Recently the NY Times had a blog post by Richard Slotkin titled Washington in Disarray the focus of which was on the crisis in Washington at the beginning of September 1862 and President Lincoln’s decision to keep Gen. George McClellan in charge of the army. There is an element to the story that I feel is overlooked.
After the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 29-30, 1862) and the Battle of Chantilly (September 1, 1862) the US army limped toward Washington, defeated and demoralized. Straggling was rampant; the capital was in a panic. It was a moment of crisis and Lincoln and General-in-Chief Halleck directed McClellan to take charge of the situation. Just as he began to step into this role he learned that the rebel army had moved away, apparently heading northwest to cross the Potomac into Maryland. McClellan was now given two missions: provide for the defense of Washington and move to stop the rebel invasion of Maryland. By September 7 he had portions of the army on the move in Maryland and he was ready to take the field in command of it. But he was still responsible for the defense of Washington and for rebuilding and organizing the forces collected there, some of which were much broken down from the preceding month and some of which were brand new regiments arriving from the north. If he were to move with the army he would need to assign someone to watch over Washington. It had to be someone with seniority and management capability, who was trusted by the administration but also by McClellan. It just so happened that there was a general in Washington, convalescing from an injury, who fit the need exactly.
A month earlier, at the close of the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Gen. Nathaniel Banks had been kicked in the hip by a horse. He had tried to remain in active command but his body swelled and bruised such that for most of August he traveled by ambulance and Gen. Alpheus Williams directed day-to-day operations of his army corps. During the first week of September Banks was in Washington, almost recovered but still unwell enough that he could not ride. His corps had marched out of the city without him, still under the direction of Williams. As he headed west after Lee, McClellan turned to Banks to take charge of the situation in Washington.
Banks found that his new command consisted of about 72,000 men present for duty, including the 3rd, 5th and 11th Corps as well as the garrisons of the fortifications and many newly arriving regiments. This would be Banks largest command of the war and was almost equal to the numbers McClellan was taking west with him. Banks assembled an ad hoc staff and set about bringing order to the chaos. Under Banks direction, pickets, provosts and patrols were organized, intelligence was gathered, and forces were reordered. One of Banks primary tasks was to return troops to service in the field. Before the end of September Banks would forward the 5th Corps, 20 brand new regiments and many returning convalescents and stragglers, in total over 35,000 men, to McClellan. At the same time the 3rd and 11th Corps were reorganized and began moving out from Washington to defend the line of the Potomac River and reoccupy portions of northern Virginia that had been given up after Second Bull Run.
One of his staff officers would later write that “a mob of thirty thousand wounded men and convalescents, who knew not where to go, and of stragglers, who meant not to go where they were wanted, was cleared out of the streets of Washington, and pandemonium was at an end. Order was rather created than restored, since none had existed in any direction.” and also that “General Banks kept the President, as well as the Secretary of War, and, of course, the General-in-Chief and General McClellan, constantly and fully advised of everything, and managed by his tact, good judgment, and experience to retain the confidence of his superiors, without which, in the remarkable state of feeling and of faction then prevailing, no one could have done anything.”
In is common now for historians to give McClellan credit for his organization of the army and his management of the crisis in September 1862. But at the time the administration gave a lot of the credit to Banks. And so it was that in late October Banks was called to a meeting at the War Department. The administration had a new assignment for him. Lincoln had come to feel that opening the Mississippi River was the “first and most important of all our military and naval operations”. Reportedly Lincoln told Banks “You have let me sleep in peace for the first time since I came here. I want you to go to Louisiana and do the same thing there.”