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On the 19th of September, two days after the doubtful battle of Antietam, the Second Corps moved to Harper's Ferry and took up a strong position on Bolivar Heights. Here the corps was destined to remain for a considerable period, while the country chafed at the inaction of the army which had been trumpeted as winning a great and glorious victory. Early in October General Sumner was relieved in the command of the corps by General Darius N. Couch who had won much distinction on the Peninsula at the head of a division of the Fourth Corps. The only exciting incident which attended the long rest on Bolivar Heights was a reconnoissance conducted by Hancock with his division, upon the 16th of October, adown the valley to Charlestown, with a view to discovering whether the enemy was there in force. The reconnoissance developing nothing but cavalry and artillery, Hancock withdrew his troops to camp the same night. On the 30th of October, McClellan, urgently pressed by the popular impatience at his long delay, began his next and his last forward movement with the Army of the Potomac. The Second Corps, in the lead, crossed the Shenandoah, and, passing round the base of Loudon Heights into the valley, moved along the Blue Ridge, occupying successively the several passes over the mountains westward of the line of march, reaching the little village at the foot of Snicker's Gap on the evening of the 3d, and, on the 4th, after an artillery duel with Stuart, occupied Upperville.
During the movement along the Blue Ridge, and in the few days which followed, a curious psychological phenomenon appeared. Although this was one of the best-disciplined commands of the army, with a high repute for good order, a mania seized the troops for killing sheep. On the Peninsula there had been no sheep to kill; and, while on the march to Antietam, our men had scrupulously respected the loyalty of Western Maryland. But when the fat and fleecy flocks of the country through which we were now called to pass came in sight, discipline for the moment gave way, at least quoad mutton. At first the night was taken for forays; but soon the passion rose to absolute fury. In vain did officers storm and swear; in vain was the saber used freely over the heads of the offenders who were caught; in vain, even, did the provost guard of one division turn about and fire ball-cartridges, from the road, at fellows who deliberately left the ranks to go across the fields. General Couch was outraged; he instructed each division commander to assemble a court martial for the trial of these offenders; and soon, every evening after coming into camp, three courts were in session in the Second Corps, with sheep-stealers before them, and sharp and summary were the punishments inflicted; but it was all to no purpose — the killing went on as bad as ever.
Of the three division commanders, Hancock was peculiarly sensitive to the slightest imputation of indiscipline. Of all three it was he who issued the sternest orders and swore the loudest oaths. One day, having observed some soldiers of the Irish Brigade, after falling out of ranks, steal around a bit of wood, manifestly bent on plunder, he determined to make an example. Accordingly, he left the column with his staff, and, galloping around the wood from the opposite side, came upon the group gathered about an unfortunate victim upon which one of the number was proceeding to make anatomical observations. The less guilty members of the party caught a glimpse of the coming doom in time to climb over a high stone fence and escape; but upon the principal offender, taken in flagrante delictu, Hancock pounced with drawn sword and eyes flashing fire. Down on his knees went the wretch, scared by the general's aspect. "Arrah, dear general, don't be the death of me; I didn't do it, indade I didn't." "You infernal liar," shouted the general, "what do you mean by telling me that? I saw you, you scoundrel! I'll teach you to disobey orders; I'll teach you to kill sheep!" And with this, crushing out the last hope of poor Paddy, he flourished his sword as if about to begin execution, when, in the most opportune moment, up jumped the innocent subject of the controversy, and, giving vent to its feelings in a quavering ba-a! ran off, while, amid the shouts of the staff, the general put up his saber and rode away.
Of all the offenders in this respect, the Irish Brigade received the most blame; but there is some reason to accept the indignant disclaimer of their commander, who declared that a large number of the sheepskins found in his camps had really been placed there by the men of the Fifth New Hampshire, after they had eaten the carcasses. Strangely enough, this passion for killing sheep disappeared as quickly as it had appeared; and never afterward, so far as the writer knows, did anything of the sort occur to tarnish the good name of the Second Corps. It was an epidemic, coming and going inexplicably, in flat contradiction to the general character of the troops, and, while it lasted, affecting only sheep, of all the animal creation.
On the 6th of November the Second Corps reached Rectortown. It was while the troops were in this camp that, on the night of the 7th of November, the order arrived from Washington which relieved General McClellan finally from the command of the Army of the Potomac, which was given to General Burnside. In the grief and indignation with which, on their arrival at Warrenton, the soldiers received the news that the commander in whom they delighted was again taken away from them, the Second Corps shared fully; but that grief and indignation never for a moment affected the loyalty of the corps or impaired its discipline. The corps and division commanders were not the sort of men to permit this. To Hancock, in especial, the removal of McClellan was a blow keenly felt, for he was deeply attached to his chief, with whom he had been a great favorite ever since Williamsburg; but to all open complaints or mutinous remarks, then too common and unfortunately encouraged by some high officers, he had but a single reply, "We are serving our country, and not any man."
The change of command not unnaturally resulted in a brief delay at Warrenton. Burnside had before him two courses. The one was to move directly forward, crossing the Rappahannock, as Meade was to do a year later after Gettysburg, to fight Lee at Brandy Station or Culpeper, should he be found there in force, or, failing that, to cross, in turn, the Rapidan, and take the direct route to Richmond through the Wilderness and Spottsylvania. The other course was to move to the left