Friday, July 29, 2011

McClellan Arrives, Surveys the State of Washington's Defenses, and Takes Action

At the end of July 1861, Major General George B. McClellan, fresh from victories in western Virginia, arrived to take command of the Union Army around Washington.  The recent loss at Manassas was on McClellan's mind.  As he later wrote, "[t]he result of the first battle of Manassas had been almost to destroy the morale and organization of our army, and to alarm government and people."  (George B. McClellan, Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac, p. 44 (1864).)  McClellan saw himself as just the person to save the Union.  In a July 27, 1861 letter to his wife, Mary Ellen, McClellan bragged that "I see already the main causes of our recent failure -- I am sure that I can remedy these & am confident that I can lead these armies of men to victory once more."

Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan (courtesy of Library of Congress)

As the new commander, one of McClellan's first tasks was to survey the existing defenses around Washington.  He told Mary Ellen in the same letter that he would "start tomorrow very early on a tour through the lines on the other side of the river -- it will occupy me all day long & a rather fatiguing ride it will be -- but I will be able to make up my mind on the state of things."  Other such inspections continued into August.  On the second, he informed Mary Ellen that he had "looked at some of the works" in Virginia.

McClellan's inspection of the lines around the nation's capital led him to one conclusion -- "[t]he national capital was in danger. It was necessary, besides holding the enemy in check, to build works for its defense, strong and capable of being held by a small force."  (Report, p. 44.)  In Virginia, he noted "the troops were stationed at and in rear of Fort Corcoran, Arlington, and Fort Albany, at Fort Runyon, Roach's Mills, Cole's Mill, and in the vicinity of Fort Ellsworth, with a detachment at the Theological Seminary."  (Report, p. 50.)  However,  "[t]here were no troops south of Hunting Creek, and many of the regiments were encamped on the low grounds bordering the Potomac,—seldom in the best positions for defense, and entirely inadequate in numbers and condition to defend the long line from Fort Corcoran to Alexandria."  (Report, p. 50.)  Things were no better on the Maryland side, where "upon the heights overlooking the Chain Bridge, two regiments were stationed, whose commanders were independent of each other."  (Report, p. 50.)  Moreover, "[t]here were no troops on the important Tenallytown road, or on the roads entering the city from the south."  (Report, p. 50.)  Camps "were located without regard to purposes of defense or instruction" and "the roads were not picketed." (Report, p. 50.)

McClellan recognized the sheer vulnerability of the capital to a Confederate attack:
In no quarter were the dispositions for defense such as to offer a vigorous resistance to a respectable body of the enemy either in the positions and numbers of the troops, or the number and character of the defensive works. Earthworks in the nature of "tetes-de-pont" looked upon the approaches to the Georgetown aqueduct and ferry, the Long Bridge, and Alexandria by the Little River Turnpike, and some simple defensive arrangements were made at the Chain Bridge. With the latter exception, not a single defensive work had been commenced on the Maryland side.  (Report, pp. 50-51.)
The new commander worried that "[t]here was nothing to prevent the enemy shelling the city from heights within easy range, which could be occupied by a hostile column almost without resistance."  (Report, p. 51.)

Photo of John G. Barnard, after promotion to Brigadier General (courtesy of Library of Congress)
McClellan wasted no time in addressing the situation.  He "at once gave the necessary instructions" to his Chief Engineer, Major John G. Barnard, "for the completion of the defenses of the capital."  (Report, p.62.)  Before long, Barnard had soldiers at work on strengthening the Arlington line of defense.  What followed in the coming months and years would make Washington the most heavily fortified city in the Western Hemisphere.  McClellan is often the focus of criticism and downright scorn, but his instrumental role in organizing the defenses of Washington should not be overlooked.

9 comments:

Sherman said...

Great post. I think part of the reason people don't appreciate what McClellan did (specifically his unconditional support for Bayard's building project) has to do with our historical reading of him. I don't want to fill up your comments section with essentially the same argument I made a few days ago on my blog, since that seems a little self-serving, but the key point is that the publication of McClellan's letters to his wife confirmed all the worst rumors about him as a megalomaniac -- and sometimes worse than the worst rumors (like his fantasy about refusing a dictatorship). After that, it's always possible to think worse of the man, but becomes hard to think better of him.

Ron said...

Thanks. Glad you liked the post. I also enjoyed yours -- you had some interesting facts in there.

I agree with you about the letters, and I find them so fascinating that I almost did a post on them. What a gift (?) to future historians....

McClellan is one of the most intriguing characters of the war. Here was a man who was so loved by his men, and who was a superb administrator and organizer. Yet he was a deeply self-centered person who was incapable of marshaling all the resources at his fingertips to score a decisive victory. (Take a look an earlier post I did, which in part defends McClellan's failure to send troops to Pope during Second Bull Run.)

Sherman said...

Loved the Pope and McClellan piece, thanks for sending me that way.

Ron said...

You're welcome! Glad you enjoyed it.

Lyle said...

