which attacked the enemy's communications. He pointed out that if Lee should try to cross the Potomac, our army could be in his rear and should destroy him. He showed that McClellan at Harper's Ferry was nearer to Richmond than Lee: "His route is the arc of a circle of which yours is the chord." He analyzed the map and showed that the interior line was the easier for supplying the army: "The chord line, as you see, carries you by Aldie, Haymarket and Fredericksburg, and you see how turnpikes, railroads, and finally the Potomac by Acquia Creek, meet you at all points from Washington." He even gave the figures in miles from gap to gap in the mountains, which would enable McClellan to strike the enemy in flank or rear; and this was of course to be done if Lee made a stand. "It is all easy," his letter concluded, "if our troops march as well as the enemy; and it is unmanly to say they cannot do it." Yet he expressly disclaimed making his letter an order. [Footnote: Since writing this, I have had occasion to treat this subject more fully, as bearing upon Mr. Lincoln's military judgment and intelligence, in a review of Henderson's Stonewall Jackson, "The Nation," Nov. 24, Dec. 1, 1898.]

As a mere matter of military comprehension and judgment of the strategic situation, the letter puts Mr. Lincoln head and shoulders above both his military subordinates. Halleck saw its force, but would not order it to be carried out. McClellan shrank from the decisive vigor of the plan, though he finally accepted it as the means of getting the larger reinforcements. On the 21st of October the discussion of cavalry horses was pretty well exhausted, and McClellan telegraphed Halleck [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xix. pt. i. p. 81.] that in other respects he was nearly ready to move, and inquires whether the President desired him to march on the enemy at once or to wait the arrival of the new horses. Halleck answered that the order of the 6th October remained unchanged. "If you have not been and are not now in condition to obey it, you will be able to show such want of ability. The President does not expect impossibilities, but he is very anxious that all this good weather should not be wasted in inactivity. Telegraph when you will move and on what lines you propose to march." This dispatch was plainly a notice to McClellan that he would be held responsible for the failure to obey the order of the 6th unless he could exonerate himself by showing that he could not obey it. In his final report, however, he says that he treated it as authority to decide for himself whether or not it was possible to move with safety to the army; [Footnote: _Ibid_.] "and this responsibility," he says, "I exercised with the more confidence in view of the strong assurance of his trust in me, as commander of that army, with which the President had seen fit to honor me during his last visit." Argument is superfluous, in view of the correspondence, to show that orders and exhortations were alike wasted.

The movement began in the last days of October, the Sixth Corps, which was in the rear, crossing the Potomac on the 2d of November. McClellan had accepted Mr. Lincoln's plan, but lack of vigor in its execution broke down the President's patience, and on the 5th of November, upon Lee's recrossing the Blue Ridge without a battle, he ordered the general to turn over the command to Burnside, as he had declared he would do if Lee's was allowed to regain the interior line. The order was presented and obeyed on the 7th, and McClellan left the army. The fallen general brooded morbidly over it all for twenty years, and then wrote his "Own Story," a most curious piece of self-exposure, in which he unconsciously showed that the illusions which had misguided him in his campaigns were still realities to him, and that he had made no use of the authentic facts which Confederate as well as National records had brought within his reach. He had forgotten much, but he had learned nothing.

 

 

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