Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Mud March to Alexandria: McCall and Smith on the Move

As the middle of March 1862 approached, Union commander George McClellan faced the gargantuan task of transporting his Army of the Potomac to the Peninsula for the planned advance on Richmond.  His divisions, however, were scattered across Northern Virginia following an earlier march towards Centreville and Manssas.  McClellan now had to get these soldiers to Alexandria, Virginia, where they could board transports for Ft. Monroe.  Life was about to get very rough for the men in Little Mac's army.

The Pennsylvania Reserves Leave Hunter's Mills and Take a Detour in a Downpour

As I discussed in Tuesday's post, Gen. George McCall's Pennsylvania Reserves advanced on March 10 from Langley to Hunter's Mills.  On March 14, the general was directed to move his division "on the road towards Alexandria, and await orders" from the newly appointed First Corps commander, Gen. Irvin McDowell.  (Sypher 169.)  At that moment, it was unclear whether McCall would return to Camp Pierpont at Langley, or proceed to Alexandria.  Around six that evening, the men received orders to march.  They reacted with a mixture of curiosity and enthusiasm.  As Private A.F. Hill of the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves remembered:
. . . we hastily pulled down our miniature tents, each making one of the blankets fast to his knapsack—we were to carry them of course. It was rumored that we were to march to Alexandria, there to embark in steam transports, for parts to us unknown. Soon we were in line, soon in motion, directing our steps toward the Alexandria and Leesburg pike.  (Hill 204.)
As a light rain fell, the division crawled north along the road through Hunter's Mills.  The column stretched for about three miles.  A few soldiers "were left to fire the huts and guard the forage, and the great commissary wagons closed in behind the last battalions. . . ."  (Phila. Press, Mar. 17, 1862.)  Flames illuminated the night sky and helped to guide the advance.  After a few hours, the division turned right onto the Leesburg-Alexandria Turnpike and stopped in a "dense woods" around Powell's Mill (today's Colvin Run Mill) between eleven and midnight.  (Woodward, Third Pennsylvania, 65.)  The Pennsylvania boys started camp fires despite the rain and attempted to get a night's rest.

The morning of the fifteenth brought even more miserable conditions.  The rain continued to fall, and to make matters worse, the Confederates had previously destroyed the bridge over Difficult Run, and the creek was unfordable due to the recent spate of inclement weather.  McCall was forced to turn off the pike and march seven miles to the Leesburg-Georgetown Turnpike, where he could cross Difficult Run and send for instructions from McDowell.  Once on the pike to Georgetown, McCall felt that the rains had made continued marching next to impossible, and he asked McDowell for permission to bivouac on the spot, or at least return to the division's old camp in Langley, only four miles away.  McDowell rejected the suggestion, and ordered McCall to "march without delay to Alexandria, with infantry and artillery, and prepare to embark [for the Peninsula] immediately."  (Sypher 170.)  McCall was likely unhappy with McDowell's decision, but had no choice but to obey orders and march the remaining twelve miles to Alexandria.

The division now moved south through low-lying country to re-connect with the Alexandria pike.  As Evan Woodward of the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves described the remainder of the dismal march that day:
The rain by this time was falling in torrents, flooding the swampy ground, making the marching most tiresome and fatiguing. Soon the ranks were broken, the men scattering, plunging through the mud, and toiling under their knapsacks, made doubly heavy by their blankets and overcoats becoming saturated with water. Soon they commenced dropping out, and laid scattered through the woods for miles. (Woodward 85-86.)
Hill also recalled that "the mud became deep, and the marching was both unpleasant and laborious; a cold wind-was blowing; our clothes became saturated, our shoes were filled with mud." (Hill 204.)  The division reached the Leesburg-Alexandria Turnpike, but the men had dealt with enough for one day.  According to  J.R. Sypher's classic history of the Pennsylvania Reserves, McCall halted his tired men near Falls Church and told McDowell that his division could go no farther that day.  A journal maintained at McDowell's headquarters, however, indicates that "McCall was ordered to encamp where he was, beyond Falls Church, he having got into the mud."  (OR, 1:51:1, 62.)  Whoever was responsible for the respite, the Pennsylvania troops were surely thankful. 

Fairfax Seminary, near Alexandria, Virginia (courtesy of Library of Congress).

At Falls Church, the soldiers combated the rain and managed to start fires "[a]fter much patient labor."  (Woodward, Our Campaigns, 86.)  Woodward recalled the misery in camp that night: ". . . such was the violence of the storm, that it was impossible to put up our tents, the most of the men spending the night in cutting wood and standing around the fires."  (Woodward, Our Campaigns, 86.)  Hill decided he could not bare another uncomfortable night attempting to sleep in the rain.  He walked the remainder of the way to Alexandria along with a few Bucktails from his division.  In Alexandria, the public buildings were open to the soldiers, and Hill found a warm spot on the floor inside a building near the post office.

McCall's men resumed the march at ten on the morning of the sixteenth.  By this time, the weather had improved somewhat from the day before.  As they moved down the pike, the soldiers tramped past "a long line of fortifications erected at different times by the Union and Confederate troops."  (Woodward, Our Campaigns, 86.) 

