Littell's Living Age/Volume 130/Issue 1682/The Comte de Paris' Campaign on the Potomac
From The Edinburgh Review.
THE COMTE DE PARIS' CAMPAIGN ON THE POTOMAC.
These, volumes in more than one respect should satisfy any reader. In the first place they meet the want hitherto felt of such a skilful narrative of one of the greatest, and certainly the most complicated of modern wars, as should give a juster measure than yet has been attained of the weight of individual events, and trace more clearly their influence on the general course of the struggle. Advances, retreats, victories, defeats, succeeded each other confusedly during the contest on the different theatres of the war, each of which for the day seemed of chief interest. Preceding narratives had either diminished unduly the importance of some of these, by dwelling on those that were better known; or, describing them in detail, had failed to show their bearing on the struggle as a whole. Writers might have attempted this however with success, who would have altogether failed where the Comte de Paris has most perfectly succeeded. Hitherto no one on either side of the Atlantic has been found to view the character of this war in its larger historical aspect, as one impressed on it not merely by the incidents of the day, but by the slowly strengthened force of precedent. Much has been said of the divergence of the American soldiery from European rules, their want of discipline, their personal disregard when not under fire for those who led them, their general impatience of restraint The peculiar features of the actions fought have been dwelt upon as though these could have been reproduced in any rough and wooded terrain by any militia that found themselves engaged there. Too often European critics have treated the subject, when deeming it worth examination, as a mere question of locality, or hasty training, or a superabundance of the raw material of war. The Comte de Paris approaches it in its military aspect with the true spirit of philosophic inquiry. He goes back, being the first to take this simple and necessary step, to the early history of the United States when they were struggling and separated colonies. At the risk of wounding French sentiment, he enters deeply into that long struggle for a continent between his nation and our own, a struggle which, far more than the petty wars that raged along the Spanish main between fierce viceroys and savage buccaneers, decided the destinies of a new world. He shows how the endurance and readiness of the rough colonial levies aided the soldiers of the Georges, too ready to despise their allies, in gradually and surely founding a new empire, and shattering, despite the genius of a Montcalm, the visions of French dominion in the West, as effectually as the native military skill of Clive ruined them in the East. Thence he passes onward to the most humiliating episode of British history — the American Revolutionary War. In the prowess as well as in the very defects of Washington's "Continentals," he traces at once the continuance of the traditions of the struggle waged against his own country, and the germs of those vices and virtues which made the American soldier of 1861-5 by turns the derision and the admiration of the world. This heritage of the troops of the Union from the stubborn contests fought first with the Latin race, and afterwards with the British, gives the key to much that the best American writers have hitherto failed to apprehend, chiefly because they never looked at the subject with the breadth of view which seems natural to the Comte de Paris. It explains the apparent contradiction in the mixture of general feebleness with high individual courage, of fine design with imbecile execution, of success changed unexpectedly into defeat, or causeless panic into noble rallying, which has hitherto been the despair of commentators on the Civil War, and has caused the greatest of modern strategists to publicly avow, so recently as last autumn, that he had not yet found the proper materials for any proper study of it. It has long been known that the American troops were frequently routed without proper cause. More recently European writers, those ofi Great Britain especially, have discerned and admitted that under these circumstances they rarely gave way to real panic. The more this war is studied by any fair critic, the more will it be found that the vices were those of the system, whilst the virtues were inherent in the men. And the Comte de Paris has done a great service to historical truth in showing how both virtues and vices were inherited in a sense as strict as that which showed the victors of Sedan the true descendants of those who made Brandenburg formidable under the Great Elector, and Prussia a great power under Frederick. But here we prefer, by the use of one or two extracts from his invaluable opening chapter, to let the Comte de Paris speak for himself. Let him first tell the story, from a slightly French point of view, as is natural, of the rough school in which the old provincial levies learned their business: —
- It was against our own troops in the Seven Years' War that the American volunteers, at that time the militia of an English colony, first tried their arms. We may remember this not only without bitterness, since happily the flag of the United States has never been found opposed to that of France on the battlefield, but even as a recollection to create one bond the more between them and us. For, in the unequal struggle which decided the mastery of the new continent, these militiamen received valuable lessons whilst massing themselves against the handful of heroic men who, in despite of their country's forgetfulness of them, defended our empire beyond the sea. In this school were formed the soldiers of the War of Independence. Montcalm, rather than Wolfe, was the teacher of the adversaries who were soon to have the task of avenging him. It was while seeking in long and often disastrous expeditions to plant French authority on the banks of the Ohio that the founders of the American nation served their apprenticeship to the indefatigable energy which in the end triumphed over every obstacle. It was the example of the defenders of Fort Carillon staying a British army, from behind a feeble parapet, which inspired in later days the defenders of Bunker's Hill. It was the surrender of Washington at Fort Necessity, the disaster of Braddock at Fort Duquesne, which taught the future victors of Saratoga how, in an uncultivated country, to embarrass an enemy's march, cut off his supplies, do away with his apparent advantages, and finally take or destroy him. Thus, though despised by the aristocratic ranks of the regular English army, the provincial militia, as they were then called, were soon able to win their esteem, and to inspire respect in their foes. In this sort of warfare, so different from that carried on in Europe, in these actions fought in the midst of a wild and wooded country, they already displayed all those qualities that have since distinguished the American soldier — address, energy, valor, and individual intelligence.
So of the War of Independence he writes, again giving his countrymen perhaps a little more than their due, as his own words show that our part in the training of these levies has been slighted in the former extract: —
- And they displayed them still when, fifteen years later, they took up arms, under the name of volunteers or national militia, to throw off the oppressive yoke of the mother country. But they had no longer the trained officers of the English army to direct, and the veteran regulars to support them in critical moments. Their part of auxiliaries had ill prepared them to maintain unaided the great struggle on which their patriotism forced them to enter. Except Washington, no colonial officer had shone in the higher grades. And so the Frenchmen who came over with Lafayette to put their experience at the service of the young American army, brought it precious aid. Yet its best ally and its greatest power lay in that perseverance which enabled it to draw advantage out of defeat instead of being overwhelmed by it. This was soon seen when the arrival of Rochambeau gave it the opportunity of that fine and decisive campaign which carried the war from the banks of the Hudson to Virginia, and finished it at a blow in the trenches of Yorktown. … In this first effort of the young American nation to organize its military strength, we find all the precedents of 1861, and in its little armies of the last century, the model of those that took part in the Civil War.
