Friday, August 31, 2012

The Chain Bridge Defenses During the Maryland Campaign, Part I: Sigel and Company on the Move

This summer's Sesquicentennial calendar is crowded with observances of several key events.  We've just finished Second Manassas and are now headed into the Maryland Campaign and Antietam.  During such times, I start to think about my own little corner of Northern Virginia. What was happening here as the armies left behind the wreckage at Manassas and marched through Maryland on the way to a bloody encounter outside Sharpsburg?   Although far less dramatic than other events unfolding in September 1862, the ground around present-day McLean and North Arlington witnessed a build-up of Gen. Franz Sigel's army corps.  These men played a key role in manning the defenses of Washington while Gen. George B. McClellan hunted down Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the Old Line State.

Born in Germany in 1824, Sigel rose to become a military leader in the Revolution of 1848.  He emigrated to the United States in the early 1850s and eventually settled in St. Louis.   When war broke out, Sigel helped to recruit German-Americans to the Union cause.  He first served out West at Wilson's Creek and Pea Ridge.  Sigel, favored by the Lincoln Administration for his ties to the German-American community, was appointed a major general of volunteers and sent East, where he was named commander of the First Corps of Gen. John Pope's Army of Virginia in June 1862.  Sigel seemed a fitting choice to lead the new corps, whose ranks were filled with many German immigrants.   Sigel's men fought hard at Second Manassas (August 28-30, 1862) and helped to stem James Longstreet's massive counter-attack on the Union left. 

Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel (courtesy of Library of Congress).  German-Americans were recruited to the Union cause with the slogan, "I goes to fight mit Sigel."  The general had a less than stellar record on the battlefield and was later trounced at the Battle of New Market in 1864.

By September 2, Pope's defeated army had concentrated at Fairfax Court House.  The Union commander worried that his men were not up to the task of fighting Lee anytime soon and strongly suggested to general-in-chief Henry W. Halleck that his army return to the safety of Washington's defenses.  On mid-morning September 2, Halleck finally ordered Pope to "bring your forces as best you can within or near the line of fortification."  (OR, 1:12:3, 796-97.) 

The anxious and demoralized Pope wasted no time in carrying out Halleck's instructions.  He soon put his troops on the move towards the outskirts of Washington. Sigel's First Corps, along with Edwin V. Sumner's Second Corps, Army of the Potomac, and Fitz John Porter's Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac, were told to march "via Vienna toward the Chain Bridge."  (OR, 1:12:2, 86.)*  The Chain Bridge, located above Georgetown, was one of three pivotal crossing points into the nation's capital from Virginia.  Pope cautioned the three corps to "keep well closed up and within easy supporting distance of each other."  (OR, 1:12:2, 86.) 

The men started out towards Chain Bridge with Porter in the lead.  Sigel followed, and Sumner brought up the rear.  (Armstrong 57; Powell 256; McClellan, Own Story, 537-38.)   J.E.B. Stuart, however, was not about to let the Federal troops have an easy time of it.   The Confederate general sent cavalry under Gen. Wade Hampton, along with Capt. John Pelham's flying artillery, to harass the Union column as the men snaked their way along the road towards Vienna and Langley.

