Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/12


Formation of the Federal Army.—1861

THE readiness of the loyal States to place at the disposal of the Government all the men, money, and material needed for the suppression of the Rebellion had been clearly manifest ever since the fall of Fort Sumter. But the great problem for President Lincoln and his chief helpers was the proper use of the national resources so freely offered to them. There were in all the North but a few hundred men to be found regularly trained for the soldier's trade, while thousands were wanted as officers for immediate service. Even with nine-tenths of the loyal officers of the regular army, practical experience did not go beyond the command of companies. With such a scarcity of qualified persons, it was unavoidable that the largest number of officers should be taken from among civilians without the knowledge of even the manual of arms. Still, in acting under this necessity, the General Government and the governments of the several States could certainly have applied the strict test of physical, mental, and moral fitness in the selection of officers. But, unfortunately, the Executive saw a welcome and plentiful opportunity to reward political adherents with commissions in the army, and only too willingly used this extensive new patronage without regard to the fitness of the recipients. As a rule, in all the States, the professional politicians secured the new honors and emoluments. It is safe to say that four-fifths of all the field officers of the three months' regiments appearing in Washington represented this class of men, and the same practice prevailed in the vast levies of volunteers raised subsequently, though to a diminished extent.

The Federal authorities did no better. In officering the new regiments for the regular army authorized by Congress, the most extraordinary appointments were made. Instead of filling the higher places from among the officers who had remained true to the flag, the majority of the field officers were appointed from civil life. Most of the appointees were ordinary politicians having no other than party qualifications. I remember distinctly some of the persons thus favored; one of the notorious cases being the appointment to a full colonelcy, by Secretary Cameron, of a devoted political follower, the chief clerk of the War Department, who, up to the inauguration, had been the sickly, dried-up, pedantic principal of a second-rate school in Pennsylvania. Commissions of line officers were also systematically distributed among favorites. I had a curious personal experience in this respect. I was myself offered a commission as captain in the regular army by Secretary Chase by way of compliment to the Cincinnati Commercial — an offer which, I am free to say, sorely tempted me. About the same time I was induced to interest myself in the application for a commission as lieutenant of a young German doctor from Buffalo, who was anxious to exchange the scalpel for the sword. I spoke to Mr. Chase regarding him, and a few days later he received, to his intense surprise, a commission as a captain of infantry. I am sorry to say that my protégé did not do honor to my recommendation, being dismissed for cowardice on the battle-field before he had served a year. One of my amusements in those days was to witness the private lessons in the rudiments of military lore of the appointees for field officers in the new regular regiments by old drill-sergeants. The difficulties which these colonels, lieutenant-colonels, and majors experienced at first even in keeping step and wheeling about, and later on in the manual of arms, led to very comical scenes. I believe it is a matter of record that very few of these appointees ever rendered any valuable service to the Government.

The preparations for war around me had gradually matured my determination to abandon peaceful work in Washington, and to devote myself to the more exciting occupation of a correspondent in the field. I thought it very important to qualify myself as well as possible for my expected new duties, and, accordingly, I purchased a number of standard books in English, French, and German on strategy and tactics, as well as histories of Frederick the Great's, Napoleon's, and Wellington's campaigns, and devoted all my spare time to the study of them.

Of all the difficulties that confronted the Government, the greatest was, beyond all question, the selection of the proper commanders of the loyal armies then forming about the national capital and at other points. Lieutenant-General Scott was still virtually Commander-in-chief, under the President, of all the land forces; but, as already stated, there was no disguising the fact that he was in every way incapable of a proper discharge of the duties of that position, which grew from day to day more onerous and more fraught with the gravest responsibility. He was nearly seventy-five years old, and his physical infirmities were such that he could scarcely leave his invalid-chair. His mind, too, clearly showed the effect of old age. He formed plans for the coming offensive movements of the troops, but he vacillated much respecting them, and discussed them with indiscreet garrulousness. He was very accessible to newspaper men, having always been fond of newspaper fame and flattery, and I called regularly on him, as did the other correspondents. It took very little to make him talk freely of his purposes. I can still see the stately figure, with the grand head and face, and the snowy hair and whiskers, seated in an arm-chair before a great wall-map of the United States, upon which he explained his strategic ideas with a long pointer. The necessity of superseding him had been apparent to President Lincoln ever since war had become inevitable, but it sorely perplexed him how to do it. The makeshift was finally resorted to of leaving him nominally in supreme command, but giving the command in the field to others practically independent of him.