The division finally halted near the Fairfax Seminary (current-day Virginia Theological Seminary) outside of Alexandria, where the men discovered that they would not be embarking anytime soon.  The soldiers became angry with McCall and "complained of the hard treatment."  (Sypher 171.)  McCall himself "put on record the fact, that this was the only occasion on which the Pennsylvania Reserves, while under his command, complained of the severity of any duties they were required to perform." (Sypher 171.)  Many of the men must certainly have shared Gen. George Meade's sentiment.  As the commander of the Second Brigade wrote to his wife a few days after arriving in Alexandria: "I do not think I have ever seen a much harder march than the one from Hunter's Mills to this place."  (Meade 252.)

"Baldy" Smith's Men Brave the Elements on the Way to Alexandria

Smith's division, including the Vermont Brigade, was encamped at Flint Hill, a few miles north of Fairfax Court House, when orders came to march at six on Saturday morning, March 15.  As the soldiers set out and approached Fairfax, the skies opened.  Just like the Pennsylvania Reserves, the troops in Smith's command were forced to contend with torrential downpours and muddy ground.  The division advanced slowly along the Little River Turnpike towards Alexandria.  Some of the men began to fall out, and officers tried to help weaker soldiers carry their knapsacks or rifles.  All the regiments of the Vermont Brigade, with the exception of the 2nd Vermont, had never experienced such a difficult march.  (in Zeller 58.)  

After about twenty arduous miles, the division finally reached the outskirts of Alexandria and set up camp in a pine woods.  As Corporal Dan Mason of the 6th Vermont recalled in a letter to his fiancee:

I was wet through long before we halted. About the time we stopped it rained harder than ever. My boots were full of water & I felt cold & chilly. Others were in as bad or even worse condition than I was.  Some were inclined to curl up by a tree. They did not seem to care whether they lived or died. (Ltr., Mason to Fiancee, Mar. 31, 1862) (minor corrections made to punctuation/capitalization)
The soldiers lit fires to stay warm and attempted to sleep.  The next morning, steam was literally rising from their saturated bodies.  The men soon learned the disappointing news that their transports were not yet ready.  The movement to the Peninsula would have to wait.  The Vermont Brigade marched about four miles to Cloud's Mill (current-day West End area of Alexandria).  There the soldiers established what they nicknamed "Camp Hard Crackers." 

Detail of 1862 Union Army map of Northeastern Virginia showing the approximate location of McCall's camp at the Fairfax Seminary and Smith's camp at Cloud's Mill (courtesy of Library of Congress)

Smith's division spent several days in camp around Alexandria. Surgeon Alfred Castleman of the 5th Wisconsin worried that his regiment was staying put:
We are sending to Washington for our tents. Our General Smith is building stables, and it looks as if we were again settling down. What does it mean ? Is there another change of programme ? And are we not to embark after all?  (Castleman, entry for Mar. 17, 1862, 100.)
But Castleman's concerns were misplaced.  On March 23, the 13,000 men of Smith's division marched to the Alexandria waterfront with great fanfare and boarded transports to take them down the Potomac to the Chesapeake and Ft. Monroe.

McCall's men, meanwhile, eagerly waited for orders at their camp around the seminary.  McClellan originally intended to move McDowell's corps en masse before any of the other corps.  The transports were slow to arrive, however, so McClellan switched plans.  He sent the other corps by division "as fast as transports arrived" and "determined to hold the 1st corps to the last, and land it as a unit whenever the state of affairs promised the best results."  (McClellan, Own Story, 254, 256.) 

McCall's men learned of yet another change of plans within a few weeks.  At the start of April, President Lincoln decided to hold back the First Corps for the defenses of Washington.  The Pennsylvania Reserves would ultimately be sent to reinforce McClellan in June 1862.  The hard march in the rain and mud to Alexandria had amounted to a whole lot of hurry up and wait.  But those days would pale in comparison to what was in store for the Pennsylvania Reserves once they got to the Peninsula.


Russel Beatie, Army of the Potomac: McClellan's First Campaign, March-May 1862 (2007); George Grenville Benedict, Vermont in the Civil War, Vol. 1, (1886); Alfred I. Castleman, Army of the Potomac: Behind the Scenes, A Diary of Unwritten History (1863); M.D. Hardin, History of the Twelfth Regiment Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps (1890); A.F. Hill, Our Boys: The Personal Experiences of a Soldier in the Army of the Potomac (1864); George Meade, The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Vol. 1 (1913); George B. McClellan, McClellan's Own Story (1887); Philadelphia Press, March 17, 1862; Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (1992); J.R. Sypher, History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps (1865); O.R. Howard Thomson & William H. Rauch, History of the "Bucktails" (1906); Vermont Historical Society, On-Line Collection of Letters of Dan Mason; Paul G. Zeller, The Second Vermont Volunteer Infantry Regiment, 1861-1865 (2002); Edward Morrison Woodward, History of the Third Pennsylvania Reserve (1883); Edward Morrison Woodward, Our Campaigns (1865).

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