“Brilliant beyond Description”:  The Army of the Potomac’s Grand Review at Bailey’s Cross Roads, Virginia, 20 November 1861

By Kim B. Holien

The Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac was held at Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia, in eastern Fairfax County on 20 November 1861.  Among those in attendance was President Abraham Lincoln.  (Harper’s Weekly)

The origin of the Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac at Bailey’s Cross Roads, Virginia, on 20 November 1861 began on the plains of Manassas, Virginia, on 21 July 1861, with the defeat and hasty retreat of Union forces.  A green Union army of 36,000 men, under Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, was turned into a rabble seeking safety in Washington.  Upon the defeat, a telegram was sent from the Adjutant General in Washington to Major General George B. McClellan in the hills of western Virginia.  It read as follows:  “Circumstances make your presence here necessary.  Charge General Rosecrans or some other officer with your command and come hither without delay.”

Major General George B. McClellan was called from western Virginia after the Union defeat at Bull Run in July 1861.  Upon arriving in the capital on 26 July, he assumed command of the Military Division of the Potomac, which eventually became of the Army of the Potomac the following month.  McClellan later succeeded Lieutenant General Winfield Scott as Commanding General, U.S. Army, on 1 November.  (George Brinton McClellan, by Alexander Lawrie, West Point Museum, U.S. Military Academy)

As McClellan later stated in his memoirs, the situation was truly a desperate one. “All was chaos, and the streets, hotels and barrooms were filled with drunken officers and men absent from their regiments without leave—a perfect pandemonium.”  He continued: “The condition of things on the Virginia side was not much better than on the other.  The troops were on the river banks or on the high ground immediately overlooking them.  Few were in a condition to fight and but little had been done in the way of entrenching the approaches.  The condition of affairs which thus presented itself to me upon assuming command was one of extreme difficulty and fraught with great danger.  The defeated army of McDowell could not properly be called an army—it was only a collection of un-disciplined, ill-officered and uninstructed men, who were, as a rule, much demoralized by defeat and read to run at the first shot.  Positions from which the city could be commanded by the enemy’s guns were open for their occupation.  The period of service of many regiments had expired or would do so in a few days.  There was so little discipline that officers and men left their camps at their own will, and, as I have already stated, the city was full of drunken men in uniform.  The Executive was demoralized; and attack by the enemy was expected from hour to hour; material of war did not exist in anything like sufficient quantities; and lastly, I was not supreme and unhampered by often thwarted by the lieutenant general.

The rest of the newly forming Army of the Potomac consisted of raw regiments raised by the Northern states and sent to Washington.  These green troops, along with the defeated regiments that had re-enlisted for the duration of the war, were first brigaded together by McClellan, for the purpose of training both the officers and men as to their duties.  The men had to learn how to be soldiers, and the line officers had to learn how to command men.   Newly promoted general and staff officers had to adjust to no longer commanding small detachments of regulars but large bodies of green recruits.  To this end, McClellan established an army with twelve brigades on 4 August 1861.

As McClellan began the reorganization of what was to become the Army of the Potomac, Confederate forces moved into Northern Virginia and established a line of cavalry videttes stretching from the Potomac River just above and across from Georgetown, sweeping in an arc of some six to nine miles from the River to just below Alexandria.  A few miles beyond them, advanced Confederate infantry forces moved into positions at Falls Church and at Edsell’s Hill near Springfield Station.  In addition Confederate signal stations were located at Upton’s Hill, just east of Falls Church, and at Mason’s Hill just south of Munson’s.  At Munson’s Hill, the Rebels built a large fort and flew an extra large Confederate flag from atop it that could be seen from the White House just six miles to the east.

Skirmishes were soon fought at Hall’s Hill, Febrey’s Hill, Lewinsville (present day McLean), Falls Church, Ball’s Cross Roads (present day Ballston in Arlington County), Munson’s Hill, and Bailey’s Cross Roads. 

