Friday, September 5, 2008

THIS WEEK IN THE CIVIL WAR: Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 1872


For soldiers in the Civil War, the worst part of a battle may not be the anxious moments just before it or the frantic moments during it. At least, adrenaline is pumping in a fight., and while there can be terrifying moments, much of the battle passes in a rush of energy, most of the men focused on their tasks. (After the war. John Calvin Hartzell, a lieutenant in the 105 Ohio, will call this “the exultation or ecstasy of battle,” explaining that, “in such a state of mind danger and death have no terrors.”)

It i the hours and days just after a battle that can be the worst. For the losers, there is crushing shame spiked with fear of capture as they attempt to flee. But for the winners occupying the battlefield, the triumph is dampened by the cost of victory. The field is littered with the wreckage of men and equipment. Scattered among the smashed cannon and discarded rifles and knapsacks are hundreds of bodies, some motionless, some moaning, waiting for aid that—in some cases—may never come. Because Civil War battles are fought most frequently during warm weather, the wounded men beg for water as they lie unsheltered, exposed to a broiling sun.

Surviving soldiers roam the battlefield, looking for comrades, scavenging for supplies. (Hartzell took a pair of new socks from the corpse of a Confederate.) As the days go by, some of the wounded men—left behind by their own army--remain on the field while others die. Worms infest open wounds of living men and terrible odors arise from decaying corpses. The best that many of these corpses will receive is a hasty burial in a trench or shallow grave near where they fell, the men’s identities disappearing beneath the earth, their families left to wonder why their letters have stopped coming.

So it is after the battle of Second Manassas (also known as II Bull Run). The battle had peaked on Saturday, August 31 as Col. Nathaniel McLean’s “Ohio Brigade” made a goal-line stand on Henry House Hill. At heavy cost, McLean’s men hold back Lee’s Confederates just long enough for most of Union Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia to escape the field and head for the safety of the nation’s capital, 30 miles away.

By Sunday, Pope has his tattered army gathered around Centreville, on the Washington side of Bull Run Creek, the soldiers panicky, officers angry at poor leadership by the generals. Soon, the generals themselves will be going public, blaming each other, a circular firing squad with Pope squarely in the middle.

Two fresh corps from the lead-footed Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan finally have arrived to reinforce Pope, but it is too late to strike back at Lee and save the day. Lee has come up short as well. Still on the opposite side of Bull Run, he is unable to cut off Pope’s fighting retreat and so Lee cannot finish the battle by destroying his enemy. By and large, Pope’s army, though severely mauled, is able to escape to the shelter of Washington’s defenses.

But not Pope. As much as Pope blames others—especially McClelland and Fitz-John Porter—it is clear to Lincoln and General-in-chief Halleck that responsibility for the defeat rests most of all on the loud-mouthed Illinoisan. By the end of the week, Pope will lose his command and be assigned to fight Indians far from the war’s main stages.

Pope’s departure is not a surprise, but what happens to McClellan is. Despite urging from Secretary of War Stanton and others, Lincoln refuses to dismiss Little Mac. Instead, McClellan not only keeps command of the Army of the Potomac but is given the task of folding into it Pope’s old command, the Army of Virginia.

Lincoln's advisers gnash their teeth, but the President knows what he is doing. McClellan tends to fade under the pressure of battle, but he is a superb organizer, trainer—and inspirer—of men. Right now, that is what is needed most of all. Lincoln needs McClellan's special gifts to restore the Union’s main army in the East to fighting form.

McClellan himself is surprised by Lincoln's decision. Since returning from the Virginia Peninsula, he has been bracing himself for removal from command. But after meeting with President Lincoln in the White House on Tuesday, September 2, he rides jauntily into the camp of Brig. Jacob D. Cox, an Ohioan who commands the Kanawha Brigade, and calls out, “Well, General, I am in command again!”

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