Wednesday, May 23, 2012

May 24, 1862 (Saturday): Defending Against Shadows

Front Royal and Its Aftermath
Map by Hal Jespersen,

May 24, 1862-5 p. m. 

Major-General McDOWELL, Fredericksburg:
    General Fremont has been ordered by telegraph to move from Franklin on Harrisonburg to relieve General Banks, and capture or destroy Jackson's and Ewell's forces.
    You are instructed, laying aside for the present the movement on Richmond, to put 20,000 men in motion at once for the Shenandoah, moving on the line or in advance of the line of the Manassas Gap Railroad. Your object will be to capture the forces of Jackson and Ewell, either in co-operation with General Fremont or, in case want of supplies or of transportation interferes with his movements, it is believed that the force with which you move will be sufficient to accomplish this object alone. The information thus far received here makes it probable that if the enemy operate actively against General Banks you will not be able to count upon much assistance from him, but may even have to release him.
    Reports received this moment are that Banks is fighting with Ewell 8 miles from Winchester.


    Order General Shields to take up his line of march to-morrow for Catlett's.
    I. McD.

May 24, 1862-5.3 p. m. 

Major-General McDOWELL, Fredericksburg:
    Governor Chase is just starting to see you and explain the grounds of the president's order, and to urge its immediate execution. He will reach Aquia at 12 o'clock to-night. Meet him there, and have transportation for him to your headquarters.


May 24, 1862. (Received 6 p. m.)

Honorable E. M. STANTON:
    The President's order has been received and is in process of execution. This is a crushing blow to us.


Washington City, D. C., May 24, 1862-8 p. m. 

Major-General McDOWELL:
   I am highly gratified by your alacrity in obeying my order. The change was as painful to me as it can possibly be to you or to any one.
   Everything now depends upon the celerity and vigor of your movement.


Opposite Fredericksburg, May 24, 1862.
(Received 9.30 p. m.)
His Excellency the PRESIDENT:
   I obeyed your order immediately, for it was positive and urgent, and perhaps as a subordinate there I ought to stop; but I trust I may be allowed to say something in relation to the subject, especially in view of your remark that everything now depends upon the celerity and vigor of my movements. I beg to say that co-operation between General Fremont and myself to cut Jackson and Ewell there is not to be counted upon, even if it is not a practical impossibility. Next, that I am entirely beyond helping distance of General Banks; no celerity or vigor will avail so far as he is concerned. Next, that by a glance at the map it will be seen that the line of retreat of the enemy's forces up the valley is shorter than mine to go against him. It will take a week or ten days for the force to get to the valley by the route which will give it food and forage, and by that time the enemy will have retired. I shall gain nothing for you there, and shall lose much for you here.   
   It is therefore not only on personal grounds that I have a heavy heart in the matter, but that I feel it throws us all back, and from Richmond north we shall have all our large masses paralyzed, and shall have to repeat what we have just accomplished. I have ordered General Shields to commence the movement by tomorrow morning.  A second divison will follow in the afternoon.  Did I understand you aright, that you wished that I should personally accompany this expedition?  I hope to see Governor Chase tonight and express myself more fully to him.

Very respectfully,

IRVIN McDowell,

(Copy to the Secretary of War)

May 24, 1862.
Brigadier General JAMES S. WADSWORTH:
    It is idle to think of taking any force from this point to go after any force which may be supposed to be in Banks' rear. If they are not there, it will be of no use; if they are really in his rear, nothing from here can get there in time to afford him any help. Where is Blenker? It is from that direction the re-enforcements should come. I do not think my force will bear any further paring down. Try and get over the flutter into which this body (which has been gathering in the mountains, which has grown so suddenly to 5,000 men) seems to have thrown every one. If the enemy can succeed so readily in disconcerting all our plans by alarming us first at one point, then at another, he will paralyze a large force with a very small one. The chances are ten to one the regiment at Front Royal had no guard, no vigilance, and made no fight; the position is such that with ordinary precautions it should not so suddenly have been put to flight. I beg I may not be further disorganized, and I trust you will do what you can to sustain me and quiet the cry of danger to General Banks.
    General Shields says the same cry was constantly heard when he was over there-that large numbers-of thousands-of the enemy always coming upon them.


Official Records, Series I., Vol. 12, Part 3, Page 219.

McDowell summed up the impact of the small affair at Front Royal accurately.  It induced Lincoln and the administration to allow itself to paralyze a large force with a very small one.  Historians sometimes offer the opinion Jackson did not loom large in the minds of Union war planners, but the diversion of troops from McDowell to defend Banks and protect against a move upon Harpers Ferry are well documented here.  McDowell was a favorite of the administration, and his blunt rejoinder to the President is all the more remarkable.

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