After the Battle of Bull Run, Confederate forces occupied large amounts of territory in northern Virginia not far from Washington.  This drawing shows the Rebel works on Munson’s Hill, not far from Bailey’s Crossroads.  (Library of Congress)

In addition to threatening Washington with troops directly across the Potomac from the city, Starting some 25 miles below Washington and stretching for some 30 miles along the Virginia shoreline the Confederates had established a series of large earthen fortifications. With the emplacement of large cannon captured from the Federals at Gosport Navy Yard and at Bull Run, the Confederates were able, in effect, to establish a blockade of the Potomac River leading into Washington for all but the most formidable Union war ships.

The very fact that the Confederate forces had been able to establish a large fortification just six miles west of the White House and to put into effect a blockade of the Potomac River caused the most serious of both domestic and international concerns for the new Republican and Lincoln administration. It must be remembered that the Republican Party was but seven years old in 1861 and that the Lincoln administration had been elected by approximately only forty-percent of the voters as the very first Republican administration in American political history.  If Lincoln did not do something and do it quickly he would find himself, his new Republican Party, and the Union in serious political trouble both at home and internationally.

The most critical factor was the establishment of a new Union Army, the Army of the Potomac.  McClellan’s first step was to establish order and discipline in the ranks.  He immediately set up a most formidable Provost Guard of U.S. Army regulars commanded by Brigadier General George Sykes.  They soon started to clear the saloons and taverns in Washington of both officers and soldiers.  At the same time a strict policy of passes to and from Washington was established.  Next, a board of officers was established to review the qualifications of all those who held commissions.  Many were found deficient dismissed from the Army.  Those that were retained were given the latest manuals on both drill and the articles of war and expected to know them inside out.  Regiments whose term of enlistment were about to expire were either sent home or re-enlisted for three years or the duration of the war.  At the same time, those regiments that mutinied found themselves surrounded by regulars ready to shoot them.  Their ring leaders were sent to such locations as Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas off the coast of Florida, and regiments had their flags taken away from them until they proved themselves in combat.

McClellan then had to organize the Army of the Potomac to take the field against the Confederate forces in Virginia.  To this end, he initially formed twelve brigades of infantry.  He later expanded these formations into divisions.  In addition to infantry, each division also included two to five batteries of artillery, along with one or two cavalry regiments.  Furthermore, support elements were organized to maintain the Army of Potomac while it was in the field.

A critical component of the organization of the Army of the Potomac was the selection and training of staff officers.  Though often derided because they were not combat commanders, the professional training of staff officers was of the highest importance to the placement, sustainment and victory of the Army of the Potomac in future field and combat operations.  As a graduate of West Point, a combat/staff experienced officer in the Mexican War, a member of the important Delafield Commission that traveled to Europe to in the 1850s, and a senior railroad executive as a civilian, McClellan understood the need for a professional staff officer organization to be able to march, feed, clothe, equip, train, and a huge field army.

Following sharp skirmishes at Lewisville and Munson’s Hill in mid September, the Confederate forces in Northern Virginia began to retire upon their advanced infantry forces at Fairfax Court House.  As soon as Munson’s Hill was evacuated McClellan ordered Union troops to seize it, along with

the surrounding former Confederate positions in the triangle of eastern Falls Church, western Alexandria County (modern Arlington County), and eastern Fairfax County.  A serious political incident was created by the media in that Confederate Brigadier General Jeb Stuart had taken his field artillery from Munson’s Hill but had left behind a “Quaker cannon” ( a log that had been painted black to make it resemble a cannon from a distance).

At the beginning of the film Patton, the U.S. Army suffers a serious tactical defeat at the hands German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel at the battle of Kasserine Pass.  Upon taking command of II Corps in North Africa, Patton turns to his staff and asks rhetorically, “Do you want to know why this army got the stuffing kicked out of it?  I’ll tell you why.  Just look around you.  They don’t look like soldiers, they don’t act like soldiers.”  McClellan well understood the human psychology of military leadership in the mid-nineteenth century.  In re-building the morale of the Army of the Potomac, he knew that it was critical to have his men look, act, and feel like soldiers of an army.  McClellan soon decided what better way to do this then to have them seen and feel the strength of their new Army of the Potomac in a grand review to be staged for President Lincoln, congressional leadership, leading citizens of Washington, and other important civilian leaders.

