It is true we hope to force this line by turning it, by landing on Freestone Point. With reason to believe that this may be successful, it cannot be denied that it involves a risk of failure. Should we, then, considering all the consequence which may be involved, enter into the operation merely to capture the Potomac batteries? I think not. Will not the Ericsson, assisted by one other gunboat capable of keeping along-side, these batteries, so far control their fire to keep the navigation sufficiently free as long as we require if? Captain Wyman says yes.
It was the opinion of competent naval officers, and I concur with them, that had an adequate force of strong and well-armed vessels been acting on the Potomac from the beginning of August, it would have been next to impossible for the rebels to have constructed or maintained batteries upon the banks of the river. The enemy never occupied Mathias Point nor any other point on the river which was out of supporting distance from their main army.
When the enemy commenced the construction of these batteries the Army of the Potomac was not in a condition to prevent it. Their destruction by our army would have afforded but a temporary relief, unless we had been strong enough to hold the entire line of the Potomac. This could be done either by driving the enemy from Manassas and Aquia Creek by force or by maneuvering to compel them to evacuate their positions. The latter course was finally pursued, and with success.
About the 20th of February, 1862, additional measures were taken to secure the reopening of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The preliminary operations of General Lander for this object are elsewhere described.
I had often observed to the President and to members of the Cabinet that the reconstruction of this railway could not be undertaken until we were in a condition to fight a battle to secure it. I regarded the possession of Winchester and Strasburg as necessary to cover the railway in the rear, and it was not until the month of February that I felt prepared to accomplish this very desirable but not vital purpose.
The whole of Banks' division and two brigades of Sedgwick's division were thrown across the river at Harper's Ferry, leaving one brigade of Sedgwick's division to observe and guard the Potomac from Great Falls to the mouth of the Monocacy. A sufficient number of troops of all arms were held in readiness in the vicinity of Washington, either to march via Leesburg or to move by rail to Harper's Ferry, should this become necessary in carrying out the objects in view.
The subjoined notes from a communication subsequently addressed to the War Department will sufficiently explain the conduct of these operations:
When I started for Harper's Ferry I plainly stated to the President and Secretary of War that the chief object of the operation would be to open the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad by crossing the river in force at Harper's Ferry; that I had collected the material for making a permanent bridge by means of canal-boats; that from the nature of the river it was doubtful whether such a bridge could be constructed; that if it could not, I would at least occupy the ground in front of Harper's Ferry, in order to cover the rebuilding of the railroad bridge, and finally, when the communications were perfectly secure, move on Winchester.
When I arrived at the place I found the bateau bridge nearly completed; the holding ground proved better than had been anticipated; the weather was favorable, there being no wind. I at once crossed over the two brigades which had arrived, and took steps to hurry up the other two, belonging respectively to Banks'
and Sedgwick's divisions. The difficulty of crossing supplies had not then become apparent. That night I telegraphed for a regiment of regular cavalry and four batteries of heavy artillery to come up the next day (Thursday), besides directing Keyes' division of infantry to be moved up on Friday.