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political conditions under which the Army of the Potomac had so far constantly acted had never allowed it to do justice to its numbers, mobility, or courage; while Mr. Lincoln, who actually assumed the powers of commanderin-chief, technically intrusted to him by the Constitution, was swayed to and fro by his own fears for the safety of his capital, and by political schemes and military obtuseness at his elbow.
Whether the tedious delays and deferred success, occasioned by these circumstances, were not eventually a benefit, in that they enabled the country to bring forth in the fulness of time the conditions leading to the extinguishment of slavery, which an earlier close of the war might not have seen; not to mention the better appreciation by either combatant of the value of the other, which a struggle to the bitter end alone could generate, — is a question for the political student. But it will always remain in doubt whether the practical exhaustion of the resources of the South was not a condition precedent to ending the war, whether, in sooth, the last ditch” was not actually reached when Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
In the West, merit had by this time brought to the surface the generals who later led us to successful victories. Their distance from the central controlling power resulted in their being let alone to work out their own salvation. Opposed to them had been some excellent but not the best of the Confederate leaders; while Virginia boasted the élite of the Southern troops, the strongest of the captains, and the most daring of the lieutenants, developed by the war.
Since the Russian campaign of Bonaparte, no such vast forces had been under arms. To command these required not only the divine military spark, but hardly-acquired experience. And the mimic war which the elements of European army life always affords had been wanting to educate our generals. It is not wonderful, then, that two years of fruitless campaigning was needed to teach our leaders how to utilize on such difficult terrain material equally vast in extent and uncouth in quality. For, however apt the American to learn the trade of war, — or any other, it is a moot-point whether his independence of character is compatible with the perfect soldier, as typified in Friedrich's regiments, or the Old Guard.
But ability, native or acquired, forced its way to the front; and the requisite experience was gradually gained, for the school was one where the trade was quickly taught. Said Gen. Meade on one occasion, “The art of war must be acquired like any other. Either an officer must learn it at the academy, or he must learn it by experience in the field. Provided he has learned it, I don't care whether he is a West-Pointer, or not."
In the East, then, the army had been led by McDowell, McClellan, Pope, and Burnside, to victory and defeat equally fruitless. The one experiment so far tried, of giving the Army of the Potomac a leader from the West, culminating in the disaster of the second Bull Run, was not apt to be repeated within the year. That soldier of equal merit and modesty, whom the Army of the Potomac had been gradually educating as its future and permanent leader, was still unpretentiously commanding a corps, and learning by the successes and failures of his superiors. And who shall say that the results accomplished by Grant, Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, and Meade, were not largely due to their good fortune in not being too early thrust to the front? “For,” as says Swinton, “it was inevitable that the first leaders should be sacrificed to the nation's ignorance of war.”
In the South, the signs of exhaustion had not yet become grave. The conscription act, passed in April, 1862, had kept the ranks full. The hope of foreign intervention, though distant, was by no means wholly abandoned. Financial matters had not yet assumed an entirely desperate complexion. Nor had the belief in the royalty of cotton received its coup de grâce. The vigor and courage of the Confederacy were unabated, and the unity of parties in the one object of resistance to invasion doubled its effective strength. Perhaps this moment was the flood-tide of Southern enthusiasm and confidence; which, after the Pennsylvania campaign, began to ebb. It is not intended to convey the idea that the South was prosperous. On the contrary, those who read the signs aright, saw and predicted its approaching decline. But, as far as its power of resistance went, it was at its highest when compared with the momentarily lessened aggressiveness of the North. For the anti-war party was doing its best to tie the hands of the administration; and, while this in no wise lessened the flow of men and material to the front, it produced a grave effect upon the moral strength which our chiefs were able to infuse into their method of conducting the war.
HOOKER AND THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC.
HE unfortunate course of events during the early
winter of 1862–63 had resulted in a grievous loss of morale in the Army of the Potomac. The useless slaughter of Marye’s Heights was, after a few weeks, succeeded by that most huge of all strategic jokes, the Mud March; and Gen. Burnside retired from a position he had never sought, to the satisfaction, and, be it said to his credit, with the warm personal regard, of all. Sumner, whom the weight of years had robbed of strength, but not of gallantry, was relieved at his own request; Franklin was shelved. Hooker thus became senior general officer, and succeeded to the command.
No man enjoyed a more enviable reputation in the Army of the Potomac. He had forced himself upon its notice. From Bull Run, after which action he is said to have remarked to Mr. Lincoln that he knew more than any one on that field; through Williamsburg, where he so gallantly held his own against odds during the entire day, and with exhausted ammunition, until relieved by Kearney; before Richmond ; during the Seven Days; in the railroad-cutting at Manassas ; at Antietam, where he forced the fighting with so much determination, if not wisdom, on the Union right; up to Fredericksburg, where, after a personal protest to his commanding officer, he went in and fought his troops “ until he thought he had lost as many men as he was ordered to lose,” Hooker's character as man and soldier had been marked. His commands so far had been limited ; and he had a frank, manly way of winning the hearts of his soldiers. He was in constant motion about the army while it lay in camp; his appearance always attracted attention; and he was as well known to almost every regiment as its own commander. He was a representative man.
It is not astonishing that Mr. Lincoln, or the Washington pseudo-strategists who were his military advisers, could not distinguish, in selecting a chief who should be capable of leading the Army of the Potomac to victory, between the gallant corps-commander, who achieves brilliant results under limited responsibility, and the leader, upon whose sole resources of mind and courage devolve not only the instruction for health, equipment, rationing, march, or attack, of each of his subordinates, but the graver weight of prompt and correct decision and immediate action under every one of the kaleidoscopic changes of a campaign or a battle-field. It required more knowledge of the requisites of war, as well as a broader judgment of character, than Mr. Lincoln had had opportunity to form of the several soldiers of the army, to insure a happy choice.
And, doubtless, Hooker's self-assertiveness, success as a brigade, division, and corps commander, and decided