MILITARY REMINISCENCES OF THE CIVIL WAR
BY JACOB DOLSON COX, A.M., LL.D.
Formerly Major-General commanding Twenty-Third Army Corps
APRIL 1861--NOVEMBER 1863
PERSONAL RELATIONS OF McCLELLAN, BURNSIDE, AND PORTER
Intimacy of McClellan and Burnside--Private letters in the official files--Burnside's mediation--His self-forgetful devotion--The movement to join
Pope--Burnside forwards Porter's dispatches--His double refusal of the command--McClellan suspends the organization of wings--His relations to Porter--Lincoln's letter on the subject--Fault-finding with Burnside--Whose work?--Burnside's appearance and bearing in the field.
McClellan and Burnside had been classmates at West Point, and had been associated in railway employment after they had left the army, in the years immediately before the war. The intimacy which began at the Academy had not only continued, but they had kept up the demonstrative boyish friendship which made their intercourse like that of brothers. They were "Mac" and "Burn" to each other when I knew them, and although Fitz-John Porter, Hancock, Parker, Reno, and Pleasonton had all been members of the same class, the two seemed to be bosom friends in a way totally different from their intimacy with the others. Probably there was no one outside of his own family to whom McClellan spoke his secret thoughts in his letters, as he did to Burnside. The characteristic lack of system in business which was very noticeable in Burnside, made him negligent, apparently, in discriminating between official letters and private ones, and so it happens that there are a number in the official records which were never meant to reach the public. They show, however, as nothing else could, the relations which the two men sustained to each other, and reveal strong traits in the characters of both.
After Burnside had secured his first success in the Roanoke expedition, he had written to McClellan, then in the midst of his campaign of the peninsula, and this was McClellan's reply on the 21st of May, 1862:--[Footnote: Official Records, vol ix. p. 392.]
"MY DEAR BURN,--Your dispatch and kind letter received. I have instructed Seth [Williams] to reply to the official letter, and now acknowledge the kind private note. It always does me good, in the midst of my cares and perplexities, to see your wretched old scrawling. I have terrible troubles to contend with, but have met them with a good heart, like your good old self, and have thus far struggled through successfully.... I feel very proud of Yorktown: it and Manassas will be my brightest chaplets in history, for I know that I accomplished everything in both places by pure military skill. I am very proud, and very grateful to God that he allowed me to purchase such great success at so trifling a loss of life.... The crisis cannot long be deferred. I pray for God's blessing on our arms, and rely far more on his goodness than I do on my own poor intellect. I sometimes think, now, that I can almost realize that Mahomet was sincere. When I see the hand of God guarding one so weak as myself, I can almost think myself a chosen instrument to carry out his schemes. Would that a better man had been selected.... Good-bye and God bless you, Burn. With the sincere hope that we may soon shake hands, I am, as ever,
Your sincere friend, MCCLELLAN."
When McClellan reached the James River after the seven days' battles, the first suggestion as to reinforcing him was that Burnside should bring to his aid the bulk of his little army in North Carolina. This was determined upon, and the Ninth Corps was carried by sea to
Fortress Monroe. As soon as the movement was started, Burnside hastened in advance to Washington, and on returning to the fortress wrote McClellan as follows:--[Footnote: O. S., p. 472.]
"OLD POINT, July 15, 1862.
MY DEAR MAC,--I have just arrived from Washington, and have not time to get ready to go up this morning, but will to-morrow. I've much to say to you and am very anxious to see you.... The President has ordered me to remain here for the present, and when I asked him how long, he said five or six days. I don't know what it means; but I do know, my dear Mac, that you have lots of enemies. But you must keep cool; don't allow them to provoke you into a quarrel. You must come out all right; I'll tell you all to-morrow.
Your old friend, BURN."
He went up the river to Harrison's Landing and stayed a couple of days, consulting with McClellan as to the situation. He returned to Old Point Comfort on the 18th, and immediately telegraphed to the War Department for leave to go to Washington and present the results of his conference with McClellan. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xi. pt. iii. p. 326.] This was granted, and he again presented himself before the President and
Secretary Stanton as the friend of McClellan. He urged the increase of McClellan's army to an extent which would make the general resume the aggressive with confidence.
Halleck visited McClellan at once after assuming command as general-in-chief, but satisfied himself that the government could not furnish the thirty thousand additional troops which McClellan then demanded. [Footnote: _Id._, p. 337.] This led to the decision to bring the
Army of the Potomac back by water, and to unite it with Pope's army on the Rappahannock.
