Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/20

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In Washington Once More.—1862

I WAS very kindly received by my employers of the Tribune, and, according to their liberal practice, was given a week's leave of absence, which I spent in New York. On reporting again for duty, I offered to write a full review of the operations of the Army of the Ohio under Buell, and the managing editor authorized me to prepare it. Hearing from friends on McCook's staff that the official reports of the Perryville campaign had been forwarded to Washington, I asked permission to go there in order to get a sight of them, if possible. My application led to the discussion of my future duties. George W. Smalley had been the chief correspondent of the Tribune with the Army of the Potomac until after the battle of Antietam, of which he wrote a remarkable description — the best piece of work of the kind produced during the Civil War, in my opinion. (He subsequently served as the London correspondent of the Tribune for nearly thirty years, and since the summer of 1896 has represented the London Times in the United States.) A regular editorial writer on war subjects being needed, it had been decided to keep him, as such, in New York. It was determined that I should fill the vacancy, and, with that understanding, I started for the national capital early in November. My departure was hastened by the momentous announcement of the second removal of General George B. McClellan from the command of the Army of the Potomac, and the appoint ment of General Ambrose E. Burnside in his place, by direct order of the President of the United States.

The disastrous end of the humiliating Peninsular campaign under McClellan in the early part of the summer had produced such deep and angry dissatisfaction in the loyal States, that President Lincoln felt compelled to change his forbearing course towards the commander of the Army of the Potomac, and to entrust another with the conduct of the operations in Virginia. His choice fell upon General John Pope, who, in the last days of June, was placed in command of the Army of Virginia, then consisting of only three army corps, but which was to be strengthened by transfers from McClellan's forces. The hopes entertained of General Pope were grievously disappointed by his utter defeat by General Lee in the second battle of Bull Run. The vanquished General pleaded in extenuation of his total failure the insufficiency of his army, owing to the slowness of McClellan in reinforcing him and to the deliberate and malevolent disregard of his orders during the battle by General Fitz-John Porter. The story that McClellan and the commanders under him, among whom Porter was his strongest partisan, were determined not to allow Pope to achieve a victory, was spread by the press and found general credence. Great, therefore, was the astonishment and indignation of the loyal public when the President again placed McClellan at the head of the remnants of the armies of the Potomac and of Virginia. This feeling was greatly intensified when it became known that his restoration had been opposed and, indeed, formally protested against by a majority of the Cabinet. The battle of Antietam reconciled the North to the President's action, but the passiveness into which McClellan relapsed after that success rekindled the general impatience and distrust of him. Again the President exercised altogether too much forbearance under the greatest provocation. He resisted all pressure for McClellan's removal until the latter failed to meet the final test of his ability as a strategist which the Commander-in-chief had resolved to apply to him, by allowing Lee to appear once more with his whole force to the east of the Blue Mountains.

The removal formed the all-absorbing topic in Washington. I soon satisfied myself that the bulk of the army under McClellan and a majority of the general officers disapproved and were, contrary to all discipline, loud in their denunciations of it. In the Capitol, as well as throughout the loyal States, there were signs of a tendency to make a national political issue of it. The President's proclamation of the abolition of slavery of September 22 had met with strong opposition in the border States and among the Democrats of the free States, especially in New York, Ohio, and Indiana. It was known that McClellan, and the generals nearest to him, were also opposed to this portentous act. It was proclaimed by the Democratic press that his relief from active command was due to his hostility to it, and a concession to the “Abolitionists,” who then, as I could personally confirm, still seemed to many Union generals no better than the rebels. General McClellan did nothing to disclaim this pseudo-political martyrdom, which was certainly a convenient cloak for the real cause of his dismissal — his military shortcomings. I even heard talk in the hotel lobbies and bar-rooms about the intention of the deposed commander to lead the army to Washington and take possession of the Government; but that impious wish of not a few never became a real purpose. McClellan quietly obeyed the Presidential order to repair to, and report from, Trenton, New Jersey.

