Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Chain Bridge Defenses During the Maryland Campaign, Part III: Sigel Stays Put and Stands Guard

In the last couple of posts, I've followed the story of the Chain Bridge defenses around Washington in the days prior to Antietam.  During the first week of September 1862, Franz Sigel led his corps from Fairfax Court House to the vicinity of Ft. Ethan Allen.  As Gen. George McClellan moved his army across the Potomac to chase down the Robert E. Lee, he left Sigel's men, along with the corps of Fitz John Porter and Samuel P. Heintzelman, to guard the Virginia side of the river in front of the nation's capital.  By September 7, Sigel's line stretched from Ft. Marcy and Ft. Ethan Allen, near Chain Bridge, to Ft. DeKalb in present-day Arlington.

McClellan Tries to Extract Sigel and Other Reinforcements from Washington's Defenses

Before long, McClellan was asking Washington to send him reinforcements, including men from Sigel's corps and the other commands around the capital.  Generally inclined to overestimate Confederate troop strength, Little Mac was no different this time around.  He believed that Lee had "not less than 120,000 men" near Frederick, Maryland. (OR, 1:19:2, 254.)  In fact, the Army of the Potomac had around a two-to-one advantage over Lee.  (Sears, Landscape, 102.)

On September 10, McClellan wrote to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck:
At the time this army moved from Washington, it was not known what the intentions of the rebels were in placing their forces on this side of the Potomac. It might have been a feint to draw away our troops from Washington, for the purpose of throwing their main army into the city as soon as we were out of the way, or it might have been supposed to be precisely what they are now doing. In view of this uncertain condition of things, I left what I conceived to be a sufficient force to defend the city against any army they could bring against it from the Virginia side of the Potomac.  (OR, 1:19:2, 254.)*
McClellan, however, felt that "[t]his uncertainty . . . exists no longer."  (OR, 1:19:2, 254.)  The immediate danger to the capital had passed.  McClellan informed Halleck of the overwhelming number of Confederates at Frederick and warned that "if we should be defeated the consequences to the country would be disastrous in the extreme."   (OR, 1:19:2, 254.)  Little Mac pleaded for Halleck to send him more men:
Under these circumstances, I would recommend that one or two of the three army corps now on the Potomac, opposite Washington, be at once withdrawn and sent to re-enforce this army . . . . (OR, 1:19:2, 254.) 
The commander perceived little threat to Washington:
If there are any rebel forces remaining on the other side of the Potomac, they must be so few that the troops left in the forts, after the two corps shall have been withdrawn, will be sufficient to check them; and, with the large cavalry force now on that side kept well out in front to give warning of the distant approach of any very large army, a part of this army might be sent back within the entrenchments to assist in repelling an attack.  (OR, 1:19:2, 254.) 
McClellan seemed almost nonchalant about the possible capture of the nation's capital:
But even if Washington should be taken while these armies are confronting each other, this would not, in my judgment, bear comparison with the ruin and disaster which would follow a signal defeat of this army.  If we should be successful in conquering the gigantic rebel army before us, we would have no difficulty in recovering it. On the other hand, should their force prove sufficiently powerful to defeat us, would all the forces now around Washington be sufficient to prevent such a victorious army from carrying the works on this side of the Potomac, after they are uncovered by our army? I think not.  (OR, 1:19:2, 254-55.)** 
From his headquarters near Rockville on September 11, McClellan further urged Halleck:
Please send forward all the troops you can spare from Washington, particularly Porter's, Heintzelman's, Sigel's, and all the other old troops. Please send them to Brookville, via Leesborough.  (OR, 1:19:2, 253.)***
President Lincoln himself responded to McClellan's plea for additional soldiers from the defenses of Washington.  (OR, 1:19:2, 253.)  The President understood that the new recruits streaming into Washington were mixed with the three commands and worried that "[i]f Porter, Heintzelman, and Sigel were sent you, it would sweep everything from the other side of the river. . . ." (OR, 1:19:2, 253.)  Instead, he released only the remainder of Porter's Fifth Corps, which was ordered to cross the Potomac and join the Army of the Potomac in the field.  (OR, 1:19:2, 253, 255.)  Lincoln held out the possibility of future reinforcements: 
I am for sending you all than can be spared, and I hope others can follow Porter very soon.  (OR, 1:19:2, 254.)
In the end, however, Sigel's men would stay put near the Chain Bridge defenses while the Army of the Potomac tracked down and fought Lee.

"General McClellan Entering the Town of Frederick, Maryland--The Popular Welcome," Harper's Weekly, Oct. 4, 1862 (courtesy of sonofthesouth.net).
Sigel's Corps and Everyday Life in Front of Washington

During the Maryland Campaign, Sigel's corps underwent a few organizational changes.  Once McClellan took to the field with the main army, Sigel reported to Gen. Nathaniel Banks, whom McClellan had placed in overall command of Washington's defenses. (OR, 1:19:2, 202, 214.)  Under General Orders No. 129, dated September 12, the War Department officially re-designated the three corps of the former Army of Virginia, and Sigel's First Corps became the Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac.  (OR, 1:19:2, 279.) 

