Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Could McDowell Have Moved Faster ?

     It is interesting to read soldiers' letters to get a feel for what was happening as history unfolded.  It is especially interesting if the writer has a keen eye for observation and detail.

Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign;
Late May, 1862

          One of the criticisms of the Union forces trying to cut off Stonewall Jackson during his 1862 Valley Campaign, was that they moved too slow.  John B. Noyes, a private in Co. B, 13th Mass. Vols, [Hartsuff’s Brigade] participated in the march and he agrees McDowell moved too slowly. 

     Here is the setup:
     General McClellan’s 100,000 troops are closing in around Richmond, the Confederate Capital. General McDowell is close by at Falmouth, with 50,000 troops about to join them.  In an attempt to draw off some of the pressure around Richmond, General Lee sends General Richard Ewell’s troops to the Shenandoah Valley to join forces with Stonewall Jackson and create a disturbance there.  Lee hoped the disturbance would draw away some of McDowell's forces to the valley.  The ploy worked.

     General Nathaniel Banks, greatly reduced army was holding the Valley for the Union.  His forces were outnumbered by the Confederates two to one.  When Jackson and Ewell surprised a small outpost at Front Royal, Va. on May 22, Banks’ small army was spread thin.  Jacksons’ force swept down on the small garrison at Front Royal and captured 700 of the 1,000 men posted there.

     Banks was taken off guard.  Positioned 10 miles west of Front Royal at Strasburg, he was loath to retreat, but had little choice.  Jackson could advance to Winchester and surround him.  By early morning the next day Banks was racing back to his supply base at Winchester 20 miles north.  His army made a gallant stand from a strong position on two hills southwest of the town on May 25th, but the 15,000 Confederates eventually broke the lines of the 6,000 Federals.  The defeat turned into a Union route, but a masterly retreat nonetheless.  Banks’ army didn’t rest until they crossed the Potomac River into Maryland 35 miles north.  The sometimes dis-organized Jackson, couldn’t pursue because he could not locate his Confederate Cavalry, who like the tired and hungry infantry had stopped to pillage the Union supplies left behind by ‘Commissary Banks.’

     The next day Jackson deployed his army to threaten points north, particularly the Union Garrison at Harper’s Ferry.  President Lincoln and the Washington authorities were panicked.   Lincoln ordered General McDowell in the East, and General Fremont in the West to join forces in the Valley in hopes of capturing Jackson with a ‘pincers’ movement.  McDowell complied with the President’s order, but, understanding the Confederate motives, he told the President, in a telegram March 24:

“I obeyed your order immediately, for it was positive and urgent, and perhaps as a subordinate, there I ought to stop; but I trust I may be allowed to say something in relation to the subject, especially in view of your remark, that everything now depends upon the celerity and vigor of my movements.  I beg to say that cooperation between General Fremont and myself to cut Jackson and Ewell there is not to be counted upon, even if it is not a practical impossibility.  Next, I am entirely beyond helping distance of General Banks; no celerity or vigor will avail so far as he is concerned.  Next, that by a glance at the map, it will be seen that the line of retreat of the enemy's forces up the valley is shorter than mine to go against him.  It will take a week or ten days for the force to get to the valley by the route which will give it food and forage, and by that time the enemy will  have retired.  I shall gain nothing for you there, and shall lose much for you here.  It is, therefore, not only on personal grounds that I have a heavy heart in the matter, but that I feel it throws us all back, and from Richmond north we shall have all our large masses paralyzed, and shall have to repeat what we have just accomplished.  I have ordered General Shields to commence the movement by to-morrow morning.  A second division will follow in the afternoon.  Did I understand you aright, that you wished that I personally should accompany this expedition?  I hope to see Governor Chase to-night and express myself more fully to him.
Very respectfully,
Irvin McDowell.”

     McDowell sent two divisions under General Shields and General Ord to the Valley.  The 13th Mass were with General Ord. 

The March

     General Shield’s 10,000 men arrived at Front Royal May 31st, in time to cut off Jackson who was still north of Strasburg.  But Shield’s hesitated, because Gen’l Ord was still a days march behind, and Fremont’s force had not yet appeared from the west. 

 James I. Robertson, jr.  wrote in “Stonewall Jackson,  The Man, The Soldier, The Legend” :  Jackson had no way of knowing that the Union “celerity of movement” necessary for his entrapment had turned into a comedy of errors.’  The author then relates Fremont’s blunders and Shield’s hesitation to attack.

     Way down the chain of command, a private in the ranks, yet a Harvard Graduate and astute observer who would one day prove a very capable officer in the 28th Mass., Private John B. Noyes, complained in letters home, that McDowell could have quickened his advance to Front Royal.  He placed all the blame on McDowell, as at that time, hatred of McDowell was rampant among the officers and men under his command.  (The source of this contempt will be the subject of a future post.)

     In the midst of the campaign on June 8th Noyes wrote his Father* about McDowell’s move from Falmouth to Front Royal :

     "Perhaps the insensate lollygagging of somebody who kept us on the R.R. from Alexandria to Manassas six hours longer than was necessary, that wasted a whole day at Manassas, a second between that place and Thoroughfare Gap by delaying the cars did not occasion the escape of Jackson.  Why in spite of all this delay we were not twelve hours late.   It took us just seven days to proceed from Falmouth to Front Royal.  The men could have performed the journey better in much less time.  Let us see.  We left Falmouth Sunday afternoon.  The brigade should
have been in Alexandria at 10 A.m. Monday, at Manassas at two o’clock, at Thoroughfare Gap at 3 o’clock of the same day, that is to say at Thoroughfare Gap in 24 hours.  This would have been allowing a large margin for the delay in transporting large bodies of men.  It takes but six hours to sail from Alexandria to Acquia Creek, and an hour or so to ride from thence to Manassas, and another hour to ride to Thoroughfare Gap which is but four miles from Alexandria.  We should have then had two days rations in our haversacks.  Instead of being there on Monday, we did not arrive till Thursday, about five o’clock.  The rebels did not destroy the water building I believe til Thursday A.m., or Wednesday, P.m. when Shields who started from Falmouth on Saturday overland was at the heels of the rebels. Tuesday and Wednesday would have brought us to Front Royal, not without having captured small parties of secesh.  We then would have been some 48 hours ahead of Jackson, and placed him between us and Fremont and crushed him.  As it was we were a half or a whole day late, perhaps I ought to say twelve hours.  Shields beheld the rear guard of Jackson retreating some six miles from Front Royal on Sunday A.m.  He came Saturday  P.M. but was compelled to await our coming before he could proceed with his eighteen regiments of infantry and 36 cannon."

     Noyes puts all the blame on General McDowell but for the wrong reasons, sighting professional jealousies as the reasons for McDowell’s delay.  In his letters home, Noyes continued to berate General McDowell for a myriad of other failings as a commander.

     Still, McDowell’s troops, as well as Fremont’s, did tarry, which allowed Stonewall Jackson to escape.   On May 30th, Jackson’s forces “were nearly twice as far from Strasburg as the converging forces of Fremont and Shields.”**   On May 31st Jackson reached Strasburg ahead of the Yankees.  He continued to push his exhausted army south and not only escaped, but out-witted and out-fought the pursuing Federal troops under Fremont and Shields. 

*MS Am2332 (52); Houghton Library, Harvard University
** “Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson; p. 458.

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