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to Harper's Ferry, should this become necessary in carrying out the objects in
view. The subjoined notes from a communication subsequently addressed to the
War Department will sufficiently explain the conduct of these operations.
“When I started for Harper's Ferry, I plainly stated to the President and Secretary of War that the chief object of the operation would be to open the Baltimore and Ohio railroad by crossing the river in force at Harper's Ferry; that I had collected the material for making a permanent bridge by means of canal-boats; that from the nature of the river, it was doubtful whether such a bridge could be constructed; that if it could not, I would at least occupy the ground in front of Harper's Ferry, in order to cover the rebuilding of the railroad bridge; and finally, when the communications were perfectly secure, move on Winchester. “When I arrived at the place I found the bateau bridge nearly completed; the holding-ground proved better than had been anticipated; the weather was favorable, there being no wind. I at once crossed over the two brigades which had arrived, and took steps to hurry up the other two, belonging respectively to Banks's and Sedgwick's divisions. The difficulty of crossing supplies had not then become apparent. That night I telegraphed for a regiment of regular cavalry and four batteries of heavy artillery to come up the next day, (Thursday,) besides directing Keyes's division of infantry to be moved up on Friday. “Next morning the attempt was made to pass the canal-boats through the lift-lock, in order to commence at once the construction of a permanent bridge. It was then found for the first time that the lock was too small to permit the passage of the boats, it having been built for a class of boats running on the Shenandoah canal, and too narrow by some four or six inches for the canalboats. The lift-locks, above and below, are all large enough for the ordinary boats. I had seen them at Edwards's ferry thus used. It had always been represented to the engineers by the military railroad employés, and others, that the lock was large enough, and, the difference being too small to be detected by the eye, no one had thought of measuring it, or suspecting any difficulty. I thus suddenly found myself unable to build the permanent bridge. A violent gale had arisen, which threatened the safety of our only means of communication; the narrow approach to the bridge was so crowded and clogged with wagons that it was very clear that, under existing circumstances, nothing more could be done than to cross over the baggage and supplies of the two brigades. Of the others, instead of being able to cross both during the morning, the last arrived only in time to go over just before dark. It was evident that the troops under orders would only be in the way, should they arrive, and that it would not be possible to subsist them for a rapid march on Winchester. It was therefore deenaed necessary to countermand the order, content ourselves with covering the reopening of the railroad for the present, and in the mean time use every exertion to establish, as promptly as possible, depots of forage and subsistence on the Virginia side, to supply the troops, and enable them to move on Winchester independently of the bridge. The next day (Friday) I sent a strong reconnoissance to Charlestown, and, under its protection, went there myself. I then determined to hold that place, and to move the troops composing Lander's and Williams's commands at once on Martinsburg and Bunker Hill, thus effectually covering the reconstruction of the railroad. “Having done this, and taken all the steps in my power to insure the rapid transmission of supplies over the river, I returned to this city, well satisfied with what had been accomplished. While up the river I learned that the President was dissatisfied with the state of affairs; but, on my return here, understood from the Secretary of War that upon learning the whole state of the case the President was fully satisfied. I contented myself, therefore, with giving to the Secretary a brief statement, as I have written here.” The design aimed at was entirely compassed, and before the first of April, the date of my departure for the Peninsula, the railroad was in running order. As a demonstration upon the left flank of the enemy, this movement no doubt assisted in determining the evacuation of his lines on the 8th and 9th of March. On my return from Harper's Ferry, on the 28th of February, the preparations necessary to carry out the wishes of the President and Secretary of War in regard to destroying the batteries on the lower Potomac were at once undertaken. Mature reflection convinced me that this operation would require the movement of the entire army, for I felt sure that the enemy would resist it with his whole strength. I undertook it with great reluctance, both on account of the extremely unfavorable condition of the roads and my firm conviction that the proposed movement to the lower Chesapeake would necessarily, as it subsequently did, force the enemy to abandon all his positions in front of Washington. Besides, it did not forward my plan of campaign to precipitate this evacuation by any direct attack, nor to subject the army to any needless loss of life and material by a battle near Washington, which could produce no decisive results. The preparations for a movement towards the Occoquan, to carry the batteries, were, however, advanced as rapidly as the season permitted, and I had invited the commanders of divisions to meet at headquarters on the 8th of March, for the purpose of giving them their instructions, and receiving their advice and opinion in regard to their commands, when an interview with the President indicated to me the possibility of a change in my orders. His excellency sent for me at a very early hour on the morning of the 8th, and renewed his expressions of dissatisfaction with the affair of Harper's Ferry, and with my plans for the new movement down the Chesapeake. Another recital of the same facts which had before given satisfaction to his excellency again produced, as I supposed, the same result. The views which I expressed to the President were re-enforced by the result of a meeting of my general officers at headquarters. At that meeting my plans were laid before the division commanders, and were approved by a majority of those present. Nevertheless, on the same day two important orders were issued by the President, without consultation with me. The first of these was the general war order No. 2, directing the formation of army corps, and assigning their commanders. I had always been in favor of the principle of an organization into army corps, but preferred deferring its practical execution until some little experience in campaign and on the field of battle should show what general officers were most competent to exercise these high commands, for it must be remembered that we then had no officers whose experience in war on a large scale was sufficient to prove that they possessed the necessary qualifications. An incompetent commander of an army corps might cause irreparable damage, while it is not probable that an incompetent division commander could cause any very serious mischief. These views had frequently been expressed by me to the President and members of the cabinet; it was therefore with as much regret as surrise that I learned the existence of this order. The first order has been given above; the second order was as follows:
[President's General War Order No. 3..]
