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THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC IN MOTION. RETREAT OF JOHNSTON FROM THE DEFENCE OF WASHINGTON, AND OF THE SHENANDOAH VALLEY. THE MOVEMENT TO THE PENINSULA.
THE 8th of March, 1862, was a notable day in the history of the war.
On that day, as we have seen, the whole system of warfare, which General McClellan had been laboring so earnestly to perfect and put in operation, was shattered by two war orders of the President.
On that day, also, the Federal ship of war Merrimac, raised from the bottom of Norfolk harbor, where she had been sunk on the abandonment of that port to the enemy, and refitted by the Confederates for a new and terrible experiment in naval warfare, suddenly made her appearance in the waters of the lower James.
She assailed the Federal fleet there lying, shattered and scattered the ships, and for the moment rode supreme over the mouths of the Chesapeake, threatening Fortress Monroe itself.
The engagement which followed next day, between the Merrimac and the Monitor, though it restored the prestige of the Federal navy, and secured the safety of Fortress Monroe, failed to recover for the North the control of the James River. General McClellan's plan of campaign thus received a serious blow. He could no longer count upon the James River, but must modify all his calculations upon the theory that the York
River alone was to make his line of water communications with his base at Fortress Monroe.
On the 9th of March Johnston began to evacuate Manassas and Centreville. During the night of that day General McClellan ordered a general movement of the army towards the abandoned positions, less of course with the hope of being able to inflict any serious loss upon the enemy than in order to prepare the troops for their entry upon the great campaign before them. The observations which this movement enabled the general to make of the strength of the enemy's positions confirmed him in the belief that an advance upon those positions during the winter would have been extremely dangerous to the untried army of the Union. He became satisfied also that these positions, strong as they were, had been held so long only in order that Johnston might ascertain distinctly from what quarter Richmond was likely to be menaced. General McClellan's own language on this subject has acquired a weight from the subsequent course of events which demands its reproduction here:
"New levies, that have never been in battle, cannot be expected to advance without cover under the murderous fire from such defences, and carry them by assault. This is work in which veteran troops frequently falter, and are repulsed with loss. That an assault of the enemy's positions, in front of Washington, with the new troops composing the Army of the Potomac, during the winter of 1861-2, would have re, sulted in defeat and demoralization, was too probable. The same army, though inured to war in many battles hardly fought, and bravely won, has thrice, under other generals, suffered such disasters as it was no excess of prudence then to avoid.
"My letter to the secretary of war, dated February 3d, 1862, and given above, expressed the opinion that the movement to the Peninsula, would compel the enemy to retire from his position at Manassas, and free Washington from danger.
"When the enemy first learned of that plan, they did thus evacuate Manassas. During the Peninsular campaign, as at no former period, northern Virginia was completely in our possession, and the vicinity of Washington free from the presence of the enemy. The ground so gained was not lost, nor Washington again put in danger, until the enemy learned of the orders for the evacuation of the Peninsula, sent to me at Harrison's Bar, and were again left free to advance northward, and menace the national capital. Perhaps no one now doubts that the best defence of Washington is a Peninsular attack on Richmond."
While this movement on Centreville and Manassas was going on, another complete and formal change in the organization of the army was made by the President; the order making it, like all his preceding orders, being published without consultation with General McClellan, and coming this time to his knowledge through one of his aids-de-camp, who, having seen it in the National Intelligencer of March 12th, 1862, telegraphed a copy of it to the general at Fairfax Court House. The order ran as follows:
EXECUTIVE MANSION, WASHINGTON, March 11, 1862
PRESIDENT'S WAR ORDER, No. 3.
Major-General McClellan, having personally taken the field at the head of the Army of the Potomac, until otherwise ordered; he is relieved from the command of the other military departments, he retaining command of the Department of the Potomac.
Ordered further, That the departments now under the respective commands of Generals Halleck and Hunter, together with so much of that under General Buell as lies west of a north and south line indefinitely drawn through Knoxville, Tennessee, be consolidated and designated the Department of
the Mississippi, and that, until otherwise ordered, Major-General Halleck have command of said department.
Ordered also, That the country west of the Department of the Potomac, and east of the Department of the Mississippi, be a military department, to be called the Mountain Department, and that the same be commanded by Major-General Fremont.
That all the commanders of departments, after the receipt of this order by them, respectively report, severally and directly, to the secretary of war, and that prompt, full, and frequent reports will be expected of all and each of
When it is remembered that the President had permitted General McClellan to "take the field" two days before this order was issued, without the slightest intimation that any such change in the organization of the army was contemplated, it would certainly seem to be unnecessary to look elsewhere than to the habitual state of mind of the chief executive of the nation for an adequate explanation of the "unaccountable delays," disappointments, and deceptions which have so unhappily marked the course of the war under Mr. Lincoln's administration of affairs.
General McClellan, under this new and peculiarly insulting blow, bore himself with the same quiet dignity which he had displayed during the trying weeks which preceded it, and to which the Prince de Joinville pays this eloquent tribute:
"As the day of action drew near, those who suspected the general's project, and were angry at not being informed of it, those whom his position had excited to envy, his political enemies, (and who in America is without them?) in short all those who beneath him or beside him who wished him ill, broke out into a chorus of accusations of slowness, inaction, incapacity. McClellan, with a patriotic courage which I have
always admired, disdained these accusations and made no reply. He satisfied himself with pursuing his preparations in laborious silence."
He now addressed a brief note to the President, in which he used these words :
"I believe I said to you some weeks since, in connection with some Western matters, that no feeling of self-interest or ambition should ever prevent me from devoting myself to the service. I am glad to have the opportunity to prove it, and you will find that under present circumstances I shall work just as cheerfully as before, and that no consideration of self will in any manner interfere with the discharge of my public duties."
The premature disclosure of General McClellan's plans, precipitating the retreat of General Johnston, had made all notion of any effective pursuit at that season of the year, through the always impracticable country about Washington and Manassas Junction, absurd. The Prince de Joinville gives a graphic picture of the fearful condition of the roads over which, on the 14th of March, General Stoneman, with a reconnoitering force, attempted to follow up the retiring enemy.* Stoneman found "the railroad bridges all burned down to Warrenton Junction, saw two regiments of cavalry and three bodies of infantry on the other side of Cedar Run; had we crossed we should not have been able to get back for high water."
All the energies of General McClellan were now concentrated on the expedition to the Peninsula. Some of the elements most important to the success of that expedition, as we have seen, had already been eliminated from the calculation by the
* General Bell, (Major-General Bell, R. A., who commanded the Royals in the Crimea,) went round the works with General McClellan, and expressed his opinion that it would be impossible to fight a great battle in the country which lay between the two armies-in fact, as he said, "a general could no more handle his troops among those woods than he could regulate the movements of rabbits in a cover."—W. H. Russell. My Diary North and South. Vol. II., p. 349, English edition.