On this visit to Washington the President and Secretary of War had offered to Burnside himself the command of the Army of the Potomac. He had refused it, earnestly asserting his faith that McClellan was much fitter for the command than he, and trying hard to restore confidence and a mutual good understanding between his friend and the government. He was discouraged at the result, and after he returned to his command wrote a letter, every line of which shows his sadness and his disinterested friendship, for he does not mention, much less take credit to himself for, the refusal to supersede his friend. [Footnote: O. S., 472.]
"FORT MONROE, Aug. 2, 1862.
MY DEAR MAC,--I'm laid up with a lame leg, and besides am much worried at the decision they have chosen to make in regard to your army. From the moment I reached Washington I feared it would be so, and I am of the opinion that your engineers [Footnote: This hints at General Barnard's unfavorable criticisms of McClellan's management, which led to a request by the latter to have another officer assigned as chief engineer. See
Halleck to McClellan, Aug. 7, 1862. Official Records, vol. xi. pt. iii. p. 359.] had much to do with bringing about the determination. When the conclusion was arrived at, I was the only one who advocated your forward movement. I speak now as if a positive decision had been arrived at, which I do not know, and you of course do; my present orders indicate it. But you know what they are and all about it, so I will accept it as something that is ordered for the best. Let us continue to give our undivided support to the cause and all will be well. It looks dark sometimes, but a just God will order everything for the best. We can't expect to have it all as we wish. I'm off for my destination, and will write you a long letter from there. The troops are nearly all embarked. Good-bye. God bless you!
Your old friend, A. E. BURNSIDE."
Burnside was sent with the Ninth Corps to Falmouth on the Rappahannock. Porter's corps joined him there, and both the corps were sent forward to Warrenton to join Pope. When Pope's communication with Washington was cut, it was only through Burnside that the government could hear of him for several days, and in response to the calls for news he telegraphed copies of Porter's dispatches to him. Like McClellan's private letters, these dispatches told more of the writer's mind and heart than would willingly have been made public. Burnside's careless outspoken frankness as to his own opinions was such that he probably did not reflect what reticences others might wish to have made. Perhaps he also thought that Porter's sarcasms on
Pope, coming from one who had gained much reputation in the peninsula, would be powerful in helping to reinstate McClellan. At any rate, the dispatches were the only news from the battle-field he could send the President in answer to his anxious inquiries, and he sent them. They were the cause of Mr. Lincoln's request to McClellan, on September 1st, that he would write Porter and other friends begging them to give Pope loyal support. They were also the most damaging evidence against Porter in his subsequent court-martial.
Before the Maryland campaign began, Mr. Lincoln again urged upon Burnside the command of the army, and he again declined, warmly advocating McClellan's retention as before. [Footnote: C. W., vol. i. p. 650.] His advocacy was successful, as I have already stated. [Footnote: _Ante_, p. 257.] The arrangement that Burnside and Sumner were to command wings of the army of at least two corps each, was made before we left Washington, and Burnside's subordinates, Hooker and Reno, were, by direction of the President, assigned to corps commands through orders from army headquarters. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xix. pt. ii. pp. 188, 197.] McClellan did not publish to the Army of the Potomac this assignment of Burnside and Sumner till the 14th of September, though it had been acted upon from the beginning of the campaign. [Footnote: _Id_., p. 290.] On the evening of the same day Porter's corps joined the army at South Mountain, and before the advance was resumed on the following morning, the order was again suspended and Burnside reduced to the command of a single corps. [Footnote: _Id_., p. 297.] I have already suggested Hooker's relation to this, and only note at this point the coincidence, if it was nothing more, that the first evidence of any change in McClellan's friendship toward Burnside occurs within a few hours from Porter's arrival, and in connection with a complaint made by the latter.
