Monday, May 28, 2012

May 29, 1862 (Thursday): A Question of Legs

Harper's Ferry (

Manassas, May 29, 1862.
Major General JAMES SHIELDS, Rectortown:
    General Saxton reports from Harper's Ferry that he drove the enemy yesterday through Charlestown; that they were re-enforced and came back with 7,000 infantry and nine pieces of artillery, before which he retired in good order.
    General Banks reports the enemy on his front in force. Yesterday it seemed to be the opinion in Washington that the enemy intended crossing the Potomac and threaten, if not actually march on, Washington. General Fremont is at Moorefield, and is ordered, as we are, by the President to push after the enemy with all speed. The question now seems to be one of legs - whether we can get to Jackson and Ewell before they can get away. General King reports from Fredericksburg that has received information from person from Hanover Junction that Anderson's army of 15,000 men had gone by way of Gordonsville to loin Jackson. I have ordered King's division to Catlett's, thence to Warrenton and to White Plains, to follow after us.
    The Secretary of War suggested, at the instance of General Meigs, to send part of King's division to Washington to guard it from an attack from Jackson, who might come at it from near Harper's Ferry.
But not feeling there was any danger of an attack from that quarter, I have not changed King's destination. You see from all this how important it is for us to get forward to settle this difficulty in one way or another.

Major-General, Commanding Department.

Official Records, Series I., Vol. 12, Part 3, Page 279.

Recently, some historians have questioned the traditional view of the impact of Jackson's campaign on Lincoln and Union war planners, offering the view the President was not flustered and Union plans not significantly impacted.  It is no doubt true as Jackson's reputation grew the degree to which he inspired consternation in the North was overestimated.  But it cannot be denied a)Lincoln withdrew McDowell's troops from McClellan at a critical juncture, leaving his right flank weaker, b)calls were made on Northern governors to raise additional troops, c)planners believed Harper's Ferry was threatened, d)Lincoln was unclear as late as the 29th whether Confederate forces were concentrating on Richmond, and e)as this letter shows, there was a belief Jackson could threaten Washington.  McClellan, McDowell, and Shields all had a much clear picture of the threat throughout the campaign than did official Washington.

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