The comte passes on at this point to a discussion as to whether the Northern or Southern levies of 1861 can be more properly compared with the volunteers that won its independence for the Union. Here we do not care to follow him; for in all parts where the military history, which in his opening paragraphs he declares to be the essential purpose of his work, is crossed by politics, we must decline to adopt his views. But there can be no question as to the truth of his sketch of the singular likeness between the men who fought against the soldiers of Howe and Clinton, and those who marched against Richmond.
- We cannot, therefore, be surprised to find in the first soldiers who carried the flag of the stars and stripes under fire, those features which always characterized the Federal volunteer. These were revealed from the very beginning of the contest with the mother country. When hardly brought together they faced boldly, behind the most trifling shelter, the shock of the British veterans. They defended themselves with remarkable tenacity at Bunker's Hill, just as the improvised soldiers of Jackson at New Orleans did fifty years later, and, on a grander theatre, the army of the Potomac at Gettysburg. They were indefatigable in the use of the axe and pick in the sieges of Boston and Yorktown, just as were those volunteers who in four years covered America with their fortifications and intrenchments. So also they were easily shaken when they felt or fancied themselves taken in flank, as at Brandywine and Germantown; difficult to move forward to the assault of a strong position, and forgetful of the principle that there is less danger in a rush upon the enemy than in standing still to receive his fire. They lost their organization rapidly, and, what is more rare, they recovered it again no less promptly. From their first engagements with the English down to the hour which armed one part of them against the other, the American volunteers, aided powerfully by the nature of a country covered with woods and cut up by morasses, rarely let a panic degenerate into a route, and had the remarkable merit of not believing themselves beaten after a defeat.
On this text, taken primarily from the Revolutionary contest, the whole history of the Civil War, as may be seen in the succeeding chapters, is a running commentary. The Comte de Paris justly deserves the praise due to the critic who has first seized the truth of this continuity of American history, and placed it in clear light. It is the more to be regretted that the strong political bias which he throughout displays to the side on which he served, has led to his disfiguring what may be termed the very cream of his great work by introducing strictures on the Confederate troops which we have purposely omitted. It is enough here to say that he speaks of the soldiers at whose head Lee and Jackson won imperishable fame, as "destitute individually of tenacity and perseverance;" a description that so utterly belies what history records of the Confederate army of northern Virginia, that it is difficult to believe it to have been penned by the same critic who has surveyed and described its adversaries with such admirable truth.
The military history of the American war is not limited, like those of modern European struggles, to months or weeks, but covers just four years of continuous contest; while in each year the immense resources gradually brought to bear, and the vast extent of the territory in dispute, broke off the conflict into sections, forming campaigns important in themselves, and at first sight little connected with the rest. As before mentioned, the Comte de Paris has done more than any writer who preceded him to preserve a spirit of unity throughout his narrative. He has found it necessary, nevertheless, to pass in separate chapters from east to west, and again from either flank to the connecting operations in the centre. It would be vain to attempt within our limits to follow him over these various fields, and, indeed, the four volumes when complete only carry down the story to the battle of Fredericksburg. For our purpose of showing the special value of this work it will be better to examine a few of those parts which illustrate the American system of forming and training and employing an army, as opposed to the European methods, and the distinctive peculiarities displayed by such an army in the field.
And first to speak of its formation. Uniforms, the comte begins by observing, were plentiful enough on national holidays before the war; but the militia regiments wont to display themselves on such festive occasions were meant only for show. So notorious was this, that one of the New York battalions, composed mainly of French immigrants, had assumed the mock title of the "Gardes Lafourchette" And while according to the popular boast the national roll-call embraced over three millions of soldiers, "the men who felt a real vocation for military studies," says the comte, "were obliged, like Sherman, to turn their knowledge to account as professors in the special colleges founded in the South;" which portion of the States, as he has elsewhere pointed out, had more occasion to keep up the true martial spirit. But when the rude events of the spring of 1861 opened the eyes of the least far-seeing to the reality of the coming crisis, "the formation of an army charged to defend the Constitution was held to be a national business;" and so each person of energy went to work with the feeling that his duty was to act without waiting for any orders. The apparent want of any general rules of organization was but conformable, it is well observed, to the administrative system of a country which everywhere leaves so much to local and individual activity, and where the central authority has no army of functionaries vested with an almost sacred character. The levy once ordered, the Federal authority did nothing more for its share in raising it than taking over the regiments sent up by each State as its quota. The States themselves were almost equally deficient in administrative machinery, and confined their action chiefly to guiding individual effort. The comte adds that popular supervision kept their higher magistrates free from the favoritism which is the vice of functionaries frequently elected; but here we think that opinion in America will hardly confirm him, and certainly the recorded incompetency of its officers, of whom the army was purged afterwards with difficulty and trouble, as the comte himself shows in the sequel, was in the higher ranks often the direct result of patronage exercised by governors, as in the lower it was due to the elective system of the volunteers.
Thus left to itself, or but slightly aided by authority, the national movement to arms went rapidly on under the stimulus of individual spirit. The recruiting office that was opened in every village became the popular rendezvous. Some, moved by a spirit of adventure, some by genuine love of the Union, and many by the abolitionist sentiments which Longfellow's songs and Mrs. Stowe's tales had nursed, and which were already fairly aroused, entered their names in the volunteer lists as privates. But the more important classes could do more than this, and in doing it win for themselves a new position. So those who united means and popularity sufficient, undertook to raise their own company, or battalion, or even brigade. The governors, who could dispense colonels' commissions freely, used their power to promise one to any person who would undertake to put his regiment together effectively by any means within a certain limit of time; and with no more than a written provisional authority for this purpose many individuals actually accomplished the task within the short space allowed by simply appealing to the public round them. Any one so engaged in his turn promised the most active of his associates commissions or a canteen contract as a reward for bringing in a certain number of volunteers; and gigantic handbills, with illustrations to show the deeds of heroism the future corps was destined for, covered the walls, and in some cases streamed as banners across the streets. The first recruits, as soon as dressed in uniforms chosen for show more than use, were sent out into the highways and lanes to bring others in. The Zouave dress, though looking ridiculous in the comte's critical eyes on the bony American who strutted about in it, proved an immense attraction in those days, when the capture of the green hill of Solferino by Zouave skirmishers was still fresh in men's minds. But the invitations sent out by no means always appealed to purely warlike instincts; and one regiment of heavy artillery, specially distinguished two years later at Gettysburg, filled its ranks by advertising itself "to those who wish to enter the military service," as sure of the inestimable advantage of being kept constantly in garrison at Washington, and so spared the privations of camp life in the field. On the other hand, a fine example was set in Indiana, whose troops had been accused of panic-flight in the war with Mexico; for this State saw crowds coming in voluntarily to wipe away the stain, and enlisting in regiments which assumed the device, "Remember Buena Vista," that being the action of which the men of Indiana were resolved to redeem the memory. The individual action which in the first few days raised a force of seventy-five thousand men, and another large draft a month later, was carried sometimes beyond the limits of State control by those who were not on good terms with their governors. Thus General Sickles, of New York, who had offered the president to raise a brigade directly for the Union, did so by placing his recruiting depot on ground belonging to a fort under Federal keeping, thus carrying it direct to Washington. Nor was it until some time after that Lincoln, forced by representations of the mischief this competition caused the volunteer movement, ordered that these independent corps should be officially enrolled as parts of the contingents of the States from which their members were actually drawn. Before this decision reached the Sickles brigade, it had actually lost half its original numbers by wounds or sickness from service in the field.