To this end, McClellan appointed Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, commander at the defeat at Bull Run but also an accomplished staff officer, to organize a review upon the plain of Bailey’s Cross Roads in Virginia to showcase the Army of the Potomac to itself, its President, and leading citizens, and to calm the uproar in the halls of Congress and the newspapers about his not having advanced upon the main Confederate forces then encamped around Centreville in far western Fairfax County and at Manassas Junction.

Sweeping eastward for some two miles from Munson’s Hill along the Leesburg Turnpike (modern Virginia Route 7), Bailey’s Cross Roads sat on a broad plateau encompassing some 200 acres of nearly flat land.  The middle of this plateau was intersected by the Columbia Pike (present day Virginia Route 244).  An important feeder road just southwest of the Leesburg Pike was Seminary Road, which ran from the Fairfax Seminary (now known as the Virginia Theological Seminary in the west end of Alexandria) to an intersection with Columbia Pike just south of Bailey’s Cross Roads.

Turnpikes were force multipliers in the movements of armies both then and now.  In an era of dirt roads that restricted movements of wheeled vehicles even in good weather, the turnpike consisted of either a crushed stone or a macadamized all-weather road that enabled wheeled vehicles to travel at approximately three miles per hour in all types of weather.  In addition, the marching of thousands of soldiers would not turn a dirt road into a dust bowl in dry weather or a wet dirt road into a “mud march” in rain.  They were excellent to expedite the movement of men and material of war.  Additionally, in this case, the Leesburg Turnpike led from Alexandria and the northern border of the theological seminary through many Union campgrounds straight to the reviewing area.  The Columbia Pike led straight from the Virginia end of the long bridge across the Potomac coming out of Washington also to Bailey’s Cross Roads.  The Seminary Road would prove to be an excellent secondary road with which to move units out of the review area back to their camps in upper Fairfax County, the city of Alexandria, and around the Theological Seminary.  (To stress the importance of roads, General Patton later stated:  “If the greatest study of mankind is man, surely the greatest study of war is the road net.”)

McClellan based the concept of the Grand Review upon the one he had seen performed by the French Imperial Guard in the Crimean War while he was there as an observer with the Delafield Commission of the U.S. Army.  He wrote to his wife after the review:  “I was completely satisfied and delighted beyond expression.”  

The Army of the Potomac’s Grand Review at Bailey’s Cross Roads was scheduled for 20 November.  On the day of the review, the weather turned cold and breezy, with some soldiers reporting patches of frost or snow on the ground.  Many soldiers had been up well before dawn, marching several miles to reach the assembly areas prior to the review.

McClellan and his staff arrived for the review at Bailey’s Cross Roads accompanied by an escort of 1,800 cavalry troopers.  They were soon followed by President Lincoln, his Cabinet, and several prominent citizens.  As many as 30,000 civilians arrived to watch the spectacle, as no special passes were required to attend.  Union troops, however, guarded the roads from Washington to the review area to keep from diverging from the prescribed route.

This sketch shows a panoramic view of the Grand Review.  The illustration appeared in the 7 December 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly, which claimed that the artist sketched the review while perched on the roof of a barn.  (Harper’s Weekly)

The Grand Review commenced at around 1330, with the division of Brigadier General George A. McCall and its three brigades of Pennsylvanians led by Brigadier Generals John F. Reynolds, George G. Meade, and Edward O.C. Ord in the lead.  The 13th Pennsylvania Reserves (1st Rifles) from Meade’s brigade had the honor of marching first.  The 13th Pennsylvania Reserves was comprised largely of hunters and woodsmen who deer tails on their caps as symbols of their shooting skills.  As a result, the 13th became known as the “Bucktails.”

McCall’s troops were followed by the division of Brigadier General Samuel P. Heintzelman consisting of brigades commanded by Brigadier Generals Israel B. Richardson, John Sedgwick, and Charles D. Jameson.  This division was comprised of regiments from Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania, along with a single regiment from Maine.       

The third division in the review was commanded by Brigadier General William F. Smith.  The division’s three brigades were led by Brigadier Generals William T.H. Brooks, John W. Davidson (a native of Fairfax County), and Winfield Scott Hancock.  Smith’s division was made up of infantry regiments from Vermont, Maine, and Pennsylvania, and two companies of regulars from the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters.

