Walker's History of the Second Corps

OF the recent works on the war written from the Northern standpoint, this is by far the most interesting and valuable. The history of the Second Corps 1 is to a great extent that of the Army of the Potomac. What General Walker has done in this book is to give us that history from the inside, as it were; to tell us and show us what all the strategic movements and great battles, of which we have read and heard so much, meant to those who were engaged in them. We have here not, to be sure, a strictly personal narrative ; but the story, told as it is by one whose service was so active as was that of the writer, who was for nearly two years and a half the assistant adjutant-general of the corps, is full of that vivid and peculiar interest which nothing but actual participation in the experience of the corps could have supplied. One can get in this narrative as hardly anywhere else the feelings and opinions of the time. The book is not a critical history, though there is abundant explanation of the movements, and sufficient criticism of them and of their authors. It is primarily a narrative of the doings of the Second Corps, and it also faithfully portrays the estimates current among the best officers of that gallant command in regard to the operations and the generals of the army. It needs not to be said that this feature of the work gives to it a great and a peculiar value to all students of the civil war.

For example, the great services rendered by Hooker in the winter and early spring of 1863 are fully recognized. “ Whatever his merits or his shortcomings as a commander, Hooker was surely an ideal inspector-general. That branch of the staff was not so much reorganized as created; new energy was breathed into all the departments, and important changes were made in the organization and distribution of the army trains. It was in this period that the cavalry was brought to the point of discipline, address, and courage which ever afterward made it formidable, even to the Confederate infantry ; preparing for the noble work it was to do at Brandy Station, at Gettysburg, at Yellow Tavern, at Ream’s Station, and in a score of other actions. The artillery, too, was carried to a pitch of perfection in all exercises never before thought of. Our volunteer gunners had, indeed, from the first been wonderfully expert; but it is not merely shooting straight on certain occasions which makes a battery useful. There must be the care of pieces, horses, accoutrements, and ammunition, in camp and on the march, and the thorough discipline of men and animals which will enable a battery to go through a long and arduous campaign, amid discomfort and privation, without loss of strength or spirit, without ‘ slumping in ’ at critical moments, or finding anything lacking, or broken down, or misplaced, no matter how quick the call or how sharp the emergency. There are a hundred exigencies with artillery beyond those known to infantry, which render firstclass training and discipline enormously profitable in a campaign. Under Hooker, for the first time, the difference between regulars and volunteers ceased to exist so far as this arm of the service was concerned. Up to that time, notwithstanding the rare excellence of certain batteries, like Hazard’s, Arnold’s, and Pettit’s, with their peerless gunners, that difference was still perceptible; clearly so at the beginning of a campaign, and more so at the close of one.

“ Hooker caused it to disappear entirely. Amid the forty-eight guns which formed the battery of the Second Corps in April, 1863, no eye, however skilled, could discern which belonged to regular and which to volunteer batteries, even though the former comprised such as I of the First, with Edmund Kirby in command, or A of the Fourth, under Alonzo Cushing.2 The infantry, too, gained greatly in discipline, carriage, and perfection of appointments, under Hooker, although here less had been left to be done in making the volunteers of 1861 and 1862 effective for all the purposes of camp, march, and battle.

“ Another feature introduced in General Hooker’s administration was the adoption of ‘ corps badges,’ which became very dear to the troops, a source of much emulation on the part of the several commands, and a great convenience to the staff, in enabling them, quickly and without troublesome inquiries, to identify divisions upon the march or along the line of battle. The device assigned to the Second Corps was the trefoil, or clover leaf, the first division having it in red, the second in white, the third in blue.”

With equal fidelity, too, our historian gives us the opinion of the army on the movements in the campaign which followed this reorganization, — that of Chancellorsville : —

“ At the Chandler House, about nine o’clock in the evening [of April 30th], appeared General Hooker, on his way to the front, in great spirits. Thus far the campaign had, indeed, been a triumphant success. Without any appreciable loss, Hooker had placed his right wing, consisting of three infantry corps and two divisions, in a position threatening Lee’s left flank; his own left wing, consisting of three infantry corps and one division, had effected a bloodless crossing of the river below Fredericksburg; and Lee was yet altogether in uncertainty as to the real intention of the Union commander. . . . While the movements of the Union commander, from the 27th to the 29th of April, had been not only brilliant, but audacious, it had been observed that, even on approaching Chancellorsville, General Hooker showed signs of that hesitation which was, two days later, to thwart his own project. The concentration of the right wing on the 30th of April had been effected much less rapidly than it might have been, without distressing the troops, and the morning of the 1st of May found General Hooker irresolute when victory was already within his grasp. Sickles’ Third Corps, which had been called up from the left so soon as the occupation of Chancellorsville was assured, was now crossing at United States Ford. With such superiority of numbers on the Union side, there was no justification for an hour’s delay. The cry should have been ‘ forward,’ at least until the turning column, consisting now of four corps and two divisions, should be deployed before Lee’s positions. Not only is this the sole policy of safety and success in movements like those which Hooker had undertaken, but two additional reasons, perfectly obvious at the time, existed to make such a policy in this instance peculiarly imperative. One was that the farther Hooker pushed forward from Chancellorsville toward Fredericksburg, the better was the opportunity afforded

for the development of his superior infantry and artillery. The ground about Chancellorsville was low, much of it densely wooded. By moving promptly out toward Fredericksburg, Hooker would have placed his army on high ground, obtaining commanding positions for his artillery and comparatively clear ground for the movements and manœuvres of his infantry. The second reason, special to the situation, imperatively demanding an immediate advance, was that to gain four or five miles toward Fredericksburg was to uncover Banks’ Ford, and, by so doing, to shorten by nearly one half the distance over which the troops of the left wing could be brought to reinforce the right. So plain was this dictate of the situation that General Hooker, though after a hesitation most ominous of evil, gave the order for an advance. . . . The ground in front was largely open ; the roads behind sufficiently numerous for a rapid reinforcement of the line or for a safe retreat. The field was exactly such a one as the men of the Army of the Potomac had always been crying out for, — one on which they could see the enemy they were called to fight. Yet this position General Hooker, in an evil hour, determined to abandon, not for one farther advanced, but for the low and wooded ground about Chancellorsville ; relinquishing the very form and show of aggression, retreating before the enemy, and taking up a line which was completely commanded by the high ground already occupied. The act was little short of suicide. At about two o’clock orders were sent to the commanders of the several columns to withdraw to the vicinity of the Chancellor House. So manifest and so monstrous was the blunder that the officers who were sent with this message could not bear to carry it, nor could the officers to whom it was sent bring themselves to believe that General Hooker had such an intention.” There is always enough of explanation and comment to make the narrative intelligible and attractive. Everything, in fact, which can help the reader is included in his book, — excellent, though very simple maps, — portraits of all the commanders of the corps, and of many of those hard-fighting brigadiers whose names were household words to the soldiers of the Second Corps twenty years ago, such as Miles, Brooke, Beaver, Webb, Zook, Cross, Hayes, of whom some died long ago on the field of honor, while the fame of others has hardly reached the men of the present generation.

We have said that General Walker’s book reflects the best opinion of the day in regard to the officers and the campaigns of the army. We desire furthermore to call attention to the great good sense and impartiality with which he has dealt with subjects in regard to which there has been much contention and hard feeling. He has the rare gift of expressing the most decided disapproval, without making insinuations against motives and character. He has, moreover, the still rarer gift of never losing sight of the meritorious side of the men whose actions he is obliged to condemn. There is nothing bitter in his criticisms on the unpardonable hesitation of McClellan on the Chickahominy, or on that officer’s inexplicable delay before Antietam. Yet the delay and the hesitation are pointed out with a clearness that leaves no room for misconception. Even the terrible failure of Burnside draws down upon that presumptuous officer no tirade of abuse, although in no account of the battle of Fredericksburg is it more clearly seen how entirely that dreadful disaster was due to a total disregard of the rules of ordinary common sense. Of Hooker we have already had occasion to speak. Of the brief period during which the army was under the sole charge of General Meade, a period illustrated by Gettysburg and Bristoe Station, and marked with not a single reverse, there is a full and a most interesting account. Entire justice, too, is done to the terrible campaign that followed, when Grant drove the much-enduring Army of the Potomac against the entrenched lines of their veteran antagonists from the Wilderness to Petersburg. The reader will perceive that the author is fully alive to the great qualities shown by the Northern leader, his untiring energy and persistency, his unfailing resolution in always taking and keeping the initiative, while he will not fail to find in General Walker another witness to the truth of the fact that Grant’s tactical methods exhausted and depleted the army without achieving any decided or counterbalancing success.

It is unnecessary to say that we cordially recommend this book to all who desire to read a fresh, vivid, clearly told story of the doings of one of the famous corps in the Army of the Potomac, — told, too, in a spirit of great considerateness and of entire impartiality.

  1. History of the Second Army Corps in the Army of the Potomac. By FRANCIS A. WALKER, Brevet Brigadier-General U. S. Vols., Assistant Adjutant-General of the Corps, October 9, 1862-January 12, 1865. With Portraits and Maps. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1886.
  2. Lieutenant Cushing had, after the battle of Fredericksburg, been transferred from the engineers to that branch of the service which he was to make illustrious by his life and by his death.