Whilst praising the spirit which made so little of the difficulty of the first levy, the Comte de Paris, speaking here from close observation, declares plainly that its mass was of inferior material. The well-to-do and steady citizens were not at first sensible of the duty of personal exposure in the ranks; and as a rule "these volunteers were collected from the disorderly classes of the towns and villages," whilst the short limit of their three months' engagement prevented from the first any hope of seriously disciplining them. In a word, "they were much like the militiamen of the War of Independence that gave Washington so much anxiety;" and carried their loose principles out soon afterwards so far as to leave their posts the very night their engagement was up, regardless that a battle might be expected within a few hours. Such contingents, however, formed the larger part of the force collected in June 1861, under MacDowell, and it need hardly therefore be wondered at that the war opened with disaster. The second and third levies, on a larger scale and for three years' duty instead of three months, reached a different social class altogether. Many, it is true, in enlisting were still actuated more by the spirit of adventure than that of patriotism; but the real imminence of the national peril now began to affect all hearts, and the new recruits were animated by a stern resolution that had been wanting in the first. "They were not good soldiers; they were hardly soldiers at all. But they really wished to become such, and that was the proper condition by which to attain the result." And this, although among them was a certain proportion of that large mass of the restless and unfortunate which America continually receives from Europe, and which is apt in quiet times to float as a scum over the great trans-atlantic cities. These, however, were held very much apart from the native Americans, and it was they who thronged particularly into the ranks of regiments like the "Fire Zouaves" of New York, where a showy uniform had for its complement a very small share of discipline. Making all deductions, there is no doubt that the comte is in the right when he asserts that on the whole the medley mass of volunteers of the first year of the war represented fairly enough the nation that produced it, and as a whole was thoroughly moved by a national spirit. In the ranks, indeed, were already numbers of men who quitted good positions in civil life, with others advanced in years or bound to their homes by strong family ties. And that such men took up arms voluntarily when there was not only no glut of the labor-market but a great temporary rise in all wages and profits, is proof sufficient of disinterested patriotism, or true martial ardor, or of both combined. As to the assertion often made by foreign critics that the Americans at this period of the war were hiring immigrants to do their fighting — a remark no doubt arising from mistaking the composition of certain special corps for that of the Federal army — the statistics since collected show that of the whole of the volunteers of the first year, one-tenth barely were non-naturalized, while six-tenths were American born, the rest being of course American citizens originally of European birth.
All the world is aware how the sharp defeat of its first levies at Bull Run changed the whole aspect of the war, on the Federal side especially. If on the one hand it raised the spirits of the South, seeming to assure it safety for its new capital, and a strategic position that menaced Washington itself, it acted far more against its cause in reality by calling forth the latent strength of its foe. The advocates of peace at any price had been struggling in Congress against the proposition the Lincoln Cabinet had resolved to put forward of a new levy of four hundred thousand long-service volunteers to replace the first draft of three months' men already about to be discharged. Their objections had been patiently listened to, and negatived already by the supporters of the administration. But the final discussion was fixed, by a strange chance, for the very day that the bitter news of the defeat arrived; and the solemnity and decision with which the bill was at once approved that augmented the levy to half a million of men, and raised the loan accompanying it from four to five hundred millions of dollars, showed that the representatives of the Union cause were thoroughly in earnest, and felt they had their people's full support. So at every crisis of the war, the comte observes, the Congress set the nation an example of perseverance, and of the patriotism that is roused by defeat even more than victory; qualities which he attributes not so much to their race as to that free working of Anglo-Saxon institutions which made each citizen feel the common cause to be especially his own.
