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General Sumner bad crossed the river by the upper of the two bridges which he had built, called the Grape-vine bridge; the lower, called the Sunderland bridge, having been carried away. But before the next morning the Grape-vine bridge was also carried away by the rising flood. “This bridge,” says the Prince de Joinville, "saved that day the whole Federal army from destruction.”
Such are the momentous consequences in war which flow from causes so seemingly trivial as the state of the atmosphere, the rising or falling of a petty stream, a sudden tempest of rain, or the condition of a road over which artillery must be moved. These things should teach civilian critics a wise self-distrust, and a tenderness of judgment towards generals who have had the misfortune not to succeed in winning a battle or taking a fortress.
General McClellan has been blamed for not having followed up the enemy after the battle of Fair Oaks, and, among others, by General Barnard, who says, in his Report, “The repulse of the rebels at Fair Oaks should have been taken advantage of. It was one of those 'occasions' which, if not seized, do not repeat themselves. We now know the state of disorganization and dismay in which the rebel army retreated. We now know it could have been followed into Richmond.” The italics are General Barnard's own. Without repeating the obvious remark that General McClellan should be judged by wbat was known then, and not by what we know now, it may be stated that there is nothing to justify the assertion that the rebel army retreated
in “disorganization” and “dismay,” and that when General Barnard
says, we know it could have been followed into Richmond,” he claims the authority of omniscience. The reasons why the enemy were not pursued are amply and satisfactorily stated in General McClellan's Report. The Grape-vine and Sunderland bridges bad been carried away. The approaches to New and Mechanicsville bridges, higher up the stream, were overflowed; and both of them were enfiladed by batteries of the enemy. To have advanced upon Richmond, the troops must have been marched from various points on the left banks of the Chickahominy to Bottom's Bridge, and over the Williamsburg road to Fair Oaks, upwards of twenty miles,-a march which, as the roads then were, could not have been made in less than two days. “In short," as General McClellan says,
“The idea of uniting the two wings of the army in time to make a vigorous pursuit of the enemy, with the prospect of overtaking him before he reached Richmond, only five miles distant from the field of battle, is simply absurd,
presume, never for a moment seriously entertained by any one connected with the Army of the Potomac."*
* General Barnard, in his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, says, “By the rise of the Chickahominy the two bridges built by General Sumner became impracticable by the night of the 31st. The bridges at Bottom's Bridge with difficulty were preserved from destruction; but the rising water overflowed the adjacent road, and soon these bridges became useless for wagons or horses. Fortunately, the railroad bridge had been repaired; and by this alone the left
For about three weeks after the battle of Fair Oaks nothing of moment took place. By the 2d of June our left was advanced considerably beyond the lines it had occupied before the battle. The position at Fair Oaks was strengthened by a line of intrenchments which protected the troops while they were at work upon the bridges, gave security to the trains, liberated a large fighting-force, and afforded a safer retreat in case of disaster. To form these intrenchments was hard work: redoubts and embankments had to be raised, rifle-pits to be dug, and trees in great numbers to be cut down; and all this under the burning sun of a Virginia June. General McClellan was anxious to assume the offensive; it was his policy to do so, as the enemy were gaining and we were losing by the mere lapse of time. But no general battle could be risked until the two wings of the army were put in full
wing of the army was supplied. By means of planks laid between the rails, infantry, and, with some risk, horses, could pass. This, for several days, was the only communication between the two wings of the army.”—Report on the Conduct of the War, vol. i. p. 401.
The case in defence of General McClellan can hardly be more strongly put than by this statement; but how is it to be reconciled with General Barnard's subsequently-expressed opinion?
communication with each other, and that, too, by bridges strong enough to stand a flood and long enough to stretch across the whole bottom-land of the river. These necessary works were delayed, and the labors and exposures of the men greatly increased, by the incessant rains. General McClellan's communications to the authorities at Washington show how he was tried and baffled by the obstinately bad weather. On the 4th of June he telegraphs to the President, “ Terrible rain-storm during the night and morning; not yet cleared off. Chickahominy flooded, bridges in bad condition;" and on the next day he says to the Secretary of War, “Rained most of the night; has now ceased, but it is not clear. The river still very high and troublesome.” On the 7th he tells the Secretary,
“ The whole face of the country is a perfect bog, entirely impassable for artillery, or even cavalry, except directly in the narrow roads, which renders any general movement, either of this or the rebel army, utterly out of the question until we have more favorable weather.”
Three days after, in another despatch to the Secretary, he says,
“I am completely checked by the weather. The roads and fields are literally impassable for artillery,-almost so for infantry. The Chickahominy is in a dreadful state: we have another rain-storm on our hands.
“I shall attack as soon as the weather and ground will permit; but there will be a delay, the extent of which no one can foresee, for the season is altogether abnormal.”
The heat of the weather, the poisonous miasma
which the sun drew up from the saturated soil, and the heavy toils of the men, began to tell sadly upon the general health of the army. And the vigilant and active enemy allowed us no repose. Little skirmishes and affairs of outposts were constantly occurring; showers of shells would sometimes suddenly fall upon the tents; and no one could say whether these demonstrations were not the preludes to serious attacks. Our men were obliged to work at the intrenchments and upon the bridges as the Jews builded on the walls of Jerusalem : “They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon. For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded."*
General McClellan saw with nothing less than anguish of mind the golden moments of opportunity slipping away from him unimproved, and his noble army slowly wasting by discase and expo
From trustworthy sources of information, he bad good reason to believe that the enemy were receiving large accessions to their strength; and in the north, like an ominous cloud, loomed the corps of the indefatigable Jackson, about which frequent rumors began to fly through the air. General McClellan knew his old classmate well enough to know that he was not a man to lose any time, and that, sooner or later, he would be a formidable element of danger on our right flank. His
* Nehemiah iv. 17, 18.