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Mr. Lincoln's Army
Army of the Potomac Trilogy, Volume One
By Bruce Catton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1962 Bruce Catton
All rights reserved.
1. There Was Talk of Treason
The rowboat slid out on the Potomac in the hazy light of a hot August morning, dropped down past the line of black ships near the Alexandria wharves, and bumped to a stop with its nose against the wooden side of a transport. Colonel Herman Haupt, superintendent of military railroads, a sheaf of telegrams crumpled in one hand, went up the Jacob's ladder to the deck — clumsily, as was to be expected of a landsman, but rapidly, for he was an active man — and disappeared into a cabin. A moment later he returned, and as he came down the ladder he was followed by a short, broad-shouldered, sandy-haired man, deeply tanned by the sun of the Virginia peninsula, with thin faint lines of worry between his eyes: Major General George Brinton McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, which had been coming up from the south by water for a week and more and which at the moment was scattered all the way from Alexandria to the upper Rappahannock, most of it well out of the general's reach and all of it, as he suspected, soon to be out from under his authority.
There was an air about this youthful general — an air of far-off bugles, and flags floating high, and troops cheering madly, as if the picture of him which one hundred thousand soldiers had created had somehow become real and was now an inseparable part of his actual appearance. He could look jaunty and dapper after a day in the saddle, on muddy roads, in a driving rainstorm; like a successful politician, he lived his part, keeping himself close to the surface so that every cry and every gesture of the men who adored him called him out to a quick response that was none the less genuine for being completely automatic. It was impossible to see him, in his uniform with the stars on his shoulders, without also seeing the army — "my army," he called it proudly, almost as if it were a personal possession, which was in a way the case: he had made it, he had given it shape and color and spirit, and in his mind and in the minds of the men he commanded the identification was complete.
He sat in the stern of the rowboat, beside the superintendent of military railroads, and he was silent as the boat went back upstream to the landing. The docks and the river front were a confusion of steamboats and barges and white-topped wagons and great stacks of boxed goods and equipment, and the quaint little town itself was lost in a restless, lounging concourse of soldiers: loose fringes of a moving army, convalescents and strays and detailed men, and here and there a regiment moving off with cased flags at route step toward some outlying camp. From this same town the general had set out, nearly five months ago, to take his army down to the swamps and forests below Richmond and win the war; he had known in his heart that he was destined to save the country, and the army had gone forth with unstained uniforms and gleaming rifle barrels, and with proud flags that had never touched the ground.
But nothing had worked quite the way he had expected. The Army of the Potomac, made in his own image, had spent some months on the Virginia peninsula — that long neck of land which runs southeast between the James and the York rivers, and which the army remembered as composed chiefly of mud, mosquitoes, and steaming heat, with a great tangle of gloomy forests infested by lean and hairy men with rifles who uttered shrill, nerve-splitting screams as they came forward endlessly to the attack. The luck of the army and the general had been all bad. Many battles had been fought, and while no great defeat had been suffered there had been a weary retreat from in front of Richmond to a dismal camp far down the river. The general considered that this retreat had been a masterful accomplishment, but the government considered it sheer disaster, and it was trying now — in August 1862 — to strike the southern Confederacy with another instrument.
This new instrument, as McClellan was frank to state, had been poorly chosen. Scattered fragments of commands had been swept together and entrusted to a self- confident soldier from the Western armies, General John Pope, and Pope had been sent down into Virginia overland, following the line of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad to the Rappahannock River. Leaving McClellan and his army to swelter in their camp on the James, the Rebels had promptly concentrated against Pope's army and had been giving him a bad time of it — so bad, indeed, that McClellan's army was now being pulled back to Washington and was being forwarded to Pope by bits and pieces. McClellan was not being sent forward with it; and this morning, as he passed through the sprawling base of supplies, where white door fronts of the colonial era looked down on muddy streets churned by endless wagon trains, it seemed likely that he would presently be a general without an army.
The general went with the colonel to the colonel's office. They were both West Pointers, and when the war broke out they had both been railroad men, and they could talk the same language. As soon as they were seated Haupt gave McClellan such news as he had. None of it was good. Seen thus, from behind the lines, the war was untidy, misdirected, discouraging.