The great change or development of feeling that the first great battle produced has been often spoken of before less perfectly; but in the comte's pages is for the first time fully explained the process by which there was framed out of such rude material the great machine, with which the task was again undertaken of threatening the Confederate capital. Long and weary years were to elapse before the army of the Potomac should enter Richmond; and its advance was to be opposed by enthusiastic defenders, led by a chief who has few peers even among the greatest commanders. But the foundation of future success, won, despite repeated and severe discouragement, was laid round Washington in the autumn of 1861, when MacClellan, fresh from successes in western Virginia, was called to the capital to take the military control of the masses hastily assembled round it. The nation had discovered that a hundred thousand men cannot be moved or fought without some previous attempt at organization, and on the new commander devolved the powers which in its first blind ignorance of war it had denied his predecessor. The cold, clear style of the historian warms to the nearest approach to enthusiasm to be found in his volumes as he speaks of the high qualities of his old chief and friend, of the laborious character, the precise and methodical spirit, and the vast military knowledge which fitted MacClellan for his gigantic task. Men were at this time the least of his needs. Of the three-months' volunteers handed over to his charge a large proportion re-enlisted, and, what was more important, the president's second call made in May for forty battalions had been met by the States with over two hundred, so that not far from a quarter of a million of men were already under arms; and it was certain that the other half of the national force now approved by act of Congress would be raised without difficulty, since the militia regiments, in the larger States especially, had been filled up quite as rapidly as they were thinned by the transfer of their rank and file to the volunteers. Battalions on battalions, "mustered in" daily, and by this simple act brought on to the pay-sheets, and under the military code of the Union, were arming at Washington, the whole neighborhood of which at once became one vast camp of instruction under the inspiration of the new commander-in-chief. Each regiment on its arrival was put through a drill parade of the simplest order; and on showing that it could march past without much confusion, was brigaded with one or two of rather higher experience, to get the benefit of such joint training as the staff could bestow. The old West Point officers, as the only men really ready for the work, now naturally came into extraordinary prominence. The attempt being abandoned which had first been made, to keep the small body of regulars a force apart, as a kind of special reserve, they were distributed among the divisions gradually formed, their former officers being for the most part also distributed among the volunteers with higher rank. Lincoln himself prudently adopted this mode of utilizing the only educated soldiers available. He took counsel with the seniors as to the capabilities of those upon the regimental lists, or returning to the service voluntarily from civil employ; and the first large lists of generals created included not only such names as those of Grant, Sherman, Meade, Thomas, Kearney, Hooker, and Slocum, each a celebrity in his way in the campaigns to come, but a number of others who were at least efficient in their first duty of the instruction of raw troops. The theory so carefully inculcated at West Point had now full scope for being carried out in practice, and it is probable that the value of thorough early professional training was never more signally illustrated. With all their exertions, however, the task of organization at first seemed beyond the powers of the military staff, as that of administration exceeded the powers of the civilians hastily brought in to execute the important duties of the commissariat; and for sometime the sight was not uncommon of one regiment left to exist on unbaked flour and other raw supplies, whilst its next-door neighbor was abundantly furnished with all camp requisites. Such inequalities, however, as well as those first apparent in the arms carried, which were of various patterns and values, were gradually overcome by energy and lavish expenditure. But it was at first found harder to discipline than to feed this great armed horde — for such it really was for some weeks after MacClellan took the command. In such a case discipline must commence from above, and the new general had reason enough to be daunted by the condition of his body of officers. How the volunteer regiments were furnished with these has already been described. Numbers of those who had gained commissions so easily were quite unfit to exercise authority, and yet under the Federal military code had precisely the same powers over their men as if they had served in the regulars all their lives. Of course such authority would often be abused; and the difficulties thus arising were enhanced by the fact, that the same code appeared to keep the officers, however inefficient or unworthy, free from any penalty not inflicted by a legally assembled court-martial. In practise it was found quite impossible to carry out this principle. It was evaded, therefore, by the rough expedient of putting the officer charged with an offence under arrest as though for trial, and detaining him in this ignominious position until he resigned his commission, any appeal to the president for intervention being forwarded with the accompanying instruction that it was necessary for him to exercise his supreme authority and dismiss the applicant. A large part of the openly profligate or irregular were thus sternly weeded out. But it was more difficult by far to deal with the numerous cases of incompetency. To purge the army from these certain examination committees were after some time appointed which went to their work unflinchingly. The examinations were purposely deferred till the generals had obtained some personal knowledge of the officers to be tested, which was furnished in private notes to the committee. Upon this information chiefly the examination was based, and made more or less severe at discretion, the object being not so much really to try the capabilities, as to settle the future position of those summoned to it. If the candidate was known to have taken pains already, or to be likely to improve, the questioning was simple, and the certificate easily gained. If ill reported of, he was invariably made to fail. Ludicrous and painful scenes followed, and we are told of some who literally cast themselves at their judges' feet, imploring them to spare the suppliant the loss not merely of his epaulettes, but of the income it had cost him so much to earn. Injustice, it is added, was no doubt done in some instances, but a less injustice than the retention of these inefficient men in the army would have been to the soldiers below them. The governors of States, it should be observed, still retained the nominal right of filling up the vacancies that daily followed on the application of this test. But when once it was made clear that the nominee would be disqualified for ignorance, nomination became of little use, and promotion fell naturally to the regimental authorities, and usually to the most useful officers. This process of elimination in the upper ranks told speedily on the general discipline. Not that American volunteers ever acquire that outward respect for their military superiors which is the law of European armies. But, at least, orders came to be obeyed. Officers who had the natural gift of command rapidly acquired the trust of their men, intelligence and education making it much easier to enforce regulations than an outward observer of the easy manners on either side would have believed. Once well understood to be salutary, the necessary constraints of military life were submitted to with extraordinary readiness, and, except in the case of a few regiments of foreigners, turbulence and continued disobedience were quite as unknown as in more thoroughly disciplined armies. There was one isolated attempt at mutiny, indeed, very soon after MacClellan assumed command; but it was put down with ease by the prompt use of some regulars who were at hand, and the only punishment inflicted was the deprivation of the regimental standard, the battalion thus disgraced becoming afterwards one of the best-behaved corps in the army.
An extraordinary test of the obedience of these volunteers to reasonable orders, proving also a great advantage to their subsequent discipline, was the decision taken very early to exclude absolutely all intoxicating liquors from the camps. The provost-marshal diligently searched the canteens from time to time to see this carried out. The only spirits kept by the commissariat were reserved strictly for hospital cases, or issued under special orders to parties put to extraordinarily hard work, or encamped in swamps. Out of Washington itself it soon came to pass that a drunken soldier was a thing unknown, and throughout the subsequent operations it proved easy to enforce the rule, except, indeed, again in the case of the foreign regiments, the Germans, on opportunity, proving more faithful to their lagerbier than their orders, and other Europeans indulging stealthily in eau-de-vie.
The elements of discipline once established, drill and tactics followed in the order of instruction. Here again the absence of trained officers seemed to present almost insuperable difficulties, and these were once more met by the superior intelligence of the men on which the historian dwells so admiringly. The large number of three field-officers to each battalion, borrowed by the Americans from our organization, would have been superfluous in a Frenchman's judgment for a standing army, but is admitted to have been found of the greatest advantage here, in the many cases where either the colonel, the lieutenant-colonel, or the major took pains to show himself a willing learner as well as a teacher, and had a natural gift for command. Whichever it happened to be of the three fell naturally into the position of chief instructor to the battalion. The colonels, however, showed particular zeal in vying with each other in these exercises; and it was a common sight, after the day's drills were done, to see the officers assembled in their commander's tent to undergo a private course of instruction in the regulations to prepare for the work of the morrow. Much the same process of hard personal toil and study was carried out with the regimental account-keeping. But here the success was not so general as in the matter of drill; and the comte tells us that one must have been personally present at an inspection of some of these battalions, a duty that no doubt often fell on MacClellan's staff, to understand the miseries caused to some of the thousands of officers who were required as part of their duty to keep up regularly the books and returns prescribed by the regulations.
