Scott's operational art

Looking over the summary account of Scott's first coordinated campaign, given in the last few posts especially, there are some aspects of Scott's operational art worth considering.

He puts McClellan into play vis a vis Grafton the same day he orders Patterson to take three key locations in Maryland (May 24). Long also dates Mansfield's taking of Alexandria to this day. From Joe Johnston's position in Harpers Ferry, there is now going to be a flurry of activity to his front, east and west. As McClellan's columns approach Grafton, Patterson approaches HF, and Butler (apparently on his own initiative) seizes Newport News with an amphibious landing. (This last is out of Johnston's area but a good damper on Richmond forces that might be sent to Alexandria or HF.)

This light show is intended to dazzle an uncertain opponent occupying the single point Scott wishes to take; its antecedents are in his conquest of Mexico, where Patterson, McClellan, Scott, and Cadwalader last combined. In the next pulse, Scott, the chess player* orders Patterson to HF, Stone to Edward's Ferry, and Butler to Suffolk. The orders are nearly "simultaneous" but the timing is left open. More noise to overload the defenders. More opportunism, too.

Three days later, Wallace, detached from McClellan's column at Grafton, is sent by McClellan and/or Kelley to Cumberland to occupy that objective on Patterson's behalf. Wallace, on his own initiative, attacks and occupies Romney VA en route. Opportunism in spades.

Wallace becomes nervous in Cumberland, however, repeating requests for reinforcements. Patterson declines to help him but reports McClellan as sending a second regiment there. This Cumberland business may be the decisive act of the entire campaign. The critical element is McClellan's occupation of the place, for if Patterson had taken it as ordered, it would simply be part of Patterson's advance.

But Johnston gives his rationale for abandoning HF as fear of McClellan joining Patterson - a fear only Wallace's arrival could have incited. Advance guard? McClellan on the way? Makes military sense and represnts the worst case scenario. Scott has put things in motion in order to make your own luck - and here the payoff is rich. We see this in Mexico as well.

It is possible that Johnston is lying about his motive (Cliff Dowdey makes him a remarkable liar), and that he used McClellan as a rationale for abandoning a position he simply did not want to defend, as would later happen on the Potomac and Yorktown lines. The effect is the same, though.

Moreover, Johnston's scenario could have played out; the door is not closed on this outcome until McClellan asks Scott to join Patterson on June 16th and Scott answers "no need." This is the day after the evacuation, so we can say Joe J anticipated a different answer from Scott.

By the way, why did Scott say that? Given that McClellan had in hand no urgent tasks directed by the chief, why? I have some possibilities in mind.

(1) Scott had another operation/combination in mind in the near future and needed McClellan where he was.

(2) Scott had given Patterson enough forces and support to accomplish his mission and would join Stone to Patterson if needed.

(3) Scott was self-consciously limiting his span of control to reduce "noise" on himself such that the forces integral to his plan were the ones he communicated with frequently. (Scott did not direct Butler after Big Bethel or McClellan after Grafton.)

If this third point is true it suggests Scott appreciated the idea of what we now call a theater of operations (I like "theatre" better but this spelling may annoy you). If we consider that the geographical space in which operational objectives are realized represents a theater of operations, then Scott may have viewed Butler and McClellan as peripheral to that theatre where McDowell, Stone, and Patterson were central.

And if this is accurate, Scott shares the credit Clayton Newell bestows on McClellan, that of inventing the concept of theater of operations during his western Virginia campaign.

So much for (3). If you want to explore point (1) above, give Beatie's Army of the Potomac Volume 1 a read. It's fascinating and reports that Scott and Patterson envisaged the follow-on to HF as being a thrust down the Valley to a position behind Richmond that would forceBeauregard's evacuation of the Potomac line in favor of a Rappahannock line or worse. I infer Scott may have seen McClellan as more useful for that potential plan if he stayed where he was.

Patterson's Valley objective was, of course, displaced by the Centreville objective in the planning of Scott's second coordinated offensive, which may be worth a few posts as well.

The Harpers Ferry offensive presented Lincoln with a number of seriously misleading indicators, to the great detriment of the Union cause. He saw a major campaign controlled, actually well run, by telegraph and mail. He saw subordinate commanders coordinating, helping each other, and acting in harmony. He saw initiative, promptness, aggressiveness, and luck pay off. What he did not understand is that these dividends were reaped because the entire command structure (minus Butler and McDowell) dated from the Mexican War and/or had strong personal relations. Once this team broke up results would change.

Furthermore it seems that Lincoln could think himself able to control the war by telegraph by watching the example set by Scott. The genesis of this Lincolnian conceit came early and I blame Scott for it.

* Scott once played legendary chess prodigy Paul Morphy, lost, and made a scene. Morphy was then a child and unknown.