Jackson’s Saucer is Full of Secrets; Lincoln Must Command

December 31, 1861 (New Year’s Eve – Tuesday)

This had certainly been a strange year for Thomas J. Jackson. At its start, he was a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, under the immediate command of William Gilham. The United States flag flew over the parade grounds and they all still held true to the oaths sworn to protect it. At its end, he was a General in an army rebelling against that flag and William Gilham commanded a brigade under him. At a battle where few had predicted its bloodletting, let alone its outcome, he had earned the name “Stonewall,” a moniker that would indefinitely echo over the Virginia fields where he fought.

In early November, Jackson was placed in command of the Shenandoah Valley, headquartered at Winchester. Immediately, he saw a threat from the gathering Union forces in Romney and began to formulate his plan for a winter campaign. By impressing its importance upon Richmond, he was able to swell his numbers to 11,000. Most recently, three out of four brigades of General William Wing Loring’s Army of the Northwest had joined him from the hills of Western Virginia. Loring also came east and became Jackson’s second in command.1

Since the last of Loring’s command filtered into Winchester, he and Jackson had settled upon a command structure, allowing Loring to keep his Army of the Northwest intact and under his banner.

Jackson had already settled upon a plan of attack. The focus was Romney, a small village of 500 along the South Branch of the Potomac River. Between Winchester and Romney, about forty miles apart, lay a bountiful farming land that could yield corn, wheat and much food to feed an army. Romney, situated as it was, surrounded by mountains, controlled the valley. Every mile of ground that Jackson could take between the two towns was a mile closer to taking Romney itself.

As December had withered away, Jackson understood that the Union forces in the area were mainly concentrated at Romney and Martinsburg, twenty-five miles north of Winchester. Between the two Union strongholds were various outposts, all too small to threaten Jackson, but important nevertheless.

Neither of the Union forces at Romney and Martinsburg were large enough to assault Winchester on their own. Because of this, Jackson fearlessly plotted to divide and conquer them.

He would start with two small garrisons between the Union-held towns. Bath [modern Berkeley Springs], on the Western Virginia side of the Potomac, and Hancock on the Maryland side, were his first targets. While many in Richmond knew about the plan to assail Romney, it’s not clear who, if anyone but Jackson, knew of his plan to first hit Bath and Hancock. Actually, his plan was to hit Bath, destroying the Union outpost, and then, by his mere presence, scatter the troops at Hancock. This would cut off any help that could be brought from Martinsburg while he fell upon Romney.2

Jackson’s superior, General Joseph Johnston in Centreville, whose own troops had gone into winter quarters, approved of his plan to attack the Union force at Romney. Though Jackson wrote that he wanted to prohibit a junction of the Union forces at Martinsburg and Romney, he never mentioned Bath and Hancock. Johnston approved the campaign, but Jackson kept a few items to himself.

On this date, his troops were given their marching orders. They were to be given five days’ rations, rise at 3am, cook their breakfast and step off at 6am.3

The next morning, the first morning of the new year, Jackson would begin his first campaign.


President Lincoln Finally Becomes Commander in Chief

The illness that had gripped Union General George McClellan, called “typhoid fever,” though it was probably some other horrible diarrheal disease like dengue fever, had also gripped Washington with pains of indecision and panic.

President Lincoln’s Cabinet met to discuss McClellan’s illness and what to do without him in a “bald disjointed chat.” Ever since Winfield Scott had retired and been replaced by George McClellan, Attorney General Edward Bates had urged that Lincoln surround himself with military thinkers, that he grasp with both hands the constitutional idea of “Commander in Chief.” Bates asserted that Lincoln must command the army.

The title “General in Chief,” given to Winfield Scott, was more of an honorary position than one of any practical reality. When Scott was awarded the title, the army was small, there was peace throughout the land and nothing more to do than fight random Indians in the West. Now that Scott was gone, McClellan held the position. The army was many times larger than it had been before the war, peace was forgotten and the foe was across the river, rather than across the continent.

In his diary, Bates had mused that if he were president, he “would command in chief – not in detail, certainly – and I would know what army I had and what the high generals (my Lieutenants) were doing with that army.”

Lincoln, thought Bates, had a duty to command. Some believed that all military operations had to stop simply because McClellan was ill. Others thought that Lincoln needed to call a great council of war with the top generals to figure out what to do without McClellan.

After the meeting broke up, Bates returned to his diary, convinced that Lincoln would continue to stand back and let it all drift askew. “I fear that I spoke in vain,” wrote the distraught attorney general. “The Prest. is an excellent man, and in the main wise, but he lacks will and purpose, and, I greatly fear he … has not the power to command.”4

Perhaps Bates’ rallying and cheerleading had finally begun to effect how Lincoln was handling the war. Or maybe it was the absence of General McClellan that made Lincoln step up and become the Commander in Chief that he was.

This change began on this date when President Lincoln became Commander in Chief Lincoln, as he wrote to both Generals Henry Halleck (in Missouri) and Don Carlos Buell (in Kentucky).

To General Halleck in St. Louis, he wrote:

“General McClellan is sick. Are General Buell and yourself in concert? When he moves on Bowling Green, what hinders it being re-enforced from Columbus? A simultaneous movement by you on Columbus might prevent it.”

And to General Buell in Louisville, he wrote:

“General McClellan is sick. Are General Halleck and yourself in concert? When he moves on Bowling Green, what hinders it being re-enforced from Columbus? A simultaneous movement by you on Columbus might prevent it.”5

The replies would come the next day.

  1. Stonewall in the Valley by Robert G. Tanner, Stackpole Books, 1996. []
  2. Stonewall Jackson; The Man, the Soldier, the Legend by James I. Robertson. []
  3. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens, University of North Carolina Press, 2008. []
  4. Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
  5. Offiical Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p524. []
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4 thoughts on “Jackson’s Saucer is Full of Secrets; Lincoln Must Command

    1. At times, his illness may have gripped him with the pains of indecision and panic, as well. Thus far, it wasn’t so great a time for our Young Napoleon.

  1. McClellan is very unlikely to have had dengue fever. Dengue is transmitted by mosquitoes, which wouldn’t have been active in December.

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