Gradually MacClellan's exertions bore fruit, and his ideas of making his command really mobile took practical substance. Order and discipline were fairly maintained; his staff was as efficient as its still modest numbers allowed; and regiments, brigades, and even divisions became units disposable for action at the need. One terrible flaw there remained that his powers could not mend, and as it lasted throughout the greater part of the war, and has never before been thoroughly exposed, it deserves special notice. Admirably as the American volunteer system served the special purpose of raising suddenly great bodies of men, it created no reserve whatever to supply vacancies. Once formed and sent away from its State, the regiment left no depot, for as all the posts considered worth filling were with the headquarters, there was no one who could carry on at its home the business of recruiting, much less of training. An action or two, a week in the sun, a swampy bivouac, might leave it the mere skeleton of its former self; and although the same State or municipality might send a fresh battalion to relieve it, there was no connection between the two, nor any advantage to the new-comers from the experience of the reduced but comparatively veteran body. To have attempted to remedy this by altering the volunteer system at its root, would in all probability have been fatal to its working. Nor was it until the stern pressure of events made the dreaded word conscription familiar among the hitherto free citizens of the North, that the president obtained a power of keeping up the number of his most valuable corps. With conscription, or following soon upon it, a new commander-in-chief came into power, of a degree hitherto unknown; and General Grant, freely using the means denied to MacClellan, and consolidating two or three of the reduced corps of veterans into one, gained a vigor and steadiness for the army of the Potomac, unknown during its previous three years of service.
Each branch of the army formed with such pains by MacClellan had its peculiarities, which were reproduced in more or less degree whenever Federal troops were organized, and were, in fact, national characteristics. The comte is a friendly critic, but he is also keen and searching; and he tells us of the infantry, that the men were strong of limb, but careless of husbanding their powers for a long march, unskilled in the fitting of their equipments, and of a bad carriage. As to the care of their arms, it was a thing unknown to them; a fact that might be amply testified to by the independent witness of British officers, who saw the soldiers of Burnside and Hooker bivouacking on the Rappahannock under rude tents supported by their rusting muskets. Moreover the greater part of them were very indifferent shots in action, a fault due largely to the first issues of arms being of so wretched a character as to discourage target practice as part of the ordinary exercises.
The artillery was a very favorite arm with these volunteers, suiting, as our author justly observes it does, the American turn for mechanics. And the troops of this branch had the advantage of much better instruction relatively than the infantry, inasmuch as a large proportion of the old regular force were artillerists, a fact which enabled MacClellan to assign a battery of regulars to each of his divisions as a model for those of the volunteers. The latter were organized entirely by single companies or batteries, each commanded by a captain; thus the volunteer artillery was not burdened, as was the infantry, with a staff of untrained field-officers; and the regular artillery officers, as far as available, fell naturally into the vacant higher posts.
The greatest difficulty by far lay with the cavalry. Their regiments arrived strong in the numbers and zeal of their men, but wholly lacking all else that was needful for efficiency. Their equipments and chargers had to be supplied them by the Federal government, and when these were found the men had to be taught the art of riding, a new one to nearly all; for, as the comte observes, the Northern American has lost in this respect the traditional skill of the Anglo-Saxon race. It took several campaigns, therefore, to teach them the first elements of their business; and it may be added from other sources that in this they invariably aimed too high or too low for practical utility, whilst the necessary care of their horses was so neglected that a few days of service often left large detachments dismounted. In fact the want of steady exertions in this every-day duty for a long time paralyzed the cavalry of the Federal service; yet where good chiefs were forth-coming for certain regiments, the growth in aptitude for field duties was more marked and rapid than in the infantry, and gave special opportunities for distinction to the commanders.
As to the engineer branch, the difficulties at the commencement of the organization might have seemed in the abstract as great as with the horse, for the few trained officers belonging to this arm were scarcely enough to carry out the necessary works, far less to instruct the men enrolled. But a powerful aid was here at hand in the large class of civil engineers who were serving in the volunteers, men not highly taught in theory, but accustomed to deal with all the rude exigencies of a new country; and very soon some special regiments were trained effectively for the service, whilst the rougher works so abundantly used throughout the war were left to the infantry, who had always a share of skilled laborers among their ranks, and supplied the rest of what was needed from their general intelligence. In fact this constructive faculty of the volunteers was at first often greatly abused, as will be shown when we speak of the opening of MacClellan's operations; and round Washington it prevailed largely to the neglect of the necessary parade training. But on the other hand, the skill thus acquired proved of vast service afterwards, when movements became extended; and miles of solid intrenchments, thoroughly united by the favorite "corduroy" roads, made each great position after a short time impregnable; whilst huge bridges of simple but solid construction spanned great streams with a celerity that European armies could not, even with the same abundant material, have imitated. To such perfection was this branch of the art of war carried, that in Sherman's Atlantic campaign a solid trestlework bridge, half a mile long, was constructed in five days across the Chattahoochie, carrying the Federal line of operations forward firmly into the heart of Georgia, and ensuring the final success of the invasion.
Of the staff of these Federal armies, the comte tells us little except as to its insufficiency, which no doubt in the army of the Potomac he personally felt keenly. MacClellan, at the head of one hundred and fifty thousand men, had but four officers for his topographical duties, and eight for all his personal services. But it should be added that as the war grew more and more absorbing to the national mind, the old democratic jealousy of this necessary adjunct to military command faded away, and the two aides-de-camp assigned to MacDowell before Bull Run were represented in the best independent army corps formed in the war, that raised for the invasion of Alabama, by some thirty officers attached to General Wilson, the demands being probably then limited chiefly to the number of men qualified for the duties.
