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The harsh autumn of the Union (1861)


With the crushing defeat at Bull Run (July 21, 1861), hopes of a quick victory for the North flew. For President Abraham Lincoln, it was now about putting the Union in a position to win a war of attrition, a protracted conflict, while managing the necessities of internal politics and electoral deadlines. His first task would be to find a man to entrust with the onerous task of reorganizing the main Northerner army, badly crushed at Bull Run, and turning it into a machine to defeat. His choice would quickly fall on George McClellan.

The providential man

George Brinton McClellan was 35 years old in 1861. A brilliant student, he entered West Point at the early age of 16 and was second in his class in 1846. An engineer officer, he served with distinction in Mexico. After the war, he first stood out by translating from French an instruction manual on the use of the bayonet, before being sent to Europe in 1855, as an observer during the Crimean War. His reports on the evolution of tactics during the conflict will earn him a reputation for being a promising strategist and clairvoyant. A reputation that he will further fuel by writing an instruction manual of his own, this time intended for the cavalry, and that the federal army will adopt. McClellan will also design a saddle model that will bear his name, and will be widely used thereafter.

However, the engineering corps only offered him very distant prospects for promotion. Having already, during his service in the army, carried out prospective studies for future railway lines, he took advantage of this experience to resign and become railway engineer, in 1857. At the time, the US rail network was expanding rapidly, and working in this industry represented the assurance of a comfortable salary and a prominent social position. It was also around this time that he first encountered politics, becoming close to Democratic circles in Illinois, where he worked.

When the Civil War broke out, there was a dire need for generals to command the volunteer army raised by Lincoln. McClellan’s reputation as a strategist has not faded, and his young age is not seen as an obstacle. Ohio Governor William Dennison offered him command of his state volunteers, and McClellan accepted in early May. He spends the following weeks indulging in his favorite exercise, developing strategic plans, which he then submits to General Scott. The latter rejects them, not without congratulating their author.

In June, McClellan set out to conquer West Virginia, winning three small skirmishes at Philippi, Rich Mountain and Corrick’s Ford. These successes are celebrated with pomp and ceremony in the North, where the press does not hesitate to make McClellan a new Napoleon. Also, in the aftermath of McDowell's loss at Bull Run, it is obvious to everyone that McClellan is The man for the job to replace it. On July 26, George McClellan received command of the military department of the Potomac from Lincoln.

Birth of an army

McClellan’s first task was to reorganize the defeated regiments of McDowell’s army into a force worthy of the name. The federal government made it easier for him: by July 22, Lincoln had called up 500,000 volunteers for three years, while Congress was about to double the size of the regular army. New regiments would flow into Washington in the weeks and months that followed. On August 20, these troops were to be combined into a single force, called Army of the Potomac. The latter would number nearly 200,000 men at the end of 1861.

McClellan had an undoubted talent for training and organization. He gave the Army of the Potomac a rigorous structure, the elements of which would spend the next few months conscientiously exercising. The enthusiastic volunteers gradually became real soldiers, with whom McClellan was particularly popular. Tirelessly roaming the camps around Washington, carrying out multiple inspections, the army chief of the Potomac was concerned with their well-being and their morale. The men returned him well, treating with respect the one whom his mediocre stature and his - carefully cultivated - demeanor of a small Napoleonic corporal had made them affectionately nickname Little mac.

However, he had two major flaws that he was never going to let go of. The first was his unreasonable propensity to overestimate the strength of the army facing him. This flaw was compounded by the emphatic estimates of the Union intelligence services led by Pinkerton. Throughout his command, McClellan would remain convinced that Joseph Johnston's Southern army outnumbered his, when in reality it numbered no more than 60,000 troops. This belief was such as to paralyze in him any inclination to carry out large-scale offensive operations.

McClellan believed that the Southerners had installed heavy guns in Manassas, and were about to lay siege to Washington. He therefore fortified the city, and the federal capital bristled with hundreds of artillery pieces while the engineers surrounded it with fifty earthen forts. It was actually just a ruse of the Confederates : when they evacuated Manassas in February 1862, it was realized that the famous heavy guns in question were in reality nothing but simple trunks of felled trees and painted black. They were subsequently baptized with irony Quaker guns, in reference to the religious movement, notoriously pacifist, of the Quakers.

Command crisis

McClellan’s other flaw was his enormous vanity. The head of the Army of the Potomac thought highly of himself, and he was undoubtedly ambitious - even if he affected to think otherwise. He also had the weakness of yielding easily enough to sycophancy; thus, when the press compared him with dithyramb to Napoleon Bonaparte, he was quite inclined to believe it. This would affect his relationship with the government and his superiors.

His first target was General Scott. The two men had a very different view of the conduct of the war. The old general-in-chief favored an approach aimed at stifling the southern economy: control of the Mississippi valley and blockade of the coast. A sure strategy, but with distant results and requiring a lot of time. Scott's pragmatic vision was contested by McClellan, who, like a good theorist, preferred to deliver a decisive campaign in the purest Napoleonic style. This disagreement only grew over time, McClellan viewing Scott as an obstacle to the successful implementation of his plans, which he left with virtually no one.

He ends up winning his case. 75-year-old Winfield Scott was no longer physically fit to exercise command. His stoutness prevented him from riding, and he exhibited an annoying tendency to fall asleep during meetings. Exhausted by McClellan's repeated refusals to tell him about his plans, Scott ended up offering his resignation to Lincoln, while McClellan increasingly displayed his distrust of his boss. Unable to afford to upset public opinion, which he knew would stand up for Little mac, the president ends up accepting, and Scott left the army 1er November 1861 after 53 years of service.

