Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Grand Review at Bailey's Crossroads: Glowing Reports and a Public Reassurance

This upcoming Sunday marks the 150th anniversary of an impressive display of Union military might.  On November 20, 1861, Maj. George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, staged a "Grand Review" of between 50,000 and 70,000 Union soldiers from seven divisions at Bailey's Crossroads, Virginia.  President Lincoln, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and other dignitaries, along with 20,000 to 30,000 spectators, witnessed McClellan's organizational prowess unfold on the open fields a few miles outside of Washington.  Readers will recall that only a few months before, Bailey's Crossroads was the site of a picket war between the two armies.
Maj. Gen. George McClellan, as depicted on 1861 sheet music (courtesy of Indiana State Museum)
Last year, I wrote a few posts about McClellan's Grand Review, so I won't cover old ground here.  For a complete story of the review, check out this post.  I also discussed Gen. George G. Meade's the less-than-enthusiastic reaction to the review.  Others have shared my interest in the topic.  A group known as the Lincoln at the Crossroads Alliance recently sponsored a sesquicentennial reenactment of the Grand Review at Ft. McNair.  (Staging at the original location would have been a logistical nightmare!)  I had planned to attend, but other obligations got in the way.

The review was the largest ever held on the North American continent up to that time.  Not surprisingly, Northern newspapers provided glowing accounts of the spectacle.  According to the headline in the November 21, 1861 edition of the New York Times, the review was a "Magnificent Military Pageant."  The Philadelphia Press called the event "indescribably grand."  (Nov. 21, 1861 ed.)  The Press reported that Prince de Joinville, a member of French nobility accompanying McClellan, was "in raptures over the grand review, alleging that he never saw anything compared to it in the old world, when the regularity, promptitude, and harmony of the movements are taken into consideration."  (Nov. 23, 1861 ed.)

For all the praise, however, there surely were skeptics out there, or so the Beaver (Pa.) Weekly Argus thought.  As the Argus elaborated on November 27:
The Eastern Papers of this week were filled with the details of the ceremony, which, however, possesses little interest for the general reader except as showing what a splendid army we have in the field.
As some of our friends may not see the necessity of these reviews, we clip from the Scientific American, the following sensible remarks in vindication of the policy of the General-in-Chief:
"This system of reviewing troops is somewhat novel in our army operations, and many who are not familiar with its objects regard such demonstrations as unmeaning.  Gen. McClellan's experience in the Crimea in '55 fully convinced him of the importance of such reviews.  Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Wellington, and all the great military commanders were in the habit of holding frequent grand reviews, and the system is kept up in all European nations.  It is very inspiring, not only to the troops, but also to the officers."
The "Young Napoleon" surely would have approved of this rationale for holding the Grand Review.  If anything, the event showcased for the Union leadership and the Northern public what McClellan could do to organize and drill an army.  Now he just had to demonstrate that he could defeat the Rebels, and for an answer, the nation would have to wait until springtime.

Note on Sources:
All Pennsylvania news articles can be found on the extensive Pennsylvania Civil War Era Newspaper Collection maintained by the Libraries of Penn State University.

No comments: