Military Situation Confused as President Lincoln Strives to Protect Washington

May 25, 1862

Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase returns to the White House after overnight trip to Fredericksburg to reenforce presidential orders to General Irvin McDowell.   McDowell has been ordered to stop movement to Richmond and instead cooperate with Union troops under Generals Nathaniel Banks and John C. Frémont operating in the Shenandoah Valley.  Chase reports back to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton at the War Department and then President Lincoln by telegram in early afternoon: “Since my dispatch in cipher information from the War Department that Jackson and Johnson are probably co operating with Ewell unites all opinions here upon the movement indicated by you in preference to the other lines mentioned in that dispatch. General McDowell appreciates, as you do, the importance of the service he is called on to perform. All possible exertion is being made by him and the officers under him to expedite the movement. He will remain here till the troops are all off, and then observe any further directions given by you. Having done all I can here, I shall come immediately to Washington with General Shields, and hope to arrive bv six this afternoon.”

Washington continues to be anxious.  Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase recalled: “I returned to Washington Sunday night accompanied by General Shields, and found the President, with the Secretary of War, Secretary of State, and several Senators and Representatives, at the War Department.  By this time intelligence ha d been received that Banks had retreated early on Saturday morning from Strasburg, reaching Winchester the same night, and that his retreat had been continued through Sunday, and that a portion of his troops had already arrived at Williamsport.”  Meanwhile, Secretary of War Stanton telegraphed northern governors: “Intelligence from various quarters leaves no doubt that the enemy in great force are advancing on Washington.  You will please organize and forward immediately all the volunteer and militia force of your State.”

President Lincoln first telegraphed General George B. McClellan: “The enemy is moving North in sufficient force to drive Banks before him in precisely what force we can not tell.  He is also threatening Leesburgh and Geary on the Manassas Gap Rail Road from both north and south in precisely what force we can not tell.  I think the movement is a general and concerted one, such as could not be if he was acting upon the purpose of a very desperate defence of Richmond.  I think the time is near when you must either attack Richmond or give up the job and come to the defence of Washington.  Let me hear from you instantly.”

President Lincoln later telegraphed McClellan a report on his dispositions of troops:

Your despatch received. Banks was at Strasburg with about six-thousand men, Shields having been taken from him to swell a column for McDowell to aid you at Richmond, and the rest of his force scattered at various places. On the 23rd. a rebel force of seven to ten thousand fell upon one regiment and two companies guarding the bridge at Front-Royal, destroying it entirely, crossed the Shenandoah, and on the 24th. (yesterday) pushed to get North of Banks on the Road to Winchester. Banks ran a race with them, beating them into Winchester yesterday evening. This morning a battle ensued between the two forces in which Banks was beaten back into full retreat towards Martinsburg, and probably is broken up into a total route. Geary, on the Manassas Gap R.R. just now reports that Jackson is now near Front-Royal with ten thousand following up & supporting as I understand, the force now pursuing Banks. Also that another force of ten thousand is near Orleans following on in the same direction. Stripped bare, as we are here, it will be all we can do to prevent them crossing the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry, or above. We have about twenty thousand of McDowell’s force moving back to the vicinity of Front Royal; and Gen. Fremont, who was at Franklin, is moving to Harrisonburg, both these movements intended to get in the enemies near. One more of McDowells Brigades is ordered through here to Harper’s Ferry. The rest of his force remains, for the present, at Fredericksburg.

We are sending such regiments and dribs from here and Baltimore, as we can spare, to Harper’s Ferry, supplying their places, in some sort, by calling in Militia from the adjacent States. We also have eighteen cannon on the road to Harper’s Ferry of which arm, there is not a single one yet at that point. This is now our situation. If McDowell’s force was now beyond our reach, we should be utterly helpless. Apprehension of something like this, and no unwillingness to sustain you, has always been my reason for withholding McDowells force from you. Please understand this, and do the best you can with the force you have.

General McClellan wrote more confidently from the Peninsula Campaign to President Lincoln:

Telegram received.  Independently of it the time is very near when I shall attack Richmond.  The object of enemy’s movement is probably to prevent reinforcements being sent to me.  All the information obtained from balloons, deserters prisoners & contrabands agrees in the statement that the mass of rebel troops are still in immediate vicinity of Richmond ready to defend it.

I have no knowledge of Bank’s position & force, nor what there is at Manassas, therefore cannot form a definite opinion as to force against him.  I have two Corps across Chickahominy within six miles of Richmond — the others on this side at other crossings with same distance & ready to cross when bridges completed.

More sarcastically, McClellan wrote his wife Mary Ellen:

I have this moment received a dispatch from the Presdt who is terribly scared about Washington — & talks about the necessity of my returning in order to save it.  Heaven save a country governed by such counsels!  I must reply to his telegram & finish this by & by!”

5 pm.  Have just finished my reply to his Excellency!  It is perfectly sickening to deal with such people & you may rest assured that I will lose as little time as possible in breaking off all connection with them — I get more sick of them every day — for every day brings with it only additional proofs of their hypocrisy, knavery & folly — well, well, I ought not to write in this way, for they may be right & I entirely wrong, so I will drop the subject.

“At night I went to the President’s — Intelligence from [General Nathaniel] Banks that he commenced fighting at Winchester this morning and was retreating before the enemy to Martinsburg – President entertained fears he was destroyed,” wrote Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning.  Presidential aide John G. Nicolay wrote: “Sunday is keeping up its reputation for being our most important news day.  We have been ‘stampeded’ all day with news from Gen. Banks’ army in the valley of the Shenandoah.  The enemy has appeared there in force, and has compelled him to fall back from point to point, until the probability is that he will not be able to stop before he reaches Harper’s Ferry, if indeed he is not captured before he gets there.  The rumors are that he attacked the enemy in front of Winchester at daylight this morning but was driven back, burned the town and his stores, and is in retreat on Martinsburg and Harper’s Ferry.”  Nicolay wrote his fiancée:

“There are also rumors on the street that there are riots progressing all over the city of Baltimore, and that another rising there is imminent.  So that perhaps this letter and the mail which carries it may be captured by the rebels, and not reach you at all.

“Of course the authorities here are not idle, but have set counter movements in progress which may perhaps bring down the scale on the other side.

“The city is a good deal excited.  Only a few minutes ago, a woman came up here from Willards to see me to ascertain if she had not better leave the city as soon as possible….”

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Published in: on May 25, 2012 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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