Appointed to succeed him as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, McClellan combined that command with that of the Army of the Potomac. If he was rid of Scott, McClellan quickly found himself up against Lincoln himself. The president was seriously beginning to get impatient in the face of the inaction of his commander-in-chief, while the latter scorned the military inexperience of the head of state, whom he considered ignorant of strategy. What is more, McClellan's vanity led him to believe himself capable of effectively assuming command-in-chief and that of the Army of the Potomac, which Lincoln seriously doubted.

Northerner humiliation at Ball’s Bluff

Although it remained around Washington during the fall of 1861, the Army of the Potomac nevertheless carried out some small-scale operations in northern Virginia. One of the main problems that generals encountered during the Civil War concerned lack of reliable maps. In peacetime, the corps of topographic engineers in the regular army was limited to 39 officers, which were too few to map such a huge country while keeping existing maps up to date. Often at the start of the war, we had to be satisfied with commercial maps, the precision of which often left something to be desired.


It was in part to better map northern Virginia that McClellan, in mid-October 1861, ordered part of his army - the divisions of George McCall and Charles Stone - to cross the Potomac to lead a series of small operations in Loudoun County and around Leesburg, about fifty kilometers upstream from Washington. It was also a question of testing the reaction of the Confederate forces in this sector, and to discover the reason for the movements of the Southern troops observed during the preceding days.

On October 20, Stone thus led a small demonstration on the Virginia shore with only a fraction of his strength. As part of this operation, a federal patrol discovered what they believed to be a southern camp at the height of Ball’s Bluff, an escarpment overlooking the Potomac. At dawn the next day, Stone sent one of his regiments through to attack the camp, which turned out to be a banal hedge of trees, mistaken for a row of tents because of the darkness. Informed of the mistake, Stone sent one of his brigade leaders, Colonel Edward Baker, there to conduct a more in-depth reconnaissance of the area.

Baker was a prominent politician who had served, among other things, in the Illinois legislature. He was there befriended Abraham Lincoln, who, like him, was a lawyer. Baker then settled on the West Coast, first in California, then in Oregon. He was elected senator from that state in 1860, so he was in Washington when war broke out. Anxious to involve California and Oregon in suppressing the rebellion, he recruited several regiments in Pennsylvania. These units, armed at the expense of the Californian government, were then regrouped within the California brigade, of which Baker was given command.

Baker quickly learned that the northern regiment that had crossed the river had been engaged in several skirmishes against small southern detachments. He rounded up any units he could find in the vicinity and proceeded to get them through the Potomac. However, he did not take into account the very limited means at his disposal to do so, since there was no ford or bridge there. The few boats available were soon insufficient, seriously slowing down the operation. It was already well into the afternoon when the last of Baker's 1,700 men set foot on the south bank of the Potomac.

Meanwhile, the successive skirmishes around Ball’s Bluff had caught the attention of Nathan Evans, whose Confederate brigade was guarding the area around Leesburg. Evans sent reinforcements to the scene, until they had a strength roughly equivalent to Baker's. The fight remained uncertain until Baker be killed after two hours of fighting. The Northerners then tried to free themselves by breaking through the Confederate lines, but failed. They soon had only to retreat across the Potomac, a movement which the shortage of boats and the pressure from the Southerners turned into disaster.

Washington in embarrassment

The Union lost, in all, nearly a thousand of the 1,700 men engaged. Unable to cross the river again, more than 500 soldiers were taken prisoner. To the fifty or so deaths counted were added dozens and dozens of drowned, whose bodies drifted in the following days to Washington, giving the inhabitants of the capital a macabre visual proof of the Ball’s Bluff fiasco. Although relatively high in absolute terms, the Confederate losses seemed slim in comparison: barely 150 men.

To these deaths was added that of Baker. It was the first time that a sitting senator had died on the battlefield. After Elmer Ellsworth’s death in May, Edward Baker’s was once again a blow to Lincoln, who lost a second friend in battle in less than six months. But this time the political repercussions were going to be much more serious, because Congress was very agitated by the death of one of its members. The conduct of the war by the executive branch was questioned, and the federal legislature demanded an explanation.

To obtain it, on December 9, 1861, a United States Congressional Committee on the Conduct of War. Made up of members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, both Republicans and Democrats, he immediately embarked on a series of hearings to establish the reasons for the defeats suffered in 1861. Quickly dominated by radical republicans, he came to suspect defeated or timid generals of disloyalty to the Union, creating a deleterious atmosphere in the northern high command.

Regarding Ball’s Bluff, it was General Stone who paid the price. He had initially been exonerated of any fault by his superior McClellan, so evident that it was Baker who bore the blame for the loss. But the Committee was looking for a living scapegoat, and by February 1862 McClellan's position had itself become precarious, his chronic inaction making him suspect in the eyes of the Committee. He therefore "let go" of Stone, who was arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned, without charge or trial, until October when he was definitively cleared.

On December 20, 1861, Ball's Bluff's humiliation was finally relieved by a Northern success in Dranesville. J.E.B. Stuart, who had been promoted to general following his performance in Manassas in July, had been tasked with searching for supplies for the Confederate army in Loudoun County. Along the way, he encountered Edward Ord's Northern Brigade, which blocked his way after a brief two-hour engagement. The Southerners suffered sizeable losses, notably due to an exchange of salvos between two of their regiments, but managed to withdraw without being worried. Nevertheless, the Union remained in control, thus ending the year on a more positive note in the Virginian theater of operations.


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