This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Sept. 25: Pressure for a Union plan of attack.
Major Gen. George B. McClellan, tapped to lead the Army of the Potomac after the Union defeat at First Bull Run, faces growing popular pressure in late September 1861 to attack Confederate forces outside Washington. The commander chafes at the clamor for action, knowing he could be made the scapegoat should any disastrous misstep turn the tide of the war against the Union. Nonetheless, McClellan's weeks of training and drilling have begun to shape green and largely untested troops into a fighting force. And McClellan is still being allowed time by President Abraham Lincoln to plot his war strategy. One of McClellan's chief worries is that he not leave Washington undefended, at times believing the Confederates could be plotting a major assault on the capital. Reports speak of Confederates in northern Virginia nearly within site of Washington. Months later, McCellan will go on to failure with his Peninsula Campaign _ his ambitious thrust toward Richmond from Virginia's seaboard side. Later he will halt Confederate Robert E. Lee's invasion of Maryland at bloody Antietam yet still lose his command for settling for a draw that tests Lincoln's patience as the president thirsts for crushing victory. This month, the South's Gulf Coast farmers recoil from stormy weather that ruins corn and cotton crops needed to feed and clothe the Confederate army. News dispatches speak of bickering in the Confederate congress over ill-fed and badly uniformed recruits. Misinformation flies. One Southern newspaper claims Confederate troops number an astonishing 185,000 men _ far more than McClellan's _ and adds they are "clothed and fed on a scale of amazing liberality, and are regularly paid in gold or bank paper." One commentator scoffs such numbers are impossibly inflated and the situation is the reverse with near "nakedness and starvation" among some Confederate troops.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Oct. 2: William Tecumseh Sherman and Robert Anderson.
Robert Anderson was the Union colonel and commander at Fort Sumter, S.C., when a Confederate bombardment in April 1861 opened the Civil War. Afterward, he rose through the command and was promoted to the Army's Department of the Cumberland Valley. But when an ailing Anderson took medical leave, he was succeeded by a new commander, William Tecumseh Sherman, on Oct. 8, 1861. So would Sherman begin a military career that _ despite ups and downs _ would make him one of the most recognized Union commanders after Ulysses Grant. Eventually Sherman would go down in history for a scorched earth campaign that led to the capture and burning of Atlanta in 1864 and the subsequent march by his troops to the sea on a wide path of destruction in the Deep South. This fall marks the start of an outbreak of numerous small skirmishes but no battles of significance. Outside Washington, a federal observatory balloon is lofted near the northern Virginia community of Falls Church, hoping to spy out Confederate pickets. Within days, skirmishing erupts near Falls Church but reports say "the (cannon) balls coming from each side of the declivity of a hill and a dense woods ... failed their purpose" and Union batteries escaped harm. Further west, rebels who had seized Lexington, Missouri, during a major battle the previous month withdraw as federal forces threaten. "The evacuation of Lexington by the rebels is confirmed," The Associated Press reports in a dispatch published Oct. 4, 1861. It reports "six thousand men left Lexington, crossing the river on Saturday ... they were met by a Federal force ... when a battle ensued" and the federals were driven back. It added: "Many of the rebels swarm the river in their impatience to get across."
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Oct. 9: Return of Hatteras Force.
The Associated Press reports that Union regiments in and around Washington are slowly readying winter quarters. Absent major fighting, there are only sporadic skirmishes, firing and occasion potshots taken between rival pickets near the federal capital. "The Second Massachusetts are erecting a spacious stable for their horses, and digging cellars for their tents," The AP reports in an Oct. 12 dispatch. Although there are no major battles during this time, nerves are on edge from skirmishes. "About twenty heavy guns were heard ... Thursday night in the direction of the Great Falls" but the cause was unknown, one AP correspondent writes this week. Stormy weather signals the approaching winter at Fortress Monroe, the Union-held stone bastion on the Virginia coast. Reports note that a "severe gale now prevailing" has blocked a U.S. Treasury cutter from departing to enforce a federal blockade on Southern seaports from Virginia's Hampton Roads to Hatteras, N.C., an area used by contraband smugglers to run goods to the Confederacy. At Fortress Monroe, a federal tug exchanges shots with Confederates manning a battery beside the James River leading to Richmond, the Confederate capital. Meanwhile, the Union is bolstering its defenses at Fort Monroe, an imposing stronghold that would have military use for nearly 200 years until its deactivation in September 2011. "The Union gun is now mounted so as to sweep the Roads between the Fortress and Sewall's Point" nearby, the AP reports. Meanwhile, troops are erecting wooden houses on the fortress grounds for winter accommodations and readying more holding cells for smugglers caught aiding the Confederacy.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Oct. 16: War by telegram.
The fall of 1861 is bereft of major fighting until Union Major Gen. George B. McClellan gets a disastrous battle going _ by telegram. Oct. 21, 1861, witnesses a badly coordinated attempt by Union forces to cross in boats from Maryland to the Confederate-held Virginia side of the Potomac River, northwest of Washington. Their aim: to seize a key railroad juncture at Leesburg, Va. But Union forces will get no further than the steep Virginia slope of the Potomac riverbank at the Battle of Ball's Bluff. It all began with a line in a seemingly innocuous McClellan telegram to a subordinate, Brig. Gen. Charles P. Stone. McClellan advises Stone, commander of troops along the Potomac, to "keep a good lookout upon Leesburg," adding "perhaps a slight demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them." Stone obliges by sending two Union companies across the river the night of Oct. 20, 1861. They scale the bluff and report back on its dangerous, steep slope. The next day, thousands of Union troops begin crossing, launching their incursion. But Confederates above them on the heights at Ball's Bluff fiercely counterattack. Heavy Confederate cannon and rifle fire drives the green federal forces back down the bluff, many splashing mortally wounded and bleeding into the river. Others drown trying to swim away in uniform. When it's over, hundreds of Union troops are dead and hundreds more are missing or taken prisoner _ out of roughly 1,780 ill-trained Union troops seeing their first action. A leader of the Union attack, Col. Edward D. Baker, who served in the U.S. Senate from Oregon, is killed. Baker is a good friend of President Abraham Lincoln and the Union rout causes such an uproar in Washington that a congressional oversight committee is formed for the conduct of the war.