President Personally Directs Union Army Movements in Shenandoah Valley

May 24, 1862

After an overnight return trip up the Potomac River from Aquia Creek, President Lincoln returns to Washington Navy Yard and then the War Department.   Confederate troops under General Stonewall Jackson were threatening to overrun Union troops under General Nathaniel Banks in the Shenandoah Valley.   Lincoln understands that he can not depend on General George B. McClellan for the kind of speedy action that might relieve pressure in western and northern Virginia.   To coordinate military response, the president  has to sort through the plethora of conflicting reports from the Shenandoah Valley where General John C. Frémont was failing to follow orders and coordinate in boxing in Jackson.

Kenneth Williams wrote in Lincoln Finds a General: “First of all, at 11:12 A.M. a message went from Secretary Stanton to McDowell informing him that new events would probably cause a change in his previous orders.   Then at one o’clock Lincoln sent a dispatch to brigadier General Rufus Saxton at Harpers Ferry to straighten out the panicky reports from brigadier General at Rectortown, twenty-five miles west of Manassas and near the Manassas Gap.”  Williams wrote:

Whether the situation cleared any in the afternoon is not certain, but at five o’clock Lincoln had new instructions ready for McDowell.   After telling him that Fremont had been ordered to march from Franklin to Harrisonburg, he gave him a mission as clearly stated as any well trained commander ever wrote: ‘Your object will be to capture the forces of Jackson and Ewell, either in co-operation with general Fremont, or, in case want of supplies or of transportation interferes with his movements, it is believed that the force with which you move will be sufficient to accomplish this object alone.’  Capture Jackson and Ewell: that was the mission.   Not a thing was said about relieving a threat to Washington or any other place, but McDowell was told that if Jackson continued to operate against Banks, he — McDowell — might not be able to count upon much assistance from his brother general but might have ‘to release him.’  What would happen to Lincoln’s dispatch if it passed through the hands of a modern operations officer for correct phrasing would be hard to predict; but all of its charm would certainly be lost, and in spite of the addition of a ‘not repeat not’ it would probably be less understandable.

Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase recalled: “I was sent for to the War Department and found that intelligence had been received of the taking of Front Royal and annihilation of Kenley’s [sic] Regiment on the preceding day.  The enemy was reported to have pushed forward to Middletown and cut off the retreat of Banks, supposed to be at Strasburg.  An order was immediately dispatched to General Fremont to advance to Harrisonburg, and do all in his power for the relief of Banks.  An Order was also sent to General McDowell to detach 20,000–or one-half his force-sending them partly by land to Catlett’s station and partly by water to Alexandria and Washington.  To expedite these movements, I was directed to proceed immediately to Fredericksburg and confer personally with General McDowell.  I left accordingly the same afternoon, and reached Fredericksburg and confer personally with General McDowell.  I left accordingly the same afternoon, and reached Fredericksburg about 1 o’clock A.M. Sunday.  I found that General McDowell had given all the necessary orders for the movements directed by the President.  The march began early the next morning, and successive divisions and regiments followed, until, during the course of the day, the whole 20,000 were on their march.”

President Lincoln telegraphs McDowell:

Gen Fremont has been ordered by Telegraph to move from Franklin on Harrisonburg to relieve Gen Banks and capture or destroy Jackson & Ewell’s force.

You are instructed laying aside for the present the movement on Richmond to put twenty thousand men (20000) in motion at once for the Shenandoah moving on the line or in advance of the line of the Manassas Gap R Road. Your object will be to capture the forces of Jackson & Ewell, either in cooperation with Gen Fremont or in case want of supplies or of transportation interferes with his movement, it is believed that the force with which you move will be sufficient to accomplish the object alone.

The information thus far received here makes it probable that if the enemy operates actively against Gen Banks you will not be able to count upon much assistance from him but may even have to release him.

In response, McDowell telegraphs Secretary of War Stanton, “The President’s order has been received and is in process of execution. This is a crushing blow to us.”   President Lincoln responds to McDowell: “I am highly gratified by your alacrity in obeying my orders.   The change was as painful to me as it can possibly be to you or any one.  Everything now depends upon the celerity and vigor of your movement.’

An unhappy McDowell would complain to a New York friend:

It is now the middle of the third week since I was at Fredericksburg with a splendid little army of 41,000 men, 100 pieces of artillery, and 14,000 horse – fully equipped, admirably organized, and as a general thing well disciplined and well officered!  We were all in high spirits.  For this army which had been assembled quietly, was the next morning to march down and join the army before Richmond under McClellan.  I had been held back by peremptory written orders from the President not to cross the Rappahannock.  And not even for a while, to make the bridges over the River!!  But he had given his consent, had issued his orders that I might go as soon as Shields’ division should join.  It had joined.  The wagons were all loaded, the orders given, and were to march the next day!  When came the orders breaking us up and sending us over to the valley after Jackson!

I telegraphed the President that the order was a crushing blow to us all.  That I could not get to the valley in time to affect banks’ position.  His case would be disposed of one way or the other before I could arrive!….

But they were alarmed over the safety of Washington!  Then came this extraordinary forced march over the Piedmont and Blue Ridge mountains to Front Royal, in which I estimate that we had 4,000 men broken down.

Published in: on May 24, 2012 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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