McClellan and Burnside had slept in the same house the night after the battle of South Mountain. Porter seems to have joined them there. During the evening McClellan dictated his orders for the movements of the 15th which were communicated to the army in the morning. That Porter should be unfriendly to Burnside was not strange, for it had by this time become known that the dispatches of August 27th to 30th were relied upon by
General Pope's friends to show Porter's hostile and insubordinate spirit in that campaign. The court-martial was still impending over Porter, and he had been allowed to take the field only at McClellan's special request. Although Burnside had not dreamed of doing Porter an ill service, his transmittal of the dispatches to the President had made them available as evidence, and Porter, not unnaturally, held him responsible for part of his peril. The sort of favoritism which McClellan showed to Porter was notorious in the army. Had the position of chief of staff been given him, it would have sanctioned his personal influence without offending the self-respect of other general officers; but that position was held by General Marcy, the father-in-law of McClellan, and Porter's manifest power at headquarters consequently wore the air of discourtesy toward others. The incident I have narrated of the examination of Lee's position at Sharpsburg from the ridge near Pry's house was an example of this. It was Porter who in the presence of the commandants of the wings of the army was invited by McClellan to continue the examination when the others were sent below the crest of the hill. Governor Sprague testified before the Committee on the Conduct of the War to the notoriety of this from the beginning of the peninsular campaign and to the bad feeling it caused. [Footnote: C. W., vol. i. p. 566.] General Rosecrans testified that in the winter of 1861-62, on his visit to Washington, he found that Porter was regarded as the confidential adviser of McClellan. [Footnote: _Id_., vol. vi. (Rosecrans) p. 14.] It was matter of common fame, too well known to be questioned by anybody who served in that army. Mr. Lincoln had discussed it to some extent in his correspondence with McClellan in the month of May, and had warned the general of the mischiefs likely to ensue, even whilst authorizing provisional corps to be organized for Porter and Franklin. He had used such exceptional plainness as to say to the general [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xi. pt. iii. p. 154.] that "it is looked upon as merely an effort to pamper one or two pets and to persecute and degrade their supposed rivals. The commanders of these corps are of course the three highest officers with you, but I am constantly told that you have no consultation or communication with them; that you consult and communicate with nobody but General Fitz-John Porter and perhaps General Franklin. I do not say these complaints are true or just, but at all events it is proper you should know of their existence."
McClellan's dealing with the division of the army into wings was part of the same persistent method of thwarting the purpose of the administration while ostensibly keeping the letter. It was perfectly easy to advance from South Mountain upon Sharpsburg, keeping Sumner's and Burnside's commands intact. The intermingling of them was unnecessary at the beginning, and was mischievous during the battle of Antietam. No military reason can be given for it, and the history of the whole year makes it plain that the reasons were personal.
The offer of the command of the army to Burnside, though refused, was a sufficiently plain designation of McClellan's successor in case he should be relieved or be disabled. It needed a more magnanimous nature than McClellan's proved to be, to bear the obligation of Burnside's powerful friendship in securing for him again the field command of the army. When he was in personal contact with Burnside, the transparent sincerity of the latter's friendship always brought McClellan to his better self, and to the eye of an observer they were as cordially intimate as they had ever been. Yet unfriendly things which had been done officially could not easily be undone, and the friendship was maintained by the subordinate condoning the sins against it. Hooker was allowed to separate himself from Burnside's command on the morning of the 15th, against the protest of his commander; the order announcing the assignment of the wing command was suspended and was never renewed, though McClellan afterward gave Burnside temporary command of several corps when detached from the rest of the army.
Burnside spent several hours with his chief on Monday morning (15th), and was disturbed and grieved at the course things had taken. It is possible that his pre-occupation of mind made him neglect the prompt issue of orders for moving the Ninth Corps, though I know nothing definite as to this. [Footnote: My own recollection is that part of the corps had marched without rations on the preceding day, and had sent back during the night for them. Burnside took the responsibility of allowing the corps to wait until these supplies came and the men could be fed before marching again. It will be remembered that McClellan made no effort to bring on an engagement that day, nor during the whole of the next day.] Porter's corps was to follow us through Fox's Gap, and when his head of column came up the mountain at noon, we certainly were not in motion. My own division was the rear one of the column that day, by way of change, as I had had the advance all the way from Washington. General Porter reported at McClellan's headquarters that the movement of his troops was obstructed by Burnside's, and got at his own special request an order to push by them. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xix. pt. ii. p. 296.] The written order Porter preserved, and put upon it an endorsement adding to what it contains the accusation that "Burnside's corps was not moving three hours after the hour designated for him." [Footnote: _Ibid._] No doubt there was many a delay in that campaign in divers corps. The significant thing in this one was the pains taken to "make a record" of it against Burnside, and the inclusion in this of unofficial matter by means of the endorsement.
On the 16th another vexatious incident of a similar character occurred. After McClellan's reconnoitring on our left, he orally directed that the divisions of the Ninth Corps should be moved to positions designated by members of his staff. When Burnside had taken his position on a hill-top from which the positions could be seen and the movement accurately directed, another staff officer from McClellan came and requested that the movement be delayed for further consideration by the commanding general. It was this that occasioned a halt and our subsequent march in the dusk of evening, as has been narrated in its place. That evening the following note was written at McClellan's headquarters, but it was not delivered to Burnside till the next day, the day of the battle: [Footnote: _Id._, p. 308.]--
"HEADQUARTERS, ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, September 16, 1862.
MAJOR-GENERAL BURNSIDE, Commanding Ninth Corps, etc.