Next up was Brigadier General William B. Franklin’s division.  This division included Brigadier Philip Kearney’s brigade of New Jersey troops, Brigadier General Henry W. Slocum’s brigade of Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania regiments, and Brigadier General John Newton’s brigade of New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians.

Franklin’s division was followed by Brigadier General Louis (Ludwig) Blenker’s division.  Blenker was a German immigrant originally from Hesse Darmstadt, and each of his brigade commanders also hailed from Europe—Brigadier General Julius H. Stahel was born in Hungary and had served in the Austrian Army; Brigadier General Adolph von Steinwehr was originally from the German Duchy of Brunswick; and Brigadier General Henry Bohlen was a native of the German port city of Bremen.   Blenker’s division was comprised of units from New York and Pennsylvania.

The sixth division to march was that of Brigadier General Fitz John Porter, with brigades under the command Brigadier Generals George W. Morrell, John H. Martindale, and Daniel Butterfield.  Porter’s division was comprised of regiments from Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and Michigan.

The seventh and final division in the Grand Review was led by Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, who was largely responsible for the review’s planning and organization.  McDowell’s three brigades were under the command of Brigadier Generals Christopher C. Augur, James S. Wadsworth, and Rufus King with troops from New York and Wisconsin.

From many in attendance, the Grand Review was judged a great success.  A sergeant from Michigan wrote home:  “As soon as General McClellan made his appearance the whole division took off their hats and commenced hollering.  General McClellan took his hat off and held it up the whole length of his arm and rode rapidly along the line.  He has that peculiar look about him which fascinates all beholders and it seems as though he were conscious of the fact.”  Harper’s Weekly wrote of the review in three words that summed it up:  “brilliant beyond description.”

But how did the common soldiers feel about the review.  The regimental historian of the famous 40th New York (Mozart) Infantry Regiment wrote in the official regimental history as follows:  

“As the distance from Camp Sackett to the reviewing field was ten miles we were forced to start early ad we ate our breakfast that morning at four o’clock.  We started at sunrise and reached our allotted position at ten o’clock.  When General McClellan and President Lincoln, with their staffs, appeared on the field, salutes were fired by all of the batteries and the cannonade was quite impressive.  As the reviewing officers passed, each Regiment presented arms and the bands played.  Every soldier felt proud of the display and was glad to participate.  Immediately after the parade had been dismissed we started upon our return to Camp Sackett, where we arrived at four o’clock P.M., tired and hungry after our wearisome march of twenty miles.

Robert McAllister, a Union officer from New Jersey, wrote from his headquarters at the Virginia Theological Seminary to his wife.  Pay special attention to his closing sentence:  “My Dear Ellen, I returned here to camp last night very tired from the great review of our troops.  And a great one it was, such as this continent has never seen.  It was a larger army than Genl. Scott ever commanded or reviewed—60,000 soldiers all splendidly equipped, with knapsacks and blankets, haversacks and canteens—all ready, if necessary, to advance into the enemy’s country.

“About 1 p.m. the President and Cabinet, Genl. McClellan and staff arrived.  This was announced by the roar of artillery.  They then commenced reviewing the troops, who, instead of the usual presentations of arms as the officers passed, took off their hats.  Cheer after cheer went up that made the valley resound with the din of human voices such as these hills and valleys had never before heard.  The whole plain, far beyond what the eye could reach was covered with one dense mass of human beings and horses.  The reviewing officers and their staffs passed by at a fast canter.  Yet it took them more than an hour to pass the troops, though we were closed in massed formation by divisions—one regiment occupying only a length of two companies and the balance of the regiment in the rear and facing to the front.

“After this was over, we marched by column of divisions past the reviewing officers, who were stationed about three-fourths of a miles on the line of march from the point where our Regiment was standing.  We marched by in fine style, our Brigade on the right.  Column after column, regiment after regiment, brigade after brigade, thus passed in review.  About three-fourths of a mile after passing the reviewing officers, we halted, took some refreshments, remained about a half hour, and then started for home.  When we came away, this large army had not more than half passed the reviewing officers. This fine display took place at Bailey’s Cross Roads, about 2 & ½ miles from here on the plain below Munson’s Hill.  The fort on the hill being occupied by our own people, looked down on the splendid sight. Carriages and citizens were there in large numbers.”

