Union Army Straddles the Potomac; Lee Reacts While McClellan Complains

October 30, 1862 (Thursday)

Mac: Here’s today’s list – same as yesterday’s!

It had been four days since George McClellan begun tossing his Army of the Potomac across its namesake river. The Confederates under Robert E. Lee had reacted and moved back a bit, but appeared to be in no real hurry. Perhaps they had noticed that McClellan was in even less of a hurry.

Four days has passed and still much of his army was not yet across the Potomac. As some corps were crossing, others were jockeying for position, readying themselves to cross. Three corps were on the Virginia side and were fanning themselves out in an arc to the south of Harpers Ferry. A detached brigade under George Stoneman was hovering around Leesburg, a bit south of the rest of the army, while Franz Sigel and part of his corps (which had been assigned to the defenses of Washington) were scouting and maneuvering much father south, in the Fairfax Courthouse and Manassas area.

Though slow, and growing even slower, it placed roughly 60,000 Federal troops on Virginia soil – the most that had been there since early September.

Here’s the map of the fairly approximate location and strength of the corps of both armies. Enjoy!

During the month of October, relative quiet fell across both armies. General Robert E. Lee took advantage of the lull to bolster and reorganize his army into two large corps. He had made both James Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson Corps commanders. To McClellan’s sluggish advance, the Rebels quickly reacted.

In the face of an overwhelming enemy, Lee once again divided his much smaller army. And why not? It had worked against McClellan before, there was no reason it shouldn’t work against him again. He accompanied Longstreet’s Corps south towards Culpeper, watching the movement of the Union Army through the more southern passes, like Ashby’s Gap. It was assumed that McClellan’s ultimate goal was Richmond, which he would reach by way of Manassas and Culpeper.

Union crossing at Berlin, Maryland

Meanwhile, the other half of Lee’s Army, under Stonewall Jackson, was to stay in the Winchester area, covering the gaps across the Blue Ridge so that McClellan wouldn’t cut Lee’s Army of 75,000 in two. If it seemed like the Federals would get between the two Rebel corps, Jackson was to move south, up the Shenandoah Valley, cross at Swift Run Gap and join with Longstreet somewhere southwest of Culpeper.

All throughout this, detachments of infantry and Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry would raid and embarrass the Federal right flank and advance.

General Lee had a clear vision of what he must do to counter what he knew General McClellan would. This is curious, since General McClellan had no idea what he himself was going to do, let alone what Lee would do to counter it.

On the 25th, the eve of his crossing, he asked General-in-Chief Henry Halleck if he should protect the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry to Washington with his army, or should he just consider the river crossings protected by his move south. Either way, he mentioned, Pennsylvania would be left unprotected.

Halleck’s reply was vague, simply telling McClellan that it was all up to him. And so McClellan almost made a decision on his own. Once fully across, he would leave behind brigades at Harpers Ferry, Sharpsburg, Williamsport, Cumberland, Hancock, and cavalry to cover the B&O Railroad. This, according to McClellan, was insufficient and all he could do.

Union cavalry patrolling and skirmishing in Louden County

He suspected (incorrectly, as it turned out) that Confederate cavalry would remain in the Shenandoah Valley, west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And though thousands upon thousands of infantry troops would be left to guard the Potomac crossings from cavalry raids, McClellan did not see these numbers “as sufficient to prevent cavalry raids into Maryland and Pennsylvania.” The reason was, of course, that he did not have enough cavalry – a complaint that he had mentioned a good number of times.

On this date, Halleck made his reply. He promised troops to guard the more southerly passes as McClellan moved south. As for the Potomac River, “no new regiments can be sent from here [Washington] to the Upper Potomac. The guarding of that line is left to your own discretion with the troops now under your command.”

Disgusted, McClellan cut off communication with Halleck, preferring (if that’s the proper word) to deal directly with that “Gorilla” President Lincoln, who was, as McClellan explained in a recent letter to his wife, his inferior “socially, intellectually and morally.”

On this night, however, McClellan would play the politics of fear. He turned to Pennsylvania’s Governor, Andrew Curtin, and explained the situation. He repeated the line he sent to Halleck that he did not “consider the force [left behind along the Potomac] sufficient to prevent raids and have so represented to General Halleck, who informed me that he has no more troops to send.”

He warned Curtin that Pennsylvania must hurry along its conscription, filling the militias and sending them “with the least possible delay to Chambersburg, Hagerstown, Sharpsburg, Williamsport, and Hancock to prevent the possibility of raids.”

Gov. Andrew Curtain – Mac sends his deepest apologies…

If he would have gotten the reinforcements he wanted, wrote McClellan, “I could have left men enough to have made your frontier reasonably safe. As it is I cannot do it with due regard to the success of the main Army, and beg to warn you in time.”

McClellan was coming to the realization of an important shift in how the Federal government was handling new recruits and conscripts. Rather than filling the old regiments back to strength, they were creating new regiments. About this, he complained to anyone who would listen.

To Governor Curtain, he left it as the excuse as to why he couldn’t save Pennsylvania. To Lincoln he exclaimed that “no greater mistake has been made than the total failure to reinforce the old regiments.” He also reminded Lincoln again of the need for more cavalry horses.

To his wife, he was, as usual, even more candid. “I have just been put in excellent humor by seeing that instead of sending the drafted men to fill the old rgts (as had been promised me) they are forming them into new rgts. Also that in the face of the great want of cavalry… they are sending the new cavalry rgts from Penna to Louisville instead of hither!! Blind & foolish they will continue to the end.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 1, p85; Part 2, most of the Union entries for October 28, 29, 30 and 31, also p687. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter edited by Gary Gallagher; From Manassas to Appomattox; Memoirs of The Civil War in America by James Longstreet. []
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