“Ordered, That no change of the base of operations of the army of the Potomac shall be made without leaving in and about Washington such a force as, in the opinion of the general-in-chief and the commanders of army corps, shall leave said city entirely secure. “That no more than two army corps (about fifty thousand troops) of said army of the Potomac shall be moved en route for a new base of operations until the navigation of the Potomac, from Washington to the Chesapeake bay, shall be freed from enemy's batteries, and other obstructions, or until the President shall hereafter give express permission. “That any movement as aforesaid, en route for a new base of operations, which may be ordered by the general-in-chief, and which may be intended to move upon the Chesapeake bay, shall begin to move upon the bay as early as the 18th March instant, and the general-in-chief shall be responsible that it moves as early as that day. “Ordered, That the army and navy co-operate in an immediate effort to capture the enemy's batteries upon the Potomac between Washington and the
Chesapeake bay. “ABRAHAM LINCOLN. “L. Thomas, Adjutant General.”
After what has been said already in regard to the effect of a movement to the lower Chesapeake it is unnecessary for me to comment upon this document, further than to say that the time of beginning the movement depended upon the state of readiness of the transports, the entire control of which had been placed by the Secretary of War in the hands of one of the Assistant Secretaries, and not under the Quartermaster General; so that even if the movement were not impeded by the condition imposed, in regard to the batteries on the Potomac, it could not have been in my power to begin it before the 18th of March, unless the Assistant Secretary of War had completed his arrangements by that time. Meanwhile important events were occurring which materially modified the designs for the subsequent campaign. The appearance of the Merrimack off Old Point Comfort, and the encounter with the United States squadron on the 8th of March, threatened serious derangement of the plan for the Peninsula movement. But the engagement between the Monitor and Merrimack on the 9th of March demonstrated so satisfactorily the power of the former, and the other naval preparations were so extensive and formidable, that the security of Fort Monroe, as a base of operations, was placed beyond a doubt; and although the James river was closed to us, the York river, with its tributaries, was still open as a line of water communication with the fortress. The general plan, therefore, remained undisturbed, although less promising in its details than when the James river was in our control. On Sunday, the 9th of March, information from various sources made it apparent that the enemy was evacuating his positions at Centreville and Manassas, as well as on the upper and lower Potomac. The President and Secretary of War were present when the most positive information reached me, and I expressed to them my intention to cross the river immediately, and there gain the most authentic information, prior to determining what course to pursue. The retirement of the enemy towards Richmond had been expected as the natural consequence of the movement to the Peninsula, but the adoption of this course immediately on ascertaining that such a movement was intended, while it relieved me from the results of the undue anxiety of my superiors, and attested the character of the design, was unfortunate in that the then almost impassable roads between our positions and theirs deprived us of the opportunity for inflicting damage usually afforded by the withdrawal of a large army in the face of a powerful adversary. The retirement of the enemy and the occupation of the abandoned positions which necessarily followed presented an opportunity for the troops to gain some experience on the march and bivouac preparatory to the campaign, and to
get rid of the superfluous baggage and other “impediments” which accumulate so easily around an army encamped for a long time in one locality. A march to Manassas and back would produce no delay in embarking for the lower Chesapeake, as the transports could not be ready for some time, and it afforded a good intermediate step between the quiet and comparative comfort of the camps around Washington, and the rigors of active operations, besides accomplishing the important object of determining the positions and perhaps the future designs of the enemy, with the possibility of being able to harass their rear. I therefore issued orders during the night of the 9th of March for a general movement of the army the next morning towards Centreville and Manassas, sending in advance two regiments of cavalry under Colonel Averill with orders to reach Manassas if possible, ascertain the exact condition of affairs, and do whatever he could to retard and annoy the enemy if really in retreat; at the same time I telegraphed to the Secretary of War that it would be necessary to defer the organization of the army corps until the completion of the projected advance upon Manassas, as the divisions could not be brought together in time. The Secretary replied, requiring immediate compliance with the President's order; but on my again representing that this would compel