As McClellan battled Lee at South Mountain and Antietam, Sigel's men dealt with the mundane routine of camp life.  Soldiers spent the days drilling or on picket duty.  One regiment, the 27th Pennsylvania, changed camps around Chain Bridge several times throughout September and performed picket duty in Falls Church, a few miles in advance of the defensive line.  Gen. Robert Milroy, a brigade commander in Sigel's corps, used his free time to venture into Washington City and sit for his photograph at Mathew Brady's studio.

Not surprisingly, the presence of thousands of Union soldiers from Sigel's corps had an impact on the surrounding community.  Jospeh Sewell lived in Langley, just down the road from Forts Marcy and Ethan Allen where Sigel's men stood guard.  The farmer, like other locals, was no stranger to the Union Army.  Soldiers from Gen. "Baldy" Smith's division lived on and around Sewell's farm during the first winter of the war and had taken their fair share of crops and timber from him.  In September 1862, troops from Milroy's brigade entered Sewell's property and seized thirty barrels of corn.  They also took around three acres of garden vegetables and potatoes.****  Other civilians in the area likely experienced similar losses at the hands of the Union defenders.

Gen. Robert Milroy, from the Brady National Photographic Art Gallery (courtesy of Library of Congress).  Not long after sitting for his photograph, Milroy was sent with his brigade to western Virginia.
After Antietam: Sigel Advances to Centreville and Fairfax Court House 

As the Maryland Campaign drew to a close, Sigel's men were moved forward from the defenses near Washington.  Concerned about a possible Confederate attempt to reoccupy the railroad junction of Manassas, Banks ordered Sigel to send Gen. Julius Stahel's division to Centreville on September 21.  (OR, 1:19:2, 340-41, 344-45, 351.)   A few days later, on September 25, the remainder of Sigel's corps was dispatched to Fairfax Court House to cover an expedition being made to recapture several railroad engines at Bristoe.  (OR, 1:19:2, 356, 359.)  Banks, anxious about Confederate intentions, ordered that Sigel exercise "[g]reat caution. . . to prevent surprise," keep the cavalry "well to the front and on the alert," and "report frequently the state of affairs."  (OR, 1:19:2, 356.)

Banks originally intended to have Sigel's corps "fall back to its former position" following the expedition.  (OR, 1:19:2, 359.)   Sigel's men, however, remained in and around Fairfax Court House and Centreville to act as a "corps of observation."  (OR, 1:19:2, 425, 428.)  In this new role, Sigel kept an eye on Confederate activity in Northern Virginia, but Banks made sure to tell Sigel that "if menaced by a superior force of the enemy," he was "to fall back to the lines of defense."  (OR, 1:19:2, 425.)

The Eleventh Corps eventually ended up in Stafford Court House for the winter.  Although the soldiers missed the bloody encounter at Antietam, as well as the slaughter at Fredericksburg in December, they would go on to experience their fair share of brutal combat during the remainder of the war.  The soldiers of the Eleventh Corps became a scapegoat for the Union defeat at Chancellorsville, where they earned the derisive nickname of the "Flying Dutchmen."  Their reputation also suffered at Gettysburg.  During the tense days of September 1862, however, the corps served a necessary, yet unheralded role, in guarding the nation's capital as McClellan confronted Lee.


*Stephen Sears demonstrates that this correspondence was likely sent on September 10, even though the OR indicates that it was sent the next day.  (Sears, McClellan Correspondence, 446.)

**In correspondence dated September 13, Halleck rebuked McClellan:  "[Y]ou attach too little importance to the capital. I assure you that you are wrong. The capture of this place will throw us back six months, if it should not destroy us. Beware of the evils I now point out to you. You saw them when here, but you seem to forget them in the distance. No more troops can be sent from here till we have fresh arrivals from the North."  (OR, 1:19:2, 280-81.)

*** Earlier on September 11, Halleck had even suggested to McClellan that he send forward either Sigel's or Porter's corps when another division that Little Mac had requested was unavailable. As Halleck said, "Why not order forward Porter's corps, or Sigel's?  If the main force of the enemy is in your front, more troops can be spared from here." (OR, 1:19:2, 253.)

****The Southern Claims Commission files indicate that Sewell was not granted compensation for the claims he made concerning the taking of this property by Milroy's men.  The Commission considered that the $150 claim for corn rested solely on Sewell's testimony.  The $300 claim for garden vegetables and potatoes was considered a "depredation."


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

Samuel P. Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865, Vol. I (1869); Stephen D. Engle, Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel (1993); Bradley Gottfried, The Maps of Antietam (2012); Charles V. Mauro, The Civil War in Fairfax County: Civilians and Soldiers (2006); Johnathan A. Noyalas, "My Will is Absolute Law": A Biography of Union General Robert H. Milroy (2006); Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, Sept. 29, 1862; Stephen W. Sears (ed.), The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865 (1989); Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam (1983); Southern Claims Commission File of Joseph Sewell, available at fold3.com.

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