Enemy forces, said Haupt, were across the railroad line at Manassas Junction. It had been thought at first that these were merely a handful of roving cavalry — cavalry had descended on the railroad a few days earlier, farther down the line at Catlett's — but it was beginning to be clear now that they were more important than that. A New Jersey brigade had gone forward to restore the situation and had run into rifle and artillery fire too heavy to come from any cavalry; had, as a matter of fact, been most distressingly cut to pieces. Two Ohio infantry regiments were holding on where the railroad crossed Bull Run, but they were obviously in grave danger and would probably have to come back. Confederates apparently were either on or near the railroad this side of them, between Bull Run and Alexandria; the bridge over Pohick Creek near Burke's Station, only thirteen miles out, was rumored to have been burned, and the telegraph line had been cut. Nor was it just the two Ohio regiments that were in peril. The seizure of Manassas Junction meant that General Pope was out of forage for his horses and rations for his men.
Colonel Haupt did not know where Pope was, and it seemed that the War Department did not know either. It was bombarding Haupt with inquiries and had evidently developed the jitters — McClellan saw a wire complaining that there had been "great neglect and carelessness" on the Manassas plain. To McClellan that seemed obvious. He did not admire General Pope, either as a man or as a soldier, and his present prospect of forwarding his own troops to Pope at a time when Pope's position was unknown and the road leading in his direction was blocked by Rebel soldiers was not one that McClellan could think about with any pleasure.
Clearly, this was no time for an army commander or a superintendent of military railroads to sit holding his thumbs. With the plight of Pope's army and the dire fix of those two Ohio regiments Colonel Haupt had no direct concern, except that it was up to him to get the railroad back in working order so that these and other troops could be fed, supplied, and, if necessary, transported; and for this he had a plan of action, which he now asked McClellan to approve. A wrecking and construction train, ready to go forward and repair damaged tracks and bridges, was standing on a siding with steam up. Also ready was a freight train loaded with forage and rations. Haupt proposed to send out ahead of these a train of flatcars carrying a battery of field artillery and a few hundred sharpshooters. This could go as far as the condition of the track permitted, and the guns and riflemen could then advance by road and clear out such Rebel marauders as might be in the vicinity. The wrecking train could then get the bridges repaired in short order — Haupt kept a stock of prefabricated bents and stringers on hand, ready for just such emergencies as this, and if they had to, his construction gangs could build a bridge with timber from torn-down farmhouses along the right of way — and when that had been done the supply trains could be leapfrogged through with subsistence for Pope's army.
The thin lines between McClellan's eyes deepened slightly and he shook his head slowly. He could not approve the plan. It would be attended with risk. Haupt was primarily a railroad man; any kind of expedient was all right, for him, if it just gave him a chance to put his track gangs on the job and get the line opened up again. Also, there was not, inherently, any very great difference between a Rebel army and a spring freshet on a Pennsylvania mountain river — both broke up a railroad, and when the damage had been done one went out and fixed it as quickly as possible. But McClellan's mind was full of the mischances that can befall troops which are incautiously thrust out into enemy territory; he repeated that he could not approve. Haupt was irritated. All military operations, he said, were attended with risk, as far as he could see, and the risk here did not seem to be excessive. Surely, if the advance guard were properly handled, nothing very disastrous could happen. The trains could be kept safely in the rear while the skirmishers went forward. If the enemy were found in force, the men could retire to their train and the whole expedition could quickly be brought back out of harm's way.
McClellan shook his head again. The situation was too obscure. Enemy troops, possibly in very substantial numbers, appeared to be between Pope's army and Washington; the first thing to do was to arrange the troops actually present in such a way that the capital itself would be safe. Then preparations could be made for an advance in force. Meanwhile — the general had grown pale beneath his tan and appeared genuinely unwell — did the colonel have any brandy and water? The colonel did. McClellan took it and seemed revived, borrowed a scratch pad, and wrote a telegram to the War Department, reporting that he was ashore in Alexandria and describing the situation as he had found it. Then he departed.
Left to himself, Haupt fumed and pondered, and wished that he had not succeeded in finding McClellan at all. Earlier in the morning he had telegraphed his proposal to General Henry W. Halleck, commander, under the President, of the armies of the United States. Halleck, who never made a decision himself if it could possibly be passed along to someone else, had replied: "If you can see Gen. McClellan, consult him. If not, go ahead as you propose." Haupt had now seen General McClellan and he wished he hadn't; if he had only missed him, the expedition could be under way by now.