Major General Newton Martin Curtis, in writing From Bull Run to Chancellorsville:  The Story of the 16th NY Infantry in 1906, included a description of the Grand Review:  

“669 men of the regiment were in the review.  This was a proud day for the Army of the Potomac; its cavalry, artillery, and infantry, to the number of seventy thousand men, were brought together for the first time, and passed in review before its great organizer and the Commander-in-Chief.  President Lincoln now saw the raw regiments, which had passed before him on their arrival at the Capital, transformed into a drilled and disciplined army.  For more than two hours, the President, escorted by the General-in-Chief and his staff, rode through the lines of battalions and batteries from the Eastern, the Middle, and the Western States; then, for a longer time at the reviewing stand, he watched them march by with firm step and unbroken cadence, with the bearing and dignified deportment of men schooled in the profession of arms.”

Lieutenant Albert M. Barney of the 16th, later Colonel of the 142d New York and Brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers, in a letter to his sister wrote:

“The grand review, which you of course have read of, was a truly grand affair, and must have been a splendid scene to look upon for those who took no part in the parade, for there is really hard work in such ceremonies.  For instance, our regiment marched six miles to the reviewing ground with knapsacks, twenty rounds of ball cartridges, haversacks, with dinner and canters with water.  After arriving, we stood in the mud ankle deep for over two hours, waiting for the balance of the forces to take their positions.  We stood at ‘attention’ while the President and General McClellan and his staff made the rounds of the entire force, and it was no small task to ride past seventy thousand men in line of battle.  After that we waited for about half the number to pass, before our turn came to march by the reviewing stand, from which we made a circuit of two miles, to reach the road which led to our camp; and when we reached it, all felt we had performed a hard day’s work.”

Perhaps the two most telling observations came from two professional military officers.  The Comte de Paris wrote in his diary:  

“When I compare them to how they were when we arrived two months ago, I have to admit that I was not expecting such a fast progress. The advantage of such a large review is to show each division it is surrounded by others who are there to help.”

Colonel William Averell, commander of the 3d Pennsylvania Cavalry wrote:  

“The all-pervading feeling was an enthusiastic and ardent admiration for the man who had created the Army of the Potomac.  In the realization of all observers, even the most experienced officers, the Army was born that day.  Those who had visited its busy camps and attended the inspections and reviews of divisions had formed no adequate conception of the army as a whole.  Everyone in and around Washington had felt the pulsations of momentous preparations and the throes of a tremendous and vigorous growth going on about them since the lst of August, but on the day of the grand review at Bailey’s Cross Roads, the eyes of all spectators, and even of the army itself, were suddenly opened.”

The Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac wrapped up at around 1700.  In all, some 70,000 soldiers, organized into seven divisions that included approximately 100 regiments of infantry, seven regiments of cavalry, and twenty batteries of artillery (with 120 guns).

While many spectators watched the parade of troops with awe, the Grand Review had a tremendous impact on one attendee in particular.  Mrs. Julia Ward Howe was at Bailey’s Cross Roads with her husband and a group of fellow Bostonians.   On the trip back to the Willard Hotel in Washington, the party sang “John Brown’s Body.”   Awaking in the early hours of the next morning with the tune and the images of the review still in her head, Ward was inspired to write the immortal “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Julia Ward Howe, shown here in 1902, witnessed the Grand Review with her husband and a group of fellow Bostonians during a visit to Washington.  She was so moved by the review that she penned the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” early the following day.  (Library of Congress)

The Sesquicentennial of President Lincoln’s Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac at Bailey’s Cross Roads and the writing of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is being commemorated by the Lincoln at the Cross Roads Alliance.  The commemoration will include a re-enactment of the Grand Review and the installation of a permanent sculpture depicting the review.  For more information on the commemoration, visit  www.latcra.org.