Since my encounter with General Burnside in the memorable night of the retreat from Centreville after the first battle of Bull Run, he had achieved creditable successes in the North Carolina expedition, and risen from a brigade to a corps command, and was apparently held in high esteem by the Government, the press, and the public. But I had not got over the feeling of prejudice caused by his behavior on that occasion, and hence the news that he had been selected as the successor of McClellan did not inspire me with confidence in a change for the better from the continuous defeats of the national forces in the Eastern theatre of war. Nor was my apprehension modified by the chorus of rejoicing among loyalists in Washington and the North over the definitive retirement of McClellan and the substitution of Burnside in his place; for it was not based wholly upon the incident referred to, but on my personal knowledge of his limited mental capacities, acquired during my intercourse with him in the spring and summer of 1861. My fears were heightened when I learned, soon after his elevation was made known, that he had at first declined the promotion, on the ground that he was not qualified for the highest command and that McClellan was the only proper man to lead the Eastern army. This admission of incapacity and want of confidence in himself made his appointment in spite of it an inexcusable mistake. Thus to force the gravest responsibilities upon a reluctant man was almost to invite the further disaster that came. I know of but one other similar instance — the ordering of Field Marshal Benedek to the chief command of the Austrian army in the war of 1866.

Washington had changed greatly since I last saw it in August, 1861. Owing to the increase of the regular Government officials by many thousands, because of the vast growth of the public business in connection with the war, the population had nearly doubled. At the time of my departure, dozens of stores on the business thoroughfares and hundreds of residences were to rent for a mere song. Now, not a building of either class was unoccupied, and high rents were asked and readily obtained. New hotels had been opened, and were, like the old ones, well filled. What with the constant presence of tens of thousands of troops in the barracks and camps in and about the capital, and the thousands of wounded in the hospitals, and the multitude of visitors from the North to relatives and friends in the army, the principal streets always presented a very lively appearance. There was also a good deal of building going on — the best evidence of faith in the ultimate triumph of the Government.

I devoted myself first to the elaboration of the review of the campaigns of the Army of the Ohio above mentioned. It was not easy to obtain access to the official reports relating to them in the War Department, but I managed to secure copies of the more important ones. The review was completed in time for its publication in the Tribune of November 12. It filled more than an entire page of the paper.

The Washington office of the Tribune was then in a small, one-story brick building on F Street between 13th and 14th, directly opposite Willard's Hotel. Samuel Wilkeson, who had accompanied Secretary Cameron to Louisville, was principal correspondent in charge. As a co-laborer, he had Adams S. Hill, a graduate of Harvard College, twenty-nine years old, a sharp-witted and indefatigable collector of news, who had previously been connected with the editorial department of the paper. I was entirely independent of Wilkeson, and had only to make the office the medium for transmitting, with a view to greater safety and despatch, my war news to New York while I was in the field. I naturally made much use of it, however, during my stay. It was the resort of politicians, officials, and army officers, who frequented it, especially in the evening, to bring news or to hear and discuss it. This made it a very interesting place.

I made special efforts to renew former acquaintances in higher circles in order to learn the inside workings of the Government and its intentions regarding the army. In common with the public, I was aware that the President was not in harmony with the strongest members of his Cabinet. Edwin M. Stanton had succeeded Simon Cameron as Secretary of War. This change, while of immeasurable benefit to the country, proved a decided disadvantage to my profession; for whereas Cameron was always accessible and communicative — no doubt, too much so for the public good — his successor had the doors of the War Department closed to newspaper men. Seward, Blair, and Chase still practised their affable ways towards them. I saw and had a long talk with each of the first two. Secretary Chase I saw frequently, as of old. He spoke very freely of the past and present, and in confidence criticised without stint the mistakes that had been made in the civil administration and the conduct of the war. It was very evident that he was too confident of his own superiority, mental and otherwise, to get along smoothly with the head of the Government, and that sooner or later there would be an open breach. The emancipation proclamation had temporarily improved the relations between him and the President, as the treatment of the slavery question had been one of the principal subjects of disagreement, but their characters were too radically different to get along without further friction.

I also had a long conversation with Mr. Lincoln. It took place after the publication of my review of Buell's campaigns, a reference to which by the President made it the exclusive subject discussed. He asked my opinion of the principal commanders under Buell, which I expressed with entire frankness. He surprised me by his familiarity with details of movements and battles which I did not suppose had come to his knowledge. As he kept me talking for over half an hour, I flattered myself that what I had to say interested him. This impression was confirmed by his intimation that he should be glad to see me again, after I had told him, in response to his question as to my future movements, that I should be with the Army of the Potomac.

My inquiries soon satisfied me that the army would not be allowed to go into winter quarters, but that the President, the Secretary of War, and Halleck, as General-in-chief, would insist, notwithstanding the near approach of winter, upon an immediate resumption of active operations, and accordingly I made my preparations to take the field at the earliest necessary moment. I anticipated a good deal of embarrassment at first, from the fact that my acquaintance with superior officers in the Army of the Potomac was very limited, and that the Tribune had severely attacked McClellan and some of his corps commanders in connection with both the Peninsular and Pope's campaigns. I hoped, however, to overcome this hindrance to a successful discharge of my duties. Under the regime of Stanton and Halleck, it was anything but easy for correspondents to obtain permits to go to, and remain at, the front, as the Secretary fully shared the opinion of the General-in-chief that newspaper men were a pest. It had been arranged that I was to have three assistants, who were to be directly under my orders, and whose reports were to be revised by me before being forwarded to the New York office. We were all allowed horses, camp equipments, and a servant.