In the critical, anxious days in April, the President was persuaded to promote two subordinate officers in the regular army at once to high rank. The alleged object was to give them, as being specially zealous in their loyalty, the necessary authority to insure the protection of the Government from the traitorous designs for its overthrow then being prosecuted at the capital. The fortunate men were Major McDowell, and Captain Meigs of the engineer corps, both of whom received the rank of brigadier-general. Their promotions over the heads of nearly all the regular army officers naturally created much jealousy and dissatisfaction, especially among those who had outranked them, but to whose credit be it said that no resignations resulted from this abnormal action. General Meigs assumed charge as quartermaster-general of the entire supply department — a function inferior in importance only to the command of the field forces and General McDowell was placed in command of the troops gathered for the defence of the capital. He owed his brigadier's commission mainly to the influence of Secretary Chase, who had long known him as an Ohio man. The Secretary favored me with a warm introduction to the General, which placed me at once on the best terms with him. He was a man of strong character and much intellectual ability. While his practical military experience was necessarily limited by the narrow opportunities offered in the active service of the small regular army, his theoretical knowledge was very extensive. He was well read in war history. But in my frequent intercourse with him I gained the impression that he lacked the resolute determination which alone could insure success in his trying task of organizing an effective army for aggressive war out of the raw material gathering under his command. With his evident want of confidence in himself, he appeared to be full of misgivings from the start. This self-distrust showed itself in his constant talk of the difficulties surrounding him and of the doubts he felt of the possibility of overcoming them. Of course, my opinion of his qualifications as a commander was at that time that of a novice and had no value whatever, but it was decidedly to the effect that, while he might make a very efficient sub-commander, he had not the stuff of a great captain in him.

All hope of a peaceful settlement with the seceded States had long vanished, but no one as yet foresaw the fearful proportions which the Civil War would assume. The belief was still universal that short work would be made by the Federal Government in suppressing the Rebellion. Its great weakness, arising from its Constitutional inability to call out militia in quotas from the several States for more than three months service, had been cured by the resolute assumption by Congress of the power to authorize the enlistment of volunteers for three years. All cool-headed and competent advisers of the Government, including General Scott, deemed it imprudent and dangerous to attempt any decisive offensive movements with the three months militia, and urged postponement until the three years men had been sufficiently trained for field service. But too much confidence had been produced in the North by the theory, preached in the press and by political leaders, that one vigorous onset would suffice to tumble over and destroy the rebel fabric. This popular feeling was intensified by the removal of the capital of the Southern Confederacy from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia. The head of the hydra of rebellion having been brought so near the Federal capital, the cry was raised that the honor of the nation required a quick and decisive resentment of this insult, and that it was the duty of the Government forthwith to make one great effort to go for the monster and finish it. The editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, began daily to blow the loudest trumpet for “On to Richmond.” The personal pressure upon the powers in Washington by members of Congress — in extra session, too — became great, with the result of persuading them that it was necessary on political grounds to begin an offensive campaign from the Potomac without delay. General Scott and other military advisers reluctantly acquiesced after a definite decision to that effect was reached. The Commander-in-chief directed General McDowell to submit a plan of operations, which was considered in detail and agreed upon at a council of war at the White House on June 29, the President, the Cabinet, and the principal military officers participating.

A brief sketch of the plan will be in place. Virginia formally seceded, by popular vote, on May 23, and the State Government immediately took steps to protect its territory from the Northern invasion threatened from two directions — from Washington, mainly, and from Pennsylvania, where a Northern force under General Patterson was gathering in the neighborhood of Harper's Ferry. For this purpose, Manassas Junction (the meeting of the railroads from Richmond, Alexandria, and the Shenandoah Valley, thirty-five miles southwest of Washington) and Harper's Ferry were occupied by rebel troops. General Beauregard had been given command at the former, and General Joseph E. Johnston at the latter point. Gradually the rebel forces were increased, and early in June those at Manassas were estimated at about twenty thousand, and those at Harper's Ferry at about eight thousand. General McDowell's plan was to move against Beauregard with his own army, while General Patterson held Johnston in the Shenandoah Valley, and while General Butler threatened a direct attack on Richmond from Fortress Monroe; and, after crushing the enemy at Manassas and thereby compelling Johnston to abandon the valley, to unite with Patterson's command for a rapid advance on Richmond.

Every effort was made by McDowell to get his army in motion within a week after the adoption of the plan for the campaign, but more than two weeks elapsed before this was possible. He issued his order to march on July 16. His forces were divided into five divisions of unequal strength, ranging from one of nearly 10,000 men down to one of 2,648, commanded respectively by Generals Tyler, Hunter, Heintzelman, Runyon (afterwards ambassador at Berlin) , and Dixon S. Miles. The five divisions represented a total of 34,000 effective men. General Runyon's division constituted the reserve and did not come into action, so that only about 28,500 men with forty-nine guns and a single battalion of cavalry actually took part in the events to be described.

I rode every day to Arlington Heights, where McDowell had established his headquarters in the mansion of the future commander-in-chief of the rebel armies, Robert E. Lee, and talked freely with him about the impending movement. He showed anything but confidence in its success, and plainly displayed distrust of himself and of his soldiery. He repeatedly said that his troops were not yet sufficiently drilled and disciplined for an offensive campaign, and that the politicians were responsible for the premature movement, but that he should be the principal victim if it failed, as he feared. At the same time, there could be no doubt that he would do his whole duty to the best of his ability, and to that end he labored day and night.

I had received early warning of the impending crisis through a newly made acquaintance at headquarters, Captain J. B. Fry, an assistant adjutant-general of the regular army, the Commanding General's chief of staff. The friendly relations then formed with him continued over thirty years. I obtained ready permission to accompany the headquarters. I was already well mounted, and my other preparations for the campaign took very little time. I must confess that I did not share McDowell's apprehensions, but believed in the easy triumph of the Union forces over the rebels, and consequently expected a very interesting and satisfactory experience and a prolonged absence from Washington.