Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bayard Taylor on the Rebel Works at Centerville and Gen. McClellan

(From Bayard Taylor’s Letter to the N. Y. Tribune.)

I am not a military man, you know.  I could be easily puzzled by a dexterous use of the technology of a staff officer.  I hear, on good authority, that several officers of high risk have declared to-day: “The fortifications at Centerville are perfectly impregnable.”  Impregnable?  Good God!  What contemptible ideas they must entertain of our gallant soldiery.  I have seen Cerro Gordo: the position at Centerville is not so strong – yet we took Cerro Gordo.  I have seen Chapultepec, it is five times as formidable – yet we took it.  I have seen Nava; the hill is twice as steep, and twice as high; yet 8,000 Swedes rushing up it drove 50,000 Russians, under Peter the Great, from their intrenchments.  This is supposing, of course, that we should be so obliging as to attack the Rebels just where they could most easily defend, omitting the opportunities of turning their position.  But it is useless to talk; I am a civilian.  We have escaped a terrible danger, and gained a great and “a bloodless victory.”

I do not wish to be understood as blaming any individual.  I was most favorably impressed last fall, with the bearing of Gen. McClellan and with his evident success in resolving order out of chaos.  I have deprecated the popular impatience with the action of the army of the Potomac during the winter, and insisted that the organizing power which had moulded a demoralized military mob into obedient capacity for action, should be allowed to develop its plan in its own good time, without interference.  It is for those in authority to judge where the blame lies.  But, using my eyes and my ears – employing (modestly speaking) average powers of deduction – I cannot escape the following conclusions:

First – That the topographical character of the position at Manassas has been wholly misunderstood.  Instead of a high pain, with ascending terraces, furnishing concentric lines of defence, it is a low plain, of which the only natural advantage is the stream of Bull Run, with a low bluff bank.

Second – That the Position at Centerville, though naturally formidable to an advance from Fairfax, has no flank or rear defences, is imperfectly fortified, and, from all indications never had any siege guns.

Third – That the three or four small forts near Manassas Junction, on an open plain, do not constitute a strategic position of any importance.

Fourth – That the strongest of the rebel works was inferior, both in construction and armament, to the weakest of our forts on the Virginia side of Washington.

Fifth – That the rebels never had, at any time, in all the camps between Centerville and Manassas, more than 75,000 men.

Sixth – That an advance of our whole army, made any time since the 1st of November last, would very likely have reached Manassas with as much expedition and as little loss as the advance at this time.  It is not likely that the rebels, who have been all along so well informed as to our strength and our contemplated movements, would have hazarded an engagement which must have resulted disastrously to them.

– Published in The Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Saturday, March 22, 1862, p. 2

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