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A council of war was held at Fairfax Court House, March 12th, at which it was decided to proceed against Richmond by Fortress Monroe. The President expressed his acquiescence in this plan, although his opinion had been very decidedly in favor of a direct march upon Richmond; this acquiescence, however, was upon the condition “that Washington should be left entirely secure, and the remainder of the force should move down the Potomac to Fortress Monroe, or anywhere between Washington and Fortress Monroe, or at all events to move at once in pursuit of the enemy by some route.” Such was the impatient language of the President, inspired by the long delay of the Army of the Potomac. He had directed a divi. sion of the Army of the Potomac into four army corps.
On the 9th of March, the heart of the Nation was thrilled by the intelligence of the encounter between the iron-clad Merrimac, and the United States vessels of war, lying near Fortress Monroe. The rebels had taken possession of the Merrimac at Norfolk, when that post was shamefully abandoned in the Spring of 1861. They had covered her sides with iron armor, and naming her the Virginia, she now steamed down the James River, and attacked and destroyed the frigates Cumberland and Congress. The Cumberland was most bravely fought at anchor, until she went down, with her flag still flying, and for days it could be seen marking the spot where was sunk as brave a ship, which was as gallantly fought as ever was vessel commanded by a Nelson or a Perry. The Minnesota, in coming to the aid of the Cimberland and Congress, ran aground, and lay at the mercy of this terrible iron. clad battery. But just at this time, there came up the Bay, a low turtle-like looking nondescript, which was soon announced as the iron-clad Monitor, an experiment built by the distinguished engineer, Ericsson. This vessel mounted two
, . 11-inch Dahlgren guns, carrying 168 pound shot. She attacked successfully the iron-clad Virginia, and saved the feet. Whole broadsides were fired upon the little Monitor, by her gigantic competitor, with no more effect than a volley of stones. The result of this contest revolutionized naval warfare. The wonderful success of the Monitor caused the construction of those fleets of iron-clads, which, it is beheved, render the American navy, for defensive purposes, superior to any in the world.
On the 13th of March, McClellan telegraphed to the Secretary of War, that a council of the commanders of army oorps had “unanimously agreed upon a plan of operations” which General McDowell would unfold to him. The impatient Stanton replied characteristically “whatever plan has been agreed upon, proceed to execute, without losing an hour for my approval.”
The following is a statement of the plan agreed upon by the commanders at Fairfax Court House, and referred to by General McClellan :
“I. That the enemy having retreated from Manassas to Gordonsville, behind the Rappahannock and Rapidan, it is the opinion of the generals commanding army corps, that the operations to be carried on will be best undertaken from Old Point Comfort, between the York and James rivers; Provided,
“ 1st, That, the enemy's vessel Merrimac can be neutralized.
“ 2d, That the means of transportation sufficient for an immediate transfer of the force to its new base can be ready at Washington and Alexandria to move down the Potomac, and
“3d, That a naval auxiliary force can be had to silence, or aid in silencing, the enemy's batteries on the York River.
" 4th, That the force to be left to cover Washington shall be such as to give an entire feeling of security for its safety from menace. (Unanimous.)
“II. If the foregoing can not be, the army should then be moved against the enemy, behind the Rappahannock, at the earliest possible moment, and the means for reconstructing bridges, repairing railroads and stocking them with materials, sufficient for supplying the army, should at once be collected for both the Orange and Alexandria and Acquia and Richmond Railroads. (Unanimous.)
“ NOTE.—That with the forts on the right bank of the Potomac fully garrisoned, and those on the left bank occupied, a covering force in front of the Virginia line of 25,000 men would suffice. (Keys, Heintzelman and McDowell.) A total of 40,000 men for the defense of the city would suffice." (SUMNER.)
This plan was submitted to Mr. Lincoln, and acquiesced in by him, and the following despatch sent to the General :
“The President having considered the plan of operations agreed upon by yourself, and the commanders of army corps, makes no objection to the same, but gives the following directions as to its execution :
“1st, Leave such force at Manassas Junction as shall make it entirely certain that the enemy shall not re-possess himself of that position and line of communication.
“2d, Leave Washington entirely secure.
“ 3d, Move the remainder of the force down the Potomac, choosing a new base at Fortress Monroe, or anywhere between here and there, or at all events, move such remainder of the army at once in pursuit of the enemy by some route."*
The number of troops composing the Army of the Potomac at this time was 158,419.
General Wadsworth, who was in command of Washington, reported only 20,000 men then fit for duty in his department; and a council of military officers reported this number insufficient for the defense of the Capital.