It is time that we should follow the Federal troops into the field, and see how the inherent peculiarities indicated were developed or modified by its trials. We take by natural preference of the many campaigns described in these volumes with a precision and yet richness of detail that deserve all praise, the great operation on the Richmond peninsula, which was conducted by MacClellan himself as soon as he believed his army of the Potomac to be in working order, and which was witnessed, and actively shared in, by the Comte de Paris. This first illustrated the slow but giant power of the North. This first displayed the admirable military skill of her greatest adversary. This too, closing in defeat and adversity for the Federals, gave their general and soldiers in the very crisis of that disaster the opportunity of showing how formidable was the leader's skill, how great the tenacity of the army he had framed with such care out of the roughest materials civilized warfare ever threw together; a tenacity long since acknowledged as remarkable, and now shown to be due to the hereditary qualities of the American volunteer. But in acknowledging these, the comte's introduction recalls to us the praise due to MacClellan for the care which developed them; and the skill and pains he bestowed on his primary task of organization deserve all the more recognition, since they drew on him to some extent the sarcasm of his less patient fellow-countrymen, or at least seriously diminished his early popularity.
It was perhaps a consciousness of this change in public feeling that gave so much force to Lincoln's obstinacy in contesting MacClellan's proposed strategy. The army of the Potomac once declared ready for field service in the early spring of 1862, its general was set on using the best means of water transport at his disposal for throwing it at once on to the southern part of Virginia near Richmond. The president was as earnest in insisting that it should advance against that city overland, so as to keep constantly between Washington, from which it started, and the Confederate army. It would be going beyond the limits we have assigned ourselves to discuss this question in detail. All subsequent experience proved the justice of MacClellan's views, and most of all the bloody and ineffectual trials made by Grant more than two years later of the line of operations favored by the president, which line the general, after boasting that he would keep to it throughout the summer, was finally obliged to abandon as hopeless, falling back upon that which MacClellan selected from the first. For our purpose it is here enough to say that there was a sort of compromise forced upon the latter against his will; and when the transhipment of his army to the James peninsula was far advanced, a curt despatch told him the supreme authority of the president had detained before Washington the best of his four army corps, numbering nearly forty thousand men, under MacDowell, on which too he had specially reckoned for turning the defence east of Richmond by a flanking movement to be made to the north of his own line of advance. The comte's personal feelings in favor of his old chief are as strong as his championship of the Union cause, which he identifies from the first with the abolition that it adopted later. With him, therefore, the deduction of this contingent assumes an importance which made it vitally injurious to the success of the campaign. But this assumption is by no means easy of proof, and indeed there is reason to dispute it from his own narrative. Those who read the subsequent chapters to which he refers will perhaps agree with us that the inherent difficulties of leading so great and yet so raw an army as MacClellan had against a chief such as Lee, who was soon to oppose him, and in such a country as that he entered on, would not have been lessened by a large numerical addition. The failure that followed was probably inherent in the conditions of the enterprise, including an element of over-caution in the commander, the action of which is hinted at not obscurely at various parts of the narrative. It is certainly impossible to lay the failure wholly on President Lincoln's shoulders; though no just critic can approve his interference with plans for the success of which he still held the general personally responsible.
Deprived of MacDowell's corps, the army of the Potomac was still a very formidable mass. The transhipment of one hundred and nine thousand men, with forty-four batteries of artillery and fifteen thousand mules and horses, might have seemed a difficult undertaking. In reality, however, it cost MacClellan less personal trouble than any other step of his campaign. Four hundred transports, with abundance of steam-power to move them, were at his disposal, and the operation was conducted with speed and success. On March 17th the first man stepped on board at Washington; on April 6th the last of the host landed at Fortress Munroe, near the extremity of the Jamestown peninsula, with no greater casualties reported than the loss of a few mules; two days earlier the advance-guard of the army had begun to move on Richmond, distant less than eighty miles in a direct line. The first twenty brought the head of its columns in face of an enemy.
We must pause here for a moment to illustrate from this point of the campaign how much more thoroughly the Comte de Paris has done his work than any of his predecessors. Former historians were content to say that the Confederates had taken up their first defensive position at Yorktown, some of them even omitting to remark that this spot, so important then, was still more famous eighty years before when the surrender of Cornvvallis there closed the Revolutionary War. We need not follow the writer in the glowing sentiments with which he naturally depicts the scene where French and American soldiers had side by side thrown up and held those investing lines that ruined the empire of Great Britain over the New World. We may borrow from him, however, the topographical secret as to the site which twice within a century gave its importance to an otherwise utterly obscure hamlet; and in doing this may complete what he tells by information from an even higher source. It must be remembered that the narrow peninsula that leads from the Atlantic to Richmond is bounded on the south side by the James, on the north by the York River, the former bringing its foreign trade to the city, the other being navigable for a long distance. The James was sealed to the Federal ships by the presence of the ironclad "Virginia," but their fleet might have accompanied the right of the army far up the peninsula as it moved onwards, but for the fact that the York River contracts at a point about twenty miles from its extremity, to such a degree as to be fully commanded from both shores. Here Yorktown lies on its southern side; and the Confederates, with heavy batteries there, and guns opposite at Gloucester Point, barred the stream effectually, and were as little likely to yield it without serious resistance as the British troops that lay on the same ground in the older war. Washington, however, had approached it from the Richmond side and invested it with ease, whilst the Federals found their task by no means so simple. It might have been supposed that if any tract of ground in the United States would be well known in a military sense, this historic spot would have thus been familiar. Such was far from being the case, however, and in stating this we come at once to the striking point of variation between the military art as practised in Europe and in America. Neither the engineers of the United States army, nor its general staff, had been maintained with any view to preparing for war on their own shores. The examination of important sites for defence, the preparation of good maps of even the coast line, were duties invariably deferred for want of hands to execute them, until Congress some day actually decided that such a post should be fortified. Outside the limits of Fortress Munroe the James peninsula was therefore an unknown country to the Federal staff. Of the few officers at MacClellan's side not one had ever been near Yorktown; and the wretched maps at hand served only to mislead. It was known that not far from Yorktown a large