Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Road to Antietam, August 31, 1862: "I am utterly tired out"

150 years ago today, the Confederate victory at Second Manassas was complete. John Pope’s Army of Virginia was slinking back toward Washington, and it appeared as though the end of the Union might soon be in sight. During the day on the 31st, George McClellan wrote to Henry Halleck that his staff was reporting “our army as badly beaten: our losses very heavy… Some of the corps entirely broken up into stragglers.” It was becoming obvious that the situation was desperate for the Union. Several hours later, at 7:30 pm, McClellan again wrote to Halleck, reporting that as many as 20,000 stragglers littered the roads of Northern Virginia between Manassas and Washington (OR, Vol 12, Part 3, 771-773).

Late on the evening of August 31st, General in Chief sent the following telegraph:
Aug 31, 1862
From Washington, 10:07 pm
To Maj. Genl McClellan
Since receiving your dispatch relating to command I have not been able to answer any note of absolute necessity. I have not seen the order as published but will write to you in the morning. You will retain the command of everything in this vicinity not temporarily to be Pope’s army in the field. I beg of you to assist me in this crisis with your ability and experience. I am utterly tired out.
H. W. Halleck, General in Chief

In the last hours of August, as the Union appeared to be crumbling before the victorious army of Robert E. Lee, Halleck was turning to George B. McClellan to pick up the pieces of defeat and attempt to salvage not only the army, but the country, from the mess. The above telegram is not in the Official Records exchange of dispatches sent back and forth on the 31st, and is found in the McClellan papers (McClellan Papers, LOC, Box A75, Reel 30). 

McClellan’s response, which can be found in the O.R., simultaneously accepted his new role and showed uncertainty over to what that role would be: “I am ready to afford you any assistance in my power, but you will readily perceive how difficult an undefined position, such as I now hold, must be. At what hour in the morning can I see you alone, either at your own house or the office?” (OR, Vol 12, Part 3, 773).

Two days later, as the broken remnants of Federal forces seeped into Washington a few days later, it would be McClellan who greeted them on the outskirts of the city. McClellan had by then met with both Lincoln and Halleck, and had been officially placed in command of the Federal troops in and around Washington, tasked with defending the Capital from the menacing threat of Lee's victorious and triumphant Rebel army, just 30 miles away.

150 years ago today, Federal leaders were trying to understand just how bad the situation truly was. It was becoming readily apparent that Pope’s time in command was over. McClellan, uncertain of what his role was to be going forward, received the above dispatch from Halleck informing him that he was likely to have the command of not only his former army from the Peninsula, but the defeated remnants of John Pope’s force as well. Still, McClellan’s orders were not clear, nor was his understanding of his task facing him, or his understanding of the force he would command. In the days to come, the dire condition of his army, as well as the condition of the nation, would become known to McClellan, Halleck, and many others. Indeed, 150 years ago was a trying time not just for Henry Halleck, as he wrote to McClellan, but for the country as well. 

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