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“If I contributed in the last week of April 1861 to save the Capital, I think I did as much in taking Norfolk … If I have not done all that might have been expected it is no fault of mine, but of those who controlled the affairs of the country. … I was anxious to take Norfolk and Richmond … McClellan possessed none of those heroic virtues which leads to victory or success. … McClellan would neither take Richmond nor let others take it …”
Written to historian Benson Lossing for use in his classic 3-volume Pictorial History of the Civil War. General Wool had sent a preliminary letter on December 10, 1865, eight months after Appomattox. Here, he sends a revised version of that letter in an unidentified hand, along with his personal cover letter. Wool defends his own conduct during the first half of the Civil War and offers bitter criticism of his superiors, especially George McClellan, whom he saw as unqualified to command the Army of the Potomac, much less the whole Union Army. He insists that he could have taken Norfolk and Richmond in March, 1862, when McClellan and Johnston still faced each other in northern Virginia, had the Lincoln administration given him supplies and orders. He would have destroyed the Merrimac [C.S.S. Virginia] – the revolutionary Confederate ironclad – during its construction phase. Wool argues that his eventual conquest of Norfolk and the destruction of the Merrimac (on May 11) helped save McClellan’s army and Washington, D.C. itself. JOHN ELLIS WOOL.
Autograph Letter Signed, to Benson John Lossing. Troy, New York, December 15, 1865. 1 p., plus 6 page copy of his letter of December 10 in clerical hand.
[autograph letter of Dec. 15, on p. 7:]
“The letter I wrote you on the 10h instant must have been carelessly writen. Hence I send you a substitute, which I think much better.
If I contributed in the last week of April 1861 to save the Capital, I think I did as much in taking Norfolk. Have I not done as much as some, if not many, to preserve the Union, who have been lauded, … rewarded and promoted, and this too in some cases who were any thing but loyal men. I know several who never went beyond making money by plund[er]ing friends as well as enemies…”
[letter of Dec. 10, pages numbered 1-6:]
“… I hasten to thank you for your more than kind letter of 8th. Decr. It breaths the spirit of friendship. As Cicero would have said of his friend, it speaks the language of his second-self.
As Pliny said of the history of the Great Historian of Rome, Tacitus, ‘I presage’ that your history of the rebellion will be immortal. It is therefore that I am exceedingly gratified to know that my name is to have a place in it. I have only to regret that my actions will not compare with many who will be named in your immortal history.
If I have not done all that might have been expected it is no fault of mine, but of those who controlled the affairs of the country. I urged, nay intreated, to do more than I was permitted. I was anxious to take Norfolk and Richmond and offered to do so, but my intreaties were not heeded, no not even responded to. I notified those who ruled at Washington, again and again, when the Iron Clad Steamer, the Merrimac, would be completed and leave the dry dock, and asked permission to destroy her, but no response. All I wanted was boats and two batteries. The boats were necessary to transport the troops a cross Hampton Roads. These they would not or could not furnish.
Major General McClellan without possession the first qualification of a General sailed for the hour the  destinies of a great people, who were ready and willing to pour out their hearts blood for the salvation of their Country. But Major General McClellan possessed none of those heroic virtues which leads to victory or success. There he was at Washington with over two hundred thousand men, clad in armor, (a member of the War Committee said two hundred and thirty six thousand,) ready to do his bidding with only not to exceed, thirty five thousand rebels in the front at Manassas Junction. Yet this small army escaped without being observed until, as McClellan said, they had got too far to be overtaken. The General would neither fight or let others fight.
I could at any time have taken Norfolk, with not much greater hazard than at the time I did take  it, and with the addition of 25,000 men could as easily have taken Richmond, that is while the rebel forces were at Manassas Junction. It would seem that McClellan would neither take Richmond nor let others take it …
After repeated solicitations I took Norfolk on the 10th May 1862, while McClellan was moving on Richmond but at a snails pace. The taking of Norfolk and destroying the Merrimac was, no less fortunate for the country, than for the Army of the Potomac. It opened the James River and gave McClelland and the Government the control of it. But for this, what would have become of the Army, and of Washington! Both would have been captured. Can  you doubt it! As soon as McClellan retired, or driven to Harrisons Landing, General [Robert E.] Lee marched for Washington. the Government being able to transport McClellans Army to that City saved the Capital. General Lee made a great mistake in not attacking the Army of the Potomac at Harrisons Landing. In that position he could not have failed to have captured the greater part of McClellans Army, and then could have marched on Washington with all the advantages of victory, which would not have failed to greatly increase his Army … Twelve hours delay  in the transportation of the troops that first left Harrisons Landing, would have given General Lee Washington …”
Some stalwarts of the prewar United States Army were understandably put off by the meteoric rise to power of George McClellan. “Little Mac” feuded with his old mentor, Winfield Scott, in the summer of 1861, eventually forcing Scott into retirement and replacing him as general-in-chief in November. John Wool, who like Scott had served both in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, expresses the frustration of the old guard while vigorously defending his own record and loyalty. McClellan would go on to run against Lincoln in the election of 1864, as a Democrat with connections to the Copperheads (peace advocates sometimes tainted with the brush of treason).
The famed first battle of ironclads at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 8 and 9, 1862, occurred just before McClellan’s arrival at Fort Monroe, commanded by Wool, initiating the Peninsula Campaign. The Union Navy attempted to put in place a blockade of the Virginia tidewater in late 1861 and early 1862, but had not succeeded in driving the Confederate Navy from the James River approach to Richmond. In early 1861 during the crisis of Virginia secession, U.S. officers were forced to abandon many vessels docked in Gosport Naval Yard in Portsmouth; one, the Merrimack, was set afire but not completely destroyed. Confederate engineers transformed the Merrimack into the C.S.S. Virginia, the first ironclad, and a clear threat to Union control of southeastern Virginia. Wool’s letter to Lossing is consistent with at least one letter written at the time (and owned by the Gilder Lehrman Collection), wherein he insisted he could have stormed Norfolk and prevented the reconstruction of the Merrimack. Soon after McClellan’s arrival, Wool was replaced as commandant of Fort Monroe by John Adams Dix. The Virginia (Merrimack) withdrew to Norfolk, where it effectively closed the James River to Union gunboats and increased McClellan’s general anxiety about the security of his land operations on the Peninsula.
John E. Wool (1784-1869), the oldest general in the Civil War, began his service in the War of 1812. He commanded the Department of Virginia (at Fort Monroe on the Peninsula), the Middle Military Department and the Department of the East from May 1862 until his retirement on August 1, 1863.
Wool’s letters were not quoted in Lossing’s work, but Lossing did emphasize Wool’s repeated offers to capture Norfolk (v. II, pp. 387-89 – “Wool, who saw the eminent advantage of the James River as a highway for the supplies of any army on the Peninsula, had, ever since McClellan decided to take that route to Richmond, urged the Government to allow him to attempt the capture of Norfolk … But it was not until after the evacuation of Yorktown, when President Lincoln and Secretaries Chase and Stanton visited Fortress Monroe, that his suggestions were favorably reconsidered.” Lossing records that President Lincoln officially official thanks to General Wool for his command of the force that captured Norfolk on May 9).
Wool’s sentiments, here, illustrate the dawn of an era when Civil War officers, especially those who had achieved great victories, were given great honors and advantages in society and politics, and Wool clearly that his contributions would be overlooked.
Lossing, Benson. The Pictorial Field Book of the Civil War, Vol. II (New Haven, 1878).
John Wool to Preston King, et al., April 4, 1862. GLC 05056. Gilder Lehrman Collection,
on deposit at the New-York Historical Society.