stream, called Warwick Creek, emptied itself into the James; but no one present was aware that its sluggish and swampy course cuts the whole peninsula across to nearly within the range of heavy guns from the old British lines. These had now been repaired, and formidably armed, and, with the line of the creek, barred all further advance. But the want of any proper reconnoitring to precede the march, had. left the Federals in such perfect ignorance of this, that, as we have heard from General MacClellan's lips, no difficulty was anticipated in marching by and investing Yorktown should it prove not to be abandoned, until the sixty thousand men who were marching on Richmond came suddenly, on April 5th, before the obstacle which actually checked them for a whole month. General Magruder, who commanded the Confederates, had with him at this time but eleven thousand men; for MacClellan's change of base by water from Washington to Fortress Munroe had deceived his adversaries, and the main force was still far to the north of Richmond. When the formidable truth became known there, advices were sent to Magruder to retire, before what was reported to be an overwhelming force. But he was obstinate by nature, and had no doubt the dislike natural to an old artillerist to abandon the guns that had been brought to Yorktown with so much pains. With happy audacity, therefore, he resolved to hold his ground, and keeping six thousand men in or about the works of Yorktown, dispersed the rest along the Warwick Creek at the few openings where paths approached it, so as to make as much display of their numbers as possible. The wooded nature of the ground, especially near the swamps through which the stream took its course, favored this design, and for the time it completely imposed on his opponent. A vigorous attack on one of the slightly defended passages, with feints here and there to cover it, must have infallibly pierced his line, the comte tells us, and made him pay dearly for his temerity. Had this been done promptly, Yorktown would have been turned and invested at once, and the whole peninsula fallen into MacClellan's hands before the Confederates arrived to hold it in force. But the comte forgets that in stating all this he is ignoring his own conclusions. Quick-sighted reconnoitring followed by speedy decision, and a sharp advance on the decisive point as soon as the enemy's defensive position is fairly made out — these are attributes of an invading army quite other than that which now stood still before Warwick Creek. Such combinations need more than docility, endurance, and the sense of numbers. For success of this sort there is demanded the steadiness, energy, and dash which only come with experience of war, or with the fullest peace training for that great ordeal, such as Prussia underwent before 1866. So the Federal host first halted, and presently sat down to make what might have been a formal siege attack of the weak line that imposed on them. Reinforcements were of course hurried up to Magruder, whilst MacClellan was preparing heavy batteries to sweep the passages; and though the Federals soon had their one hundred thousand men together, much precious time was lost before all was pronounced ready. On the 16th of April the attack was essayed, and at first with seeming success; for a Vermont regiment, covered by a crushing fire of artillery, got across the creek into the enemy's works. But the officers on the spot were so unskilled as to be paralyzed by their own advantage. None knew that this particular assault was to be turned into a decisive one if it succeeded; and so reserves were held back, and orders waited for, till the opportunity had passed by, the Vermonts being finally driven back with the loss of two hundred of their ranks.
Eleven days had already been lost before an insignificant obstacle, and the Federal soldiers were becoming discouraged at the evident want of enterprise in their commanders. Yet MacClellan was apparently afraid to risk another unsuccessful assault, and determined to attack Yorktown itself, the key of the hostile position, by regular siege works pushed on, the front of its lines covering the ground between Warwick Creek and the York river. And when orders were once given the new undertaking was carried on with a vigor and thoroughness that might have astonished the best engineers of Europe. All the pains before spent in preparing approaches to the passages of the creek were now concentrated on the mile and a half of open ground at its head. Wide buttresses for guns, spacious parallels, strong "corduroy" roads to bear the heaviest cannon, rude quays on which to land the siege trains that MacClellan resolved to use for this purpose, grew like works of magic under thousands of strong hands. The first parallel was traced on April 17th, the day after the repulse, along the edge of what, to the distant spectator, might have seemed a trackless forest, the wood so dense that MacClellan's headquarter camp, though within the range of the enemy's guns, was found quite secure from them. On May 4th, the Confederates, now under Johnstone, discovering that they must be crushed in a few hours by the superior fire about to open, withdrew at nightfall from Yorktown, making good their retreat up the peninsula, but at the cost of sacrificing more than seventy heavy guns, abandoned in their haste. The York River was of course now opened to MacClellan's squadron, as the road to his troops, and both pushed on westward, their long hesitation and apparent imbecility hardly redeemed by the final success of this their first great operation.
We hurry purposely past the affair of Williamsburg which followed, to say a few words of the battle of Fair Oaks, the first great general action of the campaign, fought May 30 and 31. The Confederates here first showed that fierceness in the offensive which became the characteristic of their Virginian army, and crushed, though they did not destroy, as had been hoped at Richmond, the left wing of their enemy, on which the chief assault was directed. But they were sorely discouraged by the loss of their general, who was badly wounded at the very crisis of the day; and his temporary successor was quite unequal to the task of pushing promptly the advantages gained. On the Federal side, as the comte tells us plainly, there was much depression at the feeling that the defensive attitude, in which their general had thought victory certain, as suiting the character of American troops, had hardly saved them from disaster; and they were not aware how the depressing effect of Johnstone's withdrawal on the hitherto high spirits of the Confederates was greatly increased on its being discovered that MacClellan's care and skill had completely united the two wings of his army, now on the opposite banks of the Chickahominy, by careful roadmaking and bridging, so that each could promptly support the other at need. This precaution had been steadily carried out ever since MacClellan had decided to put his right across the stream to its north side, and when it became known to the Confederates, they gave up all hope of ruining the wing they had supposed isolated, and fell back towards Richmond, with but barren claim to victory.
Then came a pause in the campaign which lasted from the 1st to the 20th of June. During all this time MacClellan kept his army divided by the Chickahominy for the same reason that had at first led him to occupy both sides of the stream. The key to a strategy that seems so unnecessarily dangerous lay originally in the hope he still had of drawing MacDowell's corps from the front of Washington to his aid by a land march, when he proposed to be ready to meet him, and aid its flanking movement by extending his right. Lincoln not only promised to spare it, but would no doubt have done so but for the genuine alarm created at Washington, at this crisis of the war, by Jackson's famous successes in the Shenandoah Valley campaign against the three divided Federal forces; forces which were to have overwhelmed him and captured his army, but which he beat with rapid successive strokes, such as for brilliant illustration of genius in war may fitly be compared with the wonderful efforts made by Napoleon in 1814, when with a handful of wayworn men, he for a time kept the Allies from approaching Paris.