the abandonment or postponement of the movement to Manassas, he finally consented to its postponement. At noon on the 10th of March the cavalry advance reached the enemy's lines at Centreville, passing through his recently occupied camps and works, and finding still burning heaps of military stores and much valuable property. Immediately after being assigned to the command of the troops around Washington, I organized a secret service force, under Mr. E. J. Allen, a very experienced and efficient person. This force, up to the time I was relieved from command, was continually occupied in procuring from all possible sources information regarding the strength, positions, and movements of the enemy. All spies, “contrabands,” deserters, refugees, and many prisoners of war, coming into our lines from the front, were carefully examined, first by the outpost and division commanders, and then by my chief of staff and the Provost Marshal General. Their statements, taken in writing, and in many cases under oath, from day to day, for a long period previous to the evacuation of Manassas, comprised a mass of evidence which, by careful digests and collations, enabled me to estimate with considerable accuracy the strength of the enemy before us. Summaries showing the character and results of the labors of the secret service force accompany this report, and I refer to them for the facts they contain, and as a measure of the ignorance which led some journals at that time, and persons in high office, unwittingly to trifle with the reputation of an army, and to delude the country with quaker gun stories of the defences and gross understatements of the numbers of the enemy. The following orders were issued for the examination of persons coming from the direction of the enemy:
“The major general commanding directs that hereafter all deserters, prisoners, spies, ‘contrabands,’ and all other persons whatever coming or brought within our lines from Virginia, shall be taken immediately to the quarters of the commander of the division within whose lines they may come or be brought, without previous examination by any one, except so far as may be necessary for the officer commanding the advance guard to elicit information regarding his particular post; that the division commander examine all such persons himself, or delegate such duty to a proper officer of his staff, and allow no other persons to hold any communication with them; that he then immediately send them, with a sufficient guard, to the provost marshal in this city for further examination and safe-keeping, and that stringent orders be given to all guards having such persons in charge not to hold any communication with them whatever; and further, that the information elicited from such persons shall be immediately communicated to the major general commanding, or to the chief of staff, and to no other person whatever.
“The major general commanding further directs that a sufficient guard be placed around every telegraph station pertaining to this army, and that such guards be instructed not to allow any person, except the regular telegraph corps, general officers, and such staff officers as may be authorized by their chief, to enter or loiter around said stations within hearing of the sound of the telegraph instruments.
“By command of Major General McCLELLAN.
“S. WILLIAMS, “Assistant Adjutant General.”
“HEADQUARTERS ARMY of THE PotoMAC,
“GENERAL ORDER No. 27. } # *. :k # # >k >k 3: :k
“All deserters from the enemy, prisoners, and other persons coming within our lines, will be taken at once to the provost marshal of the nearest division, who will examine them in presence of the division commander or an officer of his staff designated for the purpose. This examination will only refer to such information as may affect the division and those near it, especially those remote from general headquarters.
“As soon as this examination is completed—and it must be made as rapidly as possible—the person will be sent, under proper guard, to the Provost Marshal General, with a statement of his replies to the questions asked. Upon receiving him, the Provost Marshal General will at once send him, with his statement, to the chief of staff of the army of the Potomac, who will cause the necessary examination to be made. The Provost Marshal General will have the custody of all such persons. Division commanders will at once communicate to other division commanders all information thus obtained which affects them.
# # # >k # # # :k # #
“By command of Major General McCLELLAN.
“S. WILLIAMS, “Assistant Adjutant General.”
In addition to the foregoing orders, the division commanders were instructed, whenever they desired to send out scouts towards the enemy, to make known the object at headquarters, in order that I might determine whether we had the information it was proposed to obtain, and that I might give the necessary orders to other commanders, so that the scouts should not be molested by the
ards. so will be seen from the report of the chief of the secret service corps, dated March 8, that the forces of the rebel army of the Potomac, at that date, were as follows:
At Manassas, Centreville, Bull run, Upper Occoquan, and vicinity. 80,000 men. At Brooks's station, Dumfries, Lower Occoquan, and vicinity.... 18,000 men.