GENERAL,--The General commanding has learned that although your corps was ordered to be in a designated position at 12 M. to-day, at or near sunset only one division and four batteries had reached the ground intended for your troops. The general has also been advised that there was a delay of some four hours in the movement of your command yesterday. I am instructed to call upon you for explanations of these failures on your part to comply with the orders given you, and to add, in view of the important military operations now at hand, the commanding general cannot lightly regard such marked departure from the tenor of his instructions.
I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Aide-de-camp, and Act'g Ass't Adj't. Gen'l."
To this missive Burnside dictated the following answer on the field during the battle:--[Footnote: Official Records., vol. xix. pt. ii. p. 314.]
"HEADQUARTERS, September 17, 1862.
BRIG. GEN. S. WILLIAMS, Assistant Adjutant-General.
GENERAL,--Your dispatch of yesterday this moment received. General Burnside directs me to say that immediately upon the receipt of the order of the general commanding, which was after twelve o'clock, he ordered his corps to be in readiness to march, and instead of having Captain Duane [Footnote: Captain Duane was senior engineer officer in the field, on the staff of McClellan, and had conducted the reconnoitring of the Antietam.] post the divisions in detail, and at the suggestion of Captain Duane, he sent three aides to ascertain the position of each of the three divisions, that they might post them. These aides returned shortly before three o'clock, and they immediately proceeded to post the three columns. The general then went on an eminence above these positions to get a good view of them, and whilst there, during the progress of the movement of his corps, an aide from General McClellan came to him and said that General McClellan was not sure that the proper position had been indicated, and advised him not to hasten the movement until the aide had communicated with the general commanding. He (General Burnside) at once went to General McClellan's headquarters to inform him that he had seen large bodies of the enemy moving off to the right. Not finding the general commanding, General Burnside returned to his command, and the movement was resumed and continued as rapidly as possible. General Burnside directs me to say that he is sorry to have received so severe a rebuke from the general commanding, and particularly sorry that the general commanding feels that his instructions have not been obeyed; but nothing can occur to prevent the general from continuing his hearty co-operation to the best of his ability in any movement the general commanding may direct.
I have the honor to be, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant, LEWIS RICHMOND, Assistant Adjutant-General."
The answer was of course conclusive, but it leaves the difficult problem, how came the reprimand to be written which General McClellan could not have dictated, as the interruption of Burnside's movement was caused by a message from himself? The blank for the name of a staff officer who was to sign it, and the indication of his rank and position point to Lieutenant-Colonel James A. Hardie as the one for whom it was prepared, but Colonel Hardie must have demurred to signing it, since Colonel Richmond's answer implies that General Seth Williams's name was finally attached. All of us who knew General Williams and his methods of doing business will be slow to believe that he volunteered a paper of that kind. He afterward served on Burnside's own staff and had his confidence. The responsibility must fall upon General Marcy, the chief of staff, and most of the officers of that army will be likely to conclude that he also would act only by the direction of McClellan or of some one whom he regarded as having decisive authority to speak for him in his absence.
I have already referred to an error contained in General Porter's report of the battle of Antietam, where he says that "Morell's division in reporting to General Burnside relieved his corps, which was at once recalled from its position in front of Antietam bridge." [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xix. pt. i. p. 339.] I mention it again only to say that since this was not only contrary to the fact, but is unsupported by the records, to accept it and to embody it in his official report certainly indicates no friendly disposition toward Burnside. To that extent it supports any other circumstances which point to Porter as the hostile influence which becomes so manifest at McClellan's headquarters after the 14th of September. I know by many expressions uttered by Burnside during those days and afterward, that though he was deeply grieved at some things which had occurred, he did not waver in his loyal friendship to McClellan. He uttered no unkind word in regard to him personally, either then or ever in my hearing. He sometimes spoke of what he believed to be mischievous influences about McClellan and which he thought were too powerful with him, but was earnest and consistent in wishing for him the permanent command of that army till success should give a glorious end to the war. It was after the irritating incidents I have narrated that the visit to McClellan to dine with him occurred, and I saw them frequently together till I left the army on the 5th of October. Their manner toward each other was more than cordial, it was affectionately intimate. Burnside never mentioned to me, although I was next him in command, the reprimand which is copied above. His real unwillingness to supersede McClellan, even when the final order came in November, is abundantly attested. McClellan only by degrees gave outward evidence of the souring of his own feelings toward Burnside, but his private letters show that the process began with the battle of South Mountain. By the time that he wrote his final report in the latter part of 1863 it had advanced far enough to warp his memory of the campaign and to make him try to transfer to Burnside the responsibility for some of his mishaps. When his "Own Story" was written, the process was complete, and no kindly remembrance dictated a word which could give any indication of the friendship that had died.