When the hope of MacDowell's aid faded away, and Lincoln and his war secretary grew alarmed afresh for their capital, MacClellan still found it necessary to hold a portion of his army well to the north to cover the single line of supplies which brought him provisions by the railroad from York River, and which had recently been seriously threatened by Stuart's cavalry. All this time MacClellan's inaction seems to need excuse, since the Confederate force covering Richmond was much weaker than his own; but, on the comte's showing, the ceaseless and judicious activity displayed by the new Confederate commander, Lee, along various points of the Federal front, completely deceived his opponent on this head, and also completely concealed the weakness of the works of Richmond behind him, which were by no means of the formidable nature that was supposed in the Federal camp. There was a distinct mistrust, we are told, of the powers of the army for direct attack, as compared with those it could put forth in intrenchments and works of approach — and a feeling of this sort was unfavorable to action. Corinth had just fallen in the West to a long and tedious series of operations conducted by Halleck on the principles of the engineer rather than those of the general; and men asked themselves whether it were not best after all to enter a place abandoned by the enemy than to take a ruined work at a heavy cost. The throwing up of lines of cover, and the burning of powder, many of the Federal generals believed at this time, might be so managed as to make success with superior numbers assured, and to spare the risk there must always be in a supreme struggle for the mastery. MacClellan, we must believe, was under the influence of the sentiments his former aide-de-camp freely ascribes to those around him; for the fourth week since the indecisive battle of Fair Oaks was entered on without further result than the retention of the ground held within a few miles of the Confederate capital, while the hoped-for cooperation from Washington was awaited. But on the 24th of June news brought by a deserter made it certain that Jackson and his corps were far advanced on the march towards Richmond, and it needed no inspiration to foretell that their arrival would put an end to this state of inaction.
The "strategic change of base" which has been made a sort of mocking byword against the name of MacClellan, became instantly a necessity, as his historian shows, from the moment that it was certain that Jackson had been allowed by his former adversaries to withdraw his corps secretly and swiftly to Lee's aid, although it made part of a deliberate design which circumstances forced on the Federal general. "Only those," says the comte, "who have known what the burden is of such a heavy responsibility, who have pointed out long beforehand the dangers that the faults of others would cause, and after having thus shown them in vain, have suddenly been compelled to face them, can know what the thoughts were that then filled the soul of the Federal chief." But, instead of giving way under the trial, he drew inspiration from it, and decided at once on the only movement which promised immediate safety for his army, with perhaps a final counter-attack on Richmond along the James; the transfer of his army from the Chickahominy to the north bank of the former river, with the simultaneous abandonment of the communications leading to the York, on which the coming blow would be directed. Hastily collecting, therefore, a large stock of provisions, including twenty-five hundred cattle, he prepared to make a flank march from the Chickahominy to the James with no other supplies, through a difficult country, chiefly covered by a swampy forest known as the White Creek. The step was a singularly bold one, and in striking contrast to the caution which had hitherto marked his operations. But this contrast, as his historian observes, suits well the American character, which can at times combine the strangest daring with its ordinary prudence and hesitation.
Unfortunately for MacClellan's reputation his movements were not as prompt as his designs. Perhaps this was inevitable with so large a mass of comparatively raw troops to deal with; but the fact might have been put with more plainness in the narrative before us, which at this one point seems to fail in precision. He expected that the combined Confederate attack would be made on the 28th, but this estimate did not allow sufficiently for the eagerness and speed of his adversaries. On the eve of the 26th they began to fall upon his exposed wing, and on the 27th the apparently decisive battle of Gaines' Hill found Jackson turning the Federal right and driving it back over the Chickahominy, crushed in numbers and spirit, and abandoning a large part of its guns to the victorious foe, whilst Magruder's false attack along the southern bank had kept the main body of the Federals too fully occupied to support it.It was no wonder that the Confederates asserted their victory, and even hoped for such a crowning triumph as might close the war at a blow. The passages of the stream were in their hands; the country between it and the James was, as before explained, a difficult one, better known to them than their adversary. And he had, to all appearance, lost his proper communications beyond hope of recovery. Destruction or surrender might have seemed the only alternative, judged by the ordinary precedents of war. But it was precisely here that such precedents failed. Although the "strategic change of base" had now become a flight for safety, to be executed in the very face of a victorious enemy whose vigor and skill had just been so signally displayed, MacClellan lost not his confidence in himself, and, what is far more surprising, his men showed as much trust in his leadership, and as much faith in their own defensive power, as though they were the victors instead of the vanquished in the struggle at the Chickahominy. The history of European warfare may be ransacked in vain to find a parallel to the events of the six days that followed. Through the White Oak Swamp one hundred thousand men took their retreating way, carrying with them their provisions and stores. On their rear and on either flank pressed the pursuers flushed with recent victory. From the east Jackson sought to complete his late success by intercepting them wherever there seemed an opening to thrust his troops between them and the road to the James. From the west Magruder, burning to take a more distinguished part than had yet been his lot, pressed the other flank. But the Federals never lost heart, nor yielded any decisive point till it could serve no longer to cover their retreat. From the very difficulties of the swamp and forest, which had seemed to threaten them with destruction or shame, their unfailing nerve and steadiness drew safety and honor. The dangers of the ground to be traversed turned to their advantage when it ceased, and having made good their retreat through the White Oak to the open ground on the James, where their gun-boats lay waiting to cover their retreat, they rested and turned fiercely to face the pursuers in the first position suited to form line. Desperate at the thought of their coming escape, Magruder threw his eager regiments on the foe before him, prepared at any sacrifice to push it in panic rout back on the James; and the bloody counterstroke of Malvern Hill, which drove his corps back shattered from an untouched position, covered the close of this extraordinary campaign with a halo of success for the Federals which threw for the time into the shade their late defeat and the long hesitancy that had preceded it. At Malvern Hill they first taught the Confederates the truth which the world is slowly realizing, that the American soldier is most formidable when apparently defeated, and least subject to panic when retreating before a victorious enemy.
- Histoire de la Guerre Civile en Amérique. Par M. le Comte de Paris, ancien Aide-de-Camp du Général MacClellan. Tomes I. et II. Paris: 1874. Tomes III. et IV. 1875.
- These concluding lines will be read with melancholy interest when it is known that they are the last which proceeded from the pen of our valued friend and contributor, Colonel Charles Chesney, of the Royal Engineers. Within a few days of the completion of this paper he fell a victim, in the discharge of his public duties, to the singular inclemency of this untoward spring. As a military critic Colonel Chesney was admitted, both here and abroad, to stand in the first rank of English contemporary writers — accurate, dispassionate, and profoundly imbued with the principles and history of his art. In these pages he has frequently traced the progress and changes which are taking place in the science of warfare, more especially as illustrated by the campaigns of the American and German armies; and the improvements which he had studied in foreign armies he labored, not unsuccessfully, to introduce into our own. No greater loss could be sustained by the service, and we may add by the literature of the service, than the premature death of this modest and accomplished soldier, whose large acquirements and mature judgment will not easily be replaced. To his friends the loss is still more irreparable.