I have question that's related to defense of Washington in a way. Would it have been possible for the Confederates to "bum rush" the Virginia side of the Potomac and occupy the high ground across the three Washington bridges and effectively "siege" Washington?

I know Winfield Scott didn't have Federal forces occupy this ground until late May of '61... would it have been good strategy for the Confederates to try and isolate Washington by occupying the high ground across from it? They'd be vulnerable on the left because upper Potomac fords and the Shenandoah valley, but it seems to me they could have forced the Federal government out of Washington by quickly occupying Alexandria and the heights across Washington, the chain bridge included.

Thoughts?

Lyle said...

Random question that is loosely based on this nice blog post. Could the Confederates have quickly occupied the Virginia side of the Potomac before Winfield Scott ordered Federal troops to occupy the Virginia side heights and bridge approaches?

Would it have made any strategic and/or tactical sense for the Confederates to try and use the Potomac as their first line of defense, instead of the Bull Run line?

It seems like they could have done this and prompted the Federal government to move to Philadelphia in the very early days of the War, at least until late May of '61. The line itself would have been vulnerable to flanking from the upper Potomac fords and the Shenandoah Valley, but the beginning of the war might have come off a little different in Virginia if the Confederates had "bum rushed" Alexandria and the heights above the three Washington bridges.

Thoughts?

Ron said...

Thanks for your comment. You raise an interesting series of questions. Washington was largely vulnerable during the spring of 1861, particularly before Union volunteers began arriving. The failure of Virginia, and later Confederate, forces to attack or directly threaten Washington by occupying and digging in along the banks of the Potomac is likely due to a few factors. First, the Southern troops were still a force in the making. The soldiers were without ammunition and equipment. They also lacked training and discipline. General P.G.T. Beauregard lamented the state of his forces upon taking command and called on Richmond for reinforcements and supplies. You can take a look at previous posts I did on the Virginia militia companies in Alexandria, including the Fairfax Rifles, to get a sense of the poor state of preparedness of the Confederate forces. A commander may have been foolish to attempt to threaten Washington directly by force with such a ragtag, albeit enthusiastic, bunch. In fact, General Robert E. Lee, commander of troops in Virginia at the time, actually ordered his officers to refrain from the offensive.

A second reason may have more to do with politics. The South had seceded and sought recognition of its independent status by European powers. A perceived hostile move on the unprotected national capital would possibly have made the Confederacy appear aggressive and unsympathetic in the eyes of the French and British. A defensive war on home territory against invaders would play better in the quest for allies.

Third, the Confederate high command likely understood the possibility of the flanking movements you suggest, and just wanted to avoid unncessary risks.

The Confederates were, of course, in Alexandria until May 24, and that didn't seem to make much difference to the Union Army, who swept them aside easily. There were some pickets on the opposite side of the river from Washington, but not a large offensive force. If the Confederate forces had entrenched right across the Potomac before May 24, the Battle of Bull Run would have been fought 25 miles closer to DC!

So yes, the Confederates could have moved closer to Washington, but given their war aims and the state of the army, it likely was the best decision to fight defensively in Virginia.

I understand that the recent book “The Siege of Washington” directly addresses the questions that you have, but I have not yet had a chance to read it.

Lyle said...

Sorry about the double post.

Yeah, I figure the possibility was quite small of the Confederates occupying the Virginia side of the Potomac in force.

Like you say they was no organized force yet to put there. Most regiments didn't organized until the firing on Fort Sumter and they were too far away and probably not organized enough to be moved by rail to Virginia yet. Plus I'm not sure non-Virginia regiments could have moved through North Carolina or Tennessee yet.

Their supply system was more or less non-existent.

Maybe if Virginia militia and regiments had been concentrated on Alexandria and not Harpers Ferry and Norfolk, it could have happened, but Winfield Scott would have probably acted and sent what soldiers he had over the Potomac to prevent such a concentration.

Wild speculation on my part.

I'll have to read the defenses of Washington book, I guess.

What made me even think about this was some casual speculation in the William C. Davis Bull Run book. He mentions Scott's tardiness in occupying Alexandria and the bridge approaches, but that's because Scott guessed or knew the Confederates wouldn't be there and he could worry about other places first, before worrying about Alexandria.

Thanks for the reply. Hope you can keep the blog going. It's good stuff.

Ron said...

Thanks, Lyle, and I am glad you are enjoying the blog. Your questions have now caused me to add "The Siege of Washington" to my ever-growing list of Civil War books to read!

It is always interesting to speculate as to what would have happened 150 years ago. Perhaps the Confederates lost a golden opportunity, or perhaps even an offensive move on Washington would have led to the same four year protracted struggle. However, an undefended capital after Bull Run would have been inexcusable, and that is where Little Mac comes in. One of the reasons Lee didn't come close to Washington after the victory at Second Bull Run was his realization that the city was so heavily defended,largely due to McClellan and Barnard. And Jubal Early attacked at a time when Grant had weakened the defenses so he could fight the Overland Campaign. Thanks to the VIth Corps, and Early's exhausted men, the capital was safe then too. So I guess DC had several close brushes during the Civil War.