Those who are not familiar with the customs of military service might see little significance in the fact that the fault-finding with Burnside was put in the form of official communications which thus became part of the permanent documentary history of the war. To military men, however, it would be almost conclusive proof of a settled hostility to him, formally calling his military character in question in a way to make it tell against him for ulterior purposes. Nothing is more common in an active campaign than for a commanding officer to send messages hurrying the movement of a part of his army. These are usually oral, and even when delays are complained of, the commander, in the interests of cordial cooperation and cheerful alacrity, awaits a full opportunity for personal explanation from his immediate subordinates before administering a reprimand. It goes without saying that where intimate friendship exists, still more delicate consideration is used. To send such a letter as that of September 16th, and in the course of such deliberate movements as were McClellan's during those days, would be scarcely conceivable unless there had been a formal breach of personal relations, and it was equivalent to notice that they were henceforth to deal at arm's-length only.
McClellan's "Own Story" shows that in regard to the alleged delay on the morning of the 15th, he had a personal explanation from Burnside. [Footnote: O. S., p. 586.] Yet in the night of the 16th the same querulous inquiry was repeated as if it had not been answered, with the addition of the new complaint of a delay on the 16th which was caused by McClellan's personal request, and the whole accompanied by so formal a reprimand that the ordinary reply to it would have been a demand for a court of inquiry. The occurrence was unexampled in that campaign and stands entirely alone, although McClellan's memoirs show that he alleged delays in other cases, notably in Hooker's march that same afternoon to attack the enemy, of which no recorded notice was taken. [Footnote: O. S., p.590.] Considering the personal relations of the men before that time, and as I myself witnessed them from day to day afterward, it is simply incredible that McClellan dictated the letters which went from his headquarters.
Before ending the discussion of matters personal to these officers I will say a few words regarding Burnside's appearance and bearing in the field. He was always a striking figure, and had a dashing way with him which incited enthusiasm among his soldiers. Without seeming to care for his costume, or even whilst affecting a little carelessness, there was apt to be something picturesque about him. He had a hearty and jovial manner, a good-humored cordiality toward everybody, that beamed in his face as he rode through the camps or along the lines. When not on parade, he often discarded his uniform coat, wearing a light undress jacket, with no indication of his rank except the yellow silk sash about his waist which showed that he was a general officer. On one occasion when I accompanied him in a change of position, we passed the Ninth Corps column in march, and it was interesting to see how he was greeted by the troops which had been with him in his North Carolina campaign. He wore that day a "Norfolk jacket," a brown knit roundabout, fitting close to his person; his hat was the stiff broad-rimmed, high-crowned regulation hat, worn rather rakishly, with gold cord, acorn-tipped; his pistol-belt was a loose one, allowing the holster to hang on his hip instead of being buckled tight about the waist; his boots were the high cavalry boots reaching to the knee; his large buckskin gauntlets covered his forearm; he rode a large bony horse, bob-tailed, with a wall-eye which gave him a vicious look, and suited well the brigandish air of his rider's whole appearance. Burnside's flashing eyes, his beard trimmed to the "Burnside cut" with the mustache running into the side whiskers whilst the square, clean-shaven chin and jaws gave a tone of decision and force to his features, made up a picture that at once arrested the eye. As we went along the roadside at a fast trot, his high-stepping horse seemed to be keeping his white eye on the lookout for a chance to lash out at somebody. The men evidently enjoyed the scene, cheering him loudly. I was particularly amused with one group of soldiers at rest by their stacked
muskets. They sat upon their haunches, and clapped their hands as he passed, exclaiming and laughing, "Just see the old fellow! just look at him!" Burnside laughed at their fun as jollily as they did themselves, and took no offence at the free-and-easy way in which they showed their liking for him. There was no affectation in all this, but an honest enjoyment in following his own whim in style and in accoutrement. His sincere earnestness in the cause for which he was fighting was apparent to all who met him, and no one in his presence could question the single-hearted honesty and unselfishness of the man. His bearing under fire was good, and his personal courage beyond question. He shrank from responsibility with sincere modesty, because he questioned his own capacity to deal with affairs of great magnitude. He was not only not ambitious to command a great army, but he honestly sought to put it aside when it was thrust upon him, and accepted it at last from a sense of obligation to the administration which had nominated him to it in spite of his repeated disclaimers. It carafe to him finally, without consulting him, as a military order he could not disobey without causing a most awkward dead-lock in the campaign.