Official Records of the Rebellion

Official Records of the Rebellion

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No.2. Reports of Brig. Army, Chief Engineerof operations from May 23, 1861, to August 15, 1862.


Here, perhaps, I might close, but it occurs to me that this paper, purporting to give a history of the operations of engineers from the organization of the Army of the Potomac to the close of its campaign on the Peninsula, can hardly be considered complete without a retrospect, pointing out the mistakes that were made, and thus tracing the causes of its failure to their true sources.

One of the prominent among the causes of the ultimate failure was the inaction of eight months, from August, 1861, to April, 1862. More than any other wars, rebellion demands rapid measures. In November, 1861, the Army of the Potomac, if not fully supplied with all the material, yet was about as complete in numbers, discipline, and organization as it ever became. For four months the great marine avenue to [p.129] the capital of the nation was blockaded and that Capital kept in a partial state of siege by a greatly-inferior enemy, in face of a movable army of 150,000 men. In the winter 1861—62 Norfolk could and should have been taken. The Navy demanded it, the country demanded it, and the means were ample. By its capture the career of the Merrimac, which proved so disastrous to our subsequent operations, would have been prevented. The preparation of this vessel was known, and the Navy Department was not without forebodings of the mischief it would do. Though delay might mature more comprehensive plans and promise greater results, it is not the first case in which it had been shown that successful war involves something more than abstract military principles. The true question was to seize the first practicable moment to satisfy the perhaps unreasonable but natural longing of an impatient nation for results to justify its lavish confidence, and to take advantage of an undivided command and untrammeled liberty of action while it was possessed.

When the army did move, a plan was adopted perfectly certain to invite, nay, to compel, interference, and when the army was to go by Annapolis to the Lower Chesapeake I felt confident that one-half would scarcely have embarked before the other half would be ordered back to Washington. The enemy was then at Manassas, and the feint (even if no reality) of an attack on Washington was so obvious, so certain to create a panic which no Executive could resist, that interference with the removal of the mass of the army was certain.

When the enemy had fallen back behind the Rappahannock and destroyed the railroad bridges the circumstances were greatly changed, and there were strong arguments for the line adopted; yet results have proved how many reasons there were to be considered besides the purely military ones which opposed themselves to the adoption of such a line. The facts connected with the withholding of McDowell’s corps have been so completely exhibited in the proceedings of the McDowell Court of Inquiry that every one who wishes can form his own judgment. Whether it was wise or unwise, it was one of those things resulting from the taking a line of operations which did not itself cover Washington.

At the time the Army of the Potomac landed on the Peninsula the rebel cause was at its lowest ebb. Its armies were demoralized by the defeats of Port Royal, Mill Springs, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Roanoke Island, and Pea Ridge, and reduced in numbers by sickness, loss in battle, expiration of period of service, &c., while the conscription law was not yet even passed. It seemed as if it needed but one vigorous gripe to end forever this rebellion, o nearly throttled. How, then, happened it that the date of the initiation of the campaign of the magnificent Army of the Potomac was the date of the resuscitation of the rebel cause, which seemed to grow strong pari passu with the slow progress of its operations?

However I may be committed to any expression of professional opinion to the contrary (I certainly did suggest it), my opinion now is that the lines of Yorktown should have been assaulted. There is reason to believe that they were not held by strong force when our army appeared before them, and we know that they were far from complete. The prestige of power, the morale, was on our side. It was due to ourselves to confirm and sustain it. We should probably have succeeded, and if we failed it may well be doubted whether the shock of an unsuccessful assault would have been more demoralizing than the labors [p.130] of the siege. Our troops toiled a month in the trenches or lay in the Swamps of the Warwick. We lost few men by the siege, but disease took a fearful hold of the army, and toil and hardship, unredeemed by the excitement ofcombat, impaired the morale. We did not carry with us from Yorktown so good an army as we took there. Of the bitter fruits of that month gained by the enemy we have tasted to our hearts’ content. They are not yet exhausted.

The siege having been determined upon, we should have opened our batteries on the place as fast as they were completed. The effect on the troops would have been inspiring. It would have lightened the siege and shortened or labors, and, besides, we would have had the credit of driving the enemy from Yorktown by force of arms, whereas, as it was, we only influenced him to evacuate for prudential considerations. Yorktown having fallen, however, as it did, it was might to pursue the enemy with our whole force ; but the battle of Williamsburg, fought as it was without reconnoitering the position, without concert of action among the different corps and division commanders, and almost without orders, was a blunder which ought not to have happened.

We knew of this position beforehand, and we knew it was fortified. We might have been sure, if the enemy made a stand there, that it would be a strong one, for he would be fighting for time to get his trains out of our reach. We fought, and we lost several thousand men, and we gained nothing. If we had not fought till next day, a battle would in all probability have been unnecessary; but if it had been, we could have had time to have brought up our resources, reconnoitered our position, and delivered our attack in such a way that some results might have flowed from it. We had every advantage. Franklin’s division landed at West Point on the next day and Sedgwick’s division on the day following. These two divisions, had the enemy waited another day at Williamsburg, could have cut his communication, and in that case we would have been superior in his front and have had two divisions in his rear. His hasty retreat and perhaps his capture must inevitably have followed, and the great object of keeping Franklin so long embarked, and finally sending him to West Point, would have been accomplished.

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Official Records of the Rebellion: Volume Eleven, Chapter 23, Part 1: Peninsular Campaign: Reports, pp.128-130

web page Rickard, J (20 June 2006)

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