McClellan, who was just recently restored to overall command, rode out in the afternoon towards Upton's Hill, where he greeted Irvin McDowell's corps arriving from Fairfax.  Pope and McDowell soon appeared.  While speaking with the two generals, McClellan noticed "rather heavy artillery-firing . . . in the distance."  (McClellan, Own Story, 537.)  Pope speculated that Confederates were likely shelling Sumner's rear guard and "intimated that Sumner was probably in a dilemma."  (McClellan, Own Story, 537.)  McClellan could not help but get in a dig at Pope in his post-war account:
[Pope] could give me no information, of any importance in relation to the whereabouts of the different corps, except in a most indefinite way; had evidently not troubled his head in the slightest about the movements of his army in retreat, and had coolly preceded the troops, leaving them to get out of the scrape as best they could.  He and McDowell both asked my permission to go on to Washington, to which I assented, remarking at the same time that I was going to that artillery-firing. They then took leave and started for Washington.  (McClellan, Own Story, 537.)
McClellan dashed off with an aide and three orderlies to investigate what was happening along the road to Langley.  He first encountered Porter's men after dark.  The soldiers let out a rousing cheer upon recognizing Little Mac and crowded around their beloved commander.  By this time, "the firing had ceased, with the exception of perhaps a dropping shot occasionally."  (McClellan, Own Story, 537.)  McClellan nevertheless continued onward in the moonlight, until he came to Sigel's corps.  As McClellan described the remainder of his excursion:
I . . . soon satisfied myself that Sumner was pursuing his march unmolested, so I sent on to inform him that I was in command, and gave him instructions as to his march. I then returned by the Chain bridge road, having first given Sigel his orders; and at a little house beyond Langley I found Porter, with whom I spent some time, and at length reached Washington at an early hour in the morning.  (McClellan, Own Story, 538.)
Pope, meanwhile, seemed less than troubled by the Confederate action against the retreating Federal column.  He told Halleck:
The whole army is retiring in good order, without confusion or the slightest loss of property. . .  Three army corps pursue the route via Vienna to Chain Bridge, covered by all the effective cavalry.  (OR, 1:12:2, 87.)
 At 7:10 p.m., upon arriving near Washington, Pope sent an update to Halleck:
Command coming in on the road without much molestation. Some artillery firing on the road through Vienna to Chain Bridge, but nothing of a serious character, so far as I can learn.  (OR, 1:12:2, 87.)
Pope was not far off the mark in his assessment.  The 71st Pennsylvania under Col. Isaac Wistar, along with the 1st Minnesota, was protecting Sumner's rear.  Wistar's overall view was that the enemy's shells did "little damage" that night, although stragglers greatly complicated matters for the retreating army corps. (Wistar 48.)  As it was, the narrow road was already crowded with "thousands of disorganized troops and fragments of commands; disorderly wagon trains; guns without officers; caissons without guns."  (Wistar 46.)  However unfairly, Wistar singled out stragglers from Sigel's command for getting in the way of his regiment's rear guard duty:
Many hundred perhaps thousands of Germans from the routed Division of Siegel [sic], had abandoned their colors, thrown away their arms, and deliberately gone to sleep around fires kindled in the woods, a spectacle most exasperating to our men, since these stragglers could have no other design than to be taken prisoners after the passage of the rearguard. The soldiers in ranks begged to be let loose on these 'coffee-boilers,' promising there should be none left for the enemy; but the integrity of the rearguard was of too much importance to permit risking it, even for that just vengeance. Nevertheless, such stragglers did not all go unwhipt of  justice. Unfortunately, the Adjutant's horse being killed and no Major present, the only mounted regimental officers were Lieut.-Col. [William] Jones and myself, who, when otherwise unoccupied, busied ourselves with charging into these sleeping squads of loafers, to the intense delight of the gallant fellows of the hard-worked rearguard.  (Wistar 48-49.)
During the night of September 2 and early morning hours of September 3, Federal soldiers streamed through Lewinsville and entered Langley, only a handful of miles from the Chain Bridge over the Potomac.  (OR, 1:12:2, 87; Wistar 50.)**  Sumner's men took some time to recover from their march, but later on September 3, the Second Corps crossed the Potomac at Chain Bridge and headed to Tennallytown, northwest of Washington City.  They were joined by soldiers from the Second Corps, Army of Virginia (soon to be re-designated as the Twelfth Corps, Army of the Potomac).  Porter's men soon took up a position around Hall's Hill (near current-day US-29 and N. Glebe Rd. in Arlington).  Sigel's corps encamped closest to Chain Bridge, including the area around Ft. Ethan Allen.***  Sigel also kept pickets at Langley. 

As the Union Army sat within Washington's defenses, Lee prepared to invade Maryland.  Before long, the Army of Northern Virginia was fording the Potomac upriver from Washington.  The bulk of McClellan's force would soon be on the move, but not everyone would join in the chase.  After all, someone had to ensure that the nation's capital remained safe while the main body of the army was away. 


*For a Union Army map of Northeastern Virginia in 1862, click here.  The general route taken by the three army corps from Fairfax Court House through Vienna to Lewinsville, Langley, and Chain Bridge can be traced on this map in detail.  I unfortunately could not post the desired portion of the map at a level of magnification that was satisfactory enough for viewing.

**Precise arrival times are difficult to ascertain. Some elements reached the area around Chain Bridge on the evening of September 2, while the rear guard arrived in Langley "about daylight" on September 3.  (OR, 1:12:2, 466; McClellan, Own Story, 537-38; Wistar 50.)

***The exact placement of Sigel's corps on September 3-4 is unclear.  Sigel received dispatches on September 4 at Ft. Ethan Allen, so presumably most of his men were encamped in that general vicinity.  (OR, 1:51:1, 785).  A history of the 27th Pennsylvania, a regiment in Sigel's corps, indicates that around the same time the unit "was for several days engaged in picket duty" at Langley. (Bates 388.)


Aside from the citations to the Official Records above, the following sources were useful in compiling this post:

Marion V. Armstrong Jr., Unfurl Those Colors: McClellan, Sumner, & the Second Army Corps in the Antietam Campaign (2008); Samuel P. Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865, Vol. I (1869); Stephen D. Engle, Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel (1993); George H. Gordon, History of the Campaign of the Army of Virginia Under John Pope (1880); Bradley Gottfried, The Maps of Antietam (2012); Joseph L. Harsh, Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee & Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862 (1999); John J. Hennessy, Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas (1993); George B. McClellan, McClellan's Own Story (1887); George B. McClellan, Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac (1864); William H. Powell, The Fifth Army Corps (Army of the Potomac) (1896); "Franz Sigel (1824-1902)," Encyclopedia Virginia; Isaac Jones Wistar, Autobiography of Isaac Jones Wistar, 1827-1905, in Two Volumes, Vol. II (1914).

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