To overcome McClellan's slowness, the President issued, on October 6, a peremptory order requiring him to cross the Potomac with his army and “give battle to the enemy or drive him South.” As it produced no effect, the President, a week later, addressed a long letter to him explaining the plan of operations the General was expected to follow and the reasons therefor. It began: “You remember my speaking to you of what I called your over-cautiousness. Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you can not do what the enemy is constantly doing? Should you not claim to be at least his equal in prowess and act upon that claim?” The letter was altogether a very remarkable production, and proved that the author had acquired a clear and sound judgment upon strategic questions. The prescribed plan was well conceived and perfectly feasible. The very fact, however, that the President found it necessary to address such an implied censure to McClellan and to tell him what to do, was conclusive proof of the grievous error he committed in re-appointing him.

According to the Presidential order for the new campaign, the army was to follow Lee by a flank march on the interior line to Richmond, keeping close to the base of the Blue Ridge, so as to prevent debouchments from its passes upon the Federal right and rear, and to force the enemy into battle whenever and wherever practicable. McClellan's tardiness in carrying it out had enabled Lee to obstruct its execution by passing through the Ridge and moving on the same line as the Union army, but ahead of it, towards Richmond. This led, as mentioned, to the final dismissal of the Federal commander.

After assuming command, General Burnside proposed, instead of following Lee directly, to move down the Rappahannock on the north side to Falmouth, opposite the town of Fredericksburg, and to establish a new base of supplies on the estuary of the Potomac, fifteen miles to the north of it, known as Acquia Creek. Neither the President nor General Halleck approved of this change of programme, and the latter paid a visit to General Burnside at Warrenton in order to persuade him to adhere to the President's plan. But he did not succeed in this, and the result was an understanding that he should submit to the President a modification of it, in pursuance of which the army was to cross the Rappahannock by the upper fords and to move down the south side and seize the heights of Fredericksburg; this movement to be accompanied by repairing and reopening the railroad opposite Washington as a line of communication between Alexandria and Fredericksburg. Until this could be accomplished, the Acquia Creek route was to be used as a line of supplies. On November 14, Halleck telegraphed the “assent” of the President, who would not permit the use of the word “approval.” Thus the brief and fatal Fredericksburg campaign was inaugurated.

General Burnside had made himself responsible for the outcome by insisting upon the deviation from the Presidential plan. But, unfortunately, he assumed still graver responsibility. Instead of crossing the river by the upper fords, he marched down the north side to Falmouth. General Halleck makes the point-blank charge, in a report to the President, that the movement on the north side was never approved or authorized. It was the cause of Burnside's failure to occupy the Fredericksburg heights ahead of the enemy, and of the subsequent terrible defeat of his army. Our forces moved from Warrenton on November 15 and reached Falmouth on the 20th. Lee, on discovering the direction of our march, started Longstreet's corps for Fredericksburg, but it did not arrive there till the 21st; hence there was ample time to anticipate the rebels in taking possession of the commanding heights. General Sumner, commanding the corps, asked permission to cross a few miles above the town, where the river was fordable, but did not obtain it. Thus the position, in the vain attempt to secure which so much loyal blood was afterwards shed, was left to the enemy.

This neglect became the subject of one of the most virulent controversies engendered by the shortcomings of the Federal commanders during the war. The Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War inquired into it, and the testimony taken before it fills several hundred pages. It was attempted to be shown, in defence of General Burnside, that his plan of marching to Falmouth had been approved by his superiors in Washington, and that he was led to expect, on his arrival there, to find supplies, pontoons for bridges, and gunboats to protect them. General Halleck not only absolutely denied that he authorized the move to Falmouth, but also insisted that Burnside could not expect supplies at points held by the rebels until he reached these, and that he was repeatedly informed that gunboats could not at that time ascend the river to Fredericksburg. But the truth was confessed by General Burnside himself in this passage in his brief and only report of the coming battle to General Halleck: “The fact that I decided to move from Warrenton on this line rather against the opinion of the President, the Secretary of War, and yourself, and that you left the whole movement in my hands without giving me orders, makes me the only one responsible.”