The Army of the Potomac embarked for Fortress Monroe, and arrived on the 23d of March, and on the 4th of April started
up the Peninsula, between the York and the James Rivers, towards Richmond. At Yorktown, the army of McClellan encountered the enemy fortified, with a force comparatively small, not to exceed 11,000, as we now know from official sources, and only 5,000 of these in the lines in front of McClellan. Such a force, a vigorous and determined commander would not have permitted to delay his march; but this handful of men stopped McClellan from the 1st of April to the 4th of May. He sat down before Yorktown as to a regular siege. He planted batteries, and sought by regular approaches, to reduce the position. While here, and preparing for a regular siege, he complained that he had not men enough, and asked for reënforcements! By the time he was ready to open his batteries, the very day his great siege guns were to be opened, the rebels left. They remained
• Report on Conduct of the War, Part I, p. 52.
See report of Confederate General Magruder, May 3, 1862.
just as long as they could remain with impunity. They knew exactly when he was going to open fire, and left. The policy of the rebels was to delay the Union army as long as possible, to give time for the concentration of their forces at Richmond, and to prepare defenses. The retreating troops made a stand at Williamsburg, where they had strong works.
Here the rebels made a vigorous attack upon the advance of the Union forces, and held them in check; but without waiting for McClellan to come up, or even for orders, Heintzelman and Hooker brought up their troops to the attack, and Hancock getting possession of a portion of the rebel works, they were forced to retreat, leaving their dead and wounded in the hands of the Union army.
The delay at Yorktown was of the utmost importance to the insurgents. Magruder, in his general orders of April 4th, said: “Every hour we hold out, brings us reënforcements." Yet, McClellan, notwithstanding his overwhelming numbers, would not permit an assault. That this delay was very unsatisfactory to the President, appears from a dispatch from him to McClellan, dated April 6th:
“ Yours of 11, A. M., to-day, received. The Secretary of War informs me that the forwarding of transportation, ammunition, and Woodbury's brigade, under your orders, is not, and will not be interfered with. You now have over 100,000 troops with you, independent of General Wool's command. I think you had better break the enemy's line from Yorktown to Warwick River at once. They will probably use time as advantageously as you can.
The dispatches of President Lincoln to the various military commanders exhibit great sagacity and natural military skill and judgment.
The delay at Yorktown, though not necessarily fatal McClellan's campaign, rendered success more difficult. Jefferson Davis was rapidly concentrating forces at Richmond. McClellan was constantly complaining, and asking for reënforcements. Finally on the 9th of April, the President wrote to him the following frank, kind and ingenuous letter
• Report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, p. 819-4
“ Your despatches, complaining that you are not properly sustained, while they do not offend me, do pain me very much.
“ Blenker's division was withdrawn from you before you left here, and you know the pressure under which I did it, and, as I thought, aoquiesced in it— certainly not without reluctance. After you left, I ascertained that less than twenty thousand unorganized men, without a single field battery, were all you designed to be left for the defense of Washington and Manassas Junction, and part of this even, was to go to General Hooker's old position. General Bank's corps, once designed for Mapassas Junction, was diverted and tied up on the line of Winchester and Strasburg, and could not leave it, without again exposing the Upper Potomao, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. This presented, or would present, when Sumner and McDowell should be gone, a great temptation to the enemy to turn back from the Rappahannook, and sack Washington. My implicit order that Washington should, by the judgment of all the Commanders of army corps, be left entirely secure, had been neglected. It was precisely this that drove me to detain McDowell.
“I do not forget that I was satisfied with your arrangement to leave Banks at Manassas Junction; but when that arrangement was broken up,
and nothing was substituted for it, of course I was constrained to to substitute something for it myself. And allow me to ask, do you really think I should permit the line from Richmond, via Manassas Junction to this city to be entirely open, except what resistance could be presented by less than twenty thousand unorganized troops? This is a question which the country will not allow me to evade.
" There is a curious mystery about the number of troops now with you. When I telegraphed you on the 6th, saying you had over a hundred thousand men with you, I had just obtained from the Secretary of War, a statement taken, as he said, from your own returns, making one hundred and eight thousand then with you and en route to you. You now say, you will have but eighty-five thousand, when all en route to you shall have reached you. How can the discrepancy of twenty-three thousand be accounted for?
“ As to General Wool's command, I understand it is doing for you precisely what a like number of your own would have to do, if that command was away.
suppose the whole force which has gone forward to you, is with you by this time; and if so, I think it is the precise time for you to strike a blow. By delay, the enemy will relatively gain upon you—that