Although he had been trained as a soldier — he had been graduated from West Point in 1835, in the same class with George Gordon Meade — Haupt was essentially a civilian. Resigning his commission shortly after graduation, he had gone into railroad work, had built a good part of the Juniata division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and had become, successively, division superintendent and chief engineer for that line. He had been brought into the army, somewhat against his will, as a railroad and construction expert, and he was admired in high places. President Lincoln liked to tell about the marvelous bridge Haupt had built "out of beanpoles and cornstalks" down on the Aquia Creek line out of Fredericksburg. Haupt actually belonged in the next century; as it was, in the Civil War most generals failed to appreciate him. He was used to direct action, and generals irritated him. His present job gave them many occasions to do this, and they never seemed to miss a chance. Three days ago, for example, Haupt had bestirred himself to assemble trains to send General Joe Hooker's division forward to Pope. He got the trains lined up, Hooker's troops were at hand ready to go aboard, but Hooker himself had vanished — presumably to seek the fleshpots in Washington. Haupt telegraphed to his good friend and brother railroad man, P. H. Watson, Assistant Secretary of War. Back came Watson's reply:
"General Hooker was in Alexandria last night, but I will send to Willard's and see if he is there. I do not know any other place that he frequents. Be as patient as possible with the generals; some of them will trouble you more than they do the enemy."
That was a judgment with which Haupt was ready to agree. He had no sooner got Hooker out of his hair than General Samuel D. Sturgis got into it. Sturgis showed up with a division of troops, demanding immediate transportation to the front. To make sure that his request for transportation got top priority Sturgis had moved his soldiers out and had seized the railroad — or that part of it which lay within his reach, which was enough to tie up the entire line — swearing that no trains would go anywhere until his division had been moved. Haupt tried to reason with him, but it was no go — Haupt was a colonel and Sturgis was a general, and Sturgis would not listen. Sturgis had the rank and he had the soldiers, and for the moment he had the railroad, too, and no temporary colonel was going to tell him what to do.
Haupt had had to go through that sort of thing before. General Pope had had similar ideas when he first took command in northern Virginia, announcing that his own quartermaster would control the movement of railroad cars just as he ran the wagon trains, and informing Haupt that his function was to do as he was told. Within two weeks the line had got into such a snarl that no trains could move in any direction. Pope came to see that it took a railroad man to run a railroad — he could get a point now and then if it was obvious enough, could John Pope, for all his bluster — and he was glad to hand the road back to Colonel Haupt: particularly so since Haupt by this time had got from the Secretary of War an order giving him complete and unqualified control over the railroad and everything on it, regardless of the orders any army commander might issue. Haupt, therefore, was ready to take Sturgis in his stride; but Sturgis had troops and guns and swore he would use them. Furious, Haupt telegraphed Halleck, getting in return a bristling order which specifically authorized him, in the name of the general-in-chief, to put Sturgis under arrest if there was any more funny business. Haupt summoned Sturgis to his office. Sturgis came, rather elevated with liquor, accompanied by his chief of staff.
Haupt showed Halleck's order and explained that he was getting all sorts of troops and supplies forward to General Pope and that Sturgis would simply have to wait his turn. Sturgis was not impressed, and he somehow got the idea that the order Haupt was exhibiting had been issued by General Pope.
"I don't care for John Pope one pinch of owl dung," said Sturgis solemnly — a sentiment which had its points but was hardly germane. Patiently Haupt explained: this order was not from Pope, it was from Halleck, who held the power to bind and to loose. Sturgis shook his head and repeated his judgment of Pope, savoring the sentence as if the thought had been bothering him for a long time. Haupt fluttered the order at him and went over it a third time. Sturgis, his needle stuck in one groove, repeated:
"I don't care for John Pope —"
His chief of staff tugged at his sleeve to stop him, and hastily and earnestly whispered in his ear. Sturgis blinked, finally got the point, and rose to his feet ponderously.
"Well, then," he said — with what, all things considered, might be called owlish dignity, "take your damned railroad."
So that had been settled, and Sturgis had awaited his turn. But the episode had tied up the railroad for the better part of a day and had canceled the movement of four troop trains. Haupt was more than ready to agree with Assistant Secretary Watson about the generals.
Excerpted from Mr. Lincoln's Army by Bruce Catton